Moral Fibre: Dress Codes from Purity to Wickedness

By Max Allen, 2002

This exhibition is about some striking attire and the dress codes that shape it. You could buy most of these clothes yourself if you knew where to shop. But you'll rarely see them worn in Toronto's trendy Bloor and Yonge neighbourhood, or in the financial district at King and Bay.

Many are constructed from non-woven fabrics such as leather, latex and PVC/polyurethane. Many are shiny - and tight - like a second skin. Others are deliberately ripped and torn. Messages about purity or wickedness are conveyed though texture, colour and form, but how these signifiers are decoded varies from place to place, and from time to time.

Surprisingly, there are almost no universal signifiers. Almost everything is culture-specific. When the U.S. government wanted to figure out how to mark the massive burial site for radioactive waste planned for Yucca Flats, they hired teams of anthropologists and communication experts. How could the area be identified as toxic, so that people 10,000 years in the future would instantly recognize the symbol's meaning and stay away? Verbal warnings wouldn't work - no language would last long enough. As for graphic depictions, what someone today might think of as a universal warning symbol, such as the skull and crossbones, isn't universal at all. In Latin American carnival celebrations, for example, a skeleton is a good symbol, not a bad one. As it turns out, utter bleakness is frightening to almost everyone, such as thousands of square kilometres of black asphalt; and so is jaggedness, such as a forest of razor sharp, spiky steel poles.


The most striking clothes subvert our expectations and past experience. For example, the instantly recognizable uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stands for decency, integrity and unsullied virtue, which, incidentally, is why the Walt Disney organization wanted to gain control of the Mountie image. But what are we to make of a Mountie uniform worn at a fetish club and made entirely of shiny leather? What kind of perverse mischief does the wearer have in mind?

Or how about a little girl's dress straight out of a photograph by Lewis Carroll; worn perversely by a media-savvy and far-from-innocent Japanese teenager? The cognitive dissonance is jolting.

Between the top and bottom of society, fashion is a two-way street. Motorcycle jackets, originally worn by soldiers and cops, have slipped down the social scale and are sometimes worn as a satanic mirror image by outlaw gangs. Going the other way, ragamuffin outfits have worked their way up to the fashion runways of Dior and Balenciaga as homeless chic.


Tearing up perfectly good cloth and making rags from riches is neither new nor uniquely Western. In Moral Fibre you'll see some Japanese Buddhist robes, deliberately ruined for the sake of humility.

Tattered and torn clothes that look like they might have come from a second-hand store (or worse) fill the pages of Vogue and In Style magazines - it's the purity of poverty. This phenomenon of rich and celebrated people dressing as if they were paupers is a fashion trend that recurs, usually when the rich and celebrated are feeling guilty - or nervous.

Today, American Eagle Outfitters will even sell you a kit to distress your own undamaged clothes. On the other hand, in Japan today, used clothes are unwanted and almost without value while in Toronto, you pay extra for the tatters.

Black and White Mor(t)ality

Black is the colour of wickedness and death, perversion and the dark side - but not always. The garb of Christian clerics, for example, is modestly black, as are the garments worn by women in Tunisia and Afghanistan: veils and shawls worn in public to deter the evil eye and the lascivious glances of strangers.

White is the colour of purity and innocence, virginity and saintliness, but again - not always. Nurses, doctors, scientists and brides wear white; it is the colour of purity, humane labour and incorruptible innocence. White clothes tell you this regardless of who the model wearing them is, what their pose is or their facial expression. The message is in the garment itself, even when it is hanging in the closet. But then along comes Calvin Klein with his symbol-drenched underwear, and mass marketing soaks pure white cloth with erotic significance. Goodbye purity.

Second Skins

Here is the body on shameless display: skin-tight leather that exposes and reshapes, skin-tight rubber or skin-tight corsets. The fetish scene is the largest, most far reaching and influential of any contemporary, street-based or club-based subculture. What's more, fetishists are redefining and extending the meaning of sex itself - and dressing the part.


Clothes conceal and reveal, often at the same time. In Toronto high schools today, many girls wear skin-tight clothes, sometimes with tops and bottoms that don't meet. The boys, meanwhile, are dressed in layers of loose, body-concealing clothes involving as much cloth as a burka, often overlaid with outerwear and worn indoors even in summer. The moral messages here are complex, involving what the students call power and freedom. The girls say they're not being provocative; the boys say they're just being comfortable - the teachers say it's time to enforce a dress code!


The nuclear family is increasingly porous. Loyalty to one's place of work is increasingly rare. Neighbours come and go. Who wants to live like this, without substantial community or tribal identity?

Thanks to the Internet, styletribes provide a sense of community, often over great distances. Around the world, Punks, Goths and Lolitas look alike and common appearance signals common interests - whether musical, cultural, sexual, political or ethical. In this Age of Image, you are what you look like - more or less

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada