Clothing has forever had a tremendous impact on the way individuals perceive others, as illustrated in Alison Lurie's "The Language of Clothes." Lurie suggests that clothing is an unspoken, universal language used to determine a person's interests and even one's personality without ever having to talk to that person. Since the beginning of history, right up to the fashion of modern-day street gangs, clothing has spoken volumes about one's stature, interests, and affiliation.
Judging an individual based on that person's clothing preference before getting to know the person seems shallow; however, it is an unconscious action of which humans have been guilty since the beginning of time. Lurie stated "Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age and class to me through what you are wearing — and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires and current mood" (Lurie H., 250-251).
Our perceptions about the meaning of clothing and accessories have changed throughout time. Different time periods have had an influential role in both men and women's clothing styles. Decades ago, men were classified by not only the clothes they wore, but also by the lengths of their powdered wigs. A man’s wig represented wealth because wigs were expensive to purchase as well as to maintain. If a man wore a long, full-bottomed wig, he was thought to be a doctor or a lawyer and thus considered wealthy (Maginnis). The shorter "bob wig" was the choice for men who could not afford the longer wig. Catholic clergymen could be identified by the built-in tonsure at the top of their wigs, which was not present in the Protestant clergymen’s wigs (Maginnis). It also was common for lower-class families to make their own clothes out of inexpensive materials.
In the 1800s, women were primarily thought of as sexual objects, which was reflected in the way they dressed. It was common for women to wear a low-cut dress that fell to their ankles. Women also wore corsets to create a false waistline. Some women were required to wear bonnets to keep their hair up, as they were only permitted to let their hair down in front of their husbands. Men often influenced or even made the decision on what their women would wear. This is still practiced in some Amish communities today; however, the majority of women are free to choose what they wear. In some cultures today, an individual’s choice in clothing is limited due to the risk factor of wearing certain colors that could be offensive to others.
Individuals who are affiliated with a group or gang can easily be distinguished by a certain color or unique symbol. Members of these gangs appear proud and intentionally display their colors to instill fear and let rival gangs know who they are affiliated with. Southern California is the home of two of the most notorious street gangs in American history. In the early 1970s, local street gangs in Los Angeles united to form one large gang known as the Crips. The Crips established blue as their color and a blue rag as their unified symbol. A conflict between the Piru Street Crips and the Crips from Compton resulted in an all-out brawl, creating two divisions and a new gang called the Bloods. The Bloods chose the symbol of a red bandana to clearly set them apart from the Crips. Over the years, the colors began to mean more and spread from just the bandana to other articles of clothing. Gangs began to incorporate their significant colors in their shirts, hats and even shoes.
It was common for Crip members to wear British Knight tennis shoes with blue shoelaces, and the Bloods to wear Columbian Knight tennis shoes with red shoelaces. The initials of these particular tennis shoes are significant to the gang community: BK stands for Blood Killer and CK stands for Crip Killer (San Antonio Police Department Youth Crime Service Unit). It is strongly suggested that non-gang affiliated individuals wear white when walking through the streets of Compton and Watts. Wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood can be a deadly mistake.
The street gangs also developed hand signs and symbols that are unique to each group. Hand signs are used by gang members to indicate affiliation. They are also used to show disrespect to rival alliances. “There have been cases reported where hearing impaired individuals using sign language to communicate have been mistaken for gang members and have been the victims of gang violence” (San Antonio Police Department Youth Crime Service Unit). Graffiti is another method of showing disrespect to rival gangs, but it also serves as a territorial marker. Each gang can be identified by the symbols spray painted on the walls or tattooed on their skin. Tattoos are often etched into the skin of members that intend to be in the gang for a long period of time.
These are just two examples of the ever-changing world and the way we, as humans, perceive each other based on appearance. Over time, we have come to accept different clothing styles and the freedom to choose what we wear. In some situations, however, an individual’s decision to wear a certain color of clothing could be a fatal mistake. This illustrates how our clothing and accessories can speak volumes about our personal stature, interests, and affiliation.