A Cross-Cultural Study of Uniformity in Dress

Why do people in some societies dress in uniform or standardized ways, whereas in other societies individuals display considerable variability in dress? Tentative answers to this question will appear as an article titled “Uniformity in Dress: A Worldwide Cross-Cultural Comparison” in the September issue of Human Nature authored by Carol R. Ember, Abbe McCarter, and Erik Ringen. As the authors explain, the broader research question is why some societies have more within-group variation than others.

Amish women at the beach (photo by Pasteur, CC 3.0 WikiCommons)

Amish women at the beach (photo by Pasteur, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers start with two main theoretical expectations.  The first is that uniformity in dress (both clothing and adornment) reflects a broader cultural trait commonly referred to as “cultural tightness.” The second is that dress might unconsciously reflect a society’s social structure.

What is cultural tightness?  We need to think of “tightness” as a continuum. All societies have norms, but “tight” refers to the degree to which social norms are pervasive, clearly defined, and reliably imposed. Tightness is postulated to increase coordination and cooperation and therefore should be adaptive in societies with a high degree of threat (Gelfand et al. 2011). If this theory is correct, then societies with more resource stress should have more uniformity in dress.

The second theory the authors consider derives largely from previous cross-cultural research on music and art. An analog to dressing like others around you, is “singing with one voice.” In worldwide research on folk song, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax suggested that cohesive singing, typically in the mid-range of societal complexity, may derive from people participating in coordinated, cooperative work groups. People take their cues from their work experience and try to blend in with others. With regard to visual art, John Fischer found that egalitarian societies are likely to have simple repetitive elements in their art, whereas stratified societies have many different elements. The researchers surmised that the analog of simple, repetitive elements in art would be uniformity in dress.

Hypotheses were tested on 80 societies drawn from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS). To measure uniformity in dress, two independent coders were asked to answer questions about dress based primarily on reading ethnography found in  eHRAF World Cultures using Advanced Search to find relevant paragraphs on dress. The first step in the research was to explore whether the various variables coded for dress formed a single underlying dimension or formed multiple dimensions.  Exploratory methods identified four dimensions of variation in dress rather than one. The second step was to see if the theoretical expectations predicted the four dimensions of variation.

As expected from tightness/looseness theory, societies with generally more cultural tightness had increased standardization and rules regarding dress and societies and also had higher levels of resource stress.

However, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the predictors of tightness-looseness differed from the predictors of dress. Most importantly, resource stress did not predict cultural tightness and tended to be in the opposite direction–more stress, less tightness. And contrary to expectation, egalitarian societies were not more likely to have standardized dress. However, consistent with findings about cohesive singing, the relationship between dress standardization and societal complexity appears to be curvilinear, with mid-range societies having more standardization.

At the end of paper, the researchers speculate about possible explanations and suggest further lines of research.

Photo Credit

Amish women at the beach (Pasteur, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)