Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dressing Up and Down: The Answers

So very few people seem to be interested in the question why we dress up. Is it that they do not realise the importance of dressing up? Is it that they do not realise to what extent we are influenced by the way others dress up? In any case, at least one person has responded, and now it is my turn to give a detailed reply.

It appears that humans must have started wearing clothes some 40,000 years ago. If we can believe modern studies in palaeontology and palaeo-anthropology and related branches of science, we have to believe that the entire population of homo sapiens sapiens on the earth today are descendants of one short female, named Lucy, an Australopithicus afarensis--a species that lived in Ethiopia some 2.5 to 4 million years back (see, for instance, or Wikipedia)). Lucy would certainly have not known that her descendants would migrate to all parts of the world and virtually exterminate all other species. If she had known, perhaps, she would have committed suicide before she gave birth to any child.

But her children and grand children and great grand children and so on were born, and did grow up and have their own offsprings and did migrate to all parts of the world. Including much warmer and colder places. And they evolved. At some point, at least some branches of the family, started shedding their fur. This could have been in response to a warmer climate or, as some experts in body lice tend to believe, in response to body lice! Ugh!? "Dr. David L. Reed, a louse expert at the University of Utah, said the idea that humans might have lost their body hair as a defense against parasites was a ''fascinating concept.'' Body lice spread three diseases -- typhus, relapsing fever and trench fever -- and have killed millions of people in time of war, he said." (see this article from New York Times). Anyway, at some point in time, humans or proto-humans started losing their body hair. Maybe this also led to people getting a darker skin. But that is beside the point. Our question is about clothes. So how did this induce humans to wear clothes?

We know that human beings, before or after homo sapiens sapiens evolved, migrated to the extremes of the Earth. And they would certainly have faced extreme cold climates. And they would also have met animals that have thick coats of fur. Look at the polar bears, for instance. And look at the Eskimos who live in such conditions. Humans must have'borrowed' the clothes from the local residents. Just as they do today also.

That seems reasonable. But when did homo sapiens start wearing clothes? One idea is that this is approximately the time body lice started appearing on human body. Though this appears far-fetched, it may sound reasonable to a scientific mind. After humans lost their fur, the only place lice could have comfortably curled up on humans is on clothes. At least, that is how one argument goes (see, for instance, this ezine article). So, it seems, lice caused humans to loose their fur and it also helps us understand when we started wearing clothes. Great, uh?

But then, how does one find out when the lice appeared on the human body? Simple. Just take a modern day louse and ask it. ;-) No, not joking. I did not mean, ask it in so many words. There is another way os asking. And that is to do a kind of DNA analysis that would tell you something about the species. Of course, I hope you know that the human body lice is a species by itself. As the article cited above says, someone actually went to the trouble of asking this question and the lice gave the answer as 107,000 years. Fine. But not so fine. Someone asked the same question to other members of the lice society and they gave a different answer: 540,000 years. This is the problem with asking questions to individuals. Each guy will have his version of the events.

The article cited is rather recent (2008), but there seems to be an earlier report, from 2003, that gives a date like 40,000 years before present (see this abc article). And some recent results from anthropological studies seem to show that humans started wearing shoes some 40,000 years ago (see Softpedia or Livescience). This was deduced from the shape of the toes! What these guys will find out, god only knows!

So, it seems reasonable to believe that people started wearing clothes some 40,000 to 100,000 years ago to protect their body from extremes of weather. It possibly even prevented them from getting soaking wet in rains because in the initial days clothes must have been made from animal skin.

But look at what clothes have become today! They have become a form of self-expression, a means of projecting an image that one wants to be seen, a means of subjugating others, and so on. Apparently everything other than the purpose it was originally meant for!


Cris said...

Oh boy you seem to read a lot. But of course you have got a beard! (Never mind that line - its a recent hypothesis I developed - you gotta have a beard to be an intellectual - which explains my absence in that zone)

Now about clothes. So people may want to dress up for different reasons - some to self-express, some to throw an image, some because everyone else does it. But a lot many do it because they like to - maybe people feel nice about looking good. I dont see anything wrong in that. It neednt be a hypocrisy, it could just be to look good. We clean our houses so it looks good, we dont go saying "its originally dirty, so we have to leave it as it is. We cant make it an imposter by cleaning it up"

And of course the world comes with a number of imposters, who'd try anything from clothing to sweet talking to Lord-knows-what to appear the good-friendly-neighbor. But how far can clothes help it anyway? How long does an impression on clothes last on your mind, and even if it does what more than a superficial one?

I am not here to disagree with what you have written. Its a well-researched and well-written one. Its just that I dont see how clothes could be used as an important measure to impress people!

Sasi said...

Thanks, Chris, for your comment. I just want to respond to your question about how clothes are used to not only impress but also sometimes intimidate people. A uniform is one thing that quickly comes to mind. A policeman or soldier, for instance. Of course, he carries authority too. But the authority is conveyed through the dress. Anyone wearing that uniform could impress us. A person wearing a coat and a tie would easily intimidate a person wearing a dhothi and shirt, other things being the same. It would be al the more intimidating if the gentleman is biting on a pipe. I think you should be able to find several similar examples if you carefully look around.

Of course, I agree that we wear clean and elegant clothes also because we like to look nice, just like our house, as you point out. But this also, I feel strongly, is partly to impress.