Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Must We Mean What We Wear?

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What follows is a guest post by Marilynn Johnson.

A Compulsive Con Man

On January 4, 2016, a man who identified himself as Jeremiah Asimov-Beckingham walked into a New York City police station wearing a Harvard sweatshirt, a Wounded Warrior baseball hat, and military dog tags. He had come to inquire about an impounded BMW but was instead quickly arrested and charged with a crime. Why had this wealthy military veteran and Harvard grad been arrested? It turns out his name is Jeremy Wilson, not Jeremiah Asimov-Beckingham, and he had been arrested on charges of fraud. For years he had been traveling the country, adopting different personas. In New York, he had been living as Jeremiah Asimov-Beckingham, but this character was a fabrication.

Before his trial, the police went to Jeremy Wilson’s home to gather evidence. Among the items they collected were two purple hearts, two bronze stars, American and Canadian military fatigues, two Harvard University hats, one Harvard Law hat, one Harvard military hat, one MIT hat, one ARMY hat, one Canadian military hat, one ARMY t-shirt, and two purple-heart veteran license plates. Jeremy Wilson was not a Harvard or MIT graduate; he had never been an active member of the military; he had never been a lawyer or a doctor. But somehow, at different points across his career as a con artist, he had convinced people he was all of these things. Jeremy Wilson is now serving a 7-14 year prison sentence in New York for fraud.


Illustration of Jeremy Wilson at trial (by author)

Clothing and other forms of bodily adornment played a crucial role in Jeremy Wilson’s deception. The clothing items collected by the police were understood to have certain meaning by those Jeremy Wilson encountered. If we see someone wearing a Harvard Law School sweatshirt we assume they went to Harvard Law. If we see someone wearing a white coat we assume they are a doctor. But why? Anyone can buy a Harvard Law School sweatshirt. Anyone can buy a white lab coat. Where does the meaning of these items come from? Does clothing and bodily adornment get meaning in the same way words get meaning? Or is there something special about hats and sweatshirts?

Roland Barthes

Philosophers have not paid much attention to meaning in bodily adornment, or to the questions that arise from considering adornment as a category of meaning. By “adornment” I mean clothing as well as everything from haircuts to tattoos to jewelry to makeup. Most philosophers have either ignored such things, or viewed them as “merely imitative”. A notable exception to this comes from French philosopher Roland Barthes’ writing from the 1950s and 1960s. Barthes attempted to understand meaning in adornment in terms of structuralism—a prevailing theory of meaning at the time. A structuralist approach carves the world up into signifiers and signifieds—that is, into things that bear content (signifiers) and the content itself (signifieds). Barthes systematically went through French fashion magazines Elle and Jardin des Modes and attempted to pair up aspects of clothing in photos with the text used to describe the clothing. A signifier such as a white silk peter pan collar might signify elegance.


Jardin des Modes, March 1954 cover (via Flickr)

Barthes ran into problems with this project and eventually abandoned it, essentially coming to the conclusion that it was too hard to isolate specific signifiers. With the white silk peter pan collar, is it the whiteness, the silk, the shape of the collar, or perhaps all three together that signifies elegance? With clothing itself—unlike with words—it is extremely complicated to attempt to specify what the units of meaning are. Structuralism, which breaks the world into discrete signifiers, requires this. Barthes hit a wall with the project and it pushed him to abandon structuralism for a different theory of meaning grounded instead in the interpreter.

Gricean Intentionalism in Adornment

If structuralism is not the way to go about considering meaning in bodily adornment, then what is? A theory of meaning that focuses less on isolating signifiers and signifieds and more on the dovetailed relationship between meaning-makers and interpreters is better suited to the task.

The theoretical framework we need can be found in the work of British philosopher of language H. P. Grice. Around the same time Barthes was considering fashion, across the English Channel Grice was considering meaning construed more broadly. In his 1957 paper “Meaning” Grice presents his distinction between natural and non-natural meaning. Roughly, natural meaning is when things have meaning “on their own”, such as dark clouds on the horizon that mean rain. Things with non-natural meaning are different in that need they need a “meaning-maker”.


Dark clouds over Denmark (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sentences have non-natural meaning and are, of course, made up of words that have a history of use. The vast majority of words do not have any causal or necessary connection to the things they pick out in the world. This makes the relationship between ‘cat’ and cats different from the relationship between dark clouds and rain. The word ‘cat’ could have been the word for dogs and vice versa. This is why we can pick out cats with all kinds of sounds in other languages—‘gato’ in Spanish, ‘billee’ in Hindi, and ‘neko’ in Japanese. These words have no special connection to the objects they stand for over and above our use of them. There is more to be said about how words build up to meaningful sentences, but on Grice’s theory an utterance containing a word like ‘cat’ has meaning in virtue of my intention to cause some effect in a hearer.

As an illustration of how recognition of an intention bears on interpretation, imagine the following exchange between two people who just got a badminton birdie stuck in a tree.

Michelle: Climb up there and get it.
Steve: I am not a cat.

In this exchange Steve makes a statement that would in other circumstances be very odd. We don’t usually go around stating which animals we are not. But here he clearly communicates something relevant to the conversation and Michelle’s utterance. He rejects the suggestion that he climb up the tree by uttering, “I am not a cat.” Most hearers can pick up what Steve meant almost instantly. Steve got across something relevant to the conversation, about the birdie, not something irrelevant about what animal he is. Words have meanings that are code-like, but as competent hearers who understand the nuance of human communication, interpretation of non-natural meaning requires not just “decoding” but also identifying an intention.

Clothing and other forms of bodily adornment can also have non-natural meaning. Workers at Target wear red shirts and khaki pants. This is an instance of non-natural meaning in dress. A red shirt and khakis is a sort of code in the sense that Target workers wear this combination of garments when they are working at the store. But perhaps you have had the experience of walking into a Target and realizing that you were dressed like a Target worker. What a surprise to suddenly find yourself in an environment where people are asking you to help with their shopping. You might realize that anyone who sees you will think that you work there but that is not what you had meant by putting on those clothes that morning. Your clothing does not mean you are a Target worker if it was an accident that you went to the store in red and khaki.

What is relevant here is not the garment itself but how this garment provides evidence of an intention. As with utterances, bodily adornment means what the wearer intended it to mean.


Bodily adornments (image by author)

Natural Meaning

I have argued for understanding some types of meaning in bodily adornment as Gricean non-natural meaning. Does this account fully exhaust the sort of meaning in bodily adornment? What of the natural meaning I discussed above? Does bodily adornment also have this?

In graduate school at the City University of New York I used to teach a winter term course at City College. I would take the 1 train north to get to campus, walk up a steep hill, and teach in an old classroom with chalk boards—my first and last time teaching with chalk rather than on a whiteboard. It was January in New York and like most of my fellow train riders I was usually wearing black. My first few times riding home from City College I would sort of take a breath and come down from the teaching high and take in my surroundings. Looking down, I saw my clothes were no longer black. It turned out I was absolutely covered in chalk! In fact I had a line around my hips where they hit the ledge on the bottom of the board. I tried to rub it off, but would only rub it in, adding whatever chalk had been on my hands. It was futile. It was clear I had just been teaching. The evidence was covering me.

My formerly black clothes now covered in chalk had meaning—natural meaning. My chalk-covered self meant I had been teaching. This type of meaning parallels Grice’s example of clouds meaning rain. Our clothes and other forms of adornment or visible bodily changes can provide direct evidence of where we have been or where we are going.

We are so good at making these sorts of inferences that we might not realize we are making them. If a friend is dripping in sweat after the gym we will assume they had a hard workout. If a job candidate’s shirt is covered in sweat during an interview we will assume they are nervous. In these inferences the surrounding facts are relevant and used to assess the situation but this may not be conscious.

What is important with these types of meaning is that the intention is not relevant. That is, we come to take the body or bodily adornment to have natural meaning not because the other person wants us to but because we simply take some state of the person (e.g. chalk on clothes, sweaty, watch on the right hand, Windsor knot) within the conditions of the state of the world (e.g. after a workout, during an interview) to mean something. Here, the thing itself has meaning.

Chrissy Teigen & Butterfly Con Artists

Not only is the intention not relevant to natural meaning in bodily adornment but sometimes people try to fake it. Being nervous is almost never a quality that we wish to convey. But confidence is not so easy to fake. There are telltale signs. This is why we take steps to make it so that our sweat is not visible at a job interview or during a presentation. This can be as simple as wearing antiperspirant or can extend to wearing certain colors or types of fabric. Some may even have Botox injected into the underarms to stop perspiration, as Chrissy Teigen recently filmed for her 25.3 million Instagram followers, writing, “Truly best move I have ever made.” In this way we sometimes attempt to hide things that would be taken to have natural meaning. Other times we add things that are taken have natural meaning, such as blush. And sometimes, as with being sweaty after a workout, our bodies are reliable indicators of some state of the world, of who we are in that moment, of what we’ve done.

In this way, with natural meaning, our more base, animalistic selves as bodies—as organisms that are themselves indicators of things to those around us—take center stage. This is no coincidence, and Darwin himself was fascinated by the parallels between bodily “expression” in man and animals. Animals assess each other using various indicators, some that we share and some that are unique to each species.

And animals also lie, or at least, to put it in more neutral terms, convey false information. The conspicuous gold, black, and white patterning on the poisonous butterfly Danaus chrysippus is copied by at least 38 other species that are not poisonous. A bear’s fur will stand on end when it is engaged in a fight, causing it to appear larger. An individual butterfly does not have control over its patterning and a bear cannot control its fur standing on end. But the outcome is that a potential predator or a rival takes these bodies to mean certain things—certain things that are not quite true. Animals have certain bodily features that play off the meaning that is associated with certain patterning, certain size. This evolves because it confers an advantage to the species. So long as there are meanings, there will be meanings manipulated. This was true for Jeremy Wilson and it is true for the butterflies as well.


Danaus chrysippus (via Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks to Daniel Bender and Thi Nguyen for their very helpful comments on this post.

Notes on the Contributor
Marilynn Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego. She is writing a book on meaning in bodily adornment, under contract with Bloomsbury. You can learn more about her and her work here.

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen

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