By Eboni Tubbs
Why do people wear dressing gowns? Are they for sleeping or dressing down? Can they be used to show off one’s wealth or social status? Rachel Zimmerman, a new faculty member at Colorado State University-Pueblo, answered these questions in a lecture about historical clothing and their meanings on Oct. 10.
Around the 1700s, Asian culture influenced Europeans to use dressing gowns as a sign of intelligence and status, according to Zimmerman. For example, the Japanese Kimono was a symbol of status, wealth and respect. Priests, merchants, landowners and others that considered themselves educated wore dressing gowns to show they were part of a different higher class.
Zimmerman said Europeans used dressing gowns of traditionally Asian material to show they possessed global intelligence. Only men of elite status owned such garments. Dressing gowns were never to be worn outside the home. However, the dressing gowns would be worn by the men to impress guests.
The dressing gowns were so influential that they began to show up in paintings like the “Casta Paintings” in Latin America, according to Zimmerman.
“Casta” was a term used to describe a mixed raced individual, usually of Spanish and Native American or African descent. Casta paintings often showed a series of 16 images, each one showing individuals of a different “social class.”
In the first image, fair skinned individuals of full Spanish descent appear to be dressed in the finest clothing and dressing gowns. The individuals in the images following are gradually darker in complexion and are portrayed as being of a lower class.
Zimmerman said clothing was associated with social class and racial identity during the time of the Casta paintings. “At that time in the Americas, the way you looked was so important because the way you looked determined whether you could be free or a slave.” Zimmerman said. “The way you looked could determine your entire life.”
“I think some people have always been fashion conscious and a lot of their fashion reflects where they believe they are in the class structure,” said Jackie Stroud, a history professor at CSU-Pueblo.
However, Stroud said clothing choices recently are centered more around comfort. “Our clothes don’t necessarily reflect where we are in the class structure as much as they do something practical, like where we are that day.”
“I think there’s a layer of people who are just like ‘whatever’, and there’s always going to be a layer of people who are like, I can’t go to that unless I buy a new dress because I wore this dress last year to the benefit,” Stroud said.
Judy Gaughan, professor of history, said clothing and appearance still play a role in how someone is perceived. “It’s the visual representation of your status in society,” Gaughan said. “I’m not entirely convinced that we’re not doing that now anyway.”
“I’ve been on airplanes where I’ve been moved to first class for whatever reason, and everybody always knows I don’t belong there,” Gaughan said. “They can always tell, like for instance, my nails are never done.”