International Fashion and Patriotism


If fashion is ultimately about seeking or rejecting certain group affiliations, then a study of international dress should be replete with examples of sartorial signs of loyalty. Surely, when there are no other groups left to join, one always has his/her country.

Patriotism, and the lack there of, is actually the theme of the “Fashion and Politics” exhibition currently on view at the Museum at FIT. And while we are all pretty familiar with the various American flag symbols decorating clothing here in this country, or all the images of the Queen or the British flag that parade around England, I want to think a little about some other signs of national loyalty through clothing that may not be as obvious to spot.


What does it mean to be genuinely patriotic in the way you dress? How does one show allegiance to one’s country in a way that isn’t forced or clichéd?

It goes without saying that national pride in dress isn’t always as overt as plastering a flag on a t-shirt. In fact, in some places, allegiance through dress isn’t even a choice a person is free to make. With the current debate swirling in France over making the “burka” illegal, many are beginning to ask the question: exactly how much can a government dictate what one wears? See an article on this issue from the BBC here.


While the idea of a governmentally enforced dress code seems totally abhorrent in our culture that so clearly values individualism (and the right to religious freedom), governmental laws regarding clothing are not a new concept at all. It’s actually true that governments have always had something to say about what its citizens are to wear. Although clothing laws have frequently dealt with the limitations on bodily exposure, there are some countries where the laws are more involved.

Sumptuary laws were really some of the first dress regulations imposed on citizens by their national governments. These laws were ultimately an attempt to stabilize class divisions. Governmentally imposed laws (which go as far back historically as ancient Greece and Rome) prohibited individuals of the lower classes from dressing in ways that mimicked the upper classes. Certain kinds of sartorial imitation was strictly forbidden.

In other words, the upper classes reserved the right to dress in ways that distinguished them as explicitly “upper class.” These sumptuary laws actually promoted class segregation and discrimination, which had an opposite effect of decreasing national pride and equality. If you’re interested, French Renaissance write Michel de Montaigne wrote a brief essay on sumptuary laws which you can find here.

Other governmental laws regarding dress typically reinforce gender roles and are usually affiliated with various religious beliefs (in a sense, France’s law against burkas stands directly in contrast to certain religious beliefs).

But does patriotism in dress then imply simply following rules instituted by governments? Or is there something more subtle or more personal in revealing a love of one’s country through clothing?

Indeed, underneath whatever staunch laws and regulations governments may enforce, there still lingers a beautiful global kaleidoscope of ethnic styles of dress, which have been preserved and passed down through hundreds of generations of weavers, textile designers, etc. So the affiliations of family and tradition may be stronger than any outright national loyalty, and those more intimate connections may in fact be what keeps varieties of regional dress as stunningly diverse and intriguing as they are today.


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1 Comment

  • Tove Hermanson September 02, 2009 08.40 am

    A great– if frequently dry– resource for sumptuary laws and the outcry that pretty much every fashion fad received is Aileen Ribeiro’s “Dress and Morality.”


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