Clothing - Definition of Clothing

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Introduction - time to learn about clothes.

Humans often wear articles of clothing (also known as Apparel, dress, garments or attire) on the body . In its broadest sense, clothing includes coverings for the trunk and limbs as well as coverings for hands (gloves), feet (shoes, sandals, boots), and head (hats, caps).

Articles carried rather than worn (like purses and umbrellas) normally count as accessories rather than as clothing.

Humans also decorate their bodies with makeup or cosmetics, perfume, jewelry and other ornament; cut, dye, and arrange their head and body hair (hairstyle), and sometimes their skin (tattoo, scarifications, piercing). All these decorations contribute to the overall effect and message of clothing, but do not constitute clothing per se.

People wear clothing for functional and/or social reasons. Clothing protects the body; it also delivers social messages to other humans.

Function includes protection of the body against strong sunlight, extreme heat or cold, and precipitation; protection against insects, noxious chemicals, weapons, contact with abrasive substances -- in sum, against anything that might injure an unprotected human body. Humans have shown extreme inventiveness in devising clothing solutions to practical problems.

See: armor, diving suit, bee-keeper's costume, motorcycle leathers, high-visibility clothing.

Social messages sent by clothing, accessories, and decorations can involve social status, occupation, ethnic and religious affiliation, marital status and sexual availability, etc. Humans must know the code in order to recognize the message transmitted. If different groups read the same item of clothing or decoration with different meanings, the wearer may provoke unanticipated responses.

  • Social status: in many societies, people of high rank reserve special items of clothing or decoration for themselves. Only Roman emperors could wear garments dyed with Tyrian purple; only high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs could wear feather cloaks and palaoa or carved whale teeth. In other societies, no laws prohibit lower-status people wearing high status garments, but the high cost of status garments effectively limits purchase and display. In current Western society, only the rich can afford haute couture. The threat of social ostracism may also limit garment choice.
  • Occupation: military, police, firefighters usually wear uniforms, as do workers in many industries. School-children often wear school uniforms, college and university students wear academic dress. Members of religious orders may wear uniforms known as "habits". Sometimes a single item of clothing or a single accessory can declare one's occupation and/or status -- for example, the high toque or chef's hat worn by a chief cook.
  • Ethnic, political, and religious affiliation: In many regions of the world, styles in clothing and ornament declare membership in a certain village, caste, religion, etc. A Scotsman declares his clan with his tartan; an Orthodox Jew his religion with his (non-clothing) sidelocks; a French peasant woman her village with her cap or coif.
  • Clothes can also proclaim dissent from cultural norms and mainstream beliefs, as well as personal independence. In 19th century Europe, artists and writers lived la vie de Boh
    and dressed to shock: George Sand in men's clothing, female emancipationists in bloomers, male artists in velvet waistcoats and gaudy neckcloths. Bohemians, beatniks, hippies, Goths, and punks continued the ( counter-cultural) tradition in the 20th century West. Now that haute couture plagiarises street fashion within a year or so, street fashion may have lost some of its power to shock, but it still motivates millions trying to look hip and cool. People such as inventor Dean Kamen or film director Peter Jackson wear simple functional clothing to distance themselves from the establishment (and possibly to attract additional attention).
  • Marital status: Hindu women, once married, "wear" sindoor, a red powder, in the parting of their hair; if widowed, they abandon sindoor and jewelry and wear simple white clothing. Men and women of the Western world may wear wedding rings to indicate their marital status.
  • Sexual availability: Some clothing indicates the modesty of the wearer. For example, many Muslim women wear a head or body covering (hijab, bourqa or burka, chador, abaya) that proclaims their status as respectable women. Other clothing may indicate flirtatious intent. For example, a Western woman might wear extreme stiletto heels, close-fitting and body-revealing black or red clothing, exaggerated make-up, flashy jewelry and perfume to show sexual availability. What constitutes modesty and allurement varies radically from culture to culture, within different contexts in the same culture, and over time as different fashions rise and fall. Moreover, a person may choose to display a mixed message. For example, a Saudi Arabian woman may wear an abaya to proclaim her respectability, but choose an abaya of luxurious material cut close to the body and then accessorize with high heels and a fashionable purse. All the details proclaim sexual desirability, despite the ostensible message of respectability. Similarly, a Japanese schoolgirl may wear the required school uniform in a way (skirt's waistband rolled to shorten the skirt, long sleeves rolled up) that says "sexy schoolgirl" rather than "good girl".

Because clothing and adornment have such frequent links with sexual display, humans often develop fetishes. They may strongly prefer to have sexual relations with other humans wearing clothing and accessories they consider arousing or sexy. In Western culture, such fetishes may include extremely high heels, lace, leather, or military clothing. Other cultures have different fetishes. For many centuries, Chinese men desired women with bound feet. The men of Heian Japan lusted after women with floor-sweeping hair and layers of silk robes. Fetishes vary as much as fashion. Sometimes the clothing itself becomes the object of fetish, such as in case with used girl panties in Japan.

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Clothing materials

Common clothing materials include:


Down for down-filled parkas



Less common clothing materials include:






Reinforcing materials such as wood, bone, plastic and metal may be used to stiffen garments such as corsets, bodices, or swimsuits

Clothing maintenance

Clothing, once manufactured, suffers assault both from within and from without. The human body inside sheds skin cells and body oils, and exudes sweat, urine, and feces. From the outside, sun damage, damp, abrasion, dirt, and other indignities afflict the garment. Fleas and lice take up residence in clothing seams. Well-worn clothing, if not cleaned and re-furbished, will smell, itch, look scruffy, and lose functionality (as when buttons fall off and zippers fail).

In some cases, people simply wear a item of clothing until it falls apart. Cleaning leather presents difficulties; one cannot wash barkcloth (tapa) without dissolving it. Owners may patch tears and rips, and brush off surface dirt, but old leather and bark clothing will always look old.

But most clothing consists of cloth, and most cloth can be (laundered) and mended (patching, darning) (but compare felt).

Humans have developed many specialized methods for laundering, ranging from the earliest "pound clothes against rocks in running stream" to the latest in electronic washing machines and dry cleaning (dissolving dirt in solvents other than water).

Mending has become less common in these days of cheap mass-manufactured clothing -- when labor costs more than materials, a woman may find it cheaper to buy a new dress than to mend the old one. But the thrifty still replace zippers and buttons and sew up ripped hems.

Early 21st-century clothing styles

Western fashion has to a certain extent become international fashion, as Western media and styles penetrate to all parts of the world. Very few parts of the world remain where people do not wear items of cheap mass-produced Western clothing. Even people in poor countries can afford used clothing from richer Western countries.

However, people may wear ethnic or national dress on special occasions; or if carrying out certain roles or occupations. For example, most Japanese women have adopted Western-style dress for daily wear, but will still wear expensive silk kimonos on special occasions. Items of Western dress may also appear worn or accessorized in distinctive, non-Western ways. A Tongan man may combine a used T-shirt with a Tongan wrapped skirt, or tupenu.

Western fashion too does not function monolithically. It comes in many varieties, from expensive haute couture to thrift-store grunge

Mainstream Western or international styles

International standard business attire -- global in influence, just as business functions globally. 

Clothes for ceremonial occasions

Haute couture

Regional styles

  • Clothing of Europe and Russia
  • Clothing in the Americas
    • United States mainstream fashion
For example: bland Sears catalogue fashion, regional styles such as preppy or Western wear.
    • United States alternative fashion
These fashions are often associated with fans of various musical styles.
See also Goth, Hippie, Punk, Grunge, Hip-hop, and Fetish-wear

History of clothing

Prior to the invention of clothing, mankind existed in a state of nudity.

The earliest clothing probably consisted of fur, leather, leaves or grass, draped, wrapped or tied about the body for protection from the elements. Knowledge of such clothing remains inferential, since clothing materials deteriorate quickly compared to stone, bone, shell and metal artifacts. Archeologists have identified very early sewing needles of bone and ivory, from about 30,000 B.C., found near Kostenki, Russia in 1988.

Mark Stone, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has conducted a genetic analysis of human body lice that shows they first evolved only 72,000
42,000 years ago. Since most humans have very sparse body hair, body lice require clothing to survive, so this suggests a surprisingly recent date for the invention of clothing. Its invention may have coincided with the spread of modern Homo sapiens from the warm climate of Africa, thought to have begun between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

Some human cultures, like the various peoples of the Arctic Circle, until recently made their clothing entirely of furs and skins, cutting clothing to fit and decorating lavishly.

Other cultures have supplemented or replaced leather and skins with cloth: woven, knitted, or twined from various animal and vegetable fibers. See weaving, knitting, and twining.

Before the invention of the powered loom, weaving remained a labor-intensive process. Weavers had to harvest fibers, clean, spin, and weave them. When using cloth for clothing, people used every scrap of it.

One approach simply involves draping the cloth. Many peoples wore, and still wear, garments consisting of rectangles of cloth wrapped to fit -- for example the Scottish kilt or the Javaese sarong. Pins or belts hold the garments in place. The precious cloth remains uncut, and people of various sizes can wear the garment.

Another approach involves cutting and sewing the cloth, but using every bit of the cloth rectangle in constructing the clothing. The tailor may cut triangular pieces from one corner of the cloth, and then add them elsewhere as gussets. Traditional European patterns for men's shirts and women's chemises take this approach.

Modern European fashion treats cloth much more prodigally, typically cutting in such a way as to leave various odd-shaped cloth remnants. Industrial sewing operations sell these as waste; home sewers may turn them into quilts.

In the thousands of years that humans have spent constructing clothing, they have created an astonishing array of styles, many of which we can reconstruct from surviving garments, photos, paintings, mosaics, etc., as well as from written descriptions. Costume history serves as a source of inspiration to current fashion designers, as well as a topic of professional interest to costumers constructing for plays, films, television, and historical reenactment.

Future trends

As technologies change, so will clothing.

  • Man-made fibers such as nylon, polyester, lycra, and Goretex already account for much of the clothing market. Many more types of fibers will certainly be developed, possibly using nanotechnology. For example, military uniforms may stiffen when hit by bullets, filter out poisonous chemicals, and treat wounds.
  • "Smart" clothing will incorporate electronics. We will have wearable computers, flexible wearable displays (leading to fully animated clothing and some forms of invisibility cloaks), medical sensors, etc.
  • Present-day ready-to-wear technologies will presumably give way to computer-aided custom manufacturing. Harmless laser beams will measure the customer; computers will draw up a custom pattern and execute it in the customer's choice of cloth.

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