Tereneh Idia: Man makes the clothes | Fashion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tereneh Idia: Man makes the clothes

“What did you wear today, yesterday? Why?”

Tereneh Idia: Man makes the clothes
Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund
A history of fashion: Photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris’ 1954 photograph of Barbara Lee and Delilah Hargrove, cast members of play “Take a Giant Step,” in dressing room of Pittsburgh Playhouse

“Clothes make the man,” Mark Twain said. “Naked people have little to no influence on society.” 

And William Shakespeare wrote: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” Far be it from me to disagree completely with Twain and, in part, Shakespeare, but I do. 

Let’s begin with Mr. Twain. While clothes are important — and I suspect you have a regular habit of wearing clothes — Mr. Twain misses the complex reasons why we dress. What did you wear today, yesterday? Why? Discuss ...

There are many reasons why we dress the way we do: protection, modesty, attraction, identification and adornment. My favorite is adornment; we humans just cannot help ourselves, we have a will to adorn.

Other considerations (consciously or unconsciously):

Cultural: Can I wear this where I live/work/play? Is it culturally appropriate? 

Economic: Can I afford the new Air Jordans? Will someone steal my new Jordans? 

Managerial: Can I manage/maintain these clothes; do I dry-clean, hand or machine wash? Do I have the closet space? Will my dog eat these shoes? 

So, let’s go back to Twain and his proclamation that naked people are irrelevant. He is wrong. Because there are very few totally nude people on this planet now or at any time in human history. A truly naked culture is hard to find, and not without reason.

Adornment is any decoration or alteration — temporary or permanent — of the body’s appearance. Mascara, hair color, hairstyle, tattoos, necklace, fig leaves or a tuxedo; it may not qualify as "clothing" in a Western Eurocentric view, but it is a form of dressing the body. What is or is not dress is socio-cultural, not scientific. A Surma man in Ethiopia wearing intricate, geometric, white-clay mud designs painted on his body would laugh heartily if you told him he was naked. 

Now what Shakespeare wrote does ring true, but it is also incomplete. The socio-psychology of fashion has uncovered two key phenomena: appearance management and appearance perception. 

Appearance management is dressing yourself considering what your clothes communicate about you. How you may dress for a date, job interview, and special event, yes — but we do this every day. “That belt with these pants, how does my butt look in the jeans or do I look too sexy for my shirt?” 

Appearance perception is how we assess others. It is walking into a room and trying to decide who to ask where the bathroom is, deciding if someone looks like the artist or the gallery owner, whom to dance with or who to avoid.  

But it is Coco Chanel who puts the t-pin in the pincushion: “Look for the woman in the dress, without the woman, there is no dress.”

Mademoiselle Chanel’s statement hits to the core of why we dress. It is us — our dreams, desires, aspirations and hopes. The most important thing is the life we live in what we wear. Clothing is the “costume” to our real-life adventure.

Or, to update Twain: Man makes the clothes.

Tereneh Idia is a featured contributor. Follow her on Twitter @Tereneh152xx

Women & Non-binary Bike Summit
9 images

Women & Non-binary Bike Summit

By Mars Johnson