e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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So, There Was This Shirt: When Clothes Talk

A friend of mine in New York City has talked and written about the semiotics of clothes--and she's my go-to person when I need an outfit to "say" something specific in a specific social context.  She's never led me wrong.  My own interest in clothes is on the other end of things--are they comfortable, and will they stand up to what I'm doing in them?   I loathe "fashion" because it routinely makes clothes that are comfortable and work for me disappear, in favor of clothes that are less comfortable and more fragile.  But that's a side issue here.

On the day of the Rosetta Program's great triumph, the landing of a device on a comet, a prominent scientist and leader in the program wore That Shirt.  No one else on the live stream or news media wore anything like it...there were people in pullovers, people in T's, people in jeans and something, and managerial types in suits and ties.  But this person wore what looked like a Hawaiian beach-type shirt, covered with pictures of Babes.  Voluptuous females in less than complete attire.  Several things resulted from that shirt's prominence on the screens of TVs and monitors.

Women--the kind of women who were watching because they like science, are interested in the space program, are astronomers or astrophysicists or other scientists, who had followed the Rosetta Project before--began commenting negatively about That Shirt.  They said it was typical of the kind of thing that makes women feel uncomfortable in STEM fields, in grad school, in tech employment--that it sent the message that women are viewed even by team leaders as sex objects, not intelligent people, that such images contributed to the difficulty of recruiting women into STEM fields and retaining them there.   In response, a certain type of men started attacking and insulting the women who complained about That Shirt.  Some men began posting negatively about That Shirt and about the men attacking women who complained about the shirt.  The attackers then attacked those men.

Women were told they were stupid, ignorant, fat, ugly, oversensitive, weak, incompetent...and ruining the attackers' pleasure in the successful landing by bringing up something so silly and trivial.   They were told that "normal people" hated them.   Attackers expressed hope that the women would get Ebola or  AIDS or be raped, or be beaten or be killed, and told them to kill themselves, f*ck themselves, and of course shut the f*ck up.  A few threatened that they would kill these women themselves.  Men were told they were stupid, ignorant, and in some cases, were stated to be "not male at all."

The shirt wearer changed, apologized, and as far as I'm concerned, that's fine.  What isn't fine is that days later the attackers are still bombing womens' accounts in both Twitter and email with hundreds of hate messages and threats.    But that's not what most of this post is about.  It's about cultural signals expressed in clothes.

A few illustrations:  First, an African-American lawyer was arrested at Austin's airport some years back on suspicion of being a drug dealer because of  his clothes and jewelry, he was told: "You're dressed like a drug dealer."   He had a white friend go through the same airport at the same time of day wearing his clothes--the "drug dealer outfit" and the police didn't blink.   This is a case of "these clothes + skin color" having two different meanings: black man in Italian-cut suit and  bling = drug dealer; white man Italian-cut suit and bling = wealthy, stylish, professional.    The clothes had a message, but that message was context-sensitive.  Second: As an older woman, I went to an electronics store wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a slightly geeky message on it (local SF convention) and was ignored by staff--couldn't get anyone's attention to answer even one question.   On a later occasion I went in wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a major Japanese-flavored comics convention name on it, and was quickly acknowledged as a likely customer by multiple staff members...great service, made my purchases and got out in record time.  Third:  I have a collection of T-shirts from various places with designs that suggest an interest in multiple locations and activities.  Strangers would look at the one with the horse on it and ask if I owned a horse, or took lessons.   At the one I bought in Australia and ask if I was from Australia.   At the one with the slogan about writing on it and ask if I'd been published.    No one looked at the Australian one and asked if I rode or owned horses.  No one looked at the horse-themed T-shirt and asked if I was writing a novel.   More than that, when I wore western-themed shirts and jeans, people assumed I rode western style, and when I wore riding britches and a non-western shirt, people assumed I rode flat-saddle.  Fourth:  Sports fans know team logos and colors and readily identify fans of the same (or opposing) teams by the colors and sports-related clothing they wear.  Other teams (including the teams associated with the ESA, with the Rosetta Project specificially, with the Philae lander specifically) have team shirts made--that's also true in the tech and in the gaming industry.  At trade shows one company's team will wear matching shirts.   Fifth: There's a style of straw hat common to many women writers in this state when they're going to library and school and book fair functions, that they don't necessarily wear for anything else.  It says "writer" to them and to the public.  I could put in more illustrations but I said "a few" up front.

Clothes talk.  My usual clothes say "I don't really give a flip about clothes and I'm not advertising a point of view, an occupation, where I live, my income level, or anything else."   Jeans, plain T-shirts, shoes.  My clothes for gigs at bookstores, libraries, and schools say "I'm interesting and creative and someone whose books you might want to read" (from lessons learned from my far more fashion-smart friend in NYC) or "I'm a member of this choir" (robes or concert blacks) or "I'm a safe little old lady."   Or, if I'm  going to meet a group interested in a particular topic...I'll pick a shirt that "says" to them "I'm one of you; I belong in this group."

So consider what it means to wear a garment that expresses a view of a particular race or sex or political party in different contexts.  There's the blatant and aggressive slogan that tells the designated group they're not wanted, that you hate them, that they're worthless: you can find such shirts online (and I've seen some on the street.)  Shirts for white supremacists, shirts for homophobes, shirts for and against just about anything.  Those shirts say "I am a bigot and I hate this group and that's all you need to know about me."  And these shirts are always rude to at least some of the other people on the street who disagree, because they completely disrespect anyone different.  It's all "I'm right, you're wrong, and I'll attack you for being different."

Then there's the blatant proclamation of identity, what you are (my Texas Democrat shirt for instance) without directly attacking what someone else different is  (does not state an oppositional stance, though it's implied in the political process)  These shirts say "I'm a Cowboys fan, like it or lump it" or "I'm a Catholic, like it or lump it,"  "I'm a Marine veteran," etc.   In some contexts (wearing your Cowboys shirt  to go for a bike ride)  these shirts may not be confrontational--but in another context, they can be.   (A Cowboys' shirt in a Steelers bar on game day?  Yeah.)  Where you wear the shirt talks--it says what you think about those who are where you wear it--your understanding of your audience and their likely reaction to it, and your attitude towards that likely reaction.

So what does a loose, gaudy sports shirt say (leaving aside for the moment the nekkid blondes?)  On vacation on the beach, it says "I'm a tourist on vacation on the beach."   On "casual Friday" in a relaxed company, it says "It's casual Friday and I'm being casual."  On the podium at a major scientific announcement it says "I'm a rebel; I don't have to dress like anyone else--I'm casual and breezy and entitled to dress as I please."   It expresses by its casualness that this event isn't really that important--nothing to dress up for, not even to the extent of putting on a less gaudy shirt.   Not even if the person in the shirt knows he's going to be interviewed and visible to people around the world, his words translated into many languages...it's not worth considering how that shirt will be seen.   Had it been a shirt with fern fronds printed all over it, it would still have been...not the ideal shirt for the project leader to wear on a very special day.   But no one would have cared what he thought of ferns: ferns aren't people.  Same for palm trees, hibiscus flowers, a beach, sailboats: those are all objects, not people, and if he likes shirts covered with images of ferns, palm trees, flowers, beaches, or sailboats, it can have no effect on those objects--they don't see the shirt.

What, then, is different about a shirt covered with images of people?    Simply, people are not objects--they are people, and can be affected by how they are depicted in any form.   They see the images; they see meaning in the images; they see those images in relation to their own lives, as an expression of the wearer's attitude towards them.   And the non-sociopaths among us care what other people think of them, in some degree.  A montage of African American faces done as mug shots says "The wearer of this shirt thinks all African-Americans are criminals."  Such a shirt would be obviously offensive and racist.  A montage of white men in professional attire--doctors, judges, lawyers, scientists--says, "The wearer of this shirt thinks white males are the most important, most valuable citizens."   Also offensive to anyone not a white male.  And so That Shirt, a  shirt covered in images of scantily clad female bodies, talks directly to female people: girls and women.  It does not say: "The wearer of this shirt likes, admires, and respects women."  It says "This wearer thinks of women as sexualized objects, objects for him to stare at, show off to others, touch, own, and use, just as he looks at, shows off to others, touches, owns, and uses this shirt."    It says "When this wearer looks at women in his office, in the lab, in the factory that makes the parts for the project...he assesses them in relation to the images on this shirt--as sexual objects that either meet or do not meet this shirt's standard of sexual desirability."

Leaving aside the reactions of women with access to a Twitter account or commenting on the livestream comments section, think what That Shirt has said to those religions and cultures that distrust and dislike science, who disapprove of the space program, who are gutting science textbooks to make them conform to religious ideas.  Think what it says to those who oppose secular (including scientific) education even for boys and men, and all those who  put more strenuous limitations on the education of girls and women:  it says they were right. It says that their fears of the sexual freedom of the intellectual, scientific, "free" societies is justified--that in fact women would not be safe in an environment where a leader, an important man, wears such a shirt.  Secular western society is as bad as they claimed.  It's ammunition for the willfully ignorant, the willfully anti-science.  It gives legitimacy to the "protection" of women by denying their freedom.

The wearer of the shirt (or any other piece of clothing) may not, of course, know what a shirt is saying...although, given the amount of discussion about the difficulties women have had of being perceived as fully human, intelligent, capable of and deserving of respect, it is difficult to understand how some men still do not grasp that a shirt covered with lascivious images of women isn't showing respect for women when worn as a senior representative of an international scientific project.  But accidents can happen; innocent mistakes can be made--your cat or dog can throw up on or poop on what you planned to wear, and you can grab the only clean shirt you have left, hoping someone will bring you something else when you get to the office.  Given the sincerity of the apology, which I accept, maybe that was what happened.  But that doesn't change what the shirt said.   The shirt spoke loudly.  Some people objected loudly.  The wearer changed shirts and apologized.

And there it might have ended if not for some men and some women whose attacks prove just how far we still have to go to achieve anything like parity among the sexes or rational discussion of issues.  They do not merely disagree: they want to destroy opposition.

But they won't.

Tags: semiotics of clothes

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