Why do we wear clothes?

The price of cooperation…

These are a few attributes of homo sapiens

1. Out of 193 species of apes, they are the only ones not covered in fur
2. They walk upright
3. They are sexually active the year around
4. They are an extremely cooperative species

Let’s see if we can put these together to explain clothing (and a few other things)

Display of genitals

Noted Zoologist Desmond Morris says that Homo Sapiens is the only primate that walks upright. Because of this vertical posture the sexual organs and genitals are always on display. It’s impossible for homo sapiens to approach each other without also performing a genital display. Other primates who walk on all fours, don’t have this problem. They have special postures, the purpose of which is only to display their sexual organs. Homo Sapiens can also mate round the year. They are also probably the only species to have recreational sex (this could be a myth, as some argue no species indulge in sex with the intent of producing off-spring, just because they are driven to have sex instinctively, just like humans).

However, what we are interested in is that this means that this sexual signalling is always on (as there is no off-season)

Need for cooperation

This extremely sexually active species of apes is also one that is extremely cooperative. This makes sense – as in the wild, they almost stand zero chance of survival unless in a friendly group. Anyone expelled from a tribe will most likely perish. They lack speed, strength, claws, fangs. Their advantage lies in numbers and intelligence.

This is also probably why we have such a intense primitive desire to be liked. (and why we notice the number of facebook friends others have)

In today’s big cities, it probably doesn’t matter – but in a tribe in a jungle, being approved of by enough number of colleagues could mean the likelihood of not being expelled from the protection of the group – which could mean the difference between life and death.

The fig leaf

The biggest obstacle in the path of cooperation in a tribe would then be sexual competition between the males. Therefore, competition needs to be reduced so that the group can function. One of the ways of reducing such competition was for males and females to form pair-bonds, so that everyone knows who their (and everyone else’s) ‘official’ mates are.

Enter, marriage.

Another solution to prevent sexual conflicts would be to remove sexual signalling from the equation.

Clothing then is probably a  mechanism to prevent this sexual signalling in an extremely cooperative society to prevent conflicts from breaking out.

Hence, the proverbial fig leaf.

Since sexual signalling and indulgence in indiscriminate sexual acts directly affects the collaboration potential of the group, many societies have formed extremely strict rules around it. In some cases, wavering from strict societal norms can be punished by expulsion or death.

In India, in many villages, young males are not allowed to marry within the village. This is not only frowned upon but is considered a taboo  The village-level local councils (call Khap panchayats) have issued statements supporting such a ban. In fact, there have been many instances where couples who took this step were brutally murdered. Similar instances of strict social norms that govern sexual behavior can be found in other societies as well.

The price of cooperation

There are many other actions that were taken to de-sexualize the males and females and improve cooperation.

Sex also became a private act. Genitals not only became private parts but also privately used parts. Copulatary activities also became restricted to only one portion of the day – late evening and night. This is how sleeping with someone and having sex with them became synonymous.  Hence the expression “I spent the night at his/her place” draws ooohs and aaahs or ‘what the hell’ – depending upon your friends.

Body to body contact is frowned upon in many cultures and if it happens with a stranger, it is usually followed by an apology (in almost all cultures).

In addition, removing normal body scents is also practiced. Body is regularly bathed (often much more than required by hygiene  and perfumes and scents are used to hide the natural odor of the body.

Modern usage

However, the ideas above try to explain why humans started wearing clothes. In the modern complex society, there are many other reasons why homo sapiens wear clothes

1. For protection (against weather or specific situations – fireproof, raincoat, bulletproof)
2. Presenting your personal values (from wearing luxury fashion brands to wearing handspun khadi)
3. To fit in
4. To stand out (after fitting in) 🙂

Why no fur?

By the way, off-topic, Why are homo-sapiens the only apes without a coating of  fur, except in a few places where they have tufts of hair?

This is really extraordinary. Even if we look beyond apes, there are very few mammals that have given up their body hair.

Desmond Morris says furless skin helps solidify the pair-bond through improved tactile stimulation (skin on skin feels better and leads to a stronger pair-bond)

However, there is another awesome theory – which I personally love.

The aquatic ape

This theory essentially argues that at some point of time in their history, apes that were (or would become) homo sapiens moved to tropical sea-shores in search of food. They found shellfish and other creatures to eat in abundance. They learnt to swim and dive for food. They stayed in water long enough to lose their hair like other mammals that have returned to the sea (this is for better movement in water, I am guessing). Only the head, protruding from the surface of the water retained the fur, as it needed protection from the sun. Later on, with awesome tools devised from having to open shells, the homo sapiens confidently walked away to open land spaces as a hunter. However, they retain their affinity to water. This is why the homo sapien is so nimble in water while its closest relative, chimpanzees are helpless and quickly drown.

Other instances of hairless mammals includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, dugongs, manatees and hippopotamuses.

Recommended Reading

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris
The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris