Dress Right

There’s a connection between clothing and rights that I want to look into here. It has to do with the word origins for “dress” and for “right.” In previous posts I’ve written about the right to dress or undress (here and here, for a start), and explored etymologies related to nudity and clothing (exuberant, reserve, body politic, customs and costumes, outfit, “open carry”). The focus here is on the meanings of “right” and “dress” and how they have informed each other over time. 

When you “dress” something, whether it’s a salad or a turkey or a window or your own body, the sense of the word is that you are basically preparing it, setting it “right,” or setting it “straight.” The Spanish word for salad DRESSing is aDEREZo – you can see the similar root. Continuing on in Spanish, it’s an easy move from “aderezo” to, for example, “enderezar,” which means to set straight or set right. Any confusion between what might be the difference between setting straight and setting right is compounded in Spanish, where, if you’re giving directions you say “derecho” for “straight ahead” and “a la derecha” for “to the right.” Another meaning of “derecho” in Spanish is law. If you go to law school, you attend La Facultad de Derecho, where you might study human rights, or “derechos humanos.” The French “droit,” Portuguese “direito,” and the cognates of several other languages contribute to this semantic web as well.

A clever wordplay and image from Kraft’s marketing team

What led to the association of our rights with our clothes? It seems to me that the connection must have had to do with rank and class. For example, even before there were mass-produced military uniforms with their stripes and badges, it was common in many cultures that the right to wear a certain garment, color, haircut, or tattoo was either earned by some positive action – say, vanquishing an enemy – or it was a punishment for some negative action, such as committing an act of piracy or of prostitution. In some instances, too, it could be the renunciation of rights that led to a certain kind of dress: monks and nuns wear drab costumes that symbolize they’ve relinquished the right to own property or to get married. As civilizations became more complex, conquering or otherwise absorbing peoples of foreign tongue and/or custom, they found that their desired distinctions of class and rank could be maintained easily through dress. Without need of spoken or written language, social norms could be confirmed visually through your garb, which announced your station in life and your attendant rights. And just as you could earn rights, you could lose them, with the consequent “dressing down.”

Another related term to throw in the mix here is “address.” As a noun, your “address” physically locates your domicile and thus may also reveal something about your social position. As a verb, “address” has precisely to do with these social distinctions, because you might “address” the person to whom you’re speaking differently depending on both of your social standings. English has lost much of this kind of verbiage (“you” vs. “thou,” for example), but many languages (including Spanish) still conserve these nuances of pronoun and conjugation.

When you put the two terms together you get “dressing right,” which means dressing in the appropriate way, or dressing in a way that reflects the rights you acquired either by birth or through action. The phrase “dress right” also shows the conflation of two of the main meanings for “right”: the noun meaning “privilege” and the adjective meaning “correct.” If you dress right you are correctly adorning your person with the accoutrements that signify your level of privilege.

Nudity at social protests is often explained as merely a crude method of grabbing attention. But protesting for rights by undressing is a way of symbolizing having been stripped of one’s rights, as in, you have taken away our land, our right to our land, so we may as well go undressed (un-righted). PETA and the World Naked Bike Ride similarly embody nudity to mean vulnerability, whether animals or cyclists they have been stripped of their rights.

Firemen in Asturias, Spain (2012): “From so much cutting away (salaries), we’ve been left ‘butt’ naked”

I find fascinating these intertwined etymologies of “dress” and “right,” but I also find frustrating the link that they reinforce between nudity and a lack of rights. As naturists we are continually challenged to protect our right to undress, and to inform the law as to the best places and circumstances for that to happen. We like to point out that in social nudist settings, the lack of traditional markers of status such as clothing brands and styles means that such settings are optimally egalitarian. Ultimately a “state of undress” is a “statement of dress,” with its inherent rights and responsibilities like any other. In the brief history of modern naturism, confronted with the very recent rise of the Internet, we still have to struggle to defend our right to our choice of dress.

3 thoughts on “Dress Right

  1. Reader Marie R shared a comment by email: More socially egalitarian societies also tend to be the ones with more relaxed views toward what to wear or what not to wear, including going nude. These societies are, for example, Finland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. I think it's a good point!


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