Why Do People Wear Clothes?
Considering the practical and cultural reasons why we dress, and why we could be naked. My answer to the question “Why do people wear clothes? Are they actually necessary?”, which I found asked on Quora!
There are many reasons why most of us wear clothes, but only sometimes do those reasons make wearing anything truly necessary:
The basic practical one. In many parts of the world, and/or at many times of the year it is simply too cold not to be clothed. So for at least some of the year, to exist in certain parts of the world, some sort of clothing is necessary.
Even in your own home, unless you’re fortunate enough to live someplace extremely well insulated, it may be too cold to be undressed in winter most of the time (especially if you’re not selfish enough to just waste energy on excessive heating). When you’re moving around the home at least; you may be able to be comfortably naked while hiding beneath a blanket when inactive!
But many parts of the world do not face this limitation, they are either consistently warm, only have seasonal cold periods, or maybe only get cool at night. Indeed many places are so warm it would be far more comfortable not to wear clothes!
So clothing could readily be abandoned for long periods of time in much of the world, be it certain warmer times of the year, or times of the day. In many climates, it would be perfectly practical to remain naked at all times, and in many others, clothing could be optional for periods spanning anything from warmer hours in a day, to months of more agreeable seasons.
The other side of the climate consideration is that some places may be too sunny to stay outside uncovered without doing harm to your body. So while such places are probably plenty warm enough to be naked, if you plan to move about outside at the sunniest times of day, clothing may be needed to provide a highly localised area of shade to protect your skin from the potential damage of strong sunlight.
Of course there are sun protection creams you can apply which may mean even this sort of clothing is avoidable in all but the most extremely sunny places.
Many items of clothing are used specifically to maintain safety; to protect the wearer from infections, dangerous chemicals, extremes of heat or cold, or materials or equipment that may do them harm if they came into contact with the body. Of course, these are only needed when dealing with the specific dangerous situation they are intended to handle.
Indeed we’re quite used to the idea of casting aside excessive protective clothing once a danger has passed (we maybe even do so with relief). Maybe this is a habit we could learn to apply to all clothing!
Many items of clothing are only worn because people are commanded to do so; workplace or school uniforms, or even broader forms such as suits in business or formal locations and events, or general guidelines on what types of clothing and degrees of dress are deemed necessary to enter a particular workplace, event, or business.
Some of these might have practical reasons that make them necessary to a degree; how do you know who is a member of staff in a shop for instance? But that sort of thing could be achieved as minimally as a wristband or lanyard; so many uniforms could easily be minimalised down to almost nothing, save for those that take into account the safety conditions mentioned above.
Other uniforms or dress code standards have no practical need at all, they are just about conformity, control, or custom, and could if we choose be gotten rid of entirely.
Many people wear certain outfits or items of clothing because they like how they look, and how it makes them look. This can be for internal personal reasons of simply enjoying a certain style and wanting to play with it. Or it can more actively consider an audience and be more about a desire to make a statement about the sort of person we are via our fashion choices. Clothing is a form of communication, and a way of expressing our identity, which can wordlessly say a huge amount.
There can also be elements of sentimentality or nostalgia in certain fashion choices, or costume that has particular cultural significance. Sometimes an outfit choice may also serve to exhibit oneself; to reveal, suggest, or emphasise particular body parts, perhaps to attract romantic or sexual attention.
Of course, all these reasons for wanting to look a certain way via clothing are entirely optional, and even if you have a particular style you enjoy and want to show off, it doesn’t mean you need to live in it 100% of the time. So none of these sorts of clothing are exactly necessary. Indeed someone could still choose to make particular fashion statements some of the time, while being free to be free of fashion entirely by being undressed at other times.
Perhaps the flipside of expressive decoration is using clothing as a means to enforce social hierarchy. Clothing can be a means to show off social status, either by wearing lavish obviously expensive clothing (be it high-quality items more traditionally, or displaying brands in the modern era), or simply by conforming to the costume of social class by wearing certain types of clothing, or clothing at all.
Colourism in many cultures means that being undressed might be undesirable, as the likelihood of getting more tanned skin would suggest you often work outdoors, toiling in the field as only poor people would.
Colonial influences have been even more instrumental in imposing the apparent need for clothing on the world, with colonial powers making efforts to “civilise” entire cultures into the habit of wearing clothing when previously they lived perfectly happily naked or partially dressed, demonstrating just how unnecessary clothing really is until we decide to make it so, as a sign of status or advancement.
Many people, maybe most people, get dressed simply because they always have done, and have never even considered questioning it. For most tasks in many environments clothing is completely superfluous, and could easily be left at home, if anyone simply considered to themselves, “do I need to wear anything today?”.
Which leads us to the big one: Most modern cultures have developed a social expectation that in most places people should be clothed. There are a few exceptions scattered around the world — topless or nude beaches, saunas, bath houses, and the like — where this expectation is temporarily cast aside, but for most of us, the day-to-day expectation is that we are clothed and so are other people around us.
This is deeply ingrained, with children raised into the habits of clothing from birth, so it is conditioning that is hard for many to break.
Some of the other reasons above explain some of these cultural habits and traditions of being dressed, but a lot of it comes from a widespread cultural association of nudity with sex, and sex with shame (and that itself largely linked to religious indoctrination), and thus the idea that anyone simply being naked (or even wearing more revealing clothing than the current social norm) must be making some sort of shameful sexual act and therefore be something we should all shun.
Sex needn’t be a subject of shame anyway. But moreover, in reality nudity and sex only occasionally intersect anyway, and we can choose exactly when and where they do. So even if we assume sex might want to be a typically private thing, that doesn’t mean nudity needs to be so too.
Most nudity is not inherently sexual at all. The things we all do naked, like taking showers, or the moments before getting dressed, are obviously not sexual. The things we could do naked, such as doing anything at home, spending time with friends, going for a walk or bike ride, going shopping or eating out, or well just about anything we do in life; all these things are so clearly not sexual, and would not magically be sexually if people were doing the exact same things simply without clothes.
So really most of the time clothing is not at all necessary, and if we made a collective choice to think about that necessity, we could easily choose to step out of the habits of the current social expectations, and be naked for many periods of time in the year, and in many parts of the world just about all the time!