Seeing is believing in life - and learning

Dr Benjamin WILD
Seeing is believing in life - and learning

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

So proclaimed Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Like Wotton, I guarantee that we are all expert physiognomists. We may recoil at the notion when pressed and reassure ourselves that we value the inner, complex qualities of our colleagues and friends over their looks, but let’s not kid ourselves : The reality is that we are socialised to judge one another by appearance, continuously. If first impressions count, sociological theories from Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, Norbert Elias and Erving Goffman (to name but a few), inform us that those which follow are hardly less important.

Over the centuries, humans have altered their behaviour and physical appearance in the belief that socially acceptable conduct and countenance will confer individual distinction and success. We cling to youth because we tend to accept that ‘the younger we appear, the more likely it is that we are to possess socially useful attributes.’[i] But if the rhytidecteomy (corrective facial surgery), otoplasty (corrective ear surgery) or aesthetic rhinoplasty (corrective nasal surgery) are all a step too far – because of squeamishness or prohibitive cost – the way we dress provides a relatively convenient and often cost-effective means of communicating our diverse characters.

Savile Row young dudes

As the nineteenth-century womaniser, disgraced academic and social commentator Thorstein Veblen baldy opined, ‘without reflection or analysis, we feel that what is inexpensive is unworthy. “A cheap coat makes a cheap man”’.[ii] Harsh? Perhaps, but as Joanne Finkelstein observes,

To posit an equivalence between clothing and character, between the symbolic and real, may pose grand philosophical problems to the epistemologist, but the association passes as a truism in the everyday world of ordinary association.[iii]

The clarity with which our clothes communicate can be debated.

Author Alison Lurie has suggested that our raiment is as expressive as any written or spoken language and has likened people’s style choices to syntax.[iv] Few scholars share her conviction, but we probably have sufficient awareness of sartorial faux pas – our own and those of others – to know there are rules and that we pay dearly if our dress contravenes them.

We may also remember those occasions when a change of clothes affected – however slightly – our self-perception and behaviour: that boost of confidence when we last donned formal evening wear or that sense of relief when we exchange our work attire for sweat pants and T-Shirt at the day’s end. And this is not just ‘gut feeling’, there is science behind this.

In psychology, embedded cognition refers to the idea that we think and act with our bodies rather than our minds alone.[v] How we dress plays an important part in this. In 2012, American researchers conducted a clothing experiment that appeared to show people who believe they are wearing a garment associated with a successful professional (in this case, a scientist’s white lab coat) make a positive, if subconscious, change in their attitude and behaviour as they mimic the stereotypical characteristics of the garment’s owner (in the case of the lab coat, wearers become, like the scientist, more focused). Curiously, if people wear a garment typically associated with a successful professional, but which they do not believe actually belongs to one, their attitude and behaviour will not show any sign of positive change.[vi]

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that types of dress, or specific garments, have emotive or even intellectual force, although it is a comment on general attitudes to clothing that broad studies of dress and its social impact remain few.

Psychologists have long recognised that subtle and ubiquitous social cues make socialised attitudes tenacious. To offer one example, experiments have shown that a lone female student taking a mathematics test in a room where all of the other students are male is likely to under perform. Why? Because the arena in which the girl is placed reinforces the stereotype that boys are better at logic-based activities.[vii]

All of this means that an awareness of the social and cultural baggage imbued in our clothing is of more than ivory-towered interest for schools, where uniform policies are almost universally enforced and where, as at Sherborne School, a change in students’ dress is commonly sanctioned for older pupils.

In June 2015, I conducted a clothing survey with male Sixth Form students (16-18 years old) from three local schools, Sherborne School (private boarding, boy), The Gryphon (state, co-educational) and Bishop Wordsworth’s School (grammar, boy).

Preppy students

I am still writing up the findings of this research, but some initial conclusions are clear. In all cases, the schools’ uniform policy met with broad agreement. At Sherborne and Bishop Wordsworth’s School, the majority of the boys surveyed agreed with their school’s dress code and expressed a belief that the adoption of a suit and tie for the final two school years was a positive development. Boys perceive their Sixth Form dress to be more professional and smarter than their junior uniform and equate this aesthetic transition with a more focused and proactive work ethic. To quote a student’s response from one of Sixth Form interviews:

I think quite a lot of [Sixth Formers] do enjoy being in suits, at least … it’s a step away from [junior uniform] and you feel a bit, you look a bit smarter and you feel a bit older.

That said, male students enrolled in the Sixth Form at The Gryphon, where it is possible to swap junior uniforms for casual clothing, expressed similar levels of satisfaction with their school’s dress policy. Evidently, students accept the rules of their institution, which should occasion little surprise if they have chosen to remain a part of the community. Nevertheless, it is interesting that none of the (admittedly fewer) students I surveyed at The Gryphon reflected on changed behavior or a different work ethic in their final years of study. Akin to the experiment cited above, there may be a sense that the donning of clothes associated with professional accomplishment has a more marked, and positive, impact on student attitudes and conduct when in school.

If there is a drawback to a formal uniform policy in the Sixth Form – which is typically characterised by the adoption of the suit and tie in boys’ schools (objects that are laden with cultural and historical significance) – it is that this attire does little to convey teenagers’ personality, akin to the uniform they wore as a junior. If a boy were to seek distinction through dress whilst clad in a suit, there was a suggestion in the survey I conducted that his character must reflect this atypical ambition for it to be readily accepted by his peers:

I’d say you have to be something or someone to be able to pull off looking slightly different … You have to, sort of, pull your weight if you want to wear something slightly out of the ordinary.

Or another comment:

There’s not really [a] negative or positive [comment, it’s] almost snarky … sort of like, “Look, he’s doing something different, let’s comment on it, [to] make [him] sure we’ve noticed.

By consequence, leisurewear can become a more important vehicle to express individuality. Whilst this is possibly not so far removed from life pre-Sixth Form, the greater emphasis that is placed on differentiated work and leisure attire post sixteen seems to create a dual economy in dress, where boys feel a heightened sense of sartorial awareness and, more pressingly, a ‘need’ to get the rules of the more-advanced sartorial game right.

Brands play an important, if complex, role here, for certain labels tend to be suitable for specific age groups:

I think SuperDry is a bit of a younger brand and then there was Jack Wills, but that was quite a temporary thing and then I think, as you get older you progress … So I think boys in our year particularly like Ralph Lauren.


This new sartorial landscape can, and often does, foster creativity and lead to much enjoyment, but it can cause confusion and anxiety as students try to assemble a wardrobe that conveys social, and not infrequently economic, status.

In a boys’ school these pressures can be particularly acute, for two reasons. Firstly, there is a socialised notion that dress is a feminised area and is consequently an unsuitable topic for group and public discussion between male peers.[viii] Secondly, empirical research suggests males have a greater sensitivity to economic signifiers than females. Studies have shown that men are more likely to identify with, and look for, material signs of their peers’ successes than female counterparts.[ix]

The upshot of this is that despite heightened talk of myriad masculinities and New Men, there is still much to suggest that traditional notions of what it means to be a Man – the lean, stoic breadwinner – prevail, and what is more, these are socialised ideas that many of the adolescent teenagers we teach already identify with.[x]

To quote from another interview:

Honestly, we’re men, we don’t think about that crap … I think because it can be seen as a very feminine thing to spend a lot of time on your appearance. Therefore, we don’t get self-conscious about it because we’re like, “Yeah, like we don’t care about it”, you know what I mean?

Changing hundreds of years of societal values is a tall order, but a challenge to us all as educators (and of teachers of boys in particular) is surely to encourage discussion of dress and the, frequently subconscious, impact it has on us.

Tutorials and PSHE lessons could provide times when the social shadow cast by our sartorial choices is considered explicitly, but academic lessons are no less important opportunities to discuss clothing matters, if only in a diffuse manner. Students can examine the clothing allusions in Shakespeare’s plays (English), consider the changing raiment of religious leaders (Philosophy), discover myriad examples of national dress (MFL) and learn how this is under threat from a bland and sanitised form of clothing that is conceived to be inoffensive (Politics) and a far cry the dress of rulers of the past (History).

If, for example, you were to tell a class of male students that the lace ruff of Charles I in any of his Van Dyck portraits would cost as much as an Aston Martin in today’s prices (c.£200,000), you would surely spark their interest. You would, of course, simultaneously reinforce socialised notions about gender and dress, as you remind students about the status conferred by conspicuous consumption. And here lies the rub, for to help our students engage purposefully with their clothing, we need to confront our own attitudes about dress and think about the messages our workaday wardrobes convey (and the raiment of teachers and lectures has an interesting affect on learners)[xi]. It may be as Lord Chesterfield advised his son in 1784:[xii]

Dress is a very foolish thing; yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed.

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[i] J. Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Cambridge, 1991), 89.
[ii] T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, (Oxford, 1899), 112.
[iii] Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self, 110.
[iv] A Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 1988).
[v] P. Drexler, ‘Why it matters what we wear: Clothes influence how we view and interact with the world’, (25 July 2014). Accessed: 30 September 2015.
[vi] H. Adam & A.D. Galinsky, ‘Enclothed Cognition’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48:4 (July), 918-925.
[vii] C. Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Difference Behind Sex Differences (London, 2010), 35.
[viii] H.Frith & K. Gleeson, ‘Clothing and Embodiment: Men Managing Body Image and Appearance’, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5:1 (2005), 40.
[ix] C.S. Gulas & K. McKeage, ‘Extending Social Comparison: An Examination of the Unintended Consequences of Idealized Advertising Imagery’, Journal of Advertising, 29:2 (2000), 20.
[x] B.L. Wild, ‘To Have and to Hold: Masculinity and the Clutch Bag’, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, 2:1 (2015), 43-54.
[xi] T.L. Morris, J. Gorham, S.H. Cohen, D. Hoffman, ‘Fashion in the classroom: effects of attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes’, Communication Education, 45 (1996), 135-48.
[xii] Quoted in The Fashioned Self, 124.

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