Monthly Archives: November 2013

Clothing and Identity, from History to the Charter Debate

While debate rages on the Charte des valeurs québécoises (Quebec Charter of values), which would forbid to wear “religious signs” in the Quebec civil service, it is useful to consider the function of clothing as marker of identity in a historical perspectives. We shall then extend this reflection to the Charte debate.

This essay should be understood with reference to a theoretical schema: the opposition between “holism” and “individualism”. Following this model, we would live in an individualistic society, where the individual is a value, whereas the past was dominated by holistic societies that preferred the community as a whole. Accordingly, in an individualistic context, each person defines their identity themselves, while in a holistic context, the place of everyone is determined by the group. Like many schemata, this dichotomy is owed some critics: the world didn’t become individualistic in 1800 after millennia of strict holism. Pressures towards holism exist today, just as there could be individualistic tendencies in the Middle Ages, and these will have to be identified in each specific instance. Still, we can accept the idea that there is more individualism now than then, since this helps understand some important evolutions behind the history of clothing.

First, wearing similar clothes can mark (or enforce) the inclusion in a group. These “clothes” can take many forms, and this “group” can vary just as much. When the clothes of several people are strictly identical, the assimilation to the group is complete. This is experienced by the friends Amis and Amile in the eponymous medieval romance, who become indistinguishable when they wear the same clothes. Important families did the same when they tried to showcase the common affiliation to the clan (Oschema, 2010). On a darker note, the corporatist ideas of groups inspired by Mussolini in the Interwar period gave rise to activist groups identified solely by their uniforms or their shirts: Black Shirts (Italy), Brown Shirts (Germany), Blue Shirts (Great Britain), Silver Shirts (United States), etc.

In fact, cinema exploits clothes constantly to create such effects. When a large group of characters are clothed identically, the individuality of each is denied, the uniform creating a whole. It is often the case with armies of “baddies” — Stormtroopers (Star Wars), SPECTRE agents (James Bond), etc. —, but occasionally with generic “goodies” — “Red shirts” in Star Trek. Conversely, when one such individual is in evidence, a difference of costume creates their individuality. In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the ambushed Haradrim wear armour and a black turban, while Gondor Rangers have a hooded cape and a mask — except for their captain, Faramir. When a soldier of Harad, dead and fallen from an oliphaunt, loses his turban, this prompts Faramir to say: “You wonder what his name is, where he came from” — by losing the uniform, he gains his individuality. (In the novel, book 4, chapter 4, these are Sam’s thoughts, and the soldier’s face stays against the ground.)

Indeed, variations from similar clothes are even more significant and frequent. In some situations, these differences can reinforce hierarchy (let us call this “holistic differentiation”). For example, medieval livrées, similar clothes given to retainers of a noble house, used differences of quality (tincture, textile) to create an internal hierarchy. In the army, admitted variations (ranks, medals) are officially ordained, other differences from the uniform being subject to punishment. In other situations, variations rather display the individual behind the uniform (“individualistic differentiation”). If, in the Middle Ages, Amis and Amile were indistinguishable when they wore the same clothes, friends today may try to harmonize what they wear: the confusion between them is incomplete because the friends remained independent in friendship. We are also reminded of modern subculture (goths, metalheads, Japenese lolitas, etc.): those who identify with them choose clothes that respect precise codes, but with personal, wilful variations within it.

School uniforms are an interesting case. In theory, only certain items of clothing are authorized in order to favor assimilation to the group, but this desire from above is fought from below by the members of the group themselves. Some students will slightly alter mandatory clothes or wear them their own way (by rolling up the skirt, by unbuttoning their polo or by not tucking in their shirt), or add distinctive items (jewelry, chains) or special grooming (hairstyle, makeup). Although these “infractions” are repressed, this only create an endless dialectic where students seek new ways to distinguish themselves, exploiting what is not (yet) forbidden, the occasional goodwill of the enforcers and moments of relaxed control (before or after class, during lunch break). In effect, holistic clothing, forced authoritatively, is fought by individualistic attempts at differentiation.

Similarly, in the Middle Ages, some groups had to wear specific clothes. Obviously, the stronger grasp of holism signified that almost all groups in society had their own more or less explicit clothing code: since everyone had a specific place in the societal whole and had to interact accordingly with others, it was necessary that nobles, merchants, servants, etc., be recognisable at the first look. This is what allows the endless quid pro quos of Molière’s plays, when masters disguise as servants or the reverse. However, in some instances, the clothing code was set down into law, especially with regards to two marginal groups, Jews and prostitutes, which had to wear a distinctive piece of clothing. Often, Jews had to wear yellow headwear, e.g. a turban; for prostitutes, it was sometimes an aiglet, a red band, a golden belt, etc. (Rossiaud, 1976) It is difficult to know how these measures were perceived by the targets. Of course, the lives of Jews or prostitutes were far from easy. However, did these distinguishing signs facilitate exclusion by the community or protection by the authorities? Indeed, some laws we would understand as “discriminatory” used this argument: for example, by forcing Jews into a ghetto, they faced a smaller risk of attack. Is it even possible that these mandatory clothes be part of their identity? The memory of the Nazi yellow star could make us think that it wouldn’t be the case, but outside the West, the long braid forced on the Chinese by the Manchus was eventually accepted by them and integrated to their culture, at least amongst the lower classes.

Sport skirts the limit between similarity and distinction and between holism and individualism. In a team, the uniform itself is subject to rules and sometimes hierarchy (in hockey, the captain wears a C, in soccer, a coloured band), which is characteristic of holistic differentiation to create esprit de corps. In most sports, the player can distinguish themselves by their number, especially in pro sport (Gretzky’s 99), but not always (in rugby, numbers represent the player’s position). More often, individualistic differentiation is done through other items: a special helmet, coloured shoes or laces. It is not always permitted, as shows a recent NHL controversy over tucking in the shirt. However, players are not alone to don the uniform. Amongst fans, some elements mark affiliation to the group (especially the logo), but all else is left to individuality: one can wear the name and number of a favorite or one’s own, wear an official replica, a t-shirt, a shirt, choose a certain colour them, home or away, present or past, or original colours.

Recently, the increasing popularity of professional sports amongst women incited the production of “feminine” — that is, pink — fan clothes. In effect, colours (“pink for her, blue for him”) are one of the many ways clothes by which clothes express gender identity. For instance, Western men traditionally wear pants and women dresses, a conception reinforced on the doors of many public restrooms. The evolution of this tradition echoes the result of feminist struggles. Just as women seek more to occupy men’s role than the reverse, they can wear pants while men is dresses create a strange impression. Also, feminine (or masculine) clothes tend to accentuate characteristics given to women (or men), often by showcasing biological differences. To give an example, female low-cut necklines accentuate the breast. On men’s clothes, an opening in the same area will be longer and thinner, to better expose muscles and chest hair (or lack thereof). Modern business suits expose both of these aspects. Traditionally masculine, suits for women were created to accommodate societal evolution. However, if men’s suits are straight, women’s have marked shapes, adapting to female physiognomy as much as using and exposing it.

These thoughts on identity and clothing incite us to discuss the recent Charte des valeurs québécoises, about which recent debates essentially discuss a few clothing items.

First, what is a “religious sign”? Let us take the case of the turban: in the West, it is worn today by Sikhs as in the Middle Ages by some Jews. In both cases, it is a marker of identity — individualistic in the former and holistic in the latter, because Sikhs wear the turban by their own choice and Jews by that of their “host society”. Is the turban religious in only one case, or both? In the case of Jews, is their modern kippah more “religious” than their old yellow headwear?

And the veil? It is true that it marks affiliation to Islam for its modern wearers, but this religion is also linked to a cultural heritage and is part of another identity, e.g. from the Maghreb. It is also a gendered object, like the dress. With one item, the veiled woman conveys three identities, “religious”, cultural and gendered. Do we have the right to confine the veil to the sole religious function? In the end, isn’t forbidding it an attempt to force a holistic conception onto clothing against people using it to expose their individuality? In the affirmative, the Charte would not have much better chances of success than high school clothing schemes.

More fundamentally, what is religion? For our contemporary categories, they are a series of beliefs from which derive values and practices. A consequence of the use of metaphysical definition criteria is the conceptual proximity between religion and ontological positions on the existence of a universal creator (deism, atheism, agnosticism, etc.). However, is it the only way to interpret the phenomenon of religion? Populations converted to Christianity, for example, saw their “new” religion as practices juxtaposed or superposed to others, not as new beliefs eliminating old ones (Higham, 1997). In Japan, the Western categories of Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity are not applicable: depending on the situation, a single Japanese might go to a Buddhist or Shinto temple, while Christian wedding is increasingly popular for the very practical reason that the ceremony is more attractive.

In conceiving “religions” as ontological or theological positions rather than as practices or attitudes, they are easily perceived as more or less monolithic blocks, possibly with internal divisions in accordance to dogmatic fault lines: Catholics believe this, Protestants that, Muslims or Hindus this one thing, Buddhist or Jews this other — all of which would explain different attitudes or behaviours. Consequently, real differences in mentalities and practices are glossed over because they derive from similar “religious” postulates: thus, the Afghan burqa is assimilated to the hidjab of the Western Muslim diasporas, even though their meanings and their forms are very dissimilar.

To stay close to our “Christian heritage”, let us consider Catholicism in more detail. If we go back to the 1870s, did the act of defining oneself as Catholic have the same meaning for the French of the early Third Republic and for the people of the Rhineland targeted by the Kulturkampf? Has it the same implication in Quebec today or under Duplessis? at the founding of Montreal or right after the Conquête? Is being “papist” the same thing under Innocent III (1198-1215), Paul III (1534-1549), Pius IX (1846-1878) or Benedict XVI (2005-2013)? Finally, is it relevant to put in a single, uniform category Catholics from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Quebec, who live their Catholic identity in very different ways?

The crucifix of the Assemblée nationale, allowed in the Charte des valeurs, demonstrates the modern conception of “religion” and the ambiguities it creates. For its defenders, notwithstanding its religious origin, the crucifix is today fully laicised — cultural, not religious. Its detractors, conversely, indict the Charte‘s hypocrisy because it allows a Christian religious symbol at the heart of the state while banning all others. Actually, the difference is perhaps more profound and serious. Those who accept the Charte and the crucifix recognize that this symbol may hold many meaning, that the Assemblée nationale’s is only a memorial practice disconnected from “beliefs”, but forbid their polysemy to other “religious” items, confining them to denote only uniform beliefs. Thus, taking out the veil but not the crucifix is not so much a proof of hypocrisy than a refusal to understand the Other — a frequent accusation against the Charte in general.

In any case, why would expressing religious identity through clothes be more dangerous than doing the same gesture with other identities? No law bans the wearing of the logo of the Montreal Canadien (this other “national religion” of Quebecers!) in the civil service, for instance. Like the turban and the kippah, it expresses an identity and a feeling of affiliation to a group, that of fans; like them, it is not totally neutral. Fans develop networks and rituals, such as going to games as much as possible or watching them on television, which increases the proximity between pro sport and the target of the Charte, the “real” religions (an empty concept, as we have seen). More significantly, promotional items have a function of publicity for the team; the CH carries almost automatically a proselyte intention at least for the one who sells it, and has much better chances to influence those who see it than a simple veil or kippah. Moreover, the values transmitted by pro hockey include violence (fights), alcohol consumption (through adverts), at least a hint of misogyny (only male hockey is listened to massively, contrary to, e.g., women’s tennis), etc., in addition to profiting directly to private investors. Obviously, this is a caricature (hardly a worse one than calling all Muslims terrorists, however), but doesn’t it show the incoherence of banning “ostensible signs” of a “religious” nature, and those only?

Why, then, ban them at all?

Works cited

Oschema, Klaus (2010). « Amis, favoris, sosies : Le vêtement comme miroir des relations personnelles au bas Moyen Âge », in Rainer Christoph Schwinges (éd.), Fashion and Clothing in Late Medieval Europe, Riggisberg, Abegg-Stiftung, 2010, p. 181-192.

Higham, N. J. (1997). The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976). « Prostitution, jeunesse et société dans les villes du Sud-Est au XVe siècle », Annales E.S.C., 1976, vol. 31, no 2, p. 289-325.