Earlier this month I talked about the Pioneer 10 mission, which sent an unmanned probe beyond our solar system and to the stars. Affixed to this probe was the famous Pioneer Plaque, depicting two human figures, one male and one female. The significance of the plaque, from a scientific standpoint, is the pictorial representation of its origins, and how to find us. Also significant is that the humans pictures are naked. Naturally, many people were upset by this back in 1972 when the probe was launched, while others lampooned the hieroglyphic image as being earth-centric. Indeed, great thought went into designing the plaque and its message to whomever would ultimately find it. Would extraterrestrials even understand its intended meaning? The human figures being nude certainly raised eyebrows, suggesting perhaps that we all walk around naked, the males raising their right hand as if taking an oath. (And considering that more than half the world’s population is either African or Asian, the caucasian complexion and appearance of the Pioneer-ing couple might be somewhat misleading to our other-worldly visitors.)
Why naked? Why would the plaque portray us as if we don’t wear clothes? Humans have been wearing clothing since the beginning of civilization. Ancient Egyptian fashions were actually more sophisticated than Hollywood and history books would have us believe. Of course there are the occasional deviations to fashion, like the trend of Minoan women to expose their breasts wearing a V-shaped, split garment with mid-length sleeves. Most cultures throughout history have placed great importance on dress. Traditional dress has often been used to identify national origin, from the Bunad in Norway to the Sari in India, for centuries upon centuries. Clothing styles help us to distinguish ourselves from one generation to another. You wouldn’t often see a man in his 70’s wearing cargo shorts and sporting a backwards cap and a Hollister t-shirt. Likewise, few 19-year-old males are comfortable wearing a suit and tie. Just as age determines appropriate dress, so do occupation, gender, socioeconomic status, class, and day of the week.
Europeans can easily identify when an American is in their midst (the white socks are usually a give-away). Actually, we stand out like a wine stain on a white shirt pretty much everywhere we go. Speaking of white shirts, I was mildly admonished (as a technical consultant) that my attire was not conservative enough for the place I worked (finance). That same attire would have been completely inappropriate for a Rush concert. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, appearances do matter.
When I was going to my first job interview out of college, my step dad took one look at my shoes and told me no one would hire me. They were certainly not shined, but I felt my black oxfords were in good enough shape for a sit-down with school administrators. He would not hear of it, and made me shine them before leaving the house. I now understand where he was coming from, he being a veteran and of another generation. Back then, people made more of an effort than we do these days. And it changes as you get older. Lately, I do take the time to shine my shoes for special occasions, or when they look like crap. Most men, I believe, do not own shoes that can be shined. And they probably don’t own a suit, either.
Abraham Maslow, in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”), supposed that humans are driven by having needs met on a tiered basis, the most basic set being “physiological” in nature, those related to being fed, avoiding dehydration, and protection from the elements. The basic need of “homeostasis” – maintaining body temperature – is as crucial as the needs for food and water, sleep, sex, and breathing. On a purely individual level, the need for clothing is simple: cover the body adequately to protect from frostbite or sunburn and everything in between. But once a person, an individual, becomes part of a collective, part of a village or a city, he is within the constraints of that society. Social needs are much different.
Society dictates that clothing is more than something to cover yourself. Social ideals and limitations are very difficult to overcome. (You can test this by wearing a burqa in Fort Worth, Texas. You will soon realize that your appearance really does matter.) While the clothes we wear are a reflection of who we are as individuals, the styles we choose are determined by our culture. Naturally, young people move in a direction that separates them from their parents, but Americans dress like Americans, and Nepalese dress like Nepalese, but with blue jeans, lately. Here in the 21st century, you can wear whatever you like, within reason (you apparently are not allowed to hike in the nude in Switzerland anymore.) If clothes make the man, what can be said about the trend-setter? What can we say about the rank and file?
I ask myself, am I just meeting my basic need, am I a follower of societal norms, or am I going to wear that silver lamé jacket to the office on Halloween?