Why We Wear What We Wear

Why do we wear what we wear? Even if this sounds like such a basic question, it’s actually quite complex and its reasons and answers are way deeper than just an afterthought. We never really question what lurks behind the so-called simple act of getting dressed. And along with that goes the theory that fashion and style are both frivolities that come and go. But think about it, if the act of getting dressed is nothing more than just that…then why do billions of people spend so much of their time and income figuring out what to wear and what to buy?

Today I’d like to give you a glimpse of what I teach in the introductory class of my fashion history courses which deal with fashion phenomena and society. I won’t go into all the details and specifics, but I’ll give you a starter list from which you’ll revisit your thoughts on why it is that we wear what we wear. Are you ready? Here we go!

There really is a beginning to sorting this all out; let’s begin by dissecting:

Why We Wear What We Wear: The Functions of Clothing

In the context of ‘clothing’ – ‘what we wear’, we refer to all types of dressing, as well as, all transformations to the body (permanent, or temporary). These may include: clothing, accessories, footwear, hairstyles, makeup, tatous, surgery…


A. Basic Functions:

1- Protection : Climate, environment, physical attack, spirituality, health.

2- For utilitary, functional or practical purposes

3- For Modesty: Notions of nudity (to reveal and show or to dissimulate)

4- For legal or social order purposes

B. Communicative Functions:

Because a form of clothing can be considered as a clear or silent form of communication. There can be a tug between perception vs reality: sometimes what is perceived does not necessarily correspond to reality.

1- Roles: Gender, age, employment- occupation, lifestyle/ activities/ interests, special occasions/ ceremonies, etc.

2- Decorative or ornamental purposes: Body (so usually permanent) – or External (so usually temporary)

3- To communicate stature (a certain position, authority, wealth)

4- Proprioceptive: Fluidity of movement can show seduction.

5- Other forms of communication can be shown through, symbols (even fashion symbols), religion, culture, etc.

6- Official status through uniforms: Police, judges…

C. Sociological Functions:

A group of people who share the same beliefs and values often share a similar style of dress.

1- Social class: Working class, middle class…

To belong or integrate vs distinction such as:

1- Reference groups: Culture, sub-culture, nationality, ethnicities, ideology, religion, politics, etc.

2- Official Dress Codes: School, team sports or other, work, ‘evening wear’, etc.

3- Dress Codes which we impose on ourselves: Gender, age, occupation, lifestyle, activities, interests…

D. Psychological Functions:

For many people, clothing helps us simply to represent who we are. That being said, the psychological functions of clothing are not always evident to others, but more to ourselves.

1- For personal development: Personality/individuality, creativity, self perception, motivation, beliefs

2- Behaviour: Social interaction, sexual attraction, mood, etc.

3- Group dynamics: Cultural learning, fashion, esthetic functions…all that brings us to a feeling of belonging or to set us apart

Whew! It’s ok if you skipped through most of this. I just wanted to show you how absolutely NON- simple this is!

And we just scratched the surface! There is a Part 2 to this if you’re interested in more food for thought- let me know! Also, don’t be shy to email me if you need any clarification on the above:) I hope this shed some light on the topic- and that it doesn’t seem so frivolous after all…So the next time you get dressed, consider and embrace the reasons- it’s all good.

Meanwhile…let’s see what I love to wear for this introductory class. At first glance I can tell the kids are staring at me and don’t know what to make of this dress!

Why would I choose to wear this dress? Let me count the ways… Tell me about a specific item you like to wear and tell me why. Meet me in the comments!

19 thoughts on “Why We Wear What We Wear

Add yours

  1. Congrats on this great post. And then there are those people who only dress to not die from hypothermia in winter, and to not get into trouble with the police in summer. This way of dressing always makes me curious. Is it a tribe? Protest? Carelessness (about themselves)? I love the protection part, the energetics of clothes, as well as the environmental aspects like sustainability, recycling, impacts, etc..

  2. I read every word and welcome more! I’m fascinated by this topic – this is was part of the course I did with MMA a couple of years ago. I dress to affect my mood, to project a certain image, to be artful with it. I also love fashion history and interesting clothing, so it’s also a conversation piece. I could talk clothes all day. Bring it on, Lucy!

    I love your choice of dress. The backwards ?, the style and colour, how it goes against the norms for someone in your job/position, as well as tapping into ageism, artistic expression, and the deliberate challenge to your audience. And the cowboy boots (which are to die for) are such a fun element – and also speak to identifying markers of a group (Texans, Albertans, square dancers!). We say so much with our clothes!

  3. Lucy, please, please continue this! I love to learn as well as dress up! Your outline was fascinating…I envy your students! I had a professor when I was getting my Masters who always, always dressed very exquisitely. I probably concentrated more on her clothes than on her words at the beginning of each class!

    Your dress is amazing! I love the starkness of the pattern and then the added texture on the question mark. I always loved classes that made me question!


    1. Marsha I’m so happy to hear this! I will have to definitely make the time to write more on this. For me it’s super fascinating topic- but you never know if others have the same interest- so it’s good to know! Thank you so much!

  4. I loved seeing all of the many factors that go into how we dress. How interesting! I bet I’d enjoy your classes. Ha! And this is a great outfit, Lucy!


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