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Sally B. Wyatt
Professor Lauren Shook
ENG101: Essay #3
November 12, 2015
Looking at Dress as a Communication Tool
Throughout the years of my life, I cannot count the many attempts I have made to explain my
ingrained compulsion to possess, appreciate, and use, what to the outside eye, often seems like a
superfluous amount of wardrobe items. On countless occasions, I have witnessed the faces of
shock and confusion when people look upon my bedroom filled with piles of clothing, with
garments and accessories strewn across every surface. I am fully aware that for strangers, this
sight is often interpreted as a reflection of my personal issues with disorganization and
exorbitance. I have learned to tune out the repetitive song of others trying to tell me that It
doesnt matter what you wear or, No one will notice or, You dont need any more clothes
and most often, Why do you care so much?! Hurry up and get ready!. I have always
recognized that these people just did not understand the many dynamic aspects of dress in the
ways which I did, and now I have the research to support my affinity. For as long as I can
remember, I have been fascinated with textile garments and the various ways in which they are
put to use on different human bodies. I am excited by the reactions that come simply from an
outfit composition. In the following essay, I have composed a variety of research from different
perspectives, along with my own analysis, in order to support my thesis that whether or not it is
consciously realized, dress is a form of communication used to express dynamic aspects of ones
individual, social, and cultural self.

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Fundamental in understanding dress as a dynamic communication tool, is accepting the premise


that dress is not merely a matter of utility and practicality (Edwards). Clothes are much more
than textiles used to protect modesty and the naked body from the outside world. For me, it has
always felt natural to view clothing and other forms of dress as artistic expression. I
automatically observe others dress in a similar way that I would look at and interpret other art.
This interpretation is paralleled by Tarrant in Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style by
stating fashion is symbolic, expressive, creative, and coercive. Every aspect of dress offers
something for interpretation; the colors, patterns, textures, details, fit, flow and embellishments
of different fabrics, the way in which you wear and style your clothing, the accessories you use
to complement your look, the personal maintenance of the body and hair, the way in which items
are combined with one another, the context of the outfit, every detail of dress is subject to
analysis and interpretation from the outside world. The effect of any artistic creation depends on
its power to compel attention. In Fashion Talks it is explained how humans possess a
uniquely intense motivation and capacity to share attention, a key factor in the development of
human intelligence and culture, which applies directly to human appeal of communication
through dress and how it ties into sociocultural realms. Participation in non-verbal
communication through dress is unavoidable to anyone opposed to walking around naked (but
even then, lack of dress communication would surely be subject to analysis). Elements that
influence our appearance are both controlled and uncontrollable. Whether or not it consciously
recognized, understood, or attention getting, every aspect of dress communicates some type of
message. Interpretation of dress communication is a natural evolutionary ability, and takes place
without active recognition, because it is part of the sense-making schemas our human minds use
in order for survival. Tarrant summarizes this point by explaining how dress is a manifestation

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of particular aspects of our evolved biologies, and these aspects are linked to expression and
development of social norms and these manifestations are interpreted using evolved cognitive
mechanisms designed to make good decisions about individual social interactions and
interactants (Tarrant). Realizing this aspect of cognition, dress is manipulated as a
communicative tool to express messages from and about the self to others. However, despite
universality as form of a communication, messages and meanings of dress are subjective and
depend on a complex web of variables.
Throughout the history of humans, dress provides illustration and deeper understanding for time
periods and historical movements. Clothing and dress have been used as aesthetic representation
for centuries, to decipher individuals social and cultural standing (Edwards). Over time,
messages via dress communication continue to evolve increasing symbolism of individual
characteristics, and preferences and judgements have been historically noted (Scapp & Seitz).
Costumes serve as artifacts, and provide visual histories and cultural narratives when looking
back at time, across distinct geographical locations (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, & Hunt-Hurst, 70).
Fashions have been claimed radical and revolutionary as they encourage profound rebellion and
defiant self-definition (Tarrant). Examples of this include the Flapper and Feminist movements,
which marked radical change in dress and perceptions of feminine sexuality. These movements
are especially remarkable due to the feminine bias that has historically encompassed dress
(Edwards). Using dress, one can resist hegemony and communicate identity in the face of
cultural and political pressure (Tarrant). Various style subcultures (i.e. punks) have been created
by distinct groups that have realized and applied this method of communication through dress
(Edwards). On the other hand, dress codes and regulations have the potential to repress
freedoms by controlling and disciplining the body and by encouraging problematic consumer

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culture (Tarrant). Examples of this are observed in fashions place in; global politics,
domination, notions of power, imperialism, social stratification, patriarchy, globalization,
exploitation, sexuality, and free will. Particular social and cultural rules are clarified through
dress, along with politics of difference and structures of inequality (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, &
Hunt-Hurst, 111)(Negrin). Dress has always communicated messages regarding skills, economy,
hierarchy, distinction, and identity (Edwards). Historical impacts of dress communication have
been documented throughout human existence, but it is the personal details and daily issues of
style that define a moment in a collective social pattern (Tarrant). This leads us into a more
specific discussion of how communication through dress is used individually.
The meaning and impact of dress communication is irrelevant without considering the individual
sporting the clothing and sending the message. Bancroft tells us in her writings regarding fashion
and psychoanalysis, that communication from dress relies on the human subject and its
actualization to be interpreted artistically. When decoding dress communication, one is not
simply interpreting the dress or garments, but more importantly they are interpreting the person
who wears the dress and evaluating characteristics of that person that created this look. As
Bancroft highlights, the wearer and the act of wearing are central to fashion. Dress
communication takes place temporarily and the importance of garments only exists in the
process of being worn (Bancroft). Your appearance is usually the initial impression that you
have on the world. In a day, 90% of the people that you come in contact with wont even speak
to you, they will judge who you are based solely from looks. Those who do speak to you, choose
to do so often based on their interpretation of your appearance, with feedback formulated
accordingly. Acknowledging this, individuals consciously and subconsciously construct tangible
embodiments of their perceived selves using dress.

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Much like identity, fashion exists between complex entanglements of contradictions. The dressed
body is used artistically as a canvas for identity tensions (Tarrant). Dress provides endless
possibilities for shaping and voicing ones individuality; accompanied by countless rules,
meanings, and interpretations for understanding others dress communication, as well as their
own (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, & Hunt-Hurst). Ones identity is manipulated through dress in
order to fit in and stand out, express parts of ourselves and repress others, and to feel unique but
also to belong (Edwards). We aim to differentiate ourselves from others enough to be noticed
individually, but our inclination for conformity often restricts this expression, to avoid being
noticed in a negative light.
Not only does one voice their existing inner selves using dress communication, but appearance
also contributes to fluidly shaping a sense of who one is (Negrin). I want to highlight Jean
Beudrillards statement that dress is not so much a matter of being yourself, as it is creating
yourself (Scapp & Seitz). Considering this, dress can be used as a genuine expression of
identity, but also a substitute for it, or a creation of a fantasized self (Negrin). According to
Lacan, mentioned by Bancroft, ones sense of self is constantly being negotiated through 3
realms: imaginary, symbolic, and real. Although identity is traditionally assumed to be
independently shaped, it is also believed to be unstable, performative, and constituted socially
rather than being internally fixed (Bancroft). Dress is used to display to the world all types of
characteristics of an individual including, but not limited to; age, class, religion, sexuality,
hobbies, intellectual interests, lifestyle, social network, geographic origin, aspirations,
circumstances, mood, and taste. Fashion reflects all aspects of an individuals work and play, we
dress up and dress down to accommodate ourselves within given circumstances (Scapp & Seitz).
As a core component of self-expression and self-realization, style and dress communication

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can be considered the most universal and important methods of nonverbal communication
(Tarrant). Using dress, one participates in self-improvement through intellectual and aesthetic
engagement (Tarrant). We present a tangible reflection of ourselves, we learn by absorbing
feedback and generating meanings based off our interactions with others, and then use this
information in repeating the cycle. Internal and external factors are equally essential in ones
formulation of self and identity.
Contrary to the beliefs of others discussed in my introduction, research supports the idea that
people, like myself, become attached to articles in their wardrobe when they are seen as pieces
of self (Tarrant). This explains my passionate connection with my clothes and accessories, and
why it is so hard for me to get rid of things I may not wear often. It makes sense that I have an
abounding collection of garments to accommodate the various aspects of self I perceive, and the
selves that I have grown from. All these pieces of self are necessary, because I, as well as many
others, cannot afford to settle for one easy definition, one narrow individuation of self
(Tarrant). These garments serve functions other than concealing my nudity and performing my
identity, they are reminiscent of memories and recollections. They are reminders and aid in
recognition of self and others (Tarrant).
Clothing is worn to be looked at, we observe others while being observed. People who are
cognoscente of this surveil themselves in their mind and consider judgments, evaluations, and
representations when composing an outfit (Tarrant). One must examine the context of their dress
as well. Understandings of dress fluctuate contextually and this can drastically skew intended
messages. Through this process of presentation and observation, we accumulate a cognitive data
bank of unsaid meanings and understandings of dress communication that are culturally learned
and individually perceived (Edwards). These notions are part of humans natural instinctive

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mode of reasoning hardwired into cognition which is used to make inductive and deductive
inferences to explain unusual or unfamiliar observations (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, & Hunt-Hurst,
100). Our dress tends to be eclectic, visually stimulating, and confusing when consciously
contemplated but it is because of this that we are able to use it as a method of individual
communication (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, & Hunt-Hurst, 100)
The topic of social observations of dress and the interdependent process of cultural learning
introduces you to the next element of my argument; how dress is used as communication in
social and cultural realms. Mentioned earlier, at the same time that dress is used to define
individual identity, humans possess and innate evolutionary need to conform with peers. There is
no communication if there is no audience to receive the message and provide feedback. An
individual formulates messages through dress and then presents them in social realms for
feedback. Our look and style is negotiated as people influence each other on what and how to
dress (Miller-Spillman, Reilly, & Hunt-Hurst, 79). All substance of dress communication is
based upon interaction with others. The Meanings of Dress best details this process explaining
the Abductive Inference Theory. To summarize, this theory states that nothing has meaning in
and of itself. Meaning is derived from relationships that are drawn between things and what
those things represent and these relationships are guided by social and cultural structures that
provide systems that guide beliefs, principles, thoughts, and behaviors (Miller-Spillman, Reilly,
& Hunt-Hurst, 80). These structures model the relationships that we have with symbols
embedded in dress communication. It is because of this guidance, that fashion reflects
sociocultural dynamics using signs and symbols that are somewhat stationary (Tarrant). Through
social interaction using dress communication, we create formal and informal codes of what is
acceptable or appropriate in terms of self-presentation, maintenance, and appearance (Edwards).

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Even though the signals and meanings of communication through dress provide conventional
insignias for developing our own understandings, they are contrarily ambiguous by nature of
subjectivity. Many signifiers meanings are arbitrary and could potentially mean anything or
nothing at all (Negrin). This is just a brief example of the contradictory essence of dress
communication.
The abstract meanings of dress communication have increasingly shifted and expanded their
importance as time has passed. Contemporary style and adornment have evolved to be primarily
sociological, signifying rather than functional (Edwards). Dress is often used to illustrate
cooperation between people and explain mechanisms through which we form affiliations and
select partners (Edwards). We use the cues of communication through dress that signal
trustworthiness and cooperation, to seek others who have something to offer. Our instincts
interpret dress as aesthetic cultural markers in order to make split judgements on who is friend
or foe (Tarrant). The way in which we dress conveys politics, personalities, and preferences for
whom and how we love (Tarrant). This makes dress and appearance the primary means of
determining ones sexuality and mate value. We immediately notice similarities and differences
in others, based off of their aesthetic cues. We often find ourselves initially describing one
another using appearance details, since visual impact often lingers longest. Communication
through dress facilitates labeling and is used as a tool of agency for social control (Edwards). We
stereotype people into social separations based mainly based off of their appearance and make
assumptions of their character, abilities, and social standing. Manipulating dress communication,
individuals can transform, subvert, or transcend stereotypes (Tarrant). The way that we
nonverbally communicate using our wardrobe binds us to our society and how we make sense
of who we are and who everyone else is too (Edwards). We share the obligation to dress

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ourselves in ways that appeal to others and collectively agree on meanings of symbolism in
dress. At the same time, we strive to catch unique attention by distinguishing our appearance
from the crowd.
Another way of looking at dress communication socially is to think of it as an economic system.
Literally speaking, the fashion industry is a multi-billion dollar, global industry to which almost
everyone succumbs. If that isnt enough to stress its importance, Tarrant figuratively describes
the fashion system as an aesthetic economy that is idealized and offered as communal, yet
exclusive. The tangible garments of dress are the currency of this economy. Value is often based
on rarity, exclusivity, monetary cost, and quality; but other subjective factors, like personal
experiences and associations, also play a role in value determination. It is idealized and
communal because it offers the fleeting opportunity for self-improvement to all audiences, but
individual and social circumstances restrain some peoples choices in dress communication. It
was Pierre Bourdieu that first noted dress and fashion to be a non-financial, social asset that
promotes or hinders social mobility beyond economic means, coined cultural capital
(Edwards). An individual compares themselves to one another and sees themselves as evaluated
within an economy of assigned worth depending on the value perceived and assigned to their
appearance (Tarrant). Not only does dress effect how our value is perceived by others, but it also
influences how we shape our personal self-worth. This notion provides evidence for why I have
repetitively encouraged others to understand how dressing your best, especially when you feel
your worst, can have a positive impact on your demeanor. We are living in a global society that is
driven off of economy and convenient decision making. So, the monetary and symbolic aspects
of this perspective viewing dress as cultural capital is universally appealing.

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Speaking from general observation, communication via dress is commonly underestimated.


Fashion is rarely taken seriously as an intellectual concept, and is instead dismissed as
superficial, unnecessary, and recreational. Dress is unlikely to be found on any random list of
methods of communication. The power of self-presentation cannot be taken advantage of with
this mindset. The intention of this essay is to facilitate better understanding for how dress has
been and continues to be used to communicate dynamic aspects of ones individual, social, and
cultural self. My research topics focused on how dress communication has been used historically,
how dress reflects the individual, and the presence of dress communication in social and cultural
realms. In summation, I hope that this essay sheds light on dress as a communication tool and a
lifelong project of giving shape to the human existence (Tarrant).

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Works Cited
Bancroft, Alison. Fashion and Psychoanalysis: Styling the Self. London: I.B. Tauris, 2012.
Internet resource.
Edwards, Tim. Fashion in Focus: Concepts, Practices and Politics. London: Routledge, 2011.
Internet Resource.
Miller-Spillman, Kimberly. Reilly, Andrew. Hunt-Hurst, Patricia. The Meanings of Dress: 3rd Ed.
New York: Fairchild Publications, 2012. Print.
Negrin, Llewellyn. Appearance and Identity: Fashioning the Body in Postmodernity. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Internet resource.
Tarrant, Shira, and Marjorie Jolles. Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2012. Internet resource.
Scapp, Ron, and Brian Seitz. Fashion Statements: On Style, Appearance, and Reality. New York,
NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Internet Resource.