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Book review: “The Language of Clothes” by Alison Lurie

Sometimes, a piece of clothing or an aspect of fashion has a very specific meaning.

In her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie notes that British officials, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, regarded green clothing as “a serious, even fatal, political act.” In fact, a popular song of the time mourned that they were “hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.”

In Scotland, earlier in the 18th century, to don a clan tartan was to make a similar political statement, and the practice was banned by an Act of the British Parliament.

Around the same time, a beauty patch was a clear signal of the party allegiance of an English lady (and her husband or father). If she were a Whig, she wore it on her right cheek. A Tory, on the left.

A century earlier, the hair length of men had been the measure. Royalists wore their hair long, as in Catholic France. Puritans, by contrast, were closely cropped and were called Roundheads. Similarly, in 1960s America, the anti-Establishment young men let their hair grow and were called longhairs. Those backing the powers-that-be had crew cuts.

Most often, though, the language of clothing and fashion isn’t as definite. Indeed, after reading Lurie’s book, I’m thinking that its title more properly should have been The Poetry of Clothes.

lurie.language of clothes


“Like an ordinary man”

I’ve long been fascinated by the meaning of clothing and fashion — what they say about human nature.

Why is a certain style worn at a certain time in history? What does it say about the people of that time? How are those of us living today like and unlike those people? How are we like and unlike each other in our fashion decisions?

Social histories deal in general ways with the subject of clothing. I found my way deeper into these questions through art, specifically through the works of the late Anne Hollander, such as Seeing through Clothes (1978), Moving Pictures (1991) and Sex and Suits (1994).


Lurie, who mentions and quotes Hollander frequently in her book, is a novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Affairs three years after the publication of The Language of Clothes.

She looks at shirts, dresses, beards, shoes, hats and all the rest with a novelist’s eye, tapping into literature often to make a point, such as in this case:

Constant wearing of official costume can so transform someone that it becomes difficult or impossible for him or her to react normally. Dr. Grantly, the Archdeacon of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1835), is pious and solemn even when alone with his wife: “ ‘Tis only when he has exchanged that ever-new shovel hat for the tasseled nightcap, and those shiny black habiliments for his accustomed robe de nuit, that Dr. Grantly talks, and looks, and thinks like an ordinary man.”


“Many meanings”

Note that Lurie says such clothing “can” transform the wearer. This is where the poetry comes in. Her view of clothing is impressionistic rather than mechanistic.

Her book is the antithesis of those dress-for-success guides that tell the reader: “If this is worn, this will happen.” It has a much broader vision of the myriad aims of fashion and a much more nuanced approach.

She writes “can” and “might” and “may.” She discusses what certain sorts of fabrics tend to mean, for instance, or the traditional message of a color, such as black: “Black, the reverse of white, is the color of night and darkness. For thousands of years it has stood for sorrow, sin and death.”

Think about that: Sorrow and death overlap to some extent, but not at all completely. Someone doesn’t have to die for me to feel mournful. Sin can be seen as a moral death, but maybe not by the sinner. The differences can be subtle, or not subtle at all.

It comes down to a certain person in a certain situation at a certain time in history with a certain goal in mind. Consider:

As [Hollander] remarks, the wearing of all-black or nearly all-black costume can have many meanings. When everyone else is in bright colors, the entrance of a man or a woman in black can have tremendous dramatic impact. Depending on the situation and the style of the costume, the newcomer may seem holy, evil, dangerous, melancholy, grief-stricken or any combination of these.


Dramatic Black

A version of this is what Lurie calls Dramatic Black, and she includes in the glossy color photo insert in her book two examples — Madame X, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1884, and the photograph of a woman at the New York nightclub Studio 54 in 1980.


Both women wear shiny black clothing that leaves their hyper-white shoulders and upper chest bare, and includes a deep décolletage. The result is aggressively sexual. Yet, beyond that, the outfits are very different.

Madame X is in a slinky floor-length gown that, it appears, would fall to the ground at a single wrong move. (This was only appearance since it was built over a metal and whalebone corset.)

By contrast, her fashion descendant at Studio 54 wears tight black leather pants and a rough-and-ready black bodice. She looks as if she could go a few rounds in the ring with her boyfriend. Madame X, on the other hand, appears much more sexually available. One might call her vulnerable except that her regal stance and stature suggest she has her ways of giving battle.



Clothing is almost always suggesting a meaning rather than making a straight-forward statement. Again, we’re talking poetry, not prose. And the suggested meaning is aimed at a target audience.

No one would be quite sure how to take Madame X if she showed up in the box seats at Wrigley Field. Similarly, what would it mean if the Studio 54 lady walked into a Quaker meeting?

Most of the time, Lurie doesn’t try to link political, social and/or physical trends directly to changes in fashion although, without question, these have an impact. Rather, she simply uses her novelist’s eye to describe the fashion and lets the reader ponder the implications, such as the subject of British dress, urban and rural, and its tendency toward camouflage:

City clothes are most often made in colors that echo the hues of stone, cement, soot, cloudy skies and wet pavements: black, white, navy and the darker shades of gray…British city clothes are also cut and ornamented so as to make the naturally rounded human figure seem more rectangular, helping it to merge into the urban landscape….

Whereas urban clothes tend to be hard-surfaced, like the polished stone and worn asphalt of an urban landscape, rural fabrics are usually soft and fuzzy. Tweed and wool and homespun repeat the textures of grass and bark and leaf, while corduroy, the traditional rural fabric, mimics not only the feel of moss but the look of a plowed field.

There’s the poetry again — urban clothing “echoing” the cityscape, rural clothing “repeating” the textures of grass and even plowed fields.


“Misshapen, even deformed”

Lurie’s discussion of that epitome of rectangular-looking urban clothes for men — the sack suit — was eye-opening for me. Or, better put, it helped me understand what my eyes had always noticed — that so many American men, particularly those working blue-collar jobs, look horribly uncomfortable at weddings, at least until they can take off their jackets.

Blame the sack suit, the sort of untapered, off-the-rack outfit that men who don’t consider themselves fashion plates are likely to buy or have bought for them. Lurie writes:

The sack suit, as John Berger has recently pointed out, not only flatters the inactive, it deforms the laborious. It was designed for men who did little or no physical work and were therefore tall in relation to their breadth…When physically active men with broad shoulders, deep chests and well-developed muscles put on cheap versions of the sack suit they looked misshapen, even deformed….

For office workers, the sack suit is often a way to blend in, to fit in. Fitting in, though, was the last thing in the minds of those who created the Punk fashions in the 1970s.

Here was an assault on the cultural mainstream, and scary to many non-punks. Yet, Lurie reads the message of all those rips and pins and dog collars in an interesting way:

In the language of clothes, the Punk style was a demand for attention, together with a cry of rage against those who should have paid attention to these kids in the past but had not done so: parents who were too immature or too exhausted, callous or helpless teachers and social workers, a welfare state that seemed uninterested in their welfare and had no jobs for most of them.


The poetry of fashion

How we choose to dress reflects how much we want to draw attention and how much we don’t, how much we want to send a message and how much we want to keep quiet.

We can pretend through fashion that we are someone we’re not, and get away with it. We can be definite or ambivalent about the messages we send with our clothing.

But we can’t avoid talking in the poetry of fashion. As Lurie writes:

We can lie in the language of dress, or try to tell the truth, but unless we are naked and bald it is impossible to be silent.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Gordon S Watson Posted December 4, 2018 11:14 pm

    very good review. It tacitly explains why some of us enjoy social nudism

  • Calvin S Niles Posted July 22, 2020 2:39 am

    Very interesting indeed.However,can one build abridge between the language of clothing and the psycology of dress,or even undress?
    Calvin S Niles.

    • Patrick T Reardon Posted July 22, 2020 3:56 pm

      Yeah, I imagine there have been more than a few books like that. I’ve read some that deal a bit with these questions, such as those by Anne Hollander. Pat

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