Clothing Research Paper

Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry

Luz Claudio

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Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Sep; 115(9): A449–A454.

This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.

On a Saturday afternoon, a group of teenage girls leaf through glossy fashion magazines at a New Jersey outlet mall. Shopping bags brimming with new purchases lay at their feet as they talk excitedly about what’s in style to wear this summer. Far away in Tanzania, a young man proudly wears a T-shirt imprinted with the logo of an American basketball team while shopping at the local mitumba market for pants that will fit his slender figure. Although seemingly disparate, these two scenes are connected through the surprising life cycle of clothing.

How does a T-shirt originally sold in a U.S. shopping mall to promote an American sports team end up being worn by an African teen? Globalization, consumerism, and recycling all converge to connect these scenes. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable. Some call it “fast fashion,” the clothing equivalent of fast food.

Fast fashion provides the marketplace with affordable apparel aimed mostly at young women. Fueling the demand are fashion magazines that help create the desire for new “must-haves” for each season. “Girls especially are insatiable when it comes to fashion. They have to have the latest thing, always. And since it is cheap, you buy more of it. Our closets are full,” says Mayra Diaz, mother of a 10-year-old girl and a buyer in the fashion district of New York City. Disposable couture appears in shopping mall after shopping mall in America and Europe at prices that make the purchase tempting and the disposal painless.

Yet fast fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. For example, polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets. The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.

Issues of environmental health and safety do not apply only to the production of man-made fabrics. Cotton, one of the most popular and versatile fibers used in clothing manufacture, also has a significant environmental footprint. This crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the USDA. The U.S. cotton crop benefits from subsidies that keep prices low and production high. The high production of cotton at subsidized low prices is one of the first spokes in the wheel that drives the globalization of fashion.

Bringing Clothes to Market Fast, the Global Way

Much of the cotton produced in the United States is exported to China and other countries with low labor costs, where the material is milled, woven into fabrics, cut, and assembled according to the fashion industry’s specifications. China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database. In her 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at the McDonough School of Business of Georgetown University, writes that each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China, the equivalent of four pieces of clothing for every U.S. citizen.

According to figures from the U.S. National Labor Committee, some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour working in poor conditions. And with the fierce global competition that demands ever lower production costs, many emerging economies are aiming to get their share of the world’s apparel markets, even if it means lower wages and poor conditions for workers. Increasingly, clothing being imported to the United States comes from countries as diverse as Honduras and Bangladesh.

Once bought, an estimated 21% of annual clothing purchases stay in the home, increasing the stocks of clothing and other textiles held by consumers, according to Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste, a September 2006 report by consultant Oakdene Hollins. The report calls this stockpiling an increase in the “national wardrobe,” which is considered to represent a potentially large quantity of latent waste that will eventually enter the solid waste stream. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, and clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of the municipal solid waste. But this figure is rapidly growing.

Everything Old Is New Again

In her book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, traces the “progressive obsolescence” of clothing and other consumer goods to the 1920s. Before then, and especially during World War I, most clothing was repaired, mended, or tailored to fit other family members, or recycled within the home as rags or quilts. During the war, clothing manufacturers reduced the varieties, sizes, and colors of their productions and even urged designers to create styles that would use less fabric and avoid needless decoration. The government’s conservation campaign used slogans such as “Make economy fashionable lest it become obligatory” and resulted in an approximate 10% reduction in the production of trash.

However, the spirit of conservation did not last long; by the mid-1920s consumerism was back in style. Industrialization grew in the twentieth century, providing the means of increased production of all consumer goods. During World War II, consumption rose with increased employment as the United States mobilized for the war. The production and consumption of many household goods, including clothing, grew by 10–15% even in the middle of the war and continues to expand to this day.

Industrialization brought consumerism with it as an integral part of the economy. Economic growth came to depend on continued marketing of new products and disposal of old ones that are thrown away simply because stylistic norms promote their obsolescence. When it comes to clothing, the rate of purchase and disposal has dramatically increased, so the path that a T-shirt travels from the sales floor to the landfill has become shorter.

Yet even today, the journey of a piece of clothing does not always end at the landfill. A portion of clothing purchases are recycled mainly in three ways: clothing may be resold by the primary consumer to other consumers at a lower price, it may be exported in bulk for sale in developing countries, or it may be chemically or mechanically recycled into raw material for the manufacture of other apparel and non-apparel products.

Domestic resale has boomed in the era of the Internet. Many people sell directly to other individuals through auction websites such as eBay. Another increasingly popular outlet is consignment and thrift shops, where sales are growing at a pace of 5% per year, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops.

The U.S. government offers tax incentives for citizens who donate household goods to charities such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries, which salvage a portion of clothing and textiles that would otherwise go to landfills or incinerators. The trend of increased purchasing of clothing and other household goods has served the salvage charities well. For instance, since 2001 Goodwill Industries has seen a 67% increase in its sale of donated goods, most of it clothing. Figures from the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops put Goodwill’s sales of donated goods at thrift shops at more than $1.8 billion in 2006.

A 2006 survey conducted by America’s Research Group, a consumer trends research firm, found that about 12–15% of Americans shop at consignment or resale stores. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that 2.5 billion pounds of postconsumer textile waste (which includes anything made of fabric) is thus collected and prevented from entering directly into the waste stream. This represents 10 pounds for every person in the United States, but it is still only about 15% of the clothing that is discarded.

Handling the Overflow

Only about one-fifth of the clothing donated to charities is directly used or sold in their thrift shops. Says Rivoli, “There are nowhere near enough people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.”

So charities find another way to fund their programs using the clothing and other textiles that can’t be sold at their thrift shops: they sell it to textile recyclers at 5–7 cents per pound. Since 1942, the Stubin family of Brooklyn, New York, has owned and operated Trans-America Trading Company, where they process more than 12 million pounds of postconsumer textiles per year. Trans-America is one of the biggest of about 3,000 textile recyclers in the United States. At its 80,000-square-foot sorting facility, workers separate used clothing into 300 different categories by type of item, size, and fiber content. According to figures from Trans-America, about 30% of these textiles are turned into absorbent wiping rags for industrial uses, and another 25–30% are recycled into fiber for use as stuffing for upholstery, insulation, and the manufacture of paper products.

About 45% of these textiles continue their life as clothing, just not domestically. Certain brands and rare collectible items are imported by Japan, the largest buyer in terms of dollars of vintage or American high-end fashion. Clothing that is not considered vintage or high-end is baled for export to developing nations. Data from the International Trade Commission indicate that between 1989 and 2003, American exports of used clothing more than tripled, to nearly 7 billion pounds per year. Used clothing is sold in more than 100 countries. For Tanzania, where used clothing is sold at the mitumba markets that dot the country, these items are the number one import from the United States.

Imported apparel from America and Europe is bought in 100-pound bales of mixed clothing by small entrepreneurs. Like opening a piñata, these merchants sort through the contents of the bales to see whether their investment has paid off. Prices are set according to the latest fashions, the condition of the clothing, and its desirability. For example, men’s light slacks in perfect condition and in waist sizes in the low 30s fetch a premium price of $5.00. T-shirts sell well, especially those with logos from winning sports teams or recognizable athletic gear companies.

Because women in the West tend to buy much more clothing and discard it more often than men, the world supply of used women’s clothing is at least seven times that of men’s. Thus, in the mitumba markets around Tanzania, men’s clothing generally costs four to five times more than similar women’s clothing. Winter clothes, although generally more expensive to produce, command the least value in the secondhand African markets. Companies such as Trans-America are therefore seeking to expand into colder climes such as Eastern Europe.

Observers such as Rivoli predict that the trend toward increasing exports of used clothing to developing countries will continue to accelerate because of the rise of consumerism in the United States and Europe and the falling prices of new clothing. There are detractors to this view, however. For example, the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University issued a report in 2006 titled Well Dressed? The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom, in which it raised concerns that trade in secondhand clothes in African countries inhibits development of local industries even as it creates employment in these countries. And the authors of Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste warn that in the long run, as prices and quality of new clothing continue to decline, so too will the demand for used clothing diminish. This is because in the world of fast fashion, new clothing could be bought almost as inexpensively as used clothing. Even so, says Rivoli, “Continued rampant consumerism as well as changing waste disposal practices would seem to ensure a growing supply of American used clothing for the global market.”

Fashion Forward

To address the environmental impacts of fast fashion at its source, and to find a niche in this increasingly competitive market, some manufacturers are aiming to develop “eco-fashions.” The International Standards Organization (ISO) has defined eco-fashions as “identifying the general environmental performance of a product within a product group based on its whole life-cycle in order to contribute to improvements in key environmental measures and to support sustainable consumption patterns.” The ISO is developing standards for a labeling system to identify garments that meet criteria as environmentally friendly. However, even without such specific standards for what constitutes an environmentally friendly garment, industry is taking a broadening diversity of approaches.

One approach has been to use sustainably grown cotton, hemp, bamboo, and other fiber crops that require less pesticides, irrigation, and other inputs. Organic cotton is grown in at least 12 countries. Figures provided by the Organic Trade Association 2004 Manufacturer Survey show that the sale of organic cotton fiber grew by an estimated 22.7% over the previous year. Sales of organic cotton women’s clothing grew by a healthy 33%. However, organic cotton represents only 0.03% of worldwide cotton production. This figure may grow as retailers begin to expand their selections of organic cotton apparel. In 2004, Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, began selling organic cotton women’s shirts at its Sam’s Club stores. Today the company is the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, offering several lines of organic cotton apparel and bedding goods in its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. By the time of a 31 July 2006 report on, the company had sold 5 million units of organic cotton ladies’ apparel.

According to Well Dressed?, about 60% of the energy used in the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt is related to postpurchase washing and drying at high temperatures; transportation constitutes only a small portion of the energy profile to produce a cotton product. As for whether it is better to buy locally produced garments, the report argues that this approach would cut severely into the livelihood of peoples in developing countries where the products are now being manufactured.

More innovative eco-fashions are being developed and made available to consumers at different levels of the fashion spectrum, from casual clothing to haute couture. Patagonia, a major retailer in casual wear, has been selling fleece clothing made from postconsumer plastic soda bottles since 1993. This recycling process takes clear plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), melts them, and reconfigures them into fibers that can be woven into fabrics and other applications. Patagonia is one of the first and largest clothing retailers to use this material. The company estimates that between 1993 and 2006 it saved 86 million soda bottles from ending up in the landfill. Patagonia also recycles its cotton T-shirts through Italian company Calamai Functional Fabrics. According to, an outdoor gear information site, recycling cotton saves 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton, a water-intensive crop.

Another approach is the use of polymers created from plant-based materials. One such material trademarked by Cargill, Ingeo, is made of corn by-products that are fermented and transformed into polylactide. This polymer is spun into fibers and woven into fabrics that, under strictly managed circumstances, could be composted (polylactide, marketed under the name NatureWorks PLA, is also fashioned into wraps, rigid food and beverage containers, coated papers and boards, and other packaging applications). Versace is one of the haute couture designer clothing firms that have used Ingeo in their collections.

Other retailers large and small are taking different steps to appeal to the environmentally conscious consumer. Tesco, the largest British retailer, has commissioned a study by Oxford University toward developing a Sustainable Consumption Institute to establish a system to label every product sold by Tesco on the basis of its carbon emission footprint. This plan was highlighted at the 2007 Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry Conference. Many in the industry think such efforts are not only good for the environment, but also makes good business sense. Hana Ben-Shabat, vice president of goods and retail practice at AT Kearney, a management consulting firm that works with fashion industry suppliers, stated in a presentation at the conference that “being green and ethical is no longer an option, it is [an economic] necessity.”

In the European Union, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations enacted 1 June 2007 require clothing manufacturers and importers to identify and quantify the chemicals used in their products. These regulations may even require manufacturers to inform consumers about potentially hazardous chemicals that may be present in their products and can leach out, such as often happens with dyes (details of how the regulations will be implemented are still being worked out). Actual end products are governed by stipulations of the European Equipment and Product Safety Act, which regulates the use of heavy metals, carcinogenic dyes, and other toxics used in textile manufacture. Additional consumer protection is offered by the European Union’s Öko-Tex Standard 100, a testing and certification program established in 1992. The standard gives the textile and clothing industry uniform guidance for the potential harm of substances in raw materials as well as finished products, and every stage in between—these include regulated substances as well as substances that are believed to be harmful to health but are not yet regulated (such as pesticides). The standard also governs elements such as colorfastness and pH value.

Such regulations and standards, coupled with increasing consumer awareness about less toxic and sustainable products, may provide some impetus to revolutionize the garment industry. However, the biggest impacts for increasing sustainability in the clothing industry rests with the consumer. Using detergents that work well at lower temperatures, extending the usable life of garments, purchasing fewer and more durable garments, and recycling these garments into the used clothing market or into other garment and nongarment products all would contribute to increasing sustainability. Consumer awareness about the fate of clothing through its life cycle may be the best hope for sustainability in the fashion industry.

Each step of the clothing production process carries the potential for an environmental impact. For example, conventionally grown cotton, one of the most popular clothing fibers, is also one of the most water- and pesticide-dependent crops (a view disputed...

Fierce global competition in the garment industry translates into poor working conditions for many laborers in developing nations. (top) A worker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, rests on the floor of a garment factory. More than 2,000 young women work in this...

A textile worker takes a break at dawn after sanding jeans all night at a clothing factory in Guangdong Province, China. The blue dust from the jeans is a heavy irritant to the lungs. The factory where this worker is employed uses a wear-and-tear process...

A woman shops at a mitumba (Swahili for "secondhand") market in Nairobi, Kenya. Middlemen purchase bales of clothing at a set price to resell at the mitumba market. Sometimes the bales contain prize garments, other times less desirable items, and the...

Alternative fibers such as bamboo (in yarn and original form, above) and hemp (of a variety that produces only a tiny amount of the psychoactive component found in cannabis) are coming into greater use in so-called eco-fashions. In February 2005, as part...

Articles from Environmental Health Perspectives are provided here courtesy of National Institute of Environmental Health Science

,      Pages 372-377

, Pennsylvania State University

[This paper is drawn, in part, from the author's doctoral dissertation. The support given this research by the Eugene and Dora Bonham Memorial Fund, The University of Texas at Austin is acknowledged. Robert A. Peterson and Mark I. Alpert are thanked for their assistance with the original work. The helpful comments from two anonymous reviewers are also appreciated.]

This paper reports an empirical study of how clothing expresses something about the user. It continues a tradition of research on product meaning but explicitly adopts a communication paradigm. The "language" of clothing use in one social system, one situation, and one role was partially decoded and its meaning explained in terms of attributions made to a user.


The literature of consumer behavior provides numerous comments upon the phenomenon of products serving as a means by which consumers express something about themselves. An early paper by Levy stated that "People buy things not only for what they can do, but for what they mean" (1959, p. 118). Robertson elaborated upon Levy by asserting:

Products vary in the degree to which social-symbolic meaning is important. Cars and clothing are both products which are high in visual display and recognized in our society as "saying something" about a person (1970, p. 3).

As Belk (1978) pointed out, and attempted to correct, systematic attempts to study products as means by which individuals communicate with one another have been few in number. The work presented here is in intellectual sympathy with Belk, although differing somewhat in methodology. Unlike Belk, this research focuses upon one product system, that of clothing, and explicitly studies a single product usage situation for one social system. The intent of this work is similar to Belk's, namely to initiate a stream of research examining the impact of consumption of visible products upon those observing the consumption, but differs from Belk in that a communication paradigm specifically underlies the research. The explicit assumptions of this research are that clothing use is communicative; [While many empirical studies have demonstrated the in-formation-value of clothing (especially in a first impression situation), relatively few have addressed the issue of how much information is conveyed about an individual relative to other cues (facial expression, body type, verbal behavior, etc.). One noteworthy exception is Buckley and Roach (1974).] that being communicative, its use is systematic within a social system (much like verbal language); and that if the use is systematic, it can be decoded ["Decoding" means that the recurrent features of the system are analyzed and described in a logical manner. For more information on what is involved in communication system decoding see Scheflen (1966).] and described much as verbal communication has been described by structural linguists (see Hill 1958, for example). The research presented here illustrates this particular approach to product use as an expression of a variety of attributes about the user.


Clothing was selected as the focus of study here for two reasons. One was that many authors, in writing either about products as indicators of "something" about their users or about products as forms of nonverbal [A very large body of research on nonverbal communication has sprung up during the past twenty-five years. Relatively little of this, however, deals with products as communication modalities. See Scheflen (1974, p. 42) for a brief synopsis of the various ways in which humans communicate, and Knapp (1978) for a recent overview of nonverbal communication research.] communication, have listed clothing as one category likely to function in this manner. (See Holman 1976, p. 49-51, and Holman forthcoming, for discussions of the authors that have taken one or the other of these approaches.) The other reason that clothing was selected for study is because of a long and very rich literature dealing with clothing's ability to express something about its user. [Some works have explicitly dealt with this topic in great detail. See Horn (1968) and Laver (1969) for two excellent examples.]

One of the earliest authors to assert that clothing consumption was more than for mere protection of the body was Veblen (1953, originally published in 1899) who developed a theory of fashion centering on the chattel status of those being required to wear the outrageous clothing of the times (e.g., women and servants). Veblen's work has been pursued in recent years and represents one of the major approaches to clothing use, specifically that it symbolizes some of the core values of society. Thus, Cassell (1974), who deals with clothing and the women's liberation movement, is typical of this type of approach; empirical studies documenting the effects of clothing upon behavior toward people dressed differently from one another can be found in Lefkowitz, Blake, and Mouton (1955); Bickman (1971); Suedfeld, Bochner, and Mates (1971); Darley and Cooper (1972); and Buckley and Roach (1974).

Another major focus of study on clothing treated it as an extension of the psychological state of its user. The first work of this kind may have been Dearborn (1918), but the approach has been popular ever since publication of his monograph, showing up most recently in Rosenfeld and Plax (1977) who constructed an instrument to determine personality differences in those using clothing differently from one another.

A third major theme of research on clothing conceptualizes clothing as indicative of the wearer's group membership or position within a group. Crawley (1931) addressed this in his paper on primitive cultures as did Gill (1931) for modern society. Bogatyrev's work (1971 published originally in 1937) and that of Barthes (1967) remain the most comprehensive works of this type, although Lasswell and Parshall (1961); Coursey (1973); and Jonaitis (1978) provide very recent examples.

In the above-cited works (and others which have not been referenced due to space limitations) there has been only one attempt to specifically decode the communication system arising out of clothing use. This one was the work of Barthes (1967) whose research was limited by the fact that he dealt not with actual consumption or use of clothing, but with description of clothing illustrations taken from fashion magazines. The advantages of being able to specify the "language" code for clothing use lie in more precise understanding of clothing use, and hence a better ability to satisfy consumers' needs. The research described below was a first attempt at decoding clothing usage within one context, and thus makes a contribution as being the first attempt to describe actual usage of clothing as a language.


Because of the assumption that clothing use is systematic only within one social system and for one usage situation, it was deemed essential to hold these factors constant for an initial study of the communicational code for clothing. Additionally, the role played by the individuals studied in the chosen situation was held constant, a procedure in line with Belk's conclusions (1978, p. 46). Due to the exploratory nature of this research, convenience was the major criterion used in deciding whom to study. Thus, women students at The University of Texas at Austin while on the way to (or from) class formed the social system, the situation, and the role studied here.

Two data collection and analysis phases were used for the study. The first was for the purpose of obtaining a sample of the clothing behavior, so that regularities of the usage could be detected. The second phase of the research was to determine what the discrete clothing messages, identified in the first phase of the research, meant to members of the system. These two phases of research are necessary for understanding the communicational code for any type of behavior. More detail about the rationale for this appears in Scheflen (1966; 1974).

Phase I Procedures

Clothing, as a relatively non-rapid-fading communication code (i.e., it does not change in form as rapidly as do eye movements for example), can be completely and unambiguously recorded using color photography. Photographic slides were used here because of their economy, portability, and ease of enlargement to show detail.

Almost one thousand slides of women students on the university campus were obtained during one week in the Fall of 1973. A woman [Women's clothing was arbitrarily selected for study; men's clothing could also have been chosen, but as the systems appear to be separate, one or the other had to be the focus of this preliminary investigation, or the complexity would have been out of bounds.] was operationally defined as a student by the presence of books, notebooks, and/or a hook bag, satchel, or briefcase. Only full head to toe, front or three-quarters front photographs were used. Half of the slides were randomly eliminated from this analysis, so that subsequent analysis could be used to validate, the results obtained here. While photographs were taken on all days of the week and in a large number of locations during all times at which students were going to or coming from class, no formal randomization of sampling times and locations was used. It was felt more important to obtain a sample that would encompass the range of variation present in the population, and to record the clothing as it was actually worn on campus, than to insist upon a true random sample. All photographs were taken unobtrusively to ensure as little interference with the behavior as possible. Thus it was felt that the sample obtained here was representative, if not strictly probabilistic. After examining the slides to delete any that contained unusable photographs, an enumeration of individuals yielded a final sample of 392 different clothing ensembles.

Three individuals were used to code the ensembles in terms of a system that had been developed especially for unambiguous, exhaustive, and objective description of clothing (see Holman 1976; Holman forthcoming). The system used produced 171 numeric codes which recorded the form of the clothing (omitting all details of the cloth used to construct the clothing). For ease of coding, the body was divided into twenty-one areas (e.g., head, upper thigh, lower arms, etc.). Coders recorded eight pieces of information which described the clothing present at each of the body areas. An additional three codes noted whether the clothing was bilaterally symmetrical (a simplifying assumption made to reduce the total number of codes); whether the legs were distinguishable by the clothing (i.e., the presence of pants); and whether the arms were distinguishable by the clothing (i.e., the presence of sleeves, not a cape). The eight aspects (e.g., presence of cloth, presence of an opening or closing) for each of the twenty-one areas, plus the three additional codes yielded the 171 notations made for each ensemble. [Numeric codes used here were strictly nominal so that a score of 2 on any variable for any area of the body was as dissimilar from a 3 as it was from a 9; furthermore, no ordinal relationships were implied by the numbers. The only ordinary mathematical significance was with the code 0, which always indicated absence of a characteristic.]

Raters were thoroughly trained on the system and reported no difficulty in learning the system. Formal inter- and intra-rater reliability measures were obtained, and ranged from .8418 to .9276. [Inter- and intra-rater reliability coefficients were defined as m/n where m = number of matches, and n = number of codes used. Inter-rater reliability coefficients were based upon twenty ensembles rated by each pair of raters; intra-rater reliability coefficients were based upon ten ensembles coded twice by one rater, once at the beginning of the coding task and once at the end of it.] Thus, it was concluded that the system was used consistently across all raters, and from one coding to a recoding at a later point in time (the intra-rater reliability coefficients).

A matrix of similarity between each pair of ensembles was produced from the data generated by the raters. A m where m is the simple matching coefficient defined as m/n, number of "matches" (i.e., identical codes on one variable), and n is the number of variables being compared (171 in this case), was the data entered in the similarity matrix. Such a similarity matrix represents the proportion of codes for which each pair of ensembles is identical. Since the purpose of this phase of the data collection was to identify the clothing "messages" used by the members of the social system being studied while in the situation and role being enacted, such a matrix can indicate the similarities and dissimilarities in clothing usage (as recorded by the notation system) present in the data gathered.

Hierarchical cluster analysis using Ward's method (Anderberg 1973, p. 162) formed an initial partitioning of the data. Then the data from the configuration so-obtained were regrouped using a nonhierarchical algorithm referred to as Forgy's method (see Forgy 1965; Anderberg 1973, p. 161). These procedures produced groups of ensembles that were maximally similar to one another and maximally dissimilar from all other ensembles or groups of ensembles. The final configuration of groups of clothing ensembles should be a good representation of the types of clothing ensembles present in the obtained sample and thus should be the clothing messages present in the system, situation, and role from which they were sampled (if the sample is representative, and the data coding manipulations valid).

However, knowing the clothing messages does not provide insight into the significance or meaning of those messages unless further information is obtained. The purpose of the second phase of the research was to gain some insight into just what was indicated to members of the social system when an individual was observed wearing selected clothing in the situation and role for which the first phase data were representative.

Phase II Procedures

Phase II was designed to answer two research questions.

1.  Is the meaning attributed to person X's wearing of an ensemble different from the meaning attributed to X's wearing of any other ensemble (where ensembles are defined and limited by Phase I results)?

2.  What is the content of each message about person X generated by her use of each ensemble?

The meaning of person X's use of clothing was determined from attributions made about X by others. Specifically, subjects (students recruited from classes at The University of Texas at Austin, and hence members of the social system) were presented one of six photographs of a woman and asked to make attributions about her.

The woman in the photographs was dressed in ensembles representative of six clusters (those that were easily interpretable), obtained in Phase I. (A modal description of each clothing cluster provided the description of the clothing to be used, which was then matched with the model's clothing.) Photographs were taken as the model walked past the same spot on campus and were matched for similarity in posture and facial expression. The model carried books and a notebook, and while no other students were visible in the background, buildings of the university clearly identified the situation to subjects; the books identified the model's role within the situation.

Booklets containing one photograph were randomly distributed to subjects who were asked to provide biographical information about themselves, and were asked to describe the model in terms of twenty-seven attributes using a six-point scale ranging from "very definitely yes" to "very definitely no." The attributes selected for use in the study were obtained from past research on clothing, from instrument pretesting, and from a focus group interview with five male students.

The following instructions were given subjects:

We are interested in impressions that people form when first meeting another person. Study the photograph below. Assume that you have just seen this girl (the photograph was taken recently on campus). Then answer the questions on the opposite page, stating what you think this girl is like. Please circle the number of the answer that best expresses your thoughts about her for each question. Work quickly and do not go back to change answers. Remember that we are interested in your first impressions.

A great deal of research exists on the importance of first impressions in human interaction, and upon the role of clothing in first-impression formation. See Kleinke (1975) for a review of previous research on this topic.


Phase I Results

As mentioned, a total of 392 ensembles were clustered. The hierarchical cluster analysis determined that ten groups might be the ideal number of clusters, as a merger of two groups to form a total of nine groups produced an increase of 30.6% in total within group error. This was the largest percentage change in error except at the step from six groups to five, at which point there was an increase in within-group error of 37.5%. Examining these two solutions (the ten-group and the six-group) revealed that the ten-group configuration was more easily interpretable, and hence was the one chosen.

The nonhierarchical procedures yielded convergence in groups after three iterations. Because cluster analysis is a method requiring a great deal of researcher interpretation, the use of a further criterion of "ease of interpretability'' was deemed appropriate at this stage of research and yielded the six groups referred to previously.

These six clusters represented 142 data points, leaving 250 data points in groups not readily interpretable. The balance of the communicational structure remains unanalyzed at this point in time, but can serve as the basis for further research, should it be desired. The cluster analysis identified six distinctive clothing messages which served as input into Phase II. This was all that was intended from Phase I, so that it may be judged to have been successful.

Further analysis of cluster membership was necessary before stimulus items to use in Phase II could be constructed. A modal description of cluster members was obtained for each cluster. The modal description was a valid measure of "central tendency" of the cluster because the codes used for describing the clothing were strictly nominal, prohibiting any other mathematical manipulation. As stated, these modal descriptions were used to select the clothing to be worn by the model in the photography stage of Phase II. An examination of the slides from which the data were originally derived facilitated the interpretation of the modal descriptions.

Phase II Results

A two group discriminant analysis tested the hypothesis of no differences in attributions between males and females and yielded an F = 1.710 (p = .021). Univariate F's revealed that perceptions of the age of the model was the only variable discriminating between males and females. For ease in interpreting the results, the age variable was deleted and male and female subjects were treated identically for the balance of the analysis.

A six-group discriminant analysis produced an overall F of 1.628 (p = .0001) indicating significant differences in attributions across groups of subjects exposed to different clothing ensembles. The null hypothesis of no differences in perceptions due to clothing was rejected.

One way analysis of variance for each variable resulted in significant differences for eight variables (p < .05). A summary of the analysis of variance is presented in Table 1.

Significant differences among groups seeing each clothing ensemble for the eight variables showing significant differences are presented in Table 2. An ex post facto examination of the photographs revealed the presence of an eyebrow furrow for some of the photographs and not for others, and consequently differences between the two groups were examined. Table 2 also presents the significant differences resulting from the comparison of the group with eyebrow furrow and the group without eyebrow furrow. (Two group discriminant analysis for this latter comparison yielded F = 1.709 (p = .025), rejecting the hypothesis of no difference due to the eyebrow furrow.)


It is a bit discouraging to note that only two variables, fashionable and sexy looking were free of any possible confound due to the presence of the eyebrow furrow. Of interest, however, is that while both stimulus-objects B and C contained an eyebrow furrow, they differed in terms of perceived femininity (B less feminine than C). This suggests that one basis for the perception of femininity lies in differences between B and C. Such an observation, however, cannot be generalized to other stimulus objects and the balance of the discussion of results focuses upon fashionability and sexy looking.



Stimulus-object A, C, D, E, and F were perceived to be significantly different from B in fashionability (B less fashionable). (Table 3 describes the clothing used in the study and how the clothing pieces were combined to form the different ensembles used in photography.) Because the shirt (blouse) and shoes in B were identical (in form) to those located in other ensembles these perceptions must have been due to a light-dark color dimension not properly controlled in the study, or to differences in pants, belt, or interactions. The pants in B were more straight-legged than were popular at the time of the study, and the belt had a wide buckle, a type worn frequently also by males. It is not possible to determine which of these formed the "unfashionable" cue, although further experimentation could do so.

Stimulus-objects A was perceived as being significantly more sexy looking than stimulus-objects B, E, and F. Exposure of the body has been informally linked to perceived sexiness. These data support that hypothesis. Ensemble A contained short cut-off jeans; ensembles B, E, and F contained long loose jeans. Ensembles C and D, while not significantly different from B, E, and F, were perceived as more sexy; C's dress was short exposing the legs; D's blouse was scooped low and outlined the breasts. The blouse in E also had a low scooped neck, but the breasts were obscured by the looseness of the blouse. Ensemble F, which contained an overblouse that obscured the entire torso, was perceived as being the least sexy looking except for B (the perception of which may have been affected by perceptions of the eyebrow furrow).

Presence of the eyebrow furrow seemed to indicate non-sorority membership, more enjoyment of beer drinking, less use of personal hygiene products, more sympathy with women's liberation, more athletic, less feminine, less good sense of humor, and a less conservative lifestyle. These variables appear to comprise a stereotyped pro-feminist, almost masculine, image when considered together. Thus, a tentative conclusion is that the presence of the eyebrow furrow may have connoted feminism, in this context, when ignoring the effect, if any, of clothing worn. The research design used here did not allow for detection of any interactions of the kinesic factors with the clothing factors. Due to the overlap in variables showing significance for clothing and for facial expression, it is reasonable to posit interactions. Thus, any interpretation of the effect of either clothing or eyebrow furrow must be tempered by consideration of the effect of the other.


This study, while limited in its design (analysis of only one social system, one situation, and one role) has been successful in achieving its purpose. It successfully identified six different clothing messages and investigated part of the meaning of those messages. The interpretation of the meaning was hampered due to a facial expression confound, but some interpretations were possible none-the-less.

The study's primary strength lies in its demonstration of an approach to products as communication not in evidence in the past. A communication paradigm formed the theoretical base, and a research procedure was adopted which operationalized that paradigm. This research opens the way for further work on clothing which is clearly needed, but also for research into other product categories as they too are used as communication.

An interesting side note also results from what could be perceived as a flaw of the study, improper control of facial expressions. While the design used here did not permit detection of interactions between clothing use and facial expressions, such an interaction was strongly suggested. If in fact such interactions are significant, the whole issue of how people communicate by using products (such as clothing) is greatly complicated. What should be studied is not product use in isolation from other forms of communication, but as it is integrated with both verbal and nonverbal forms.



Of even more significance to consumer behavior researchers is the overall importance of products (like clothing) as factors in human communication. Research exists that suggests that appearance is extremely important in some situations (Walster, Aronson, and Abrahams 1966, for example), and that clothing is an extremely important cue in first-impression formation (Hamid, 1969). There is one study that even finds carryover effects due to initial impressions based upon clothing cues (Coursey 1973). What remains to be sorted out, in addition to the interactions of product-based and body-based modes of communicating, is the extent to which cues transmitted in one mode (e.g., facial expressions) can be supplanted by cues transmitted by products. Naturally, it follows that investigation is needed into the extent to which consumers purchase products for the purpose of communicating with them and if these serve as redundant messages or as additional ones. These and other topics result in the conclusion that the entire area remains one promising challenge to consumer behavior researchers in the future.




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