Over at AccordingToHoyt, someone mentioned sumptuary laws and how some people still consider those to be a good thing. The goal was to tell at a glance what someone’s social and economic status was, and where they were supposed to fit into society. What you could wear depended on your income and your job. Servants were not allowed to look like their masters, journeymen had to wear something different from their employers, and if you had less than a certain income, you could not wear certain fabrics or furs. Officially, this was to prevent people from “wasting their substance” on luxury clothing. In reality? It was usually about enforcing status. The world was visual, and what you saw was very important. Sort of like the later plaint of a man writing to the Times of London. It seemed that with the rise of the steel-boned corset, the price for the garments dropped a great deal. Now this man could no longer tell at a glance who was a lower- or middle-class woman and who was a woman of “quality!” Something Must Be Done!
Too, clothing cost a lot of money in terms of percentage of income. A woman’s dress might be intended to last her lifetime and beyond. Even into the early 1800s, in Brandenburg, one of the most important items in a woman’s will would be her “dress of honor,” which was passed from mother to daughter and taken in or let out as needed. She wore it first after her wedding, and then at festivals and important occasions. One dress, meant to last multiple lifetimes. Ordinary clothes often began as someone else’s and were handed down to servants or “the poor.” Shirts, chemises, shifts, and other things worn next to the skin got washed on occasion, but not the outer dress, coat, robe and so on. Keep in mind that fabrics were heavier than they are today, so they were more durable and really would last a lifetime. Even so, new clothing cost more than most people could easily afford. You saved up for a new (or new-to-you) garment.
The other reason this bubbled to mind was a controversy at a local college over something related to clothing and lack-there-of. Clothing was, and is, also a sign or rebellion, especially dressing as someone you are not. Men wearing women’s clothes could be very threatening. “The War of the Women” in France was waged by vigilantes and shepherds, men who wore dresses and kerchiefs and attacked government attempts to limit traditional uses of forest and mountain land in the Pyrenees and surrounding areas in the early 1800s. Men dressed as women would also be part of the raucous charivari or “shivaree” that showed social disapproval of marriages and certain other behaviors. Men in women’s clothes were a threat, when they were not an object of derision (more often symbolic than actual). Modern drag follows this pattern, with men imitating and now grotesquely exaggerating certain aspects of what was traditionally considered female – clothing, cosmetics, behaviors.
Today we can afford to own clothing that suits our personality as well as our status. Very wealthy people “dress down” to show that they have so much they can afford to look like slobs, or as if they don’t care about clothing. Sub-cultures have their own styles, such as punk, goth, western, urban or hip-hop (there can be a difference between the two), biker/MC, hippie-style counter-culture, and so on. There are certain expectations that remain, and within those groups, pushing the limits can lead to harsh reactions. Employers still require employees to maintain a certain standard for safety (no loose, floppy clothes or hair around moving machinery) or cleanliness (overalls, protective jackets). Other places want to project a sense of professionalism – would you want to be represented in court by a lawyer who shows up in a sundress or a Hawiian shirt? The judge wouldn’t allow that individual into the courtroom. Oops.
“Do what you want!” Within limits. And still, despite sumptuary laws, society still puts limits in place. Certain styles, certain rebellions, are often limited in place and time. Breaking those limits signals deliberate rebellion, and raises questions as to motives and goals.