The Act of Covering

The primary function of clothes is to protect us from environmental influences but what really happens in our brain when we put on clothes?

Words by Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein

I spent the first few years of my life rummaging forests and attempting to build dams across rushing rivers at the foot of the Swiss mountains. It is no wonder that my mother made us wear what she called “play clothes” – clothes suitable for falling into freezingly cold river water or ripping while climbing on trees. These clothes were mostly hand me downs from friends of friends, already patched up, with sleeves that were slightly too short, and highwater trousers before they became a thing. While I understand my mother’s intentions (she was a working mother of four with no time for laundry), I have never shaken the memory of what wearing these clothes made me feel. Compared to our friends, prancing about in their newest sneakers and flowery blouses, my sisters and I felt hideous in our “play outfits”. They communicated to us that we were somehow “less than” for wearing them. It wasn’t until I saw my first Western movie, and decided I wanted to be a Native American Apache warrior, that things began to change. I handmade myself a suitable outfit – a potato sack with colourful “embroidery” (if you can call it that) and feather ornaments. This became my daily attire and played an important role in helping me regain a sense of pride in myself.

Years later, our family moved abroad, and my sisters and I started attending private international schools. Despite the fact that we now rode a school bus that stopped right in front of our house, my mother, still her pragmatic German self, insisted we wear proper boots during the winter (more suitable for hiking than sitting in a heated classroom). While riding said bus, I experienced the same familiar feeling of shame. This feeling endured until I finally reached my locker each morning, which thankfully was located in one of the quieter hallways. Once there, I immediately changed into the pair of more culturally appropriate shoes I had hidden in my locker.

Harley Weir Image by Harley Weir,
Cosmic Wonder Image by Cosmic Wonder,

Shame is defined as the fear of being unworthy. The word itself is believed to be rooted in the word ‘skem’, meaning “to cover”. Covering oneself to hide one’s perceived unworthiness is the natural human response to feelings of shame. Just picture me (a stranger) walking into the bathroom, while you are taking a shower. I imagine you would immediately wrap yourself in the shower curtain or grab a sponge to hide your private parts. Embodied cognition researchers have theorised that our brain makes sense of our feelings and language by mentally simulating the actions associated with it...

...making the act of dressing the embodied human reaction to shame.

While the function of clothes is easy to grasp, the concept of fashion is slightly more complex. The Oxford dictionary defines fashion as the “popular or latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour”. According to psychologists, the function of fashion items is often just a placebo. Fashion items are valued for their ability to allow the wearer to fit in and be accepted within a social group. If clothes cover us from the shame and discomfort of being exposed physically to environmental influences, then perhaps fashion covers us emotionally in relationship to others.

When it comes to fashion, even slightly missing the mark can turn a great outfit into an inappropriate one. Instead of promoting the wearer to a state of confidently belonging to a group, the outfit causes discomfort and shame. A typical example is the effect that being pictured wearing the same fabulous outfit twice on the same Instagram feed would have on some. The less digitally expressive may be able to relate to this scenario by picturing how it would feel to show up at work wearing the same outfit as your boss.

Masha Mel Image by Masha Mel,

Author and researcher Brene Brown defines shame in relation to guilt. While guilt is linked to behaviour and says “I have made a mistake”, shame speaks to our identity and says “I AM a mistake”. Although fashion can be a source of shame, it can also serve as one of the antidotes against it by reaffirming our identity – as when I switched the hideous “play clothes” for my glorious, handmade warrior costume. The NGO “Dress For Success” illustrates this beautifully. By providing professional clothing to women in disadvantaged situations, the organisation helps “the women believe in their own ability to succeed”. Considering their high success rate in helping these women secure jobs, it seems as if within the clothes we wear rests the power to remind us of who we truly are and help us act accordingly.

As professionals and decision makers working in an industry often looked down upon as frivolous, we need to be reminded of the profound influence of clothes on our sense of identity and even the way we perform. Clothes are here to stay, not just for their practical function, but even more so, because they serve to meet one of the most basic human needs: the need to be accepted and to belong.

Working in fashion means a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to use what we do to influence people’s lives for the better.


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