I am convinced clothes are one of the most powerful tools to communicate non- verbally with others. And that’s why I share my earliest memories using this tool.
Why do most girls from western countries wear revealing clothes compared to the girls from eastern countries?
This question pop up in Quora, but it has been in my mind for a long time. I thought about it, got my conclusions and rethink them when I went to India. Now, I want to share them. This is my experience.
There must be more than one sociological and semiotic takes on this matter, as clothes are one of the most powerful tools to non- verbally explain yourself to the world.
Although, I would go for one of the simplest explanations I have found through my years of observation and analysis on this regards. But first, a story.
When I was about 16 years old, I started attending a yearly trip to one of the poorest areas in rural Mexico. We would prepare everything from the trip in order to work on social projects, like health talks, human rights, early education for their children and so on in the communities we were visiting. The teams were formed mostly by teenage girls and older women that were teachers at my high school. It was a Catholic school run by some of the most modern and open minded nuns I (or anyone) have ever met. They were not only spiritually strong, but they have had been working with these communities for 20- 30 years on developing projects and, also, in a modernized take of religion. This means that they were not only talking the talk but also walking the walk: yes, the village might be in need of building that would serve as a church, and the nuns would help to raise the money. But the venue would also work as the place where women rights or in- house economy talks and workshops would occur.
These ladies were (and probably still are) no joke. And if you wanted to be part of the secular volunteers they would take annually during Spring break, you better get your mind set to what they and other experienced volunteers told you to be ready for. It could be from learning as much as possible of their native language -that was náhuatl in that geographic area- to understanding how people there would interpreted some gestures that might be pretty the norm to us, as urban middle- class teenage girl. For instance, you were required to eat all of whatever food was in your plate every time you visited a house (they were more likely huts, actually, and you would be visiting about 15 houses each day, and be fed in all of them…). And, what really matters to this question: you were supposed to wear crew neck t- shirts or buttoned up shirts and a long skirt, preferably in A cut.
Wait, what? Was that an uniform imposition? Well, the idea was to non- verbally reinforce that we were part of the volunteer organization and we were respectful of their way of living, as you wouldn’t see any female of any age wearing jeans or trousers of any kind. In their views, women wear dresses and skirts. And that included us.**
Wearing these modest clothes were not as bad as you might think, specially for the weather, that was extremely hot, and because it was only for a week. But you were able to feel part of something bigger, at the time you were adapting to the circumstances.
Also, we were sending a powerful message: “hey (very macho men mentality) guys from the town: these girls here are not looking for a husband, are not interested in getting involved in any kind of romantic relationship and you must respect them as they are respecting you.” I must say that clothes probed being a very powerful communication tool.
So, as you can imagine now, my take on modest clothing is that it is a way to give your peers a lot of information about yourself without saying too much, and it is directly connected with traditions and values: people wear the kind of clothes that are closer to their top values, in order to make them clear to others from the distance.
In my opinion, and grosso modo, Western urban cultural values are strongly aligned with freedom, right of self expression, and forward thinking about individual takes on clothes. Eastern cultural values, meanwhile, seems to be aligned with tradition, community identity, religious beliefs, weather (this one is importan, specially when it comes to fabrics) and modesty as the top on the list.
When you are somewhere were you are expected to look and behave a certain way, you will be flashy and, in a way, noisy if you do the opposite. And it seems that half of the world or so will be wearing the clothes in a very different fashion than you or I do, because of their core cultural values.
** Nowadays, the missionary trips are still up and roaring, but dress code for women volunteers doesn’t involve the long skirt anymore. Not even for the nuns. Times change, mentality evolves.