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Sociology of clothing

Clothing has various sociological functions, including:

Thus wearing specific types of clothing or the manner of wearing clothing can convey messages about class, income, belief and attitude.

Table of contents

Dress codes

Dress codes function on certain social occasions and for certain jobs. A school or a military institution may require specified uniforms; if it allows the wearing of plain clothes it may place restrictions on their use. A bouncer of a disco or nightclub may judge visitors' clothing and refuse entrance to those not clad according to specified or intuited requirements: for example an establishment may not allow the wearing of sport shoes.

A formal or white tie dress code typically means Tail-coats for men and full-length evening dresses for women. Semi-formal has a much less precise definition but typically means an evening jacket and tie for men (known as black tie) and a dress for women. Lounge suit also known as Business casual typically means not wearing jeans or track suits, but wearing instead collared shirts, and more country trousers (not black, but more relaxed, including things such as corduroy). Casual typically just means clothing for the torso, legs and shoes.

Transparent or semi-transparent clothing can play with the boundaries of dress-codes regarding modesty, for example: in a wet T-shirt contest.

Dress codes usually set forth a lower bound on body covering. However, sometimes it can specify the opposite, for example, in UK gay jargon, dress code, means people who dress in a militaristic manner. Dress code nights in nightclubs, and elsewhere, are deemed to specifically target people who have militaristic fetishes (e.g. leather/skinhead men).

Setting a dress code can often lead to great embarrasement. One particularly famous example is that of UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who asked the Bank of England's board to wear lounge suits to their annual dinner, a highly prestigious occasion, as an act of modernism in tune with New Labour thinking (they usually wore White Tie). However, he had not reckoned with their determination not to kow-tow, and when sat at dinner, he was the only person not dressed in White Tie, to his humiliation, and the glee of the UK broadsheets.

No shoes, no shirt, no service

Shirtless man

Wheras in much of Europe, and in particular in italy, dressing well is standard behaviour, in America the norm is for a more dressed down appearance. The aphorism "no shoes, no shirt, no service" captures their commonly promulgated dress code, and often appears on signs posted at commercial establishments such as restaurants and shopping malls. Another common aphorism claims "this store is not a beach", a phrase recited almost automatically by store employees when encountering someone who does not meet the minimum standards of body covering, modesty, decency, or the like. Beaches and urban beaches push these boundaries, as people wander from a beachlike setting to stores and restaurants nearby.

Many of the stores and restaurants on or near beaches have such dress codes but do not enforce them. For example, the Sunnyside Cafe, located at the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion in Toronto, Canada, often does not enforce the "shirts, shoes" dress code.

While going barefoot at home is common practice, it is often banned in commercial establishments

The "no shoes, no shirt" slogan appears so prevalently in some settings that it has become the target of mockery and flagrant disregard. Groups that don't like dress codes, such as barefooters, often deliberately disregard this specific dress code, as a form of breaching experiment or beaching experiment. Such action research, as well as activism, including deliberate violation by lawyers (deliberately violating no-shirts and no-shoes laws), is becoming more common. Musicians have also mocked this dress code, for instance Kenny Chesney sings the song No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems.

See also mourning, sharia, and trousers.

Inverse dress codes

Reverse dress codes, sometimes referred to as "undress codes", set forth an upper bound, rather than a lower bound, on body covering. An example of an undress code, is the one commonly enforced in modern communal bathing facilities. For example, in Schwaben Quellen no clothing of any kind is allowed. Other less strict undress codes are common in public pools, especially indoor pools, in which shoes and shirts are not allowed. This undress code is an exact reversal of the ubiquitous "no shoes, no shirt, no service" dress code that exists almost everywhere outside the public bathing environment.

Gender and clothing

Various traditions suggests that certain items of clothing intrinsically suit different gender roles. In particular, the wearing of skirts and trousers has given rise to common phrases expressing implied restrictions in use and disapproval of offending behaviour. For example, ancient Greeks often considered the wearing of trousers by Persian men as a sign of effeminacy.

Extreme flouting of conventions in this area may earn the label "cross-dressing".

Clothing taboos

Possible deficiencies in clothing itself may include:

  • stains
  • faded colour
  • smell
  • tears
  • broken seams
  • thin spots
  • holes
  • missing buttons
  • broken zippers

One or more safety pins may temporarily alleviate some of these imperfections.

Possible inappropriate clothing relative to the person wearing it includes garments:

  • too large (wide, long)
  • too small (tight, short)
  • not corresponding to the sex, age or peer group of the wearer

Possible "inappropriate" or socially unacceptable ways of wearing clothing include:

  • unbuttoned (notably the fly)
  • unzipped (ditto)
  • backward
  • inside-out
  • mis-matched socks
  • a wide dress, skirt or shorts exposing underwear or genitals by the way one sits, or when blown upwards (see also Marilyn Monroe), etc.
  • a bra, wrongly positioned, revealing a breast (one such "wardrobe malfunction" has become notorious: see Janet Jackson).

Possible "inappropriate" or socially unacceptable situations of wetness include:

  • transparency, due to wetness (or thin spots), exposing underwear or intimate parts
  • wetness due to sweat
  • wetness apparently due to urine, etc.

Possible inappropriateness regarding day-to-day variation of clothing:

  • too little variation.

Possible inappropriateness of clothing relative to the occasion (note also the concept of dress code):

  • too bright or merry for a serious or sad occasion, for example at a job interview or at a funeral
  • too somber for a festive occasion
  • insufficiently modest
  • too prudish

Deliberate violation of clothing taboos

Of course some of these clothing faux pas may occur intentionally for reasons of fashion or personal preference. For example, people may wear intentionally oversized clothing. For instance, the teenage boys of rap duo Kris Kross wore all of their clothes backwards and extremely baggy.

A common deliberate violation of clothing taboos is the removal of the shirt, together with pulling down the pants to show the underpants

The trend in underwear has moved toward underwear that looks less like underwear, e.g. instead of white briefs that say "Mr Brief" or "Fruit of the Loom" in large letters around the waistband, trends have shifted toward undergarments that look like bathing suits or beach shorts. However, some people are going back to the plain white underwear with bold underwearlike lettering around the waistband, i.e. familiar underwear brand names around the waistband, to enhance the violation of the taboo against showing underwear as a fashion statement. For women, deliberately showing bra straps has also become fashionable.

Mooning is the deliberate baring of the buttocks as a gesture of teasing or contempt.


Some people even strip down to their underwear as a fashion statement, as a form of protest, or to get attention (i.e. for advertisement). As a fashion statement, Tommy Hillfiger ran a series of large billboard advertisements showing mixed-gender groups wearing only their underwear in public. For example, groups were shown at outdoor splash areas, frolicking in nothing but their underwear. This implied a certain spontaneity, as one might find at an urban beach where people decide to strip to their underwear to cool off in a fountain on a hot summer day. Traditionally, people would need to have remembered their bathing suits, but because of the popularization of underwearing, the taboo against showing underwear has been weakened, and in some ways reversed, making the showing of underwear actually fashionable.

Some groups protesting against fur have adopted the phrase "I'd rather be in my underwear than wear fur". Members may confirm their words by stripping to their underwear in public.

As a form of attention-getting, has created "National Underwear Day" and had large numbers of models walk through Times Square wearing nothing but their underwear. This helped to draw tremendous attention to the day and to

Reversalism in the sociology of clothing

Social attitudes to clothing have brought about various rules and social conventions, such as keeping the body covered, and not showing underwear in public. The backlash against these social norms has become a traditional form of rebellion. However, during the 2001 anthrax attacks, large numbers of people stripped to their underwear in parking lots and other public places, for hosing down by fire departments, often in front of TV news crews covering the events.

A recent newspaper headline said "people would rather die than be seen naked in public", highlighting the unwillingness of people to violate their self-imposed and fully internalized social norms of body covering, even in a situation where mass stripdowns and washdowns could save their lives.

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