Michael Carter, ‘Being Prepared: Aspects of Dress’ reviewed in Fashion Theory

Being Prepared: Aspects of Dress and Dressing – review by Ian Gilligan in Fashion Theory, The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture

Reviewed by Ian Gilligan

The meanings of dress, clothing, and fashion are so intermingled nowadays that it is hard to speak about one without inferring the others. Dress is mainly about appearance, the visual, while fashion includes the social meanings and functions of dress. Clothing occupies a central place in contemporary dress and fashion, but clothing is also a technology with properties and functions unrelated to dress and fashion. For these reasons, the overlap between dress and clothing can create problems when considering questions of origins.

Michael Carter’s book Being Prepared: Aspects of Dress and Dressing is concerned ultimately with origins, in relation to both dress and clothing. In essence, Carter proposes a model for the origin of dress which challenges the whole notion of function as the purpose of dress. Clothing is subsumed within the same process, whereby function becomes secondary because appearance takes precedence.

Carter’s previous book Overdressed: Barthes, Darwin and the Clothes that Speak (2013) laid the groundwork. Much of what appears in the natural world is not functional or advantageous in any meaningful sense but, like dress, is purely ornamental. In human culture, this non-utilitarian principle applies also to the social functions of dress, notwithstanding how fashion influences dress. Carter takes aim at Darwin’s functionalism (natural and sexual selection) and also at Barthes’s ([1960] 2013) linguistic theory of dress, which is similarly functional (dress is a form of language, or communication). Barthes missed the point: dress would still exist if it had no function at all. As Carter observes, dress is distinguished by all the useless “stuff” that exists above and beyond any function (Carter 2012, 347).

In Being Prepared, Carter shows how dress is not easily explained in functional terms. In Chapter Two, he discusses hats and their historical vicissitudes to good effect, and likewise with cosmetics in Chapter Three and the ironing of clothes in Chapter Five. Carter is at pains to discount any functional elements but in regard to clothing—the origin of clothing in particular—Carter’s critique of the functional is open to question. The problem is not Carter’s theory of dress but his insisting that clothing is always dress and always was dress.

Before looking at how Carter handles evidence about origins, there is the matter of definition. Carter mines his dictionaries and thesaurus for meanings of terms like dress, ornament, adornment, makeup, and decoration. And yet, strangely, there is no definition of clothing. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines clothes as “items worn to cover the body,” which perhaps would not suit Carter. In some ways, clothing is the opposite (or even antithesis) of dress: instead of—or in addition to— appearance and any function of display, clothing means cover and concealment.

With clothing, the topic of origins requires an interdisciplinary approach, and Carter should be applauded for venturing outside the disciplines of fashion theory and dress studies, notably by looking at evidence from the fields of archaeology and ethnography. A feather in his cap, yes, but other relevant sources (such as the thermal physiology of clothing, the known biological limits of cold tolerance for a species deprived of adequate fur cover, the impact of past climate change on requirements for portable insulation, and genetic studies of clothing lice) rate no mention.

Chapter Four deals with archaeological and ethnographic evidence, although Carter’s main source is a charming illustration of a “Stone Age family” (p. 80) taken from a 1965 book aimed at young readers. Scientific evidence pointing to the need for cover (thermal insulation) during the Ice Age—coinciding with archaeological signs of early clothing (Gilligan 2010, 37–59)—is dismissed by Carter as “controlled speculation” (p. 109). In contrast, Carter is impressed by the “rigorous” methodology of Barthes (p. 114), and he shares Barthes’s opinion that clothing should be viewed “above all, as an object of appearance” (Barthes [1960] 2013, 20, original emphasis). Following an analysis of the “Stone Age family,” we are informed that clothes and decoration share “a common root,” and hence, with clothing, “a purely utilitarian explanation seriously distorts matters” (p. 93). We then consider an ethnographic case, the “naked” people in Tierra del Fuego who so shocked Darwin in 1832 (Darwin 1839, 235). Carter notes that they wore garments made of animal skins at times, and for ceremonies they decorated themselves elaborately with body paints. He says, correctly, that regardless of whether or not they wore clothes, they were “dressed,” although he is unsure about Darwin’s use of the term “naked” (p. 95). Again, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary can clarify the meaning: naked means “without clothes” and, more generally, “without the usual covering or protection” (in the case of humans, lacking fur or clothes). Carter makes no mention of any protective purpose of the garments in the cold weather or the awkward fact that in order to get dressed, the people of Tierra del Fuego would remove their clothes. So it would seem that clothes are not always a form of dress. In this case, quite the opposite: clothes were an impediment to dress.

Chapter Five returns to more familiar historical territory, looking at formality and informality in clothes. Formality imposes shape and geometry on body form, aimed at suppressing natural imperfections in a cultural quest for an ideal of controlled perfection and completeness. Formal attire transforms the “wild or untamed” into a “groomed” and domesticated state (p. 150), with no unseemly “gaps or openings” (p. 149). Conversely, informality seems to head in the other direction. Carter discusses a photograph of his English father with rolled-up shirt sleeves in summer: this illustrates a shift to informality and casual wear, expressing a new cultural emphasis on freedom. After citing a dictionary definition of casual, he provides another example: a tennis shirt designed by Lacoste in 1933 to reduce overheating and perspiration for players on the tennis court. These shirts became fashionable as emblems of the leisure class and, even among the lower classes, buying them meant “purchasing abstract qualities” (p. 163) like freedom, leisure, and relaxation. As with the spectre of cold stress and prehistoric clothes, any suggestion of original functionality commits “brutal surgery on those dimensions of human life that are not primarily technological” (p. 92), and, worse, it allegedly assumes that “utility lies at the heart of human culture” (p. 110).

In the sixth and final chapter, Carter proposes that dress is a form of sublimation, referencing Freud and Marcuse. Yet the sublimation he describes bears little resemblance to Freud’s concept (e.g. Freud [1910] 1957, 74–78), which is rooted in sexuality and reflects Freud’s biological heritage. Likewise with Marcuse’s related concept of desublimation, where sexual repression can be manipulated by society to create an illusion of freedom; Marcuse nonetheless did entertain the possibility of non-repressive sublimation (Marcuse [1955] 1972, 142–156). As cover, clothing can engender modesty and serve as an instrument of sublimation in the classic Freudian sense (Gilligan 2016, 4–6). Instead, with the desexualized version of sublimation advocated by Carter, clothing expresses an innocent urge to perfection and completeness. As dress rather than as cover, clothing is expressive rather than repressive. Likewise in “revising” Marcuse’s concept of desublimation, Carter removes any political or repressive function (p. 191), echoing Foucault’s ([1978] 1998, 48) efforts to refute the “repressive hypothesis” (Renaud 2013, 93). One example used by Carter is revealing in this regard. In the beachside suburbs of Sydney early in the twentieth century, a local council tried to mandate a “skirt-like tunic” for men’s bathing costumes (pp. 191–192). For Carter this illustrates a social attempt to control dress, whereas the council was actually concerned that men’s bathing costumes failed to adequately conceal the genitals. The council’s solution was a skirt-like cover that would not reveal—or, hopefully, even hint at— the prominent shape of the hidden sexual apparatus. Carter seems not to notice the functional purpose here, and he muses: “it is difficult to know where the politics in all this lies” (p. 192). Marcuse might have had less difficulty.

Carter’s book offers a compelling theory for the origin of dress, if not clothes. To some extent, his theory of dress may be undermined by claiming that clothing is (and was) always dress and discounting the functional roles of clothing as cover. The latter does not preclude the acquisition of pre-existing decorative functions by clothes (and, for that matter, the emergence of modesty as a result of routinely covering the body). In that scenario, a shift from utilitarian to predominantly psychosocial functions would be a subsequent development with clothes, likely to happen once the human body became more completely enclosed by tailored, multi-layered garment assemblages in northern middle latitudes during colder phases of the Ice Age—which ended just 11,700 years ago, not “40,000–35,000 BC” (p. 84).

Carter highlights Carlyle’s views and says a “remarkable consensus” in fashion theory favors decoration as the original motive for wearing clothes (p. 112). Nonetheless, some fashion scholars have been more circumspect and suggested the possibility of different origins for clothing and dress (or costume), including Laver (1969, 8) and Boucher:

If one admits that clothing has to do with covering one’s body, and costume with the choice of a particular form of garment for a particular use, is it then permissible to deduce that clothing depends primarily on such physical conditions as climate … whereas costume reflects social factors …? Must we also envisage a process of emergence, which might place clothing before costume or costume before clothing? (Boucher 1987, 9)

Other fashion commentators have been careful to point out that clothing and dress are not necessarily synonymous (see e.g. Eicher and Evenson 2015, 3; Entwistle 2000, 6). Neither would a utilitarian origin of clothing necessarily detract from the transcendent and transformative aspects of dress which are so innovatively explored in this book. Carter makes a strong case that dress is an intrinsic aspect of human culture and it is futile (and probably misguided) to search for the origins of dress in an archaeological sense. Clothing is a different proposition, and a utilitarian origin of clothing in prehistory—for which there is ample evidence—can accommodate Carter’s thought-provoking ideas about dress.

ORCID Ian Gilligan http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2339-6573

Ian Gilligan is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney. A graduate in psychology, medicine, archaeology, and anthropology, he adopts an interdisciplinary approach to the origin and psychology of clothing. His latest book is Climate, Clothing and Agriculture in Prehistory, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.


Barthes, Roland. (1960) 2013. “Language and Clothing.” In The Language of Fashion, edited by Andy Stafford and Michael Carter, 20–30. London: Bloomsbury.

Boucher, François. 1987. A History of Costume in the West. London: Thames and Hudson.

Carter, Michael. 2012. “Stuff and Nonsense: The Limits of the Linguistic Model of Clothing.” Fashion Theory 16 (3): 343–353.

Carter, Michael. 2013. Overdressed: Barthes, Darwin and the Clothes That Speak. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann.

Darwin, Charles. 1839. Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836. London: Henry Colburn.

Eicher, Joanne, and Sandra Evenson. 2015. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society. New York: Fairchild.

Entwistle, Joanne. 2000. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Gilligan, Ian. 2010. “The Prehistoric Development of Clothing: Archaeological Implications of a Thermal Model.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17 (1): 15–80.

Gilligan, Ian. 2016. “Clothing.” In Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, edited by Todd Shackelford and Viviana Weekes-Shackelford. Cham: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3009-1.

Laver, James. 1969. A Concise History of Costume. London: Thames and Hudson.

Marcuse, H. [1955] 1972. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. London: Abacus.

Renaud, Jeffrey. 2013. “Rethinking the Repressive Hypothesis: Foucault’s Critique of Marcuse.” Symposium 17 (2): 76–93.

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