The outfit is the message

At “Style and the Fashioning of the Body,” a forum sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum late last month, three Penn professors — Diana Crane, Peter Stallybrass, and Caroline Weber — discussed fashion and its social and political agendas. Here are excerpts from each of their talks.


Until the 1960s, the article of clothing that performed the most important role in indicating social distinctions among men was the hat. … How changes in social structures have affected the presentation of social identity is seen in the shift from the hat as an obligatory item of male attire to the widespread use of the T-shirt. ... In the late 20th century, men’s hats have become a relic of a class society based on face-to-face relationships in public spaces.

The T-shirt has been used to convey both rebellion and conformity, depending upon the context and the types of messages that may be inscribed on the front or back. ...Unlike the hat in the 19th century, which signaled (or concealed) social class status, the T-shirt speaks to issues related to ideology, difference and myth: politics, race, gender and leisure. The variety of slogans and logos that appear on T-shirts is enormous.

Crane is a professor of sociology, and the passage from her talk was excerpted from her new book, “Fashion and Its Social Agendas Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing” (University of Chicago Press).

Just weeks before the Bastille fell in July 1789, [Marie-Antoinette] showed up at a ball in Paris with an extraordinarily intricate … pouf for her hairdo! Since, by 1789, the economic situation in France was worse than ever, this wig offended sensibilities … for the hairstyle had required a prodigious use of powder, itself made from flour, for want of which thousands of Frenchmen were rioting, and even dying, on a daily basis.

Small wonder that these huge powdered wigs remain to this day — as they were then — a central component of the myth of Marie-Antoinette’s life, along, inevitably, with her alleged motto, “Let them eat cake.” Small wonder also that in October 1789, when a mob of starving Parisians marched on Versailles and beheaded several palace guards in the process, some morbid jokesters in the crowd reportedly found a local wigmaker and forced him to powder and dress the heads that they placed on pikes for the king and queen to see.

Weber is an assistant professor of romance languages who specializes in late 18th century French literature and culture. Her talk was from her paper “Queen of the Fashion Statement: Marie-Antoinette’s Palace Revolutions.”

The battle is between clothing oneself and being clothed, the battle still engaged between children and their parents: to clothe oneself is to claim the right to be possessor of one’s own person.

… In “If This is a Man,” Primo Levi captures the power of clothes to make and unmake a person. ... Stripped naked and reclothed in the clothes of another, Levi learns “for the first time” how a person is demolished:

In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair.

Levi realizes [that clothes] ... become “almost like limbs of our body,” a “personification and evocation of our memories.”

Stallybrass is a professor of English well known for his work on clothing and identity. His talk was from his paper, “Fashioning the Body: The Genesis of Clothing.”

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Originally published on October 12, 2000