Culture vs. Cultured

All people have culture. Culture is not something held only by the elites of a society, such as only the wealthiest, most educated, or most sophisticated in understanding the arts.

What is Culture?

A. Culture is a system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society (Hoebel, 1958).

Note the emphasis on the learning of behaviors or ways of doing things. Culture is learned, and individuals learn culture through the ongoing process of socialization. Parents, families, schools, peers, workplaces, etc. all socialize individuals to ways of doing things. We find differences across cultures in dress, language, food preferences, and other behaviors in part because these behaviors are learned — not knowledge that is innate, instinctual, or determined by genetic programming.

Cultural patterns are characteristic behaviors and often include a complex array of choices that are common and less common in a culture. A culture may afford more than one way of doing the same thing. Hence, diversity in behaviors may be found in some aspects of any culture.

B. Culture is a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by members of a society (Linton, 1936).

Linton emphasized that culture is a complex whole — a network of behaviors related to all aspects of life. Dress is shaped by and reflects many characteristics in any culture, so dress is a complex map of cultural characteristics.

C. Culture includes both abstract and concrete components (Scupin, 1998).

  • Abstract components include: the meanings of symbols, events, activities, or action and how the meanings are created and selected.
  • Concrete components include: the forms of action, behavior, event, activity, or artifacts. Dress may be a concrete object such as a shirt, a pair of shoes, or a hairstyle, but those concrete artifacts develop meanings in a culture. The fashion process, situations in which we use dress, and groups that are associated with wearing of types of dress all bring meaning to those artifacts.

D. Culture is… (Spradley, 1972):

  • what people know (mentifacts)
  • what people do (sociofacts)
  • what people make (artifacts)

Mentifacts: ideas, ideals, values, knowledge, and how we know.

  • Culture shapes how people think about things. This would include stereotypes that are held about groups of people who look a certain way.
  • Note also that “how we know” refers to educational and media systems. Fashion magazines are part of media systems. We also learn about appearances through TV and, now possibly, through the Internet.
  • How people in a culture think and what they value are often reflected in dress. For example, in the U.S., where we value the freedom to consume and material plenty, consumers tend to prefer large wardrobes (Sproles & Burns, 1994). In some European countries, the average consumer has a comparatively small wardrobe that often includes several high quality, expensive items. These few items are worn over and over again during the season in which they are fashionable.

Sociofacts: characteristics of social organizations and how people organize themselves.

  • Sociofacts reflect how people behave in groups and social interactions. For example, police wear uniforms to indicate their occupations and rank within the police force. A store like Target has a uniform dress code — red shirts and khaki pants — to help customers identify employees.
  • Many individuals dress up or “clean up” when going to dinner at someone’s house. This small act of dressing lends respect to the hosts and indicates participation in a social event.
  • Sometimes patterns of dress in the larger society reflect how people organize themselves. In the U.S. today, socioeconomic status is usually only vaguely communicated in what we wear. One hundred years ago, we would have clearly known the social class of everyone passing us on the street just by looking at their dress.

Artifacts: things people make and tools and processes for making them.

  • Dress such as clothing, make-up, tattoos, and shoes are artifacts made by people. Artifacts reflect multiple aspects of a culture such as mentifacts, sociofacts, and the technological knowledge of a culture that shapes manufacturing processes and types of materials used. Gore-Tex fabric now used in high-performance sportswear was, for example, invented through the NASA space program.
  • Technological advancements and economic reality may exclude some types of options for what people wear. In ready-to-wear clothing that most people in the U.S. buy today, there are only simple seams, darts, and a few gathers comprising construction. A tight fit is accomplished by knits and spandex rather than intricate construction details. During the 1940s and earlier, however, ordinary clothing often had many tucks, darts, godets, complex seams, etc. The degree of handwork and sewing skill required for those designs is too expensive to produce today in assembly-line factories. Complex fit through construction also requires customized fitting that is too expensive, time-consuming, and difficult for most of us. We save that expense for business suits and special occasion garments such as wedding dresses.

Society vs. Culture

Anthropologists disagree on how to distinguish the terms “culture” and “society”. We will use the terms fairly interchangeably. One definition of society is:

Society: a group of people living and working together in a systematic way (Mead, 1934). An important implication of this definition is that society requires people to coordinate their actions with each other. Each individual cannot haphazardly do his or her own thing with no concern for others. With no traffic laws, for example, we would run into each other fairly frequently. Indeed, with no coordination of human effort, automobiles and roads would never have been invented. Dress would have no meaning; fashions and traditions in dress would not exist. We would have no idea as to who anyone might be on first meeting of them. Dress is a product of systematic human interaction, and dress helps us to coordinate our interactions with others.

What Factors Influence Types of Dress Worn in a Culture?

Ruth Benedict (1959) drew what she called an “arc of human potential” to indicate that every culture makes choices from among a wide array of possibilities for any form of behavior. Each culture, then, makes choices of different language sounds, foods, dress materials and designs, and other behaviors.

In any culture the following factors shape choices for dress and other behaviors:

  • climate and natural resources
  • religion, ideology, ritual
  • technology
  • culture contact and diffusion of ideas
  • social and political organization
  • history
  • aesthetic rules

Principles of Cultural Perspective

Taking a cultural perspective on dress throughout the semester requires that we adopt some ways of thinking about people and the world:

1. Holistic approach: the meaning of dress can be understood only through the study of all aspects of a culture. Dress does not mean one single thing at a time. Many meanings and aspects of a culture are embedded in any example of dress. And sometimes these meanings are difficult to read. For example, why is it that in the U.S. where we value individuality so much, so many students on ISU campus wear jeans and T-shirts or some other simple top to classes?

2. Cultural relativism: seek to understand dress as it has meaning to an “insider” of a society. What dress worn in India means to you, an outsider or tourist in the country, is not necessarily at all related to what it means to people in that culture. We need to examine the characteristics of a culture and talk to people within a culture to find out what their dress means. Something as simple as color may have very different meanings in dress in different cultures. For example:

  • Red = common funeral color in Zambia, Africa
  • Red = wedding dress color in traditional China

What would it mean if someone wore a bright red dress to a close relative’s funeral or a bride wore a bright red wedding dress in the U.S. today?

3. Ethnocentrism: judgment of people of other cultures by one’s own cultural standards and beliefs. Dress that is different from how we ourselves dress can be challenging to accept or appreciate.

When ethnocentricity is hard to avoid: There are some things done to the body in other cultures or by some groups within our own culture that are harmful to the individuals. Taking action to end these practices may be seen as important for humanity. It is important to recognize, however, that these practices may have deep meanings and roots in religious values or beauty standards previously considered good or “healthful.” Simply marching in and making such practices illegal will not necessarily end them. Great care must be taken to change deeply held beliefs about the practices. Change is likely to be slow.

Some examples of harmful practices include:

  • corsets (harmful to health)
  • foot binding (physically deforming and limiting women’s ability to fully function in society)
  • tanning (harmful to health)
  • web sites promoting anorexia (harmful to health and self-esteem)
  • female circumcision (harmful to health and violation of women’s rights)


Benedict, R. (1959). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houston Mifflin.

Hoebel, E. A. (1958). Man in the primitive world: An introduction to anthropology (2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Linton, (1936). The study of man: An introduction. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self, and society (Ed. by Charles W. Morris). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Scupin, R. (1998). Cultural anthropology: A global perspective (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Spradley, J. P. (1972). Culture and cognition: Rules, maps, and plans. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing.

Sproles, G. B., & Burns, L. D. (1994). Changing appearances. New York: Fairchild.

Culture Case Study

The purpose of this assignment is to:

  • Summarize the role of dress and appearance practices in the development of different identities.
  • Recognize and differentiate how marginalized communities in the U.S. use dress and appearance practices to express their identities.


  • Use this document, and save it as “Culture Assignment your first and last name”
  • Answer the case study questions beneath each question below (meaning keep the question in your assignment sheet).
  • Answer the case study questions using case study reading below and the reading “Ethnic Fashion” Obscures Cultural Identity in The Meanings of Dress. Be sure to cite the readings when paraphrasing or using a direct quote. Do not use or reference other sources that refer to similar topics when completing this assignment.
  • Keep answers typed, single spaced, 12-point font, no cover page, use Microsoft word, full sentences, 1” document borders, keep all of the assignment instructions and questions in your document
  • Review the grading rubric at the end of the case study

Case study reading:

Culture refers to aspects of human made elements including tools, dress, and media in addition to values, attitudes and norms. Dress is a significant part of almost every culture.

As more cultures have cross-cultural contact, people from different cultures begin to change aspects of their culture by incorporating new aspects of different cultures they come into contact with. This includes changes in dress. This process of cultural change is often referred to as cultural authentication. It should be noted though, that there is a long history of forced assimilation, especially for Native or Indigenous communities in North America. That is, Native communities were forced to assimilate to European culture meaning that Native people were not interested in incorporating European cultural elements into their way of life.

Another term related to changing cultural aesthetics or norms is cultural appropriation. The concept of cultural appropriation is highly debated. For example, Amandla Stenberg discusses her opinions about white people adopting Black hairstyles. In the video that went viral, Stenberg discusses how the adoption of hairstyles such as braids or cornrows by white people is wrong because when Black people wear these styles, they are viewed negatively such as “thugs” or “gangsters,” yet when white people adopt these styles they can be seen as “cool” or “edgy,” which reinforces long-standing racial hierarchies and stereotypes of white people having power. There are also arguments such as appreciation versus appropriation where individuals will argue that their adoption of a particular style or aesthetic is not wrong because they merely appreciate that part of another culture.

Case study questions:

  1. What is a bindi and why does Sunita wear one?


  1. What does Sunita mean when she says she has a “hyphenated existence?”


  1. How does Sunita feel about people “outside” of her culture adopting and wearing the bindi and why?


  1. What are some other ethnic styles that you have seen throughout your life that have become fashions or fashionable? Be specific: describe the culture that the style emerged from and include an image. (there are many examples)


  1. After reading Sunita’s perspective and watching the short film by Amandla Stenberg, from your perspective do you think it is acceptable to adopt ethnic styles from outside your own culture for fashionable purposes? Why or why not?



100 points total

Meets or exceeds expectations

All parts of questions are answered.

Questions are answered correctly and in accordance with the information presented in the reading.

Answers contain at least two full sentences, contain explanations and examples where appropriate and show synthesis of information in reading when appropriate.


Some parts of the questions are answered.

Questions are mostly answered correctly in accordance with some information presented in the reading.

Answer contains less than two full sentences, contains brief explanation or example and shows little synthesis of information from reading when appropriate.

Needs development

No or few parts of question answered.

Questions are not answered correctly or in accordance with information presented in the reading.

Answer is short phrases or not complete sentences, contain no explanation or examples and show no or little evidence of information from reading when appropriate.

Question 1 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 2 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 3 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 4 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 5 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in Society by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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