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Existential dialogue 32: clothing as a social convention

Existential dialogue 32: clothing as a social convention

Clothing as a social convention

Clothing as a social convention

A dialogue between Irinas the dead leaves and Emmanuelles the turtles. The Irinas think that life is waiting and mystery but they are ready to seize the opportunities of the moment while remaining nostalgic for the past. They fear evil which knows how to take on deceptive appearances. Emmanuelles are reasoners who prefer to trust logic rather than feelings.

Emmanuelles: Irinas, have you been listening to Davina and Peter lately?

Irinas: their piece about nudism?

Emmanuelles: that’s the one. They made it into a debate on cultural differences without really explaining why these differences are of value.

Irinas: it’s easy though: if everyone strips off, it makes social recognition signs disappear and it’s dangerous.

Emmanuelles: that’s exactly right. Clothing obeys to conventions and to get rid of them is to reject society and its rules.

Irinas: does it follow that in Finland, people are autonomous vis-à-vis the state while this is not the case in Canada?

Emmanuelles: possibly. There are also saunas where everyone strip off and then immerse themselves in lakes. It creates a state of mind that defines the country. In Canada, the influence of English Puritanism may still be felt in many areas.

Irinas: so undressing in Finland is still part of the group while it should not be done in public in Canada…

Emmanuelles: yes. Peter and Davina criticized these various choices in the name of an ideal universalism, yet they insufficiently admit that any cultural act is an act of belonging. That’s what makes it important and inevitable.

Irinas: and when acts of rebellion are chosen to fight social pressure, they still remain conditioned by the customs of the majority. It’s obvious in fashion that only exists to allow differentiation but still depends on what precedes. When we see humans walking in the domain, we can guess what they are by looking at the clothes they wear.

Emmanuelles: they often spend a lot of time choosing them so it’s clear that undressing has a very symbolic value, often in relation to intimacy. This is what, in certain groups, clashes with sensitivities.

Irinas: it’s switching from cooked to raw, so to speak.

Emmanuelles: yes, although the raw is a myth because humans have always lived by symbols and culture.

Irinas: and even if they were now living naked, they would undoubtedly find ways to accentuate their differences.

Emmanuelles: otherwise they would not be who they are. As it stands, they believe they are freeing themselves from conventions by being themselves and communing with nature when naked, but they are only creating a new convention.

Irinas: and they negate their own ingenuity that made them create these clothes in the first place.

Emmanuelles: being naked is a luxury.

Irinas: mosquitoes must like it in Finland!

Emmanuelles: ha, ha, Irinas, if there are mosquitoes, humans protect themselves with chemicals that act like see-through clothes.

Irinas: so whether it is for cultural or survival reasons, they cannot go without clothes for long.

Emmanuelles: and that’s only because they have a superficial look at things that Davina and Peter can say to what they say.

Irinas: luckily, we were here again to put things back together!


What is the role of clothing in society?

For Emmanuelles, it allows to define position and ideas. This is why to do without it is to reject society except in cases where this society accepts nudity.

For Irinas, whatever position humans take, they express themselves by their actions and fashion is a good example of this characteristic.

Possible discussions

Does the habit really make the monk?

Can we escape social conventions?


Want to think a little more? See, for example, On individuality and social forms where Simmel studies social exchanges and social behavior (he wrote a book about fashion that would fit better here, but it’s not translated in English).

Want to contribute to these dialogues? Write your comments and questions below.

Want to know more about the tastes of Irinas and Emmanuelles? Their favorite books are in the domain library.


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