Once upon a time, clothing was like food: necessary and free...
Almost as soon as we left the jungle, our ancestral naked apes began forming groups which provided the elements of survival for its members.
The clothing was basic and utilitarian at first - designed merely to protect our abnormally large free hanging genitalia - but later evolved into something we moderns might recognise as fashion. Different groups began experimenting with various configurations of paints and skins. Groups and tribes soon differentiated themselves from each other by the way in which they protected and decorated their bodies.
This function evolved into a highly efficient way of demarking territory. Members of a certain group could identify interlopers easily by the difference in their clothing, and chase them out accordingly. Navajos could recognise their own from afar, as they could Apache.
The original fashion faux paus resulted not in a rude snicker or raised eyebrows, but in being attacked and possibly killed. The gang tradition of wearing 'colours' to show territorial or group affiliation thus has deep roots. We are territorial animals, and clothing was one of the first expressions of this central tendency in our nature.
Along with identifying groups in relation to each other, clothing soon developed as a means to separate individuals within the same group. Human social organisation tends to create hierarchies (of gender, of class, of seniority, of religion), and clothing has for thousands of years been used to clearly divide levels of society according to their place within these hierarchies.
From the deeply coded feather arrangements of Native Americans to the purple satin worn by medieval nobles, the materials that separate the human body from the forces of nature have long been more than the utilitarian loincloths of our ancestors: they are our primary social indicators of status.
The colour of robe certain Sadus (holy men) are allowed to wear in India as well as the make of suit a modern businessman has in his closet tells the world what ring in their respective cultural ladder they are standing on.
Like so much of our behavior, fashion can only be understood by looking at our biological hardware. Fine clothing and exclusive labels serve the same purpose in our capitalist society as a strong back and good hunting skills did in earlier times: both signal superior survival ability.
The man of today rocks his Rolex and his Gucci because he knows potential female mates are attracted to members of the upper class.
Not because they are necessarily interesting or even physically attractive, but because they offer protection and access to a superior (successful) gene pool. The drives that lead modern men to dress to impress are fundamentally biological, as are the reasons modern women respond to expensive fashion. The boy in rags may be more handsome and a better fisherman, but these are not the traits of success or guarantees of safety in today's world.
And so women get naked with rich jerks. They'd be denying their nature if they did otherwise.
Of course, many people do deny their nature these days. The unprecedented conquest of scarcity in the developed world in modern times has freed us from strict adherence to the dictates of status defined strictly as wealth. We can be assured of survival even without the protective aid of the leaders of the tribe.
And consequently the fashions of post-scarcity man often appears the opposite of wealth advertising. Take the 'grunge' look of the early 1990s, where an organic style from below became popular and influenced fashion at every level of society.
What came to be known as 'grunge' was simply normal working attire for people who lived in the cold, wet climate of the Pacific northwest. It penetrated into Midwestern suburbs and East Coast cities not because it was utilitarian for them, but because fashion no longer has to be utilitarian, and MTV et. al. made ugly flannel jackets 'cool'. What started as an organic local style quickly became grist for the marketing mill of magazines. And this marketing filtered all the way up to Fifth Avenue.
Wealthy individuals often dress down these days to fit in with the mainstream culture: which is popular culture and often at variance with the old elite conception of culture. But even popular styles - such as frayed jeans and T-shirts - are absorbed back into serving the traditional purpose of fashion, i.e. exclusion.
Thus you can visit boutiques where worn and ripped jeans dangle $800 price tags and plain white T-shirts run $200. This is so the rich can catch the train of the times without losing the status signs that the wealthy have been wearing around their waists since the dawn of time.
Unlike previous ages, style is not limited to the standardised fashions of a handful of social strata such as peasant, noble or burgher. No matter what our status, we have the freedom to wear more or less what we want. Think of Rick Rubin in his Def Jam T-shirt or Bill Gates in his casuals. Nelson Rockefeller could never have gotten away with wearing anything less than the stiff formal uniform of his age.
Nor would working class youths during the Industrial Revolution have imagined that their counterparts at the beginning of the twenty-first century would have the option of choosing from genres as diverse as hip-hop, rave, jock, Eurotrash, or US preppy.
In your cubicle you may have to wear some variation of a monkey suit, but afterwards you can transform your disposable income into any costume you want.
But is this really freedom? Or are we just slaves to the culture industries that entice us into conforming to the latest trends? Some would say that style should be uniquely personal and not influenced by the suits the idiots are wearing on MTV, but is anybody truly independent from the commercial expectations of what we are supposed to look like?
Bombarded by images, even people self-consciously pursuing a state of anti-style are being influenced by the culture.
It is impossible to live in a culture saturated in media images and not be influenced. The best thing to do is just be comfortable, and try not to think about it too much. It's just clothes after all. As long as the sand isn't getting into your butt crack, you're doing pretty good, historically speaking.