Themes in Fashion Theory: The Fig Leaf

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It’s often said that a study of fashion should begin with a study of the body. But what does examining the body look like in reference to clothing? It’s no surprise that in mulling over this topic, I’ve ended up thinking about the story of Adam and Eve, and their nakedness and shame.

Shame is a big topic. Does it relate to clothing or dress? It’s arguable that we hide our shame concerning our body with clothing, but is there a sense in which we feel shame concerning our clothing itself? Dolly Parton sang about her “coat of many colors” with a mixture of shame and nostalgia, remembering her threadbare youth. We feel shame and embarrassment when we wear things that don’t fit our bodies, and when we, in turn, don’t fit in.

One of my most embarrassing moments as a child was making a lunch stop at a McDonald’s during a family vacation. During the previous four-hour car trip my shoes were misplaced among all the luggage in the back seat. I was forced to wear my father’s much-too-big tennis shoes into the McDonalds during this busy mid-summer lunch rush. I still remember the feelings of shame and embarrassment I felt as it seemed that everyone in this crowded restaurant was staring at me wearing clothing that clearly did not fit. As a result, I felt that I inherently did not fit in.

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Similar stories can be found in everyone’s experience. Clothing allows for highly orchestrated methods of “reading” someone’s body to see if they “fit.” Do they fit into their body? Do they fit into their clothes? Do their clothes fit into our group? This multi-tiered experience of “fitting in” is at the heart of our anxiety over joining groups. But at the very deepest level is a profound existential fear of being found to be an outsider, of fundamentally “not fitting in,” or being exposed as an imposter or a phony.

In every sense, to be exposed is to be cast out, revealed as an imposter, an outsider, an unknown. We fear this so greatly because to be “known” as a self, an individual, is ultimately to be known in context, specifically in the context of a group. And to be cast out is to lose context, and therefore lose identity.

And this idea of exposure is so fundamental to the Adam and Eve narrative. As the story goes, after our progenitors ate of the forbidden fruit, they felt guilt. In their shame, they covered themselves with fig leaves to hide their nakedness. These fig leaves, or the original DIY garments, signified that they had fallen out of relationship – with their Creator primarily – and with each other – when before they had known no shame. Both literally and metaphorically they were cast out. God set flaming swords above the entrance to the garden and never again were they to enter paradise. And somehow clothing was at the center of the equation.

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I’m not sure how we should read the fact that a transition from an idyllic naked body to the condemnable clothed self is at the vortex of the story of the Fall of Mankind, but I think that what it may indicate, if it is to be taken seriously at all, is that perhaps there is a shred of shame, of duplicity and disguise at work in every outfit we put on. Perhaps there is something even fundamental in the very essence of human cultural projects that is built on a lie – the lie that ideal relationships are actually attainable. We concoct all these elaborate schemes and endeavors to reach the Other and yet we are always pushing others away. As Ruth Barcan puts it in her wonderful book Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy (Dress, Body, Culture): “The Adam and Eve story instigates as a primary metaphor for duplicity, deception, and indeed language itself, which is understood as a sadly necessary alienation from the naked truth of God. Adam’s fig leaf is, as the German writer Franz Werfel put it, ‘the first cultural document.’… ‘Culture,’ writes Werfel, begins precisely in that we have something to hide.’”

But really what interests me here is the relation of nudity and shame. What are we hiding when we hide the body? As the above quote suggests, in that first moment of shame – when Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness and hid themselves with leaves – all of culture and society was built on concealment. So perhaps all of civilization is built on a lie.

At first, this thought seems so bleak and distressing. How can we avoid the lie – should we just traipse around in our birthday suits to avoid lying to others about who we are? But after a moment of reflection one realizes that living amongst others is always an act of self-restraint, or restraining the “true self.”

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The self cannot always be laid bare, vulnerable, exposed. In order to “get things done” we must put on our exterior armor, so to speak, and move about the world to accomplish the tasks necessary for survival. It has been argued that the advent of the city and harshness that comes with maneuvering through the urban geography is part of what has caused us to feel the need to “gird our loins” and move through our day protected, guarded, literally locking the self deep within. But yet, there still has to be a “self” to travel in that environment. So this is where the matter of dress enters… How do we fashion that shell that is to meet the public eye?

Within the safeguards of clothing, let’s not forget the delicate honesty of the body. Somewhere in the vulnerability of nudity we may be more apt to connect with one another. In order to face our ever-present fear of exposure perhaps we should just be exposed.

For more reading on the subject of clothing, nudity, and shame see: Disappearing Persons: Shame and Appearance (Suny Series in Psychoanalysis and Culture) , by Benjamin Kilborne and A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit

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1 Comment

  • Tove Hermanson January 08, 2010 10.21 am

    Another layer, I think, is how comfortable a person *feels* in the his own clothes. Strictly fashionable / trendy or not, I’m often struck by people who move and behave with relaxed ease (and the inverse). This is obviously a body issue and not strictly a fashion one, but the ideally unselfconsciousness of a person translates to how a person wears his clothes– and to the overall effect of his “style.” A person who’s dressed impeccably but who constantly adjusts the clothes on his person or looks stiff and awkward doesn’t appear as “stylish” as one who might wear more outlandish (even physically restrictive) clothes, but seems comfortable with his body and the projected image.

     

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