As I think I’ve mentioned before, last semester we read epic poetry; the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One recurring theme was that of armor. Achilleus, in the Iliad, has made for him by the god Hephaestus a suit of armor that protects him from all attackers. Aeneas in the Aeneid has a similar suit made for him. Beowulf, however, goes into battle unarmored – the movie Beowulf that just comes out interprets this as nude – trusting in God to protect him.
I don’t know if nude is what the Beowulf poet meant, but battling unclothed has certainly happened historically – the celts, it is said painted themselves with woad and wore nothing else, believing the blue dye would protect them from harm. I don’t know what they thought when it clearly didn’t stop the pilum-throws and gladius-thrusts they suffered at the hands of the Roman army. Battling in full armor can also be seen in medieval knights who wore full plate armor, covering even their faces.
This is all seemingly tangential, but I think in the end relevant, to my topic of the nature of clothing. It seems to me that clothing is really not fundamentally different from armor. Both are intended to shield you from the outside world. To not wear armor in battle is to declare that you do not need physical protection, that somehow you are safe from physical assault or simply do not fear death. To not wear clothing is to declare that you are not ashamed of your nakedness.
So it seems armor is protection against physical assault and clothing protection from being seen. Most people, I think, would say that, in protecting against sight, the basic goal is to cover up the genitalia. I think it’s more than that, though. Clothing tends not to just cover up what needs to be covered up, it makes us look less like animals and more like machines. Pants hide the fact that our legs are composed of different parts, and make them look like single-width cylinders. Shirts do the same for the torso and, if they are long, for the arms. I have even read that long coats are a good idea if robots take over the world because they’ll obscure the fact that you’re walking, not just gliding, and thus obscure the fact that you’re human. We like to cover up everything but our face and hands so that we can manipulate the world, view the world with our senses, but not be affected by the world directly – we are protected by our clothing. Put like this, clothing takes on an almost Gnostic character. Which shouldn’t surprise; according to Christianity, clothes are a result of sin – but they are also, strangely, a gift from God, who gives Adam and Eve real clothes after he discovers them wearing fig-leaves.
This almost body-denying nature of clothing applies to men, definitely. I know that many guys, including me, rarely if ever wear shorts, and many of those will also wear long sleeves and coats whenever possible. I’ll also note that it’s usually the more intelligent – some might say pretentious – guys who follow this practice, and the less-so ones who don’t. But the goal of female clothing is clearly different – they want you to look at them.
This doesn’t go only for the… well, sluttish way many girls dress today. Even modestly dressed women don’t hide the fact that yes, they have breasts, yes, their legs curve, yes, their face and their hands are not just floating there in midair attached to lumps of cloth. In other words, they don’t hide that they are attractive, in a not-necessarily-sexual manner (c.f. my earlier post on that subject, Amor).
Why the difference? Perhaps because men won’t fall in love with a girl they aren’t sexually attracted to – but, really, I think it’s more than this. Like I said, it isn’t primarily about sex, for at least some women. Some of it probably has to do with the fact that (and I don’t care if you think this statement is sexist) women tend to be more earthly than men, who seem to be much more strongly tempted by gnosticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; no, we shouldn’t be gnostic, but if males tend naturally towards hiding their bodies more I don’t think that means we have to fight that tendency.
At least, I don’t plan on doing so any time soon. Even if it is flawed, I figure it can’t actually be sinful, and I really would prefer to wear a trench coat almost every day. Besides being potentially gnostic, they’re just cool.