As a species, we humans 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).
While we also adorn ourselves with accessories such as purses and scarves or decorate our bodies with makeup or cosmetics, perfume, jewelry or arrange our hair with a hairstyle or our body with tattoos, scarifications and piercing, all of these decorations just contribute to the overall effect and message of clothing, but do not constitute clothing per se.
People wear clothing for many reasons, from functional to social. Clothing protects the body against strong sunlight, extreme heat or cold, and precipitation; protection against insects, noxious chemicals, weapons, contact with abrasive substances. Humans have shown extreme inventiveness in devising clothing solutions to practical problems.
Clothing also delivers social messages to other humans. These messages can include social status, occupation, ethnic and religious affiliation, marital status and sexual availability. 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.
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
People also dress according to their occupation, ethnic, political or religious associations and even martial status. For instance:
* Occupation: Depending on your occupation, whether you work for the military or as a policeman or firefighter, you will typically wear a uniform. School children can also wear uniforms. Although belonging to a religious order isn’t an occupation, many religions require a particular kind of dress, such as nuns who wear ‘habits.’ 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.
* Marital status: In some cultures, ones clothing indicates their 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 or modesty – 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. Clothing that is tight fitting or body revealing could be meant to show sexuality. Clothing accessories such as extreme stiletto heels, flashy jewelry and perfume also are meant to entice sexual behavior.
Depending on what culture you are from, clothing’s message fro modesty to allurement varies. A person can also choose to ‘wear’ 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.
Western fashion and apparel have a definite international draw. 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.
Will apparel become universal over time, despite culture, religion or occupation? As long as humans enjoy being unique, it is possible people may compromise for likeness but cling to uniqueness. Who knows how fashion will be defined or who will be defining it?