Tag Archives: clothing

Sometimes some interesting stuff escapes your attention. Only recently I read about the work by Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny which won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2012 for “discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually by seeing photographs of their anogenital regions (their behinds)” [1,2]. Chimpanzees “were not only seeing the photographs as representations of chimps they knew, but linked the face and behind by drawing upon a mental representation of the whole body of those chimps” [3,4].

When I pushed a vision of respectable scientists, taking photos of chimps’ behinds in order to share them with other chimps, away from my imagination, I came to understanding that this discovery might hold a key to understanding the purpose of clothing. Among the Hominidae, chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans [5]. Someone even calls humans the “third chimpanzee” [6]. Though, one may ask, “What about humans?”

A psychological study done at the University of Texas in 2013 revealed that “people do better at facial recognition when the whole person, not just the face, is presented”. It appears that “when faces are partially obscured or difficult to differentiate, subtle body cues allow people to identify others with surprising accuracy”. “Our work shows that the body can be surprisingly useful for identification, especially when the face fails to provide the necessary identity information,” project supervisor said [7].

It should be taken into account that in the time-scale of evolution clothing is “a relatively new invention”. “Earliest recorded signs of clothing date to 36,000 BCE”. Considering that the use of clothing has a relatively short history, two scientists have assumed that it is possible “that the responses of the brain networks specialized in body perception could show attenuated responses towards bodies wearing clothing” [8]. It indeed turned out that “the human brain showed enhanced visual processing of nude over clothed bodies”. Human visual system has been found to be particularly sensitive to detecting nude bodies. The experimenters discovered that “brain mechanisms specifically devoted to processing visual information” worked more effectively as the amount of clothing on images shown to healthy male and female volunteers decreased from full clothing via swimsuits to nude bodies. The response traditionally assumed to be most pronounced to human faces proved to be even greater to nude bodies than to faces [8].

With all these in mind, we can now suppose that one of the purposes of clothing is to hide one’s true identity and “fool other’s into believing that he or she has is actually someone else”. In culture, the putting on masks attempting to hide one’s true identity is often considered as suspect or even criminal (see, for instance, [9]).  Of course, under certain circumstances, there might be reasons to disguise one’s identity [10]. But, despite the fact that you may “enjoy being someone different”, it’s nice to know you’re still yourself at the end of the day [11].

Siu Ding nude project #1 by Jesse Clockwork | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

Siu Ding nude project #1 by Jesse Clockwork | Flickr – Photo Sharing! (Creative Commons License)

[1] Frans B. M. de Waal, Jennifer J. Pokorny, Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception, Advanced Science Letters, Volume 1, Number 1, June 2008, pp. 99-103(5)
[2] List of Ig Nobel Prize winners – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[3] Chimps can recognise friends by their behinds – New Scientist
[4] Butts, Faces Help Chimps Identify Friends – National Geographic News
[5] Chimpanzee – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[6] Jared M. Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, Harper Perennial, 2006
[7] Study: People use body cues to help identify faces
[8] J.K. Hietanen, L. Nummenmaa, The naked truth: the face and body sensitive N170 response is enhanced for nude bodies, PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e24408
[9] Christine Matzke, Susanne Muehleisen, Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, Rodopi, 2006
[10] What are some reasons why someone would want to hide their identity?
[11] David Numeroff, Laura Joffe Numeroff, Why a Disguise, Turtleback Books, 1999.

A modified version of the post with some speculations on human evolution can be found on or DeviantArt.

No one knows exactly when people invented clothes. Usually, the origin of clothing is dated back to 100,000 years ago. According to archaeological research, “prehistoric hunters may have worn the skins of bears or reindeer in order to keep warm or a sign of personal skill, bravery, and strength” [1]. The needle was invented by the end of the Old Stone Age – about 25,000 years ago. At about the same time, people started to make yarn from plants or from the fur or hair of animals. They had begun to raise plants and started to herd “wood-producing” animals like sheep.

Of course, clothes have a very important biological function, but it appears that “even in cold climates, some people seem more interested in decorating their bodies than in protecting them. In the 1830s the British biologist Charles Darwin (1809-82) travelled to the island of Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America. There he saw people who wore only a little paint and a small cloak made of animal skin, in spite of the cold rain and the sleet. Darwin gave the people scarlet cloth; they took it and wrapped it around their necks, instead of wearing it around the lower body for warmth. Despite the cold weather, the people wore clothing not for protective reasons, but primarily for decorating their bodies and making them appear attractive” [1].

Humans “have used clothing to define our kind (especially to differentiate ourselves from animals), and to differentiate ourselves from each other” [2]. In all societies and cultures, “dress characterizes group membership and beliefs”. “Shamans … have always worn special clothing to identify themselves. … Motorcycle gang members … wear leather jackets, boots, and various items such as brass knuckles to convey toughness and group identity” [1].

It is not a great discovery that “what makes nudity appealing … is the absence of clothing”. “Nudity is the oppositional counterpart to clothing”. Clothing and nudity “constitute a single system of meaning” [1].

So what does nudity mean? There is a simple answer: “nudity is associated with sex because … one usually becomes nude in order to engage in sex” [3]. Despite the fact that one may find this explanation exhaustive, there’s another point of view on nudity.

It was noticed that “in a clothed society, … nakedness is special, and can be used as a “costume” [4]. In other words, nudity can be “imagined as a form of clothing” [2]. If so, when was it appropriate to wear this “costume”, in historical perspective?

“In anthropology, for example, nudity-as-clothing can appear as the category of “ritual nudity”, in which the theorist analyses the way nudity can function as a kind of costume in ritual or magic” [2]. “In Greece the remarkable innovation of athletic male nudity, which surely originated in a ritual, religious context, developed a special social and civic meaning. It became a costume, a uniform: exercising together in the gymnasia marked men’s status as citizens of the polis and as Greeks”. Men “attended the gymnasium, and proudly wore the “costume” that was appropriate for this place”. “Nudity as a costume was fashionable” [4].

“Throughout the sixth century B.C., black-figure Attic vases regularly show athletes competing in the nude, as well as nude gods, heroes, mortals, revelers, etc.” [4]. “In the convention of heroic nudity, gods and heroes were shown naked, while ordinary mortals were less likely to be so, though athletes and warriors in combat were often depicted nude” [5].

In this context, the “modern” attitude towards nudity seems disappointingly primitive. Nudity, a “costume” related to magic and heroes, has lost most of its meanings. It’s time to find them again.

Isaac Newton by William Blake

Isaac Newton by William Blake – Wikimedia Commons

[1] Marcel Danesi, The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, University of Toronto Press, 2007
[2] Ruth Barcan, Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, Berg, 2004
[3] Yahoo Answers: Why most peoples always associated nudity with sexual?
[4] Larissa Bonfante, Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 4, 1989
[5] Nude (art) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Vintage Portrait of two Babies in an Old Fashioned Antique Baby Carriage Buggy by Beverly & Pack | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Vintage Portrait of two Babies in an Old Fashioned Antique Baby Carriage Buggy by Beverly & Pack | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

“Nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance.” The author of the article on means, of course, that boys wear blue, while girls wear pink. But it wasn’t always that way. Jo. B. Paoletti, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, to be published later this year, says:

“For centuries children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. What was once a matter of practicality … became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted”.

As a matter of fact, “pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I”. The present-day color associations also weren’t accepted immediately. For instance, in 1927 Time magazine informed its readers that leading U.S. stores in Boston, New York City, Cleveland and Chicago “told parents to dress boys in pink”.

“Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.”

Source: When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? By Jeanne Maglaty
In great-grandma’s time, little kids went around un-gendered

Clothing alters the image and likeness of God possessed by people. At least Medieval friars were quite sure about that. Susan Haskins in Mary Magdalen: myth and metaphor (Riverhead Books, New York, 1993) mentions Augustine of Hippo, a Latin church father, who fought with vanity considered as one of the forms of the sin of pride. Women who donned their finery, and wore cosmetics were very unpopular in the Middle Ages, since expensive dresses and makeup were placed on the same footing as “idols and masks”.

It seems that Tertullian, an early Christian author, was the first to touch the subject. He opposed those who presumed to alter the work of the Creator – the body – with paints and the dyeing of hair were in fact criticising their Maker, and subverting Nature, which had been created by God, the “artificer of all things.”

That which He Himself has not produced is not pleasing to God, unless He was unable to order sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces! If He was able, then plainly He was unwilling: what God willed not, of course ought not to be fashioned. Those things, then, are not the best by nature which are not from God, the Author of nature. Thus they are understood to be from the devil, from the corrupter of nature… (On the Apparel of Women. Book I)

Of course, Tertullian didn’t stand for nudity, the state in which, according to the same logic, God ordered people to be born. He recommended the garb of penitence as a style of dress that should remind the Christian woman that the sin was introduced through her ancestress, Eve. Imagine what such a world would look like. Fortunately, we live in more tolerant times, don’t we?

Woman holding sign reading "?"

Woman holding sign reading "?" Washington, D.C., 1922