An essay by Luka Sotelo
What we wear reflects a lot about us, right? So how does that work now in a world where we can’t socialise in our clothes as often? The new normal of living in a lockdown (or some approximation of one) means the usual fare for some social occasions has changed – where in the past one might have many favourite ensembles they could rely on to see family, friends and loved ones, now we live in a time where the dominant mantra is to stay home, save lives … or at least something along those lines. So in this world, what happens to our clothed selves?
In more normal times, we can rely on social theorists who have looked at the meaning of clothes in our expressions of self. Joanne Entwistle provides a useful explanation of how clothing plays an integral part in creating our sense of self via what she terms the dressed body. The idea goes: our human bodies carry markers that identify us in the social world. I’m not necessarily talking about the physical body itself, but the whole package as it were – how we talk and act, what and who we know, where we live and so on. These things are part of what Pierre Bourdieu terms habitus, where we carry with us the effects of the social world in the ways we think, act, and the social strata we have access to.
And then, there’s clothing itself – clothing carries its own social meanings as well. Just like how our bodies are inscribed with our habitus, clothing is inscribed also with meaning. A man seen in a suit is immediately perceived differently and with different intent to the man wearing his football trackies. But Entwistle explains an important point: the meaning of clothing isn’t just some inherent thing. The meanings of differing outfits are not static, but carry different meanings as time passes and society itself changes. Masculine fashions have evolved over time for example, with the upper classes at once favouring great displays of fine silk and leathers, to the suited professional man, and the modern metrosexuals. And old fashions can re-emerge as anachronistic re-imaginings of themselves, such as how the pastel and neon oversized outfits of the 80s being taken up anew by teenagers a generation later. The clothing itself is not born with meaning, but instead society – and individuals! – affect that meaning.
This is the dressed body Entwistle describes: the fusion of body and clothing, and the meanings that are born from that result. This is all well and good, but how are we affecting clothing now in a world where we are stuck indoors? There’s a few different points here one can fixate on: dressing for social media, dressing for the self, dressing for the few permitted reasons we have to go outdoors. But what about dressing for video calls? If we take the argument of the dressed body and apply it to video calls, this new interesting combination of clothing emerges, where formal or social clothing can meld with casual homely clothing, and yet still able to maintain the expectations of the social world to dress appropriately.
Or, to simplify this point: How many of you have called into lectures and meetings wearing a nice shirt or jacket, but simultaneously staying snug in a pair of pyjama bottoms? And no one is the wiser. If nothing else, the lockdown’s effect on our habits of dressing have made this confusing new form of self where the whole body now needn’t be dressed to fully meet some social goal. As always, what matters is that your body must be on display appropriately – but then when only certain parts of your body can ever be seen, how strange it is to think of a world where the need for whole sets of clothing is partly obliviated!
I’m being a bit facetious here. We’re not going to outgrow the need for nice trousers or dresses, good shoes, so on. But it is interesting to consider Entwistle’s thesis on the dressed body in light of the meanings of professional clothing, and how what we might all think of when it comes to dressing “professional” has changed because of lockdown. And this is, of course, only considering professions or education-based settings where online learning is the norm – many others are still out there in the real world for whatever reason, where dressed bodies remain mostly the same sans for the masks we use to stymie the spread of the coronavirus. But when we think of the culture around video-calling and what dressing means, it’s hard not to see how what we might think of as professional attire has changed to accommodate the casual. Just because the rest of our bodies aren’t seen doesn’t mean we don’t all casually acknowledge that, yes, your lecturer is most likely calling you from the comfort of their desk and their favourite jogging bottoms. It’s happening. Casualwear and professional clothing combined. That’s our new normal.
– A piece by Luka Sotelo, Goldsmiths BA Sociology Student, Spring 2021