We Had The Answer In 1381

There have been many theories as to why human beings wear clothes when animals do not. In many climes it is practical or even essential, mankind could simply not survive as naked apes. But he generally wears clothes even in the tropics. Some say, thereby raising a bigger question than they answer, that switching to an upright posture required us to conceal sexual arousal. The same applies to arguments that raiment increases sexual desirability.

We are getting warmer when we suggest that wearing clothes allows us to exhibit wealth and status. Some tribes that go naked nevertheless paint their faces and bodies to the same effect; clothes are quicker, and offer the added advantage that they can be stolen. Which, back in the days when they represented a more serious fraction of your income than do the products of Bangladeshi firetraps, they often were.

This status explanation is sound but does not go quite far enough. The purpose of clothes is to obscure common humanity. If you are going to enslave someone or otherwise alienate his labour, it becomes easier – on yourself and the bystanders ¬– if you make him dress differently from you, so as to communicate that he is inferior and so ought to feed you. If master and slave were both naked, it would come too naturally to ask John Ball’s question, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

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