April 18, 2009

Dressing up

Dress in ancient Rome as in the modern day is a form of language. By dressing the way I do I mean to tell you something about myself that I think you ought to know. It is significant that in societies like Orwell's 1984 where the individual is reduced into the collective dress is made more uniform- that is even true today in modern offices where workers are supposed to be interchangeable to the outside world, again dress is circumscribed. Dress is a language and it communicates to those who see the type of clothes that we wear what we are doing, who we are and what we think. As a language, it has conventions- we might call those conventions the fashions of the day. Amongst those conventions are conventions about the kinds of dress each gender wears.

In that sense, this review of a book about Roman female clothes is very interesting because it points out, using evidence from the reviewed book, the kind of things that women in Rome were keen to say and were taken to say through the way that they dressed. Women in Rome were trying to protect their reputations both as women of style and as women of virtue: they trod a tightrope in terms of the way that they dressed to avoid the accusations of boorishness and prostitution. Just as interesting are the other associations that came with clothes: transformations in scientific technique means that we are less likely to do this, but in Ancient Rome cosmetics were associated with poison. To devise and wear perfume was an art close to that of the poisoner-the same skills and often the same substances were involved. In that sense the woman who over emphasized her sexuality through clothes and perfume became a prostitute and a poisoner.

Of course there are other societies with other ways of viewing clothes- and male clothes too are significant. But ancient Rome reminds us of the importance of what we wear as a signifier of who we are- and the history of those signs is important if we are to understand the nature of the societies in which the people wearing the clothes lived.