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Why Do We Wear Clothes?

Men and women casual clothes on hanger rack. Boxes with shoes.

Have you ever been threading one leg through a pair of pants in the morning and wondered…why do we wear pants anyway? Or wondered why pockets in clothing designed for girls are sometimes smaller than the pockets in clothing designed for boys? In this episode we’ll tackle your questions about clothes with fashion historian and writer Amber Butchart.

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“Why do we have to wear clothes?”
Bhakti, 9, Australia

Many people think we started to wear clothes for practical reasons of warmth and protection.

“We don’t have fur like other animals, so when modern humans started moving into colder parts of the world, we needed to protect ourselves somehow if it’s cold and snowy. This is one answer, that we wear clothes for protection,” said Amber Butchart. Butchart is a dress historian, author and broadcaster. She studies how the clothes we wear are connected to where we live and what kind of culture we grow up in, and what time period we’re growing up and living in.

Butchart says, while the protection theory explains why we have to wear something—to cover our skin from the elements, there are a lot of other answers that help explain the style of clothes we wear, or don’t wear. These have to do with culture and society, and ideas about modesty as well. In this case modesty means what’s considered proper, broadly accepted as not being too wild or “out there.” A lot of how we dress comes down to what is considered appropriate in our current culture.

"The idea is that these cultural codes built up across millennia and centuries and centuries, ideas that parts of our body should be covered up,” Butchart explained. “We have these social ideas to do with what parts of the body should and shouldn’t be on display, but we also have that combined with this need, especially in colder parts of the world, for protection from the elements.”

But when it comes to fashion, what you wear communicates something about you to the outside world, and clothing has gone through many changes throughout history. Listen to the episode to learn more!

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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