Apr 07, 2017

The Semiotics of Formal Wear; or, Why Does the World Wear Croatian Fashion?

Vijay Sampath

The Governor of North Dakota state in the US was recently asked to leave the state Senate because he was wearing jeans (notwithstanding the fact that he was wearing a formal jacket and dress shirt)
Earlier this month an Indian High Court Chief Justice pulled up visitors for wearing Jeans and T Shirt in the Courtroom
One frequently comes across images of students dressed in suits and ties attending job interviews, admission interviews and conferences.
Schools across India force children to wear horrible neck ties that are tied with a rope and constrict the neck blood supply
Attend any corporate meeting and it looks more like a gathering of Emperor Penguins, waddling sombrely in identical black suits and white shirts
My business nowadays requires me to unfortunately wear formal clothes for meetings and suchlike. Having lived off T-Shirts, cotton half- shirts and jeans for a long time, I am oppressed by these new developments.

My travails made me wonder- why are we forced to wear suits, ties and suchlike at work and on important occasions? Why should we even wear Indian formals like starchy sarees and itchy bandhgallas at formal events?

It is almost mandatory for men in India to attend interviews wearing a shirt with a tie and/or jacket, or to be “safer”, a full suit with tie. While a saree or salwar suit is considered proper formal wear in India for women, its male equivalent, the dhoti or pyjama will almost certainly lose you the job !

What is the connection between all this fancy clothing and work performance? Who decided that shorts, lungis and T-shirts do not indicate seriousness but sarees do? Where is the evidence that a flouncy skirt or cool lungi does not signify capability? Why should a court dictate fashion sense to litigants and visitors? Would Churchill’s “Half Naked Fakir” Mahatma Gandhi be censured for appearing in court in his loin cloth?

I have never personally discriminated against an individual by way of her sartorial preferences. But I must admit even I would feel very uncomfortable interviewing a prospective National Sales Head who was dressed in lungi and T-Shirt.

The semiotics of fashion is a fascinating subject. At its core the view is that the rules of fashion mimic the contemporary rules of authority and occupation. They also symbolize the ideology and mind-set of those who make up the rules defining fashion and attire

A lot has been researched and written on this subject. Like all other mores of human civilization, fashion semiotics also has progressed and adapted with the times. Conservative and seemingly “important” societal functions like Law, Justice, Health, Administration, Education and some other roles, where people’s lives are at stake, seem to attach a greater importance to “Conformity” and “Tradition” in their dress rules. By the ruthless implementation of these rules, the powers that be also reassure their constituents that they are capable, reliable and strong.

A famous example of “manufacturing reassurance” is the history of the formal uniforms of airline pilots. Historically, the first airplane pilots were barnstormers or daredevils who flew the relatively new and risky idea of an airplane, as entertainment in country fairs and such like. When airline companies started to promote air travel, they found that customers did not repose faith in the skills of the daredevil pilots, who dressed like Indiana Jones. In short, the customers needed reassurance.

So the Airline companies turned to the most acceptable psychological sartorial trope that gave confidence to people- The attire of Ship Captains. For centuries, the Ship captain was a solid symbol of reliability and capability. Travel by ship was the norm in the early 20th century, and the captain’s uniform, resplendent with bells and whistles, was a comforting reference point. The uniform of the Airline pilot we see today, with peak cap, epaulettes, jackets, ties etc. is nothing more than the copy-paste of the sea captain’s dress. As was the nautical nomenclature of “Captain”, “First Officer” etc.

Luckily for people like me who dislike formal wear and dress rules, the world is changing fast (but not fast enough!) The domination of digital technology, massive transformation in work culture and informalisation of professions, greater liberalisation of thought, are fast bringing down the bastions of “formal wear”. Titans of the tech world rebuff formal dress codes for cool jeans and t-shirts, and in their wake lesser mortals like me can also dream of shaking off sartorial tyranny.

Hopefully the day will come, when we will be free to dress as we please, without the roving eye of the clothing commissars dictating our lives.

In the meanwhile I will leave you with a tid-bit about the history of the neck-tie. It originated from a neck scarf worn by Croatian mercenaries in the employment of Louis XIII of France in the 17th century. The king liked it so much he made it a compulsory accessory in the French court. The word “Cravat” which symbolized the early tie was a corruption of the word “Croat”. The rest is history and we have suffered this “noose” around our necks ever since.

Originally published at https://goo.gl/ZSw3V2

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