what is fashion continues ...
Do we wear dress to protect our modesty? In the following quote, dress historian James Laver rather clumsily draws attention to the cultural relativity of modesty: ‘an Arab peasant woman caught in the fields without her veil will throw her skirt over her head, thereby exposing what, to the Western mind, is a much more embarrassing part of her anatomy’ (Laver, 1967, Modesty in Dress).

Meanwhile Rudofsky mocks the practicality of the modern bathing suit. Like modesty, fashions for bathing etiquette change over time and place. Indeed, even the most prudish swimwear could cause embarrassment when taken out of the beach context and shifted to (say) the restaurant. ‘The custom of wearing a bathing suit, a desperate attempt to recapture some of our lost innocence .. the bathing suit is irrelevant to any activity in and under water. It neither keeps us dry or warm, nor is it an aid to swimming’
Perhaps clothing signals sexual availability rather than inhibition? This is the view of Rudofsky who compares clothes to the sexual display of animals. Laver agrees stating that men choose their partners on the basis of their display. Laver was a great dress historian but he is clearly no naturalist if he fails to recognise that the male is frequently called upon to exhibit colourful and exotic signals to arouse the female suitor. Another criticism of Laver's idea is that it fails to admit to the cultural power invested in the idea of looking at the looked-upon.
In this 1939 Ivo Saliger painting, The Judgement of Paris, to display is to submit to Aryan and male domination in the critical gaze.

The gentleman in the satirical cartoon, An Evenings Invitation (with a Wink from the Bagnio, circa 1773) is on the receiving end of a dubious dress signal. The atire of the women confirm that they are the class equals of the gentleman. Although they are ladies, they are, according to the vernacular, only ladies of the night who plan, first and foremost, to strip the gentleman of his purse. If clothes are signals, should we always trust them?

Recall the image of Robinson Crusoe entertaining Friday? This Holbein painting (Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533) is similar in that in confers on the sitters attributes and qualities via the imagery that surrounds them. Portrait paintings were infrequent opportunities to demonstrate wealth, culture, taste, education and rank so the gentleman posed here have gathered their finest clothes and belongings to do just that.
Holbein has added a memento-mori (reminder that death will undo their privilege) in the elongated skull at the lower edge.
For Robinson Crusoe, this death is a cultural rather than physical one, so the belongings and dinner etiquette are a reminder of his identity, which he desperately clings to.
It is frequently argued that the stripping of clothes is an act of social equalising. Yet the absence of dress does not necessarily mean the absence of status that was attached to them. Anne Hollander writes about dress in the context of art and argues ‘[t]he more significant clothing is, the more meaning attaches to its absence and the more awareness is generated about any relation between the two states’   
Hollander adds ‘all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes –  sometimes highly visible ghosts’.

Up until the early twentieth-century, dress was a clear indicator of wealth and class. Historical changes have brought about the opportunity to associate one's taste with those one looks up to. The growing relative affluence of what used to be working classes has meant that people increasingly have a disposable income. The shift from work ethic to leisure time, which was highlighted by the generation gap (birth of the teenager) in the mid century, embourgeoisement (social migration of individuals to the bourgeoisie) and mass produced fashions have all contributed to a shifting of the signifiers in the business of advertising oneself through dress.
It could be said that the very idea of status has reached a critical point; a crisis both of culture and the individual. The luxury label Burberry has been the subject of several media-amplified panics about just who a Burberry customer is and should be. An argument about the word CHAV emerged out of such a concern that the label had become the uniform of the housing estate.
The popular psychologist, Alain de Botton, has written a book Status Anxiety which looks at our fears about how we are judged.

Although we don't care to admit it, class and status are still important to us, and this ambiguity makes advertising class membership difficult to get right, as Paul Fussell's witty essay on the wrist-watch demonstrates.
He writes: ‘The general class rule about wrist­watches is, the more "scientific," technological, and space-age, the lower. Likewise with the more "information" the watch is supposed to convey, like the time of day in Kuala Lumpur, the number of days elapsed in the year so far, or the current sign of the zodiac. Some upper-class devotees of the Cartier tank watch with the black lizard strap will argue that even a second hand compromises a watch's class, implying as it may the wearer's need for great accuracy, as if he were something like a professional timer of bus arrivals and departures. The other upper-class watch is the cheapest and simplest Timex, worn with a crossgrain­ribbon strap, changed often: black ones for formal wear are amusing’.

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IMAGE The Impudent Wave. Lithograph after Alfred Crowquill, 1848

Rudofsky 1947, Are Clothes Modern?: An Essay on Contemporary Apparel

The first British woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wore business suits with broad shoulders to make visible her power 


Ernest Gisset woodcut from the 1719 edition of Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Anne Hollander: Seeing through Clothes (1978)

Article From Metro. Wednesday, October 12, 2005 Picture: Newstream
Alain de Botton discusses his book Status Anxiety [FILM]

Paul Fussell 1984. Class: Style and Status in the USA. Heinemann
Class Dismissed: A new status anxiety is infecting affluent hipdom[ESSAY] READ ON