I can remember when my mother gave up and decided to just let me choose my own clothes. I was probably seven or eight, which by today’s standard is a bit old for this rite of passage, but in the 1960s my peers could not believe Mama let me do the picking. But she wisely knew that sooner or later I’d insist on it, and besides, she had another daughter to dress up in pink.
The truth is, all people in my culture (and probably yours as well) choose their clothes if they are over the age of five or so. Even people who claim to care nothing at all about what they wear, do, in fact, care. My father-in-law was a great example. He was a notoriously sloppy dresser, and he repeatedly reminded us that clothes don’t make the man. The problem was that he had a long list of things he would not wear, and a very short one of what he chose to wear.
He had no jeans, but several pair of identical khakis. He had the same plaid button front shirt in twenty different plaids and colors. He never wore a pair of sneakers. He loved cardigan sweaters, but pullovers were verboten.
One year for Christmas we found what we thought was the perfect gift for him – a red cardigan with a big S applique that came from his alma mater, NC State. He seemed to like it, but we noticed that he never wore it. Some time later the cardigan reappeared, without the big S. He had carefully picked it off. It then occurred to me that he thought wearing the sweater would look like bragging in a community where college graduates in his age group were rare. He knew that wearing a sweater that he thought advertised his education would make him look as though he was putting on airs.
John may have claimed that clothes do not matter, but he clearly did know that what we wear sends all kinds of messages to others.
Clothes don’t have to have letters, or even words, on them in order to send messages. It’s easy to sit on any park bench and watch people passing by, and make judgments about those people based on their clothes. Sometimes you will be right, and other times you will be wrong, but the message is sent never-the-less.
For centuries clothing has been a sign of social and economic status, a reflection of the position one holds, and even where one resides. When I travel to New York, I plan my clothing carefully, so as not to look so Southern (and out of place). In high school, the girls who had professional dads like doctors and lawyers carried Aigner handbags, while those of us whose fathers worked at the paper plant carried cheap imitations.
We just can’t get away from the fact that in our culture, clothes have meaning. They send messages. And the most obvious messages are those that are in print.
My old Merle Haggard shirt you see above dates from 1983 when Outlaw Country was an interesting alternative to Punk and New Wave. By then I was teaching and pushing thirty, and it seemed that Rock was dead anyway, so we started listening to Haggard and Cash and Nelson. I got the shirt at a concert in Asheville when Haggard was arrested for drinking onstage.
Over the years I’ve worn it when feeling particularly badass, and it never fails to send that message, at least it sends it to the many young folks who comment on it. It never fails to make me feel cool, though the truth is that I was merely lucky enough to have the money to attend a concert and buy the shirt way back in 1983.
But does that even matter? The message is sent, though I suspect that to some people the message is, “Why is that old lady wearing a Merle Haggard shirt?” It may not register with some that I was once a cool concert goer.
Today clothing with writing and logos is so common that one need not pay attention to all the other sartorial clues. At a glance you can tell what team that guy is rooting for, where his wife went on vacation, daughter’s favorite Disney princess, and the attitude of the teenage son. One thing I feel very confident in saying is that these messages are true. A Red Sox fan does not wear a Yankees hat.
So when a public figure is seen wearing a jacket that says, “I really don’t care, do U?” you can be assured that the message was intended. Whatever she doesn’t care about, the message was sent, and the viewer uses his or her own experiences and perceptions of the wearer to decipher the message.
And who in their right mind wears a jacket in this heat?