Friday, 28 August 2015

The Clues in Our Clothes

As a child I was rapt by the stories of Sherlock Holmes and particularly how his scalpel-sharp intellect collected the subtle clues around him to unravel personal stories.  He could spot an old soldier recently returned from India by his tanned appearance and aged army-issue boots on his feet, or a lady's maid down on her luck from worn clothing carefully mended.  As I grew I wondered how he would get on in the present.

Today army boots might be store-bought and tanned skin could be from a recent holiday in the Sun topped up at a salon.  Damaged or rather 'distressed' clothes may be new that day.  I am always amazed at that, especially when I saw some one sail for £300.

Clothes are cheaper now and our roles are no longer defined as they once were by the costumes we wear.  For work I wear a boring shirt and tie while some of my colleagues look like surfer dudes and I used to work with a woman who tended to dress like a pantomime Peter Pan.  After work, I keep the shirt and ditch the tie.  I'm still boring though.  Would that have foxed the Great Detective, probably not.

Past Clothing Clues

When I started researching different historical periods I learnt a little about the clothing clues of old, then realised there were modern ones too. Modern Mr Holmes would have to be even sharper, but then again he was always sharp.

Here's some historical ones, a few of which have stayed with us.

Wedding Rings were used thousands of years ago and are still a potent symbol.

Hair Up or Hair Down In Victorian and Edwardian England there was a define style to married and unmarried women, including whether the hair was worn up or down. Up for married, down for unmarried.  For Christian Saxon women it was covered or uncovered to equal 'available' or 'unavailable'.

The Scallop Shell  In the Middle Ages, if you were on a pilgrimage, you would wear a seashell. Particularly a Scallop shell.

Duty Arm Band  When policemen first started in the UK, because they were instructed to wear their uniforms when off-duty, donned an armband signifying when they were on-duty.  This lasted long after the rule change and may have had to do with the cost of clothing too.  Maybe the policemen didn't have a second change of clothes to look smart in.

Tattoos  Popular now as personal decoration for many years there were more significant reasons for permanently marking ones flesh.  Tribal markings for one, not forgetting sailors, who were often tattooed in the belief it would help identify their bodies if lost overboard or horribly disfigured.

Then there were all those past rules over which social class could or could not wear particular materials or colours.  Known in Elizabethan England as the Sumptuary Laws similar ones were common all over the world and throughout history, basically it was to stop the poor looking like the rich.  Funny enough through most of history people have copied the rich, though today the rich often try to dress like they're poor - those ripped clothes again - which is a twist.  My favourite was the rules on hats, because I like a good hat - I have weakness for bad ones too.  There was the 'statute cap' where it was the law to wear a woollen hat on Sundays and holidays.  I'm doubtful beanies would have been acceptable.

Livery Uniforms and clothing with insignia of your employer.  A sign of your loyalties and protection.  Almost like, well actually just like, gang styles today.  In the past, where most parts of the world had little official law enforcement, wearing a costume that said:  'I have a Boss and he has money and power.' could be the only thing keeping you safe.

So what are the modern clues?

Modern Clothing Clues

Here are some clues in our modern clothing.  I'm not talking fashion labels, it's the more subtle stuff, though I'll start with the obvious.  Mainly I'll talk about Western Europe because that's where I am, but other things will slip in.

Livery  Shop workers, hotel staff, repair men of big companies still wear liveries.  Even I do, when supporting an event.  I will wear a T-shirt with my company logo on it.  I actually get free T-shirts for some of the projects I've worked on.  I'm saying: 'I worked on this and I'm proud of my work.'  I doubt its giving any protection, though I am heavily insured when working for my employer.  I am the member of an Institution a guild equivalent, I suppose, but don't wear a guild badge, though I know some modern professionals who still do, even if it's a sticker on their van.

Wedding Rings  They are still present, but now both genders wear them.  A man who chooses not to is saying something too.

Writing on Clothes  Whether it's a jokey T-shirt saying 'I'm with stupid' or a company uniform, our clothing often has words on it.  What it is actually saying is: most of our society can read.  Literacy is high here.  In the past clothing didn't have words on it because people couldn't read.

Jokes on Clothes  That's saying: this is a relaxed society, we can have fun.  In many past cultures frivolity was seen as unbecoming except at special times.

Variety of Clothing Everyday I see long skirts, short ones, trousers of every length on every type of person.  T-shirts, dress shirts and suits ranging from casual to super formal. Find some Victorian photos or look at paintings of times gone by.  The variety in colours, fabrics and styles is not there.  It's the most wonderful clue that we are free.  We can show as much or as little flesh as we want, have green hair, dress like a 'Goth' or a tennis player - I go for Arctic explorer - we are free to do so.  Judgement of others may be personal, but we're free to be ridiculed for looking like we've been inflated (that's me), but there's no law against it.  Find modern pictures of where you think there is less freedom, I bet you'll see more uniform dress codes.

Technology  A belt, maybe some keys and a good knife was common tech for most of human history.  Then watches and glasses - don't forget unnatural vision improving kit is technology - were added now it can be ear-buds, headphones, cameras, phones, minicomputers.  We are connected in a high-technology age.

When you walking about look at what your fellow travellers are wearing, see what the clues are about the society you're in even if it is as simple as being in the heartland of a local sporting team.

Modern False Clothes

And now for things that can be taken the wrong way...

Sports Clothes In my town and many others I have visited you'd be mistaken for thinking society is the fittest, most exercise obsessed there has every been and baseball is the most popular sport in the world.  I see more baseball caps than any other hat.  Most of them probably don't know the New York Mets from the Jets (for non-sports fans, the Mets are the baseball team).  Trainers seem to be the most popular shoe and track suits, sweat pants and all the other sporting paraphernalia is on show.

Camouflage This one might be me, but I see a lot of camo clothing in my town.  Most of it worn by civilians in a town of steel and concrete.  A brick pattern or slate grey would be better.  It might say: 'I'm just visiting town, mostly I'm out in wilds.'  When of course they're not.

Go looking for clues, even the false ones, but don't judge your fellow humans, there are many reasons for what we wear and we're all trying to look good.  It's the definition of good that is very personal.

Useful Links

Guinness World Records News on Mr Homes. He is the most represented character in TV and Film.
History of the Wedding Band The Symbol has been with us for so long.
Learn about Maori Tattoos here. Tribal tattoos are popular, do you know what they mean?