Material culture refers to the corporal, physical object constructed by humans. Ferguson (1977) describes material culture as ‘all of the things people leave behind …. All of the things people make from the physical world – farm tools, ceramics, houses, furniture, toys, buttons, roads and cities’ (Ferguson, 1977). Material culture refers to objects that are used, lived in, displayed and experienced. Human beings interact with material culture as a normal part of their daily lives. Because of this interaction, material culture and human living is strongly influenced by each other, and through studying material culture gives us important clues about the way humans live and have lived in the past.
Schlereth (1982) outlines the importance of the study of material culture, arguing that through material culture we can learn about the ‘belief systems – the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community of Society, usually across time’ (Schlereth, 1982). Schlereth continues to state that a study is based upon the obvious idea that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human mind operating at the time of production.
The common statement underlying material culture research is that ‘objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patters of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part’ (Schlereth, 1982). By studying culture as something created and lived through objects, we learn to understand the social structures, human action, emotion and meaning, and through this process we bond together the crucial link between social and economic factors with the individual actor. This is where we can introduce Marxism mode of production, if we consider material culture in terms of consumer societies we will be able to reproduce and challenge social structures. However, according to Marx and Engels (1965, p32) in The German Ideology:
‘This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of physical existence of individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part’ (Sahlins, 1976).
Marx mode of production worked in the following way; people produce commodities and sell them so that they can buy other commodities to satisfy their own needs and wants.
For Marx, production is something more than practical logic of material effectiveness, it is a cultural intention.
Take for example, if you look around your home, objects are everywhere – cups/mugs, computers, clothing. You know what most of these are because they are part of you familiar environment, if you have grown up with these objects they have been a part of your life. Now if a person lived in a different part of the world and from a different century, they would have a difficult time trying to understand our material culture. Each object has a story to tell, a story which has been shaped by human used. If material objects are been analyzed, basic facts will be recorded, a verbal description which might include measurements, material, any distinguishing features, take note of everything which will determine a clearer picture about the object. This key information will provide material about the technology used, the economy, or social relations within the given society and how they have changed or progressed over time.
Clothing and in particular designer outfits can mask a person’s real persona. The clothing can be worn to impress and make the wearer feel more confident, however this can also be taken to the extreme in that if a person’s self worth and morale is low clothes are used to state falsely about the importance of the person. ‘wearing certain clothing may make a person feel empowered by altering their self perception, they can assist in forming or negating interpersonal and group attachments, mediating the formation of self-identity and esteem and integrating and differentiating social groups classes or tribes’ (Woodward, 2007, p4 ).
Alison Lurie states that in her Language of Clothes that clothes introduce individuals subconsciously before they even say a word (Lurie A. , 1992). Clothes are expressions of identity, one of the permanent ways we signal to the social world who and what we are (Twigg, 2007). It is also an expression and fulfilment of human needs: needs of the body and mind. These expressions function within a cultural context with the purpose of passing on distinctive meanings to social forms. Clothes have been used to identify our links, such as what school we attend, what job we have or what group we are a part of. Schools use uniforms to identify their students, although uniforms can be a really useful if the students are out on day trips, the uniform will be easily recognisable to pick out students, these students then represent the school. Occupations have informed the public of their identity and job titles throught the use of clothing, for example: gardai, nurses, surgeon, security guards, fire fighters the list is endless when you really think about it.
In most cultures gender differentiation of clothing is considered appropriate for both men and women. There are many features that differentiate the gender of clothing. The masculine fabric is relatively caorse and stiff, usually heavier whereas feminine fabric is soft and fine. Masculine colours usually tend to be darker, and feminine coloured clothing is usually light or pastel. The cut in men’s clothing is square with corners and angles, and womens dress lines emphasize the flow, the curve and the actual style of the dress. These elements convey social meaning (Sahlins, 1976). The sturctural lines in the cut or patterns of clothing make up analogous class of meaningful contrasts (Sahlins, 1976). The importance seems to be related with three characteristics of a line: direction, form and rhythm. Direction refers to direction in relation to the ground. Form refers to its properties as curved or straight. And rhythm refers to the periodicity of the curve or angle (Sahlins, 1976).
In western societies, womens clothing usually consists of skirts, dresses and high heels, while a tie is usually seen as mens clothing. Trousers/jeans were seen as mens clothing but nowadays they are worn by both male and female. Female clothing usually tends to be more attractive in comparison to male clothing.
Clothing also identifies religious groups. In some cultures, laws regulate what men and women are required to wear. A man wearing a headgear called yarmulke/kippah is most likely to be Jewish, and a woman wearing a hijab is most likely to be Muslim. The yarmulke is for a Jew to announce publicly that he respects God and that God is above human kind. According to the Talmud (Jewish Religious Commentary), wearing the kippah reminds Jews that there is a higher authority, and it reminds us that God is always watching (Silvestri, 2010). A Muslim woman who wears a hijab not only publicly announces her religious identity, but when her face is covered, men cannot judge her by her appearance, they are able to evaluate her by her personality, character, and morals (Hussein). If we look at the catholic culture in Ireland, a man wearing in a black robe or outfit and a roman collar is identified as a priest and is given the title “father” in the Roman Catholic churches. In Islamic culture, men pride themselves in wearing turbans because of its significant spiritual symbolism of their cultural faith. Turbans are still worn today by Islamic men as a way of distinguishing themselves, strengthening social ties and giving a sense of group identity. They are considered important in prayer, where the rewards are said to be twenty-five times greater when the headdress is worn. However in saying all of this the turban also has a practical function, it protects the men’s head from the heat and dust in Arab countries (Bennett, 2010). Again, we see clothing as the subconscious communicator that announces one’s religious identity publicly.
According to Sahlins (1976), American clothing amounts to a very complex scheme of cultural categories and the relations between them. The scheme operates a set of rules for declining and combining classes of the clothing – which formulate the cultural categories. Each aspect consists of a range of meaningful variation, some will be present and other’s will be absent (Sahlins, 1976. p179). The outfit as a whole makes a statement, developed out of the particular arrangement of garment parts and by contrasting to other outfits (Sahlins, 1976. P 179). Strictly speaking, clothes is not a part of your body, however, since your body is largely covered in it, your clothing will affect the way you come across. Seeing as your clothing is such a large factor, on the message your giving off, your appearence is important and will effect the view others have on you. The clothes you are wearing make a statement about your identity and your social status, the colour and style of clothes worn tell others about how you are feeling in the world. Clothes have the ability to inform publicly of one’s identity, mood, generation, religion, and culture. It is a language that is constantly in communication with people introduced or not introduced. Although the language of clothes speaks, it may not be completely accurate, but it gives one an idea of an individual’s identity and personality. The language of clothes is used daily and can be seen every day in the home, at church, out shopping and within the political world. It is a language that everyone uses as an ice-breaker to open up conversation or to have common ground and value. Clothing as a communicator can be seen worldwide and is used universally. Taking all of the above into consideration one can say that material culture can be compared to a language.