Clothing Customs

Observations from a different Frame of Reference:
a scientific technique


Some folks believe that the insights of scientists should be restricted to the area of their academic expertise.  If you believe that social observations and speculation by a physical scientist is inappropriate, or if you do not wish to consider untraditional thoughts about our social mores, PLEASE read no further on this page.  The author believes there is nothing inappropriate in the following, either from a scientific view point, or for any human being.  But others may disagree.

Consider what an extra-terrestrial being, just arrived at earth, might observe about human life.  (Sometimes scientists find it valuable to consider such a remote vantage point, a different frame of reference, to avoid common assumptions that normally prejudice our thoughts.  One intended purpose of the following is to illustrate how such an aloof view can lead to insight.)

One of the most obvious observations is body coverings.  (If the extra-terrestrial being did what we call science they would make observations, attempt to find patterns, and formulate explanations.)   Where the author has taught high school, every student seems to cover much of their exterior body surface with fitted organic sheets: two socks, two tennis shoes, jeans, some sort of shirt, and tighter fitting top and bottom underwear.

At first the extra-terrestrial might suspect that humans require some sort of protection from light or the atmosphere.  But extended observations might reveal that in winter additional layers are added and in summer lighter materials are used and less surface area is covered.  This does not correlate well with variations in atmosphere or light intensity.  In fact it seems inversely correlated with light intensity.

Another inverse correlation is with ambient temperature.  Perhaps coverings provide insulation to help maintain body warmth?   This at least partially explains variations in body coverings.

But further observations may reveal additional variations.  When the planet rotates so the human is on the dark, shaded side of the planet often much less covering is worn, but additional large rectangular coverings are used.  This change in covering seems to correlate with a combination of the darkness, a prone position humans take, and the location of the rectangular coverings.  While the rectangular covering are light enough to be transported, generally the humans go to the rectangular covering rather than transport the coverings to themselves.

When humans are alone without others in view, all coverings are periodically removed and the body rinsed with an abundant fluid.  Most humans at this location on the earth are rarely without body coverings while in view of others.

But at other locations on the planet surface (e.g. central Africa), very different combinations of coverings are used.  And at some locations humans wear nearly no coverings at all, even the presence of other humans!  So the pattern for covering, while initially appearing very simple, must be quite complex and therefore difficult to understand.  If the observation were extended over much longer time periods, additional variations would be detected.

Finding all the patterns in human coverings would be challenging. While there seems to be much in common among different individual humans in a particular location and at a particular time (everyone wears the same kind of garments), considerable individual variability (e.g., shirt color varies from day to day) further complicates finding patterns.  Some patterns are clearly related to temperature and light/darkness.  But others seem to be based on habit or tradition and slowly change with time and distance and are not related to any physical need of the human body.  It would be difficult to determine from (scientific) observations something like a local law that bans nudity in public or a formal dress code enforced by regulation.

Even if our extra-terrestrial being were to communicate with humans, the humans themselves may not be able to explain many of the observations!  Most humans would have difficulty explaining why they are most comfortable wearing each item of their clothing and why others elsewhere on earth feel much different clothing is most comfortable. ...and then why they wear something different at night.  (It is not that an aloof vantage point MAKES understanding difficult, but that the aloof vantage point often REVEALS aspects not considered before.)

The above search for patterns and explanations may seem strange because we typically take our most basic clothing habits for granted and restrict our concerns to details such as Is this shirt OK for this occasion?  A study of the history of science shows humans have generally taken all aspects of our world for granted.  But only when basic assumptions are pondered and challenged are discovery and progress made!

a couple related essays:
A few Observations on Modesty
Proposal of Clothing as an indicator of Health

[A PROPOSAL:  It might be interesting, timely and financial rewarding to study clothing function and design to determine if better functioning clothing might be engineered to meet both physical, emotional, and other human needs.  The author can be contacted using the link below if you wish to share ideas.]


(to main menu)

created 30 June 2001
revised 23 January 2005
minor revisions 5 May 2007
by D Trapp
Mac made