Why Clothing is not Superficial
When I began my career as an academic, committed to the study of material culture, the dominant theory and approach to the study of things was that of semiotics. We were taught that the best way to appreciate the role of objects was to consider them as signs and as symbols that represent us. The example that was most commonly employed to illustrate this perspective was that of clothing, since it seemed intuitively obvious that we choose clothing for precisely this reason. My clothing shows that I am sexy, or Slovenian, or smart, or all three. Through the study of the differentiation of clothing we could embark upon the study of the differentiation of us.1
Clothes might represent gender differences, but also class, levels of education, cultures of origin, confidence or diffidence, our occupational roles as against our evening leisure. Clothing was a kind of pseudo-language that could tell us about who we are. As such, material things were a neglected adjunct to the study of language: an apparently unspoken form of communication that could actually speak volumes once we had attuned ourselves to this capacity. Anthropological discussions by Mary Douglas and Marshall Sahlins, amongst others, that advocated this approach seemed to suggest a whole new significance to the study of stuff.
There is no doubt that material culture studies was significantly enhanced by the arrival of this semiotic perspective; but ultimately it became as much a limitation as an asset. This chapter aims to repudiate a semiotic approach to things in general and to clothing in particular. Consider one of the best-known clothing stories. ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is a morality tale about pretentiousness and vanity. The Emperor is persuaded by his tailors that the clothes they have stitched him are fine to the point of invisibility, leaving him to strut naked around his court. The problem with semiotics is that it makes the clothes into mere servants whose task it is to represent an Emperor – the human subject. Clothes do our bidding and represent us to the outside world. In themselves, clothes are pretty worthless creatures, superficial, of little consequence, mere inanimate stuff. It is the Emperor, the self, that gives them such dignity, glamour and refinement.
But what and where is this self that the clothes represent? In both philosophy and everyday life we imagine that there is a real or true self which lies deep within us. On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also lie. It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within. But what was revealed by the absence of clothes was not the Emperor’s inner self but his outward conceit. Actually, as Ibsen’s Peer Gynt observed, we are all onions. If you keep peeling off our layers you find – absolutely nothing left. There is no true inner self. We are not Emperors represented by clothes, because if we remove the clothes there isn’t an inner core. The clothes were not superficial, they actually were what made us what we think we are. At first this sounds odd, unlikely, implausible or just plain wrong. To discover the truth of Peer Gynt, as applied to clothing, we need to travel to Trinidad, from there to India, and then to use these experiences to re-think our relationship to clothing back in London.
The problem with viewing clothing as the surface that represents, or fails to represent, the inner core of true being is that we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial. Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did. When I met my wife as fellow students, my trousers were held up at the top with string and their hem at the base with staples. She must have thought I was deep, because there certainly wasn’t much to attract her on the surface. Such assumptions are fine within the confines of Cambridge but a problem for an anthropologist going out to Trinidad. Because the point of anthropology is to enquire empathetically into how other people see the world. Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise. For Trinidadians in general were devoted to clothes, and knew they were good at looking good. Colourful prints and butterfly belts were a priority.
I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and to look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.
This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A. C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels … The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies’.3
Freilich, carrying out ethnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957–8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district” ’.4
This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.
As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion – that is, the collective following of a trend, but style – that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occasion. It didn’t matter what clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.
There are many possible reasons why Trinidadians might have developed this affinity with style as individual and transient expression. Some theories go back to slavery and beyond. Henry Lewis Gates in his book The Signifying Monkey
argued for a West African aesthetic structure found especially amongst the Yoruba.5
He notes the way jazz musicians take up themes and develop them, but very often return to a pastiche of well-known rhythms and tunes from previous compositions. In ordinary speech both musicians and others will refer to Signifyin(g)
upon someone or something. One can see a similar use of clothing in the development of vogueing
made famous by Madonna and the film Paris is Burning
, which treats clothing and high fashion in a similar referential manner. But Trinidadian clothing style doesn’t return to classic themes in this way.
An alternative might be to look, not to some origin in Africa, but to the experience of slavery itself. The idea of keeping things on the surface as a defensive strategy against the condition of extreme degradation is brilliantly depicted by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved
: ‘so you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own … Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love that would split you wide open in Alfred Georgia.’6
The precarious existence given by the condition of slavery precluded any internalization of love, since there was no knowing when this love-object might be wrested away, resulting in a kind of adaptive tendency to keep things on the surface, to refuse any internalization and thus to minimize one’s sense of loss. This is more plausible, and may remain relevant to many of those in the squatting area. But the majority of the population of Trinidad do not have origins in Africa and slavery. Many come from South Asia or have mixed backgrounds.
So, instead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with a theory of semiotics and of treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being – what we truly are – is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.
In stark contrast to this depth ontology Trinidadians seem to have almost a horror of things becoming interiorized, rather than kept on the surface. Perhaps the most popular leisure activity in Trinidad is the lime, in which a group of people either hang around a street corner or travel in a group, for example, into the countryside to make a cook. A feature of the lime is the genre of verbal insult which is known as picong or giving fatigue. The individual failings of a fellow limer would then be picked upon. An older male might be asked ‘when you alive yet, you could cook?’ or about whether any remaining hair is really his. An accident or mistake might be thrown back at the ‘guilty’ party many times, with appellations such as ‘mother-cunt’. Such picong almost always remains good-humoured, because the recipient knows that they are being judged by their ability not to take this on. This often witty and always barbed invective between friends makes the lime a kind of training ground in which one is steeled against taking in the abuse which can be received in life. There is a version of madness called tabanca. This afflicts people not because they have lost a relationship, but because they then discover that they allowed that relationship to get inside them, and when it ended they became distracted and disorientated. One of the most common expressions heard in response to any misfortune, from a passing insult to the break-up of a relationship, is doh (don’t) take it on. In other words implying don’t take it in.
Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. A person without a sense of humour, who can’t take insults, is seen as ignorant and prone to violence, a label Trinidadians use of their Caribbean rivals, the Jamaicans. This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ – meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.
It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud (London’s Notting Hill has an appealing variant: covering your body in chocolate). Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move towards the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. The classic example is where a strict schoolteacher has tried to portray herself as thoroughly respectable, until a pregnancy reveals something else going on. People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.
The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. So the truth that emerges at Carnival is premised on exactly the opposite set of metaphors as that of our own depth ontology. For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant. In many ways the Trinidadians seem to have a rather more obvious logic of spatial metaphors of truth and being than we do.
These differences in metaphors, reflecting differences in the concept of being, may use idioms of time as well as of space. If the self is not deep inside it is also not viewed as constant. We see the self as growing, based on things that are accumulated. So occupation, social status and position create substance which is accumulated within. This comes from a historical preference for relatively fixed identities and hierarchies. In earlier times a person was defined by birth. We now prefer an apparently meritocratic ideal which defines them more by cumulative achievement. But Trinidadians may not be aiming for such a sense of an incremental self, which would be regarded as both false and imposed by position. A person today should not be judged by what they used to be, but what they are now. Instead we have to imagine a situation in which being is constantly re-created through a strategy of display and the response of that moment. In going to a party, or forming a relationship, the individual usually aims high. They attempt the best style, the wittiest verbal agility and, if possible, the most impressive partner. But one only finds out if this is actually who you are from the response of the day; how people react to you and appraise you. It is each particular and assumed transient activity that tells one who one is. It is the event itself that gives judgement. However, this is only a specific event or relationship, so that the position has to be recovered again on the next occasion.
The advantage of a transient self is that it is less subject to institutional construction and judgement. It is not given by for-mal recognition or occupation. This means that comparatively speaking it is a self that can feel free – which for Trinidadians is tantamount to saying it is more real or truthful. Men and women prefer to judge the state of their relationship by the way they treat each other at that time. They are suspicious of the way an institution, such as marriage, can lead to one side taking the other for granted, and no longer having to make constant the attention that signifies that the relationship remains true. For Trinidadians, marriage as an institution can easily make a relationship false, since one can mistake its formal nature for its reality, which lies in the actual way each treats the other in the present. This is one reason why people prefer to wait for marriage until they are very established in their relationship, often with several children.
There is a problem with the kind of historical determinism which always explains the present by a search for roots, by a narrative of how people got to be as we now find them. Social science tends to be more concerned with how things connect up with each other today. The past has certainly made its contribution. Perhaps the huge emphasis Trinidadians put on freedom, the freedom to construct themselves through style, rather than being defined by occupation, does indeed show an influence from slavery. The past experience of oppression might put a premium on freedom today. But anthropologists prefer to see things in comparative perspective, looking for analogies in other societies. Anthropologists writing about Papua New Guinea, for example, have argued that, there too, people prefer to judge by appearances.7
Members of a community parade and dance for considerable periods in front of others. By doing so, not only can the observers see how cohesive they are currently as a group, but also the individuals doing the parading see, in the eyes of those judging them, who ...