How much does culture/ethnicity affect the clothes you wear?

Discussion in 'Classic Menswear' started by Holdfast, Sep 28, 2011.

  1. Holdfast

    Holdfast Senior member

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    This is an elephant in the room in many of the discussions about style, clothes or the appropriate attire for any given role/occasion.

    I suggest we at least try to look the elephant in the face and talk about the effect of culture on the clothes we wear. How does your culture/ethnicity/background and your life objectives affect your clothing choices?

    I'm going to spoiler-code my thoughts, because nothing puts people off replying to a thread than lots of words! Besides, I'm interested in what you think.


    Let's start from a certainty and extrapolate from there. Different cultures have different value systems. Different value systems are reflected in different social roles, and different markers of those roles. Different markers may express themselves through different clothes, styles, colours and combinations. When different cultures meet each other, they either polarise further, or hybridise. Usually both, depending on the precise individuals involved and their social circumstances and objectives.

    How does this impact StyleForum, and its discussions about clothes?

    The Men's Clothing forum is largely devoted to tailored men's clothing, primarily within a Western European tradition originating around the early 19th century, the exact time period depending on how one defines these things. Certainly, the core idea of being well-dressed by wearing a dark, well-cut, tailored suit originates around that time period. The essence of this concept is that elegance is the primary aim of clothing; to be well-dressed is to impress through subtle mastery of detail and cut. This of course then leads to the inevitable conclusion that those with good taste will express these concepts best, and those with poor taste will adopt a more vulgar approach. As societies generally work to reinforce the standards of their elites, good taste as expressed by the elite becomes that society's cultural expression of good taste, and as the elite tend to be wealthier than the rest, objects displaying the markers of good taste tend to be expensive to acquire (e.g. bespoke suits).

    However, elegance is not a universal aim of dress, and so other cultures will not view the elegantly-dressed man as being the ultimate expression of being well-dressed. Some cultures value what is sometimes called "peacocking", where flamboyance is a priority; some value a homogeneity of inferior dress in order to express a collectivist attitude to society. Some hardly wear clothes at all.

    StyleForum has never-ending circular discussions about whether someone is well-dressed or not. It is rarer that we acknowledge that being well-dressed is a function of culture as much as it an interaction between an item of clothing and a person's physique.

    Given that a majority of readers here live in largely capitalist and vaguely democratic countries, the traditional archetype of being well-dressed is the the cultural legacy of Western European 19th century elegance of cut, where if colour is to be used, it should be subtly and harmoniously deployed. To use a cliche, the stealth wealth approach to dress. This demarcation reinforces traditional social structures and segregations, and if one dresses to conform to this pattern and is willing to invest the necessary time and money, it is usually thought (irrespective of the odds in reality, sometimes) that one's chances of joining that traditional elite will improve. This mindset underpins several SF recurring discussions, from the "what should I wear for my job interview/wedding" to "SF should focus on traditional menswear/style and not fashion".

    But SF contains more readers than those wishing to join that traditional elite (or those trying to figure out how best to act that role at least within their working lives). We have people from other subcultures, and with other life objectives. The feature common to SF readers is not an interest in Western European tailored clothing, but an interest in clothes generally. It is therefore not surprising that there is an undercurrent of tension between posters with different objectives from their interest in clothes. We see this manifested most commonly in the regular cyclical complaints about slipping dress standards in WAYWRN (or slipping standards of SF discussion in general).

    Discussion on an internet board doesn't follow the same patterns as discussion in real life. In real life we tend to be more socio-culturally segregated. We tend to meet and interact with those who at least partly share our value system. Traditional elites generally retain their positions within their spheres of influence; habitual outsiders tend to retain their (sometimes highly-prized, even by the traditional elite) maverick status. On an internet board, it is merely frequency and volume of posts that determines the prevailing board culture at any given time.

    A big part of the tension and argument on SF is therefore driven by differing cultural archetypes in my opinion. But what is important to me is not whether someone is well-dressed by an objective checklist, but whether they are well-dressed for their purpose. As we lack a lot of data about this (because we present only a slice of ourselves on SF and miss the most important part, which is how a person talks and behaves), it's extremely difficult to make such judgements so we fall back on superficial criteria: "great/flattering cut", "harmonious colours", "perfect fit around the shoulders".

    It's a bit of joke, really, when you think about it. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun.

    So I guess what I'm saying for the TL;DR crowd: enjoy SF for what it is, not what you'd like it to be, because surely otherwise coming here must be more like hard work or a chore than amusing relaxation.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  2. FlyingMonkey

    FlyingMonkey Senior member

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    Thank-you for this post. It's one of the most well thought-out and intelligent things I have read here. So much so, that I am actually going to have to read it carefully and think about it (and BTW, I am an academic who specializes in cross-cultural research in my field).
     


  3. swiego

    swiego Senior member

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    Thank you as well for your post. As someone with an Indian background, engaged to a girl with Philippine, Japanese and Spanish ancestry, and brother to a sister who is married to an authentic all-American White Guy (tm) and grew up in very multicultural surroundings, there are times the advice given here has me dazed and confused. I've been giving it thought the past month, and have come to realize that perhaps the advice isn't wrong but rather based on a set of assumptions (e.g. Caucasian, largely Western upbringing and Western-centric stylistic leanings) given which it is quite appropriate.

    I've had to adjust my own decisions as well, based upon certain realities (clothing should coordinate with skin tone to some degree) as well as personal opinions about certain color combinations which are poo-poo'd upon here but have been considered important colors "within the household."

    I do see this forum struggling between membership who assume it is about Western-centric clothing and others who assume it is about clothing in general. I try to look at it from a balanced perspective: that it should be about clothing in general, while admitting that any English-language site is going to have a fairly strong Western-bias which is only normal and that I need to be flexible enough to accommodate.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  4. raggedsweater

    raggedsweater Well-Known Member

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    Disclaimer: These are generalizations and not meant to offend any one person or culture.

    This is an interesting topic and I appreciate the thought that was put into it. Just off the cuff, one observation that I might venture to add to the discussion is that men's wear tends to be more culturally rigid than women's. Whereas women's clothing and accessories readily borrow from across culture and temporal traditions, men's clothing seems to be held fast in time and place within Western European tradition. Cross-culturally, I think most "modern" societies that try to create the image of a modern professional male adorns him in what is the traditional suit. Look up "tailored" on Wikipedia and you get an image of a master of the cloth from Hong Kong fitting his client.

    I am an Asian-American. To be specific, I am a Vietnamese-American. I think Southeast Asians (i.e. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) are some of the worse dressed asians on the streets, even when we try to be professional. I'm an exception, of course (and so are some Filipinos). I consciously try NOT to dress like an Asian-American, because there are basically two extremes, which both tend to be on the baggy side: 1) Those who seem to be influenced by 90s HipHop baggy-style dress or basketball players or 2) Those who try to fit an American cut suit, off the rack, onto a slimmer, narrower asian body - this says to me, "fresh of the boat."

    I'm not the only one who seems to avoid "dressing Asian." I think Hong Kong and Japan are two countries that especially try to adopt more and more of the western image of a professional male. This, however, transcends style, but also music and film.

    Interesting side note: When I got married, I donned a traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai for men. However, I disliked the traditional fit of the dress... so I had instead the tailor cut the shoulders as if it were a Western styled suit. But that lends to another point: traditional dress of other cultures are largely (I'm not saying exclusively or without exception to this general rule of them) reserved for special occasions. Everyday style has become Westernized... I think it's just the influence of the West on almost every culture. Some cultures choose to adopt more and some less.

    My response was mostly limited to professional/formal attire. Everyday casual wear would require further discussion.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  5. gladhands

    gladhands Senior member

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    There is a style of lounge suit worn exclusively in the African-American community. It's a bit of a holdover from the jazz-age, and is almost. certainly derived from the zoot-suit. Today these suits are most commonly associated with Steve Harvey. Were someone to post a picture of himself in such a suit in WAYRN, he's be laughed off the form, but within a certain subset of the black community, he would be considered EXTREMELY well-dressed.

    As a black man who lives in the larger world, I wouldn't dream of dressing like that. I used to make fun of men who wore those suits...and be somewhat embarrassed of them. As I get older I realize that like it or not, those suits have some sort of cultural significance in a "black community" that is rapidly fading from existence as more educated and successful blacks become further assimilated into the larger American society.
     


  6. raggedsweater

    raggedsweater Well-Known Member

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    I'd like to learn more about this. I hadn't realized it was a lounge suit. Here in Boston, there are stores that specialize in these particular cut suits. I have always thought they were tacky, but strangely always identifiable as a "black man's suit." There's a certain color, pinstripe or cut that causes me to make these assumptions. Then there are the suits that seem to be somewhat derivative, those are large black athletes and the four button suits.

    It's strange how, even if you were not presented the person himself... rather just his clothes, you will make certain judgments about him: black or white (generally), gay or straight, rich or poor.

     


  7. Master Squirrel

    Master Squirrel Senior member

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    Apparently looking like a stereotypical Minnesotan is in with the Hipster set.
     


  8. Holdfast

    Holdfast Senior member

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    Thank you, and I look forward to reading your reply!

    Clothes have always had sociocultural impact, so it seems to me daft (if fun, as an idle intellectual exercise) to attempt divorce those messages and meanings from the clothes as worn by an individual.

    I love this post, and want to requote it in full because it meshes so neatly with some of the thoughts I was trying to put into words. You managed it rather more succintly and eloquently than I!

    I have an eclectic ethnic and cultural heritage myself, which is partly why the topic was something I wanted to discuss.

    That's an interesting observation. If forced to speculate, I'd suggest that women's clothing is more driven by a need to innovate and stand out, whereas men's is more driven by a need to conform and fit into a hierarchy (and therefore culture). This is probably more due to societal gender archetypes than anything else, though of course these archetypes too are driven by the culture we function in.

    Interesting. I know exactly the kind of suit you mean, but never conceptualised it like that. Thank you for educating me. I suggested in my original post that when two cultures meet, there can be either hybridisation or polarisation depending on an individual's precise circumstances. In this case it sounds more like full assimilation is occuring, probably because of the relative (economic/structural) strength of the larger American society compared to the subset you're described.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  9. DocHolliday

    DocHolliday Senior member Dubiously Honored

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    Some good points, HF. But here's my thing: I can be down with a lot of different styles, as I know you can. I think Vox dresses well, but I also think Barims and Label King dress well. My style icons include both my conservative grandfather and Tom Baker's bohemian Doctor Who. But all those guys, both real (grandfather) and fictional (Vox), share a coherent expression of a specific style. Their stuff makes sense in the context they create for it. That can't be said for a lot of stuff that shows up on the forum. If anything, a lot of guys use forum trends as a substitute for developing their own style. This is a recipe for failure, as it fails to express the individuality of the wearer, other than to show he likes to follow trends.

    So I'm all for self-expression. Just make sure it's yourself you're expressing.



    P.S. I'm still waiting for my beloved English tailoring to take full hold on the forum. We're not always wedded to what we know.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  10. in stitches

    in stitches Kung Joo Moderator

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    wow i could write a thesis on this topic.

    suffice it to say many parts of my culture/surroundings affect how i dress. its not something i always enjoy, but for reason too long to discuss here sometimes those issues take precedence over how i might otherwise dress.

    great topic holdfast, thanks.
     


  11. Holdfast

    Holdfast Senior member

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    Doc, you won't hear argument from me about what you're saying here (esp. on the English tailoring aspect! ;) ). I don't think it conflicts in any way.

    What I'm talking about is encouraging an understanding of the roots of different kinds of looks; the "coherent expression" part of your post. Think of it this way: cultural legacy manifests itself as a directional push in one's clothing towards a particular aesthetic. Social pressure moulds it either in the same direction, or in different one, depending on the setting one functions within (or aspires to function within). When someone thinks about what they're wearing (and why), they integrate the two different sets of pressures into a look that is both self-expressive and coherent, while simultaneously meeting their personal needs in terms of facilitating the interpersonal communication they're trying to achieve through their clothes. This, to me, is what being well-dressed means. Not whether it conforms to a particular archetype entirely or not.

    I started this thread because SF has a tendency, as you point out, to ignore developing personal insight ("coherent expression"). It's only by adding in the crucial components of cultural and social meaning (which inevitably also requires considering ethnicity IMO), that a fuller meaning can emerge I think. At any rate, I wanted us to tackle ideas of culture/ethnicity and social meaning in clothes head-on instead of ignoring it or using allusions/euphemisms as often occurs.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  12. bourbonbasted

    bourbonbasted Cyber Eliitist

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    I have to respond to this once I get home from work and can give my real response the proper thought and attention it deserves. That being said, terrific topic Holdfast. I am subscribed to the thread and eager to see some of the responses.

    PS-- Can't wait to muse on being a preppy-ass white dude :D
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  13. raggedsweater

    raggedsweater Well-Known Member

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    I concur with stitches.

    In totality, I think ethnicity has less of an impact with how I actually dress. It may have more of a factor on how I don't dress. What probably has more of an impact on how I dress is the professional culture I work in and the personal culture I keep at home. The traditional professional culture, such as the one in which I work, is arguably taken over by Western influences. Nowadays, having a proper fitting suit, well-pressed shirt and tie and a decent pair of shoes is important in successful appearance. The boxy "American" fit is increasingly (and appropriately) becoming disregarded. I remember reading somewhere that the laid back and sometimes flexible "business casual" attire notion of the late 90s has been supplanted by greater professionalism. That is, on casual Fridays you don't just wear any old khakis... they should be dress khakis. All this is to say that my work culture has a larger influence on my dress style than my ethnicity.

    Turn to my personal wardrobe.

    Few of us completely segregate our work and personal lives. There is bound to be overlap. Colleagues at work may be joining you for drinks at night, a baseball game, a backyard barbecue, or even your kid's recital. Your personal life becomes impacted by the circles you keep at your workplace, at your significant other's workplace, at your child's school and in the neighborhood you live. Some people are more homogeneic and others have very diverse relationships. Personal ethnicity has less and less impact on your personal style. Especially as you get older.

    My personal wardrobe is a reflection, therefore, of who I want to project myself as within these circles. I choose a style that is versatile, that I can more or less easily pass within any of these circles. I'm much less of an individual dresser than I was 10 years ago. The culture I surround myself with is filled with individuals less willing to express individuality. My overall fashion sense is sensible and sensitive to those around me. In order to express my individuality (because I need to), I will make subtle, less noticeable departures from the herd. My suits are slightly better fitting. My shoes are a bit more fashionable. The colors I wear are what I like, but if they're too bold I'll limit it to the pattern on my tie.

    Individual culture has more a bearing on fashion than ethnicity.

    Another (non-academically phrased) thesis: Culture affects style, whereas ethnicity defines phenotype therefore affects choice (such as colors, cut, etc...)
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2011


  14. Achilles_

    Achilles_ Senior member

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    I saw so much plaid flannel when I was up there. The funny thing was it was accompanied by skinny jeans and other nonsense hipsters like :plain:
     


  15. Verniza

    Verniza Senior member

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    Being a young South East Asian in Singapore, still in the equivalent of high school. Over here, it is very rare to see somebody in a suit which is considered a common staple in every mens wardrobe yet it is common to have bad bad dressing. People who wear suits here are perceived as elite, rich, sometimes even crazy and they put that excuse to the hot weather. I put the blame to long-term society oppression.

    Society here is all about conforming, most people here fawn upon people who stand out. Donning a suit here is akin to shouting for attention. However, the current generation, me included have been brought up in a seemingly more liberal environment and have been exposed to western culture and values since young. People now are more willing to stand out and show case their individuality. Hence, we are seeing lots and lots of weird dressing(Guys with skirts anybody?) So it is pretty interesting here, the older generation(Conservative) and the younger generation(Liberals). That has also impacted me to a certain degree, I now embrace my love for suits.

    I guess for me, suits are clothes I love because it is interesting. Traditional yet with different modern takes. It can all look the same yet the minor details are what discerns you from others. Details are used to showcase your personality sometimes or even a whole different take on how a suit should be worn. Sometimes after reading through Styleforum, I see that there are a lot of "rules" to dressing. There should be some but we should never let these rules govern us because clothes/dressing up are tools to showcase our personality, our taste and STYLE.
     


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