Rodney Barker
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Replying to Burke’s apologia for monarchy and aristocracy, Tom Paine famously complained that Burke pitied the plumage, but forgot the dying bird. But without the plumage, the bird is not a bird at all, and observing plumage is one of the first ways in which we try to see what sort a bird we are looking at. Human plumage is not limited to clothing, but consists of the whole complex cultivation of both conduct and environment, from all the visible and audible elements of individual identity to the created physical environment which its members inhabit. Clothing and cuisine, language and architecture, form the plumage of humans in all places and at all times. The paradox of identity is the tension between identification through association with others, and identity by individual distinction, the one sustaining equality, the other inequality.



A strange creature in bright feathers; what you get is what you see

Replying to Burke's denunciation of the revolutionary regime in France, and his apologia for monarchy and aristocracy, Tom Paine famously complained that Burke pitied the plumage, but forgot the dying bird.1 To which a reply – though not one made by Burke or other defenders of tradition, hierarchy, or the wisdom of elites – is that without the plumage, the bird is not a bird at all, and that observing plumage is one of the first ways in which we try to see what sort of a bird we are looking at, or even if it is a bird at all rather than some other creature entirely. Nor is the nature and function of plumage limited to making recognition possible. Plumage is just as necessary to the bird as it is to those who want to identify it. Without its feathers, the bird can neither fly nor swim, attract mates nor hide from predators. The feathers are neither additions to the bird nor expressions of the bird, they are part of what the bird is, as any bird spotter would have told Paine. But Paine was drawing on an ancient view of core versus superficialities, essence versus accidents, internal substance versus external display, which has served to set aside inconvenient evidence or dismiss some of what is seen as superficial or without significance, ‘mere rhetoric’ or epiphenomenal froth, while at the same time assuming an underlying but not immediately evident truth, nature, essence, or purpose. The disadvantage of such a view has always been that it provides an excuse for ignoring evidence, or explaining evidence which is acknowledged as the effect of some foundational feature or principle which is no more than a summary of what it seeks to explain.

What applies to birds applies with even greater force to humans, animals who wear not only their own skin and hair, but that of other creatures as well, adding to and extending their own plumage by creating for themselves second and third skins of clothing which are as much a part of who they are as are the feathers of the sparrow or the plumes of the peacock, and no more artificial than a sparrow's nest. Human plumage, as a tangible component of human identity, is not limited to clothing, however widely interpreted, but consists of the whole complex cultivation of both conduct and environment, from all the visible and audible elements of individual identity to the created physical environment which its members inhabit. Clothing and diet, language and architecture, all are part of the plumage of humans, which, being chosen and cultivated as well as given and received, can say even more than the plumage of the ostrich or the coot, since it is part of the cultivation of an identity which differentiates one society from another, one household from another, and one person from another. The plumage of a bird will show to which species it belongs; human plumage will show important elements not just of acquired or imposed but also of created and cultivated identities. If an initial impression is sought of what kind of society, government, polity, group, or individual is being looked at, then the visible, tangible, and audible expressions they give of themselves, and the ways in which they give them, are at the very least an essential first piece of evidence, the social anatomy of human identity. This elaborate human plumage is as much a part of who people are as the feathers of the crow are part of what makes it a crow.

The first answer to the enquiry, ‘Why does taking account of human plumage matter?’ is therefore informed by the distinction between free-range and battery data, and by democratic empiricism, the working assumption that whilst what can be observed does not provide explanations, it demands acknowledgment, and cannot be set aside as peripheral or epiphenomenal to some deeper or more parsimonious reality.2 The second answer is that if there are consistent relationships between the cultivation of identity and other dimensions of public life, then plumage is one powerful indicator of other aspects of any society. The third answer is that it is important to understand identity as the ideological or cultural dimension of social life, a dimension which has always been there, but which was unduly neglected for much of the short twentieth century, particularly in accounts of political life. How people give meaning and justification for themselves, how they cultivate and present their identities, is a prominent element in the human history which both arts and sciences seek to describe, interpret, or explain. And the central paradox in that cultivation, between identity as association and identity as distinctiveness, is found in every component of identity.

This wider human plumage matters because it tells much about the character of the person, institution, regime, polity, or society which is being observed. In this view of things, expressed identity is not an instrument or shadow of some inner reality, but the thing itself; its powers and limitations are real, and are not under the control of some deeper self or purpose, but are the self and purpose, with its strengths and weaknesses. Acted out and observable identities, the ‘habitus’ of Bourdieu, have all the importance of the cloak which Clytemnestra threw over Agamemnon, in its constricting as well as its enabling possibilities. And like the one which enabled Agamemnon to be murdered, while it can be changed, precisely because it is a human creation it cannot be cast on and off instantly and at will. This lack of unfettered freedom in all the cultivations of identity is an important qualification to the view that since artefacts, whilst assigned meaning, are external objects they can be discarded and changed arbitrarily and at will. Cavallaro and Warwick have argued that ‘dress, by encouraging us to make and remake ourselves over and again, renders the very idea of essence quite absurd’.3 But it is not any illusory instant replacement of identity which calls into question the idea of essence, but rather the observation that when all the evident elements of identity have been considered, there is little if anything left to constitute any further reality.

Clothes construct the social person

It was in the tradition of Burke rather than Paine, though with rather different political intent, that Virginia Woolf included in her essay on gendered politics, Three Guineas, photographs of men in the elaborate regalia of their public roles – judges, generals, university vice chancellors, and bishops. Clothing, although it is only the most immediate aspect of cultivated identity, nonetheless is evidence and a component not just of personal adornment but of gender, status, and power. Each of the four roles is illustrated by Woolf with photographs of its full formal extravagance, with the judicial splendour of curls and scarlet unchanged in style since the eighteenth century; movement-constricting military uniforms weighted down with medals, braid, and ribbons; hats and cloaks and hoods in academic procession; and episcopal pomp laden with mineral embossment, the servants of God sparkling with the properties of Caesar.

The clothes people wore were for Woolf much more than superficial or insignificant display; they were significant social actions which anyone seeking to reform society needed to take seriously. The ceremonial dress of males:

serves to advertise the social, professional, or intellectual standing of the wearer. If you will excuse the humble illustration, your dress fulfils the same functions as the tickets in a grocer's shop. But, here, instead of saying ‘This is margarine; this pure butter; this is the finest butter in the market,’ it says, ‘This man is a clever man – he is Master of Arts; this man is a very clever man – he is Doctor of Letters; this man is a most clever man – he is a Member of the Order of Merit.’4

The clothing both claimed and constituted a status and transmitted a message. And whatever the practicality of the clothing that might be worn when a particular job was being done, the clothing which was worn when the status of the person doing the job was being proclaimed was of a very different character – flamboyant, dramatic, and ceremonial, wholly impractical but no less functional: ‘Military uniforms, the non-functional kind which are not worn for fighting, glorify war and make a military career appear attractive.’ For women who identified themselves as opponents of war, therefore, refusing distinctions, honours, and uniforms would both present a public identity which corresponded to the rest of their beliefs and actions and would ‘do something, indirectly, to discourage the feelings that lead to war’.5

Woolf's account illustrates graphically that far from humans being, as Desmond Morris described them, naked apes,6 they are clothed apes, and often very elaborately clothed ones. Their clothing is one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals, and the clothes and all the other manufactured, constructed, and cultivated things with which people surround themselves, which they inhabit and in and through which they live, are essential components and constituents of identity, of status, function, and authority. The remarkable thing about the naked human ape is that there are possibly only two examples of the species, Adam and Eve, and even they did not remain without clothing for long. The transition from the Garden of Eden to the post-paradisiacal world was marked by the putting on of clothes. Even before their expulsion, Adam and Eve were provided with garments made of skins, thus marking them off from all the rest of creation: other animals wore their own skins, humans decked themselves in those of other animals. And not just skins, but buttons and bows, cloaks and hats, and all the artefacts which are part of human life. Woolf's advice to women on political tactics suggests an even more important role for clothing than that of label or price tag. Clothing is not simply an announcement of identity; it is part of identity, not an external addition, but an organic component. The clothing does not simply adorn or express the human identity, it contributes to constituting and creating it.

The importance of clothing as one of the first and most evident components of cultivated identity has long been recognised, and it is pleasantly appropriate that it was Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell who in 1947 drew on the arguments of Thorstein Veblen from the end of the nineteenth century to give an account of the central role of dress far beyond the simple functions of keeping humans warm and dry, and of the inadequacy of an unimaginatively narrow utilitarianism to grasp the fecundity of human actions and ambitions.7 Veblen's description of bodily adornment and clothing as a means both of ‘emulation’ and of ‘invidious distinction’ was in terms of a single scale of ambition, greater and greater wealth, and to that extent assumes a single scale of valued appearance across an entire society.8 But his account nonetheless presaged a broader notion of an identity paradox, where association might be sought for many reasons, and distinction equally grounded in many allegedly unique characteristics. Bell developed Veblen's argument to take in both a social and a totally private dimension of identity. Such was the dependence of people on their elaborately and minutely cultivated identities that even when no other humans could observe or hear them, the smallest detail of their constructed person was important to them. Commenting on this ‘Robinson Crusoe syndrome’, though not on Robinson Crusoe, for whom a hat on a deserted island constituted the difference between civilization and savagery, Bell observed that:

it may frequently happen here, as in other moral situations, that the offender may be not simply the worst but in fact the only sufferer. A rebellious collar stud, a minute hole in a stocking may ruin an evening without ever being observed by the company at large. Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul.9

And once a person is away from the solitude of a desert island or a dressing-table mirror, it is the fabric, rather than the body beneath, which constitutes for everyone else the visible and tangible social identity.

Dress carries immediate social meaning, it is part of a person's identity, and it is both defended and sometimes threateningly asserted in its most minute detail. Recalling new shoes imposed in childhood, Jenny Diski described how ‘it wasn't just the social disaster of such unfashionability that froze my heart: it was the fear that appearing to be the kind of person who wore such shoes might mean that that was the person I actually was. It wasn't just that my peers would despise me: I would despise myself.’10 In Woolf's Orlando, a housekeeper's wedding ring was something from which she could not be parted for even a moment, since it defined her, and without it her very social existence seemed in peril. With it she was a respectable married woman. Without it her existence fell into confusion and disrepute. And not only her existence on earth: ‘it was by the gleam on her wedding ring that she would be assigned her station among the angels and its lustre would be tarnished for ever if she let it out of her keeping for a second.’11 In a similar way for a Protestant Orangeman in twentieth-century Northern Ireland, ‘the sash my father wore’ was both an expression of identity and a constituent part of the identity which it expressed. Clothes and scenery make the person, both for themselves and for others. There may or may not be an inner self so that we can say of someone that deep down they are superficial. But it is the outward construction with which we deal, and which constitutes, for social life, who we are.

The rituals and behaviour of public life are a visible and audible display which, in addition to being evidence of what they immediately express, communicate important messages about the meaning to be attributed to other ways in which people give an account and a justification of themselves and the roles they perform. In Woolf's case, clothing drew attention to the otherwise unacknowledged importance of gender distinctions. Men in Western society, who normally distinguished themselves from women by the unimaginativeness of their dress, their dark and uniform suits and subdued colours of shirts and ties, were quite different in their roles as the arbiters of state and society – as judges, university vice chancellors, bishops and generals – and were decked out with more feathers and frills and buttons and bows than could be found in the most extravagant display of women's ball gowns.

In public life, whether economic, religious, or political, dress is a constituent part and construction of how people see themselves, and how they see the other members of their society – a vision of a world which that dress at the same time constitutes. It is not only the prominent and the dominant who come in bright, or not so bright, feathers. The construction, cultivation, and display of external form is a part of all social life, and is an inherent dimension of the cultivation of social identity and social rank. Citizens and rebels, petitioners and demonstrators, exist through their attire just as much as do presidents and kings. Public identity is formed of all the visible, audible, and communicable aspects of a person and their actions and accoutrements. This identity explains and justifies who people are and what they do. And yet to put it in that way may suggest that a person, an action, and a meaning or justification are in some way distinct, so that one can chronologically precede and cause or influence the other. But each of these analytically distinct features is an integral part of an organic whole, each is a dimension or aspect of public identity, and each can influence and be influenced by the others, and has a character which, were it isolated and distinct (which it could not be), would be different. There is a necessarily integrated character to identification, that whilst it may be analytically distinct, concretely and historically it is not, and must be seen as an aspect of action, not as a precursor to it. Popular language has always recognised this, and when people talk of blue-stockings, Black Shirts, suits, anoraks, or hoodies, they are talking about the whole person, of whom the clothing is both an indicative and a constituent part. A fashion statement is not a superficial addition, it is part of who, socially and humanly, people are. ‘Don't step on my blue suede shoes’ is not an admonition to preserve the shape or cleanliness of footwear. Nor is the identity-forming role of clothing limited to the functional items which keep out cold and wet. Jewellery is not simply decoration, it is declaration. And the functions of jewellery wash over into ostensibly purely utilitarian items such as watches and mobile phones. The more expensive such small items are, the greater the proportion of their function is dedicated not to marking the time or enabling communication, but to constructing the wealthy identity of their possessor. When late twentieth-century social scientists looked at clothing and all the other elements of taste, they did so in a way which treated all aspects of cultivated identity as relevant and important; Bourdieu's ‘habitus’ was a the portfolio of taste which constituted social location, ‘schemes of the habitus … embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body – ways of walking or blowing one's nose, ways of eating or talking’.12

Yet whilst clothing is part of identity, it is not a physically inseparable part. It can be changed, and in changing, changes the identity of which it is a constituent component. Clothing is more easily changed than any other part of who a person is, and so a change of clothing can be used to create a change of identity, if not in the eye of the wearer, then certainly in the eyes of others. The audacious deception carried out by the man who became famous as the Captain of Köpenik depended on a uniform and a great deal of bravado, but by dressing as a Prussian officer Wilhelm Voigt became a Prussian officer in the eyes of those around him, commandeered a posse of soldiers, and confiscated 4000 marks from the city treasurer. It is a delicate philosophical point whether the posse of soldiers and the city treasurer saw a Prussian officer or someone posing as a Prussian officer, but the events up until the point of revelation would have been the same in either case; publicly, a Prussian officer was precisely what Wilhelm Voigt was. This instance casts light on the limitations of the theatrical or mask metaphor of identity. What happened was no different from what would have happened had Voigt been a genuine officer, because as part of a series of public events, that is what he was. Knowing in retrospect that someone was deceiving the world with his or her performance would alter the way events were explained, but not the way in which they were described. Just so did Mozart's Don Giovanni and Leporello by exchanging clothes enable Giovanni to evade his pursuers. But dressing as someone else has its perils. In Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible it was by flattering the conspirators’ candidate for the throne into wearing the royal robes that the tzar diverted the assassin's knife to the usurper whose cause it was meant to advance.13 In an age without photography, film, television, or the Internet, faces were unknown beyond an immediate circle, while clothes proclaimed a king. Renaissance theatre is full of identities mimicked or pretended by clothing or even by no more than a handkerchief. Nor is the age of visual familiarity immune to identity through dress, so long as it is collective rather than individual. At the beginning of Charles Gormley's film Heavenly Pursuits, the young priest from Glasgow, arriving at the Vatican, is asked if he can identify himself and, slightly puzzled, he points to his dog collar. It is sufficient.14

In politics, the colour of clothing is an immediate and simple way of signalling allegiance to a party, country, faith, or family. A Conservative might wear red braces, but would be unlikely to wear a red shirt. And yet it is on the face of it astonishing that so much significance should attach to the colour of items of clothing. But it has always and everywhere been so. One of the first things that the states of Europe did when they began putting their ordinary soldiers into uniform from the seventeenth century onwards, was to select distinguishing national colours: blue and yellow in Sweden, white in France, Red in Britain. When it came to revolutionary change, the identity constructed by clothing mattered even more. Lynn Hunt has described the importance of costume in revolutionary France:

Different costumes indicated different politics, and a color, the wearing of a certain length of trousers, certain shoe styles, or the wrong hat might touch off a quarrel, a fistfight, or a general street brawl. During the Revolution, even the most ordinary objects and customs became political emblems and potential sources of political and social conflict. Colors, adornments, clothing, plateware, money, calendars, and playing cards became ‘signs of rallying’ to one side or another.15

The inclusions and exclusions of politics are paralleled by those of social life. The cartoons of H. M. Bateman made the point by parodying both exclusiveness and the naivety of those who are unaware of convention, but are part of a class or caste society where clothes mark distinction, exclusion, and superior knowledge. ‘The man who …’ is a recurring figure who causes consternation by wearing the wrong clothes for a particular occasion or place, thereby not only announcing that he is an outsider, but offending insiders by not even being aware of their defining normalities.

When Kemal Atatürk wished to cast a new and distinctive identity for the Turkish state and its members, how Turks looked was treated as an important part of who Turks were, and the banning of the fez was not a sartorial whim, but a strand in the weaving of national identity16 A little later, but with equally appropriate national and cultural location, Harold Nicolson, asked to suggest a uniform for Oswald Moseley's British fascist organisation, proposed the restrained English attire of grey flannel trousers and shirts.17 Perhaps ‘flannels’ would have been the term used in Britain, instead of ‘Black Shirts’, had his advice been taken, although ‘the wearing of the flannels’ could never have had the same resonance as possessed in Ireland by ‘the wearing of the green’.

Walking the walk

In their clothing, and in their language, their gestures, and the expressive environments of art, architecture, music, and decoration which they cultivate for themselves, humans are a species that exists and is created and cultivated through the whole complexity of social display, its manners and masques, scenery and costume, music and movement. How people move within public space is part of their cultural and political identity. It was entirely in keeping with the contribution that means of transport make to identity that Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion, once raised to the upper classes, should respond to the offer of a stroll across the park with ‘Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.’18 How you travel is who you are. The twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens made much the same point succinctly:

I am what is around me …

One is not a duchess

A hundred yards from a carriage.19

It was this dependence on a visibly expensive means of transport to create social status that so concerned Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, for whom the appropriateness of a possible marriage depended upon a tenuous indirect connection of an ‘elder sister, who was very well married, to a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages’. When others did not travel in a style appropriate to their status there was great concern, and the novel's protagonist was much relieved when someone whom she otherwise admired, behaved with appropriate display after falling short by not using his carriage ‘so often as became the owner of Donwell Abbey.’20

When pollsters ask respondents to compare politicians to cars, they are employing an important insight.21 John Prescott is someone who has two Jags. This is, after all, a point that advertisers take for granted and which, if it were not so, would condemn most advertisements for cars as a waste of money. You are not just someone who happens to own a Hispano-Suiza; you are a Hispano-Suiza owner, a Hispano-Suiza kind of person. Sean O’Connell has pointed to the identity-expressing and identity-cultivating function of visible car ownership in the early days of the automobile: ‘The car offered owners the chance to express their status and their distinction from less wealthy groups in society. It provided this not only in terms of its own existence as a sought-after consumer product, but also in the opportunity it gave to owners to translate the social space between them and “social inferiors” into geographical space.’22 Conspicuous ownership made a very public statement about wealth and status. In Mel Brooke's film The Producers, spying a chauffeur sprinting out of a large and expensive car to open doors for his passenger across the street from his own shabby office, the theatrical impresario Max Bialystock calls out ‘That's it, baby, when you've got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!’23 The line is presaged many years earlier in Stanley Houghton's 1912 play Hindle Wakes, when the mill owner Natt Jeffcote asks rhetorically: ‘Why did I buy a motor-car? Not because I want to go motoring. I hate it. I bought it so that people could see Alan driving about in it, and say, “There's Jeffcote's lad in his new car. It cost five hundred quid.”’24 It was an explanation which Veblen would instantly have recognised as an instance of both emulation and distinction. By the 1920s car ownership had spread across a wide enough social spectrum for manufacturers to tailor their models to contribute to the graded identities of their customers. A statement from Vauxhall observed that ‘There is a class-consciousness in horsepowers, and the manufacturer has to build a model for every class’.25 Boundaries which were in this way cultivated could be vigorously defended against those considered as interlopers. O’Connell comments of the Swallow Coachbuilding Company's SS1 sports car that:

its comparatively low cost allowed new social groups to enter the sports-car niche. Hence its buyers came to be viewed as intruders in a sphere of motoring they had previously been unable to join, with the result that they were classified – by the ‘Bentley Boys’ and others amongst motoring's cognoscenti – as a motoring nouveau riche whose sense of good taste had not caught up with their purchasing power.26

More than 100 years after the motor car's arrival, it continued to play a role in group identity. The most extreme form of this was the exclusion of whole sections of the population – women – from driving cars at all, in nations such as Saudi Arabia.27 Nor was the social role of the car a novelty in the identity-cultivating role of transport. In China, well into the early years of the twentieth century, wealth could be publicly asserted whilst the physical person could be concealed from the view of the masses in curtained sedan chairs, an older tradition serving the same function as clouded glass windows in large limousines.28 Identification is cultivated by association of the individual with the group. But it is cultivated also by distinction between one group and another, and between one person and another within the group. Exclusion is the other face of solidarity, and the other component of identity.

Democratisation of societies and states has continued to be characterised by changes in the way that different groups travel. In the most steeply hierarchical societies, the upper levels of society and polity travel at such a remove from the mass of the population that they might not be viewed at all. Visibility to and recognition by the masses were irrelevant to the cultivation and confirmation of identity. When visibility could not be avoided, travel was arranged in a way which raised the elite above the mass of the people. A chevalier was raised above the crowd by his horse, and Yeats employed the ‘high horse riderless’ as his metaphor for an aristocracy vanished from the stage of public life.29 But as the masses are mobilised, and even more as they are given some role in public life, seclusion is replaced by limited visibility. In Japan, the wedding of the then Crown Prince Akihito in 1959 was followed by an open horse-drawn carriage drive through Tokyo, another break with a tradition which until then had conveyed members of the imperial family in closed palanquins.30 The presentation was of a royal family who were not only visible to the public, but receiving the approval, support, and acclamation of the public. That is something an absolute ruler, and even more so a semi-divine one, not only would not need, but would be compromised by seeking or receiving. The royal rulers of Japan had, like the monarchs of early modern Europe, been performers in a ritual without any popular legitimising audience. And as with monarchies elsewhere, the Japanese royal family moved from weddings out of the public gaze to a degree of public display at the time when the monarchy was moving towards a purely formal and symbolic role, but a role which, without the legitimation of privately celebrated power, drew legitimation instead from, however restrained, public presence and display.

The ways in which the identity of monarchy can be crafted can vary greatly. A royal yacht in late twentieth-century Spain will be a small sailing boat; at the same time in Britain, it was a floating hotel. In late twentieth-century Britain the remaining Edwardian grandeur of the monarchy was compared unfavourably with the more mundane style of the royal families of Scandinavian Europe. Earlier in the century such comparisons could be presented as merely comic. A Cummings cartoon in the Daily Express of 1953 shows the coronation as the cartoonist imagined it might have been arranged by Nye Bevan, with the horse guards on bicycles, the royal coach a shooting brake, and the peers in a double-decker bus.31 But custom and practice can change, and assembled royal dignitaries may now find themselves at international weddings transported all together, as they were at the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, in a Windsorian motor coach.32 As with much visible identity, custom is easier to defend than innovation. When Tony Blair was reported to be considering the allocation of a special plane for prime ministerial use, it was mocked as ‘Blairforce One’, an instance of presumption, whereas the United States President's Airforce One was regarded as a normal attribute of presidential presence.33

A society which mobilises more and more of the inhabitants of its territory faces a problem over the cultivation of hierarchy and exclusion. There may be a desire to maintain the distinctive identity of elites whilst at the same time not wishing to draw attention to the subordinate identities of the majority. It is in such circumstances that railway operators will retain the designation ‘first class’ whilst replacing ‘second class’ with ‘standard class’. Airlines, similarly, use labels such as ‘tourist’ and ‘economy’, fine-tuning the distance between these and a retained ‘first class’ with the utilitarian meritocracy of ‘business class’.

Politicians who wish to state their popular and populist credentials may sidestep even these euphemistic renamings. Whilst dictators and despots ride in state, elected, or hoping to be elected, leaders may walk or cycle. If they wish to cultivate not only their common touch but also their youth and vigour, they may even jog or run. However a person travels, identity is being cultivated and expressed. Not to travel is itself an aspect of identity. Simply to stand or sit in a public space can be part of homelessness, or political protests, or waiting for an acquaintance. It cannot be devoid of meaning. Moving or not moving, riding or walking, identities are being unavoidably displayed to the world. Social identity is constructed both by the use of one means of movement rather than another, and within each way of getting about. The range from steerage to the captain's table, or from one class of plane or train to another, can be paralleled even within simple walking. Romans characterised each other by their gait, and even their names reflected this. Gait was taken to be characteristic of social position, slaves hurrying and nobler Romans proceeding in a leisurely and dignified manner. Even families could be identified by how they moved, and Cleopatra's son Caesarion was deemed a genuine offspring of Julius Caesar by the way he walked.34 Whether people move or are moved and carried, identity, and its tensions of solidarity and exclusivity are being constantly cultivated.

Talking the talk: how we speak

As for walking, so too for talking, as Eliza Doolittle demonstrated. To change the way you speak is to change who you are. Of all the components of identity, language is one of the most immediately evident, but even more than clothing marks humans off from other animals. Humans are, even more crucially than clothed apes, speaking apes. John Searle has placed language as the constituting phenomenon of human life, on which everything else depends, and at an only slightly less generalised level of argument, language can be presented as the fundamental constituting activity for human identity.35 Its role is dramatically illustrated when collective identities are being challenged or asserted. The assertion of the role of Latin in the Catholic liturgy by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century was as defining for the church's identity as was the shift to the vernacular by the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth.36 Secular identity as much as religious identity is constructed, cultivated, and sustained by language. Language creates both common identities and separation and exclusion. Since the rise of modern nationalism, speaking and writing in the vernacular have been a part of the collective identity of a people or a nation, just as previously a more universal or less geographically rooted and restricted language had been part of the identity of elites: Latin for scholars and clergy throughout European Christendom; French for aristocrats and intellectuals in northern and eastern Europe, where the language at the court of Catherine the Great in Russia could be French, whilst in Prussia Frederick the Great could name his summer palace ‘Sanssouci’. The widening of the community with which people identified beyond those who might, at least in principle, be immediately known and communicated with, by the accessibility of vernacular writings disseminated by what Anderson has called ‘print capitalism’, placed language at the heart of the imagined communities of the modern mobilised nation.37

The language used, the prosaic substance of what is said, and the manner or accent in which it is said are all heavy with significance, but they do not exist independently of one another. Language, substance, and manner engage with each other, and in any one place and time there are conventional expectations of the character of that relationship. In Eliza Doolittle's case, the comedy arises from words associated with one way of speaking being presented in the accent of another way: ‘It's my belief they done the old woman in,’ pronounced in a cut-glass upper-class accent.38 The comedians Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller used a similar device in the twenty-first century with a sketch of Second World War Royal Air Force fighter pilots using the vocabulary of twenty-first century youth in the professional accents of the 1940s.39 It is a dimension of identity recognised by writers across the generations. Changing the way you speak changes who you are, or who you are publicly. When Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear wishes to conceal his identity from his blind father, he adopts a rustic accent and becomes a peasant and a stranger.40 Fathers were not always so easily fooled, and Isaac almost sees through the deception of his son Jacob, who cheats his brother Esau of his inheritance by impersonating him before his blind parent, covering his arms with goat skin to imitate his brother hirsute limbs. Though Isaac is eventually convinced by his son's deception, when ‘the hands are the hands of Esau’, he nonetheless thought that ‘the voice is Jacob's voice’.41

Language is important, from the existence of separate languages for the ruling class or caste – Mandarin, Norman French – through the dialects of class to multicultural equality in countries such as the late twentieth-century United Kingdom. Writing in the early years of the eighteenth century, Maria Edgeworth could report that in Liverpool a wife with the wrong accent could cause embarrassment and impediment to the social aspirations of a newly wealthy husband.42 There is no accurate means of recovering either the speech of the wife or that to which her husband aspired, but it is unlikely to have been an equally valued accent of identification in the same city, Scouse, which appears not to have developed until the end of the nineteenth century.43 In 1928 the BBC's Recommendations to Announcers informed its readers that ‘A man's social class will be more evident from the fashion of his speech than from any other fashion he adopts.’44 Whatever the socially levelling consequences of the Second World War, language survived as a component of social hierarchy. Nancy Mitford's presentation of ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ drew only half-sceptical attention to the survival of linguistic class in the second half of the twentieth century.45 The way in which we speak sends important signals of friends and enemies, people like us, and people who are regarded at best as different and at worst as hostile.

Just as distinctions of speech are part of a segmented society, the movement of language towards a median is part of a move towards greater equality, or at least less inequality. In England in the twentieth century, part of a wider democratisation was an erosion of distinctive upper-class ways of speaking. The change from ‘huntin’ to ‘hunting’ was not just the acquisition of a consonant.46 But a greater democracy of language does not necessarily involve homogenisation. Whilst ‘standard English’, ‘received pronunciation’, or ‘the Queen's English’ may have become more familiar in the mouths of comedians and satirists than in the boundary beatings of class, regional dialects have flourished as a component of identity in public life.

Language, dialect, and accent can be learned, acquired, or cast off, and it is not only children who are skilled at fitting the voice to the occasion. The miners’ leader Arthur Scargill could use the ‘received pronunciation’ ‘U’ for television interviews, but the northern ‘U’ for miners’ galas, an ability which, far from marking him off from other political actors, provided only one more striking example of a widespread facility to match the voice to the political occasion.47 Language may shape what can be said and how it can be said, but it can be put on and put off like a set of clothes. It does not either express some other aspect of identity, or determine it. But nor is that its significance. If a person has several languages for different settings, each contributes a part to an overall identity. Each is a public, social performance, not a ‘real’, hidden, secret inner identity. Identities do not need either to be always the same or to be coherent, in order to be real and substantial.

Even if language related in no way whatsoever to other aspects or dimensions of identity, it would nonetheless be part of the overall character of a person or collection of people. As a mark of identity, therefore, it can be as significant, or as insignificant, in expressing the boundaries and territories of identity, as religion, political allegiance, dress, or diet. Significant components of identity draw their significance not from any inherent character, nor from their being an expression of some underlying single principle of identity, but by being accorded significance by the possessor of those components, or by others. The languages which form part of an identity can be as varied as the clothing, and wearing overalls to work and morning dress to the horse racing at Ascot does not denote uncertain identity or a division between ‘superficial’ and ‘real’. Language forms institutions and identities, and like all other dimensions of identity, is characterised by both association and distinction. Languages which distinguish one human community from another will themselves then be segmented in searches for individual distinction, and linguistic solidarity constantly fine-tuned to promote individual distinction.

What you eat (and how you eat) is what you are

Just as humans are clothed apes whose identity is significantly constructed and cultivated by their actions and by what and how they produce, so are they apes who eat and drink with a degree of sociability which both marks them off from all other animals and is part of the cultivation of their public identity. How food is prepared, how it is served, and how it is consumed can all form part of the consumer's identity. It is not only in tea ceremonies that identities are generated. Even when tea is more mundanely drunk, the way in which a cup is held is capable of making social statements. For one person to eat with another can be amongst the strongest forms of solidarity, or of the expression and cultivation of common identity. What people eat, which people eat what, how they eat, where they eat, with whom they eat, and in what relation to fellow eaters they consume – all and each constitute different cultures, different societies, different individual and collective identities. For the Oglala Sioux, the distinction between Indian and non-Indian foods was an important way not just of distinguishing themselves from Europeans, but of distinguishing between Indian tribes, and even between ‘mixed bloods’ and ‘full bloods’.48 For each of the three largest monotheistic religions, food and its common management has a major identity-sustaining role. The central ceremony of the Christian religion is a common and communal partaking of food and drink. The most familiar illustration of the discipleship of the original twelve Apostles is a depiction of the Last Supper, the community of the faithful sharing a common meal. For Christians, both in worship and in art, the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples is the most powerful statement of the bond between them. The Christian Eucharist is in turn a celebration of a meal taken within Judaism, where Passover plays a major role of communal and religious solidarity, while the alternation of fasting and nourishment during the festival of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Those who abstain from food by fasting are cultivating an identity as surely as those who by partaking in the Eucharist mark their membership of the company of the saved or the faithful. For each faith the common conduct of eating provides an identity-cultivation ritual.

It is because communal eating is such a powerful and ceremonial expression and cultivation of social solidarity that harm inflicted during eating is considered the worst form of treachery. To poison one's guests is to reveal the depths of one's own moral descent and one's departure from the society of civilised or socialised humanity. Conversely, the common table is the stage at which the solidarity of the family is cultivated, as is the solidarity of both secular and religious collegial bodies, clubs, corporations, and professional associations. Eating together expresses and cultivates a shared identity, and a sharing of the material resources which surround and extend that identity. It is for this reason that ostentatious failure to share food when seated with others causes deep offence. When Evelyn Waugh, at a time of great food shortage, sat at table with his family and consumed all the rare and hitherto unseen bananas which had been made available for his children, it was breach not only of courtesy but of solidarity and common identity.49 Conversely, when the common identity is maintained, meals can be occasions not only for solidarity but for the celebration of that solidarity. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, radical dining provided occasions for celebratory songs, toasts, and speeches, and a cultivation and consolidation of collective political identity in the face of a hostile dominant social and political culture.50 When feasts become drunken excess they may be a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance but, even then, they can celebrate and proclaim the character of their participants. As Martin Jones has put it, ‘the sharing of food simultaneously builds an “in-group” and excludes an “out-group”’.51

Whilst eating around a common table is the most powerful indication of solidarity, membership of a distinct class of people can be exhibited publicly by individuals as an indication that they are not solitary or isolated, but part of a community whose identity they share and exhibit. Advertisers are well aware of this function of food, and can declaim that ‘We are the Ovaltineys,’ or confide, ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.’ To eat or drink in the street can be seen as just as much an expression of identity as to dine in evening wear. The refinement of Chaucer's prioress in the Canterbury Tales is marked by the fact that when she eats,

She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,

Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe.

Wel koude she carie a morsel and wel kepe

That no drope ne fille upon hire brest.52

Nebuchadnezzar's departure from the community of normal humans, conversely, was marked by his eating grass: ‘he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen’.53

Like all aspects of identity, food culture, though powerful and persistent, is not immutable, and both grows and changes slowly, and can, in times when identity is challenged, be altered or innovative to deal with threats to solidarity. Sidney Mintz has described this potent, and manipulable, function of food in the case of introduction of the relatively unfamiliar Coca Cola to United States servicemen who, during the Second World War, had been deprived of other familiar contextual components of solidarity. Troops overseas:

have not only been stripped of almost all of marks of their individuality (clothings, jewelry, coiffure), but because they are in a remote land, they also feel bereft of those material representations of their culture that are embodied in architecture and in linguistic forms (familiar buildings, signs, advertising). Under such circumstances, which can be alienating, objects that can ‘carry’ a displaced sense of culture, such as foods and beverages, take on additional potential power. Coca Cola turned out to be a nearly perfect symbolic repository.54

Mintz's account of the planned promotion and provision of Coca Cola gives a further dimension to Marx's observation that people make their own history, but do so in circumstances not of their own choosing. The consuming troops may not have chosen Coca Cola, but the military authorities did, and the circumstances were thus very much chosen, though in this case chosen by one group to be the circumstances of another. Whilst circumstances will at any single moment be the environment within which new choices are made or old ones sustained, they have themselves resulted from, directly or indirectly, human choice.

Just as the communal consumption and management of food cultivates solidarity, it provides at the same time opportunities for distinction or exclusion. Solidarity depends for its force on a boundary which divides the community from those whose identity bars them. The apocryphal Edinburgh snub to unwanted visitors, ‘You'll have had your tea,’ was a public denial of membership of a table. In the 1948 film The Guinea Pig, the young man played by Richard Attenborough horrifies the upper-class pupils at his boarding-school table by sopping up the remains of his meal with a piece of bread. It is in the same vein of observation of the identity-signifying role of food that, half a century later, Maggie Smith in the film Gosford Park spies a vulgar intrusion at the breakfast table: ‘Shop-bought marmalade; how quaint.’55 For Disraeli writing of the condition of England in 1845, food was as clear a marker of social division as the manners or morals of ‘two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws’.56

Whilst solidarity is cultivated by the culture of food, so also are distinctions within the group. Where one sits, whether one sits or serves, all construct identities and distinctions of superiority or inferiority. The hall of a college or a City of London livery company sets its members off from the world outside. But, at the same time, ‘high table’ is more distinguished than the commoners’ table, and wily humility can conspire to achieve the former whilst appearing to choose the latter: ‘When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.’57 Social status has been described with metaphors derived from placing at communal, but not common, tables: the lower orders are ‘below the salt’.

Just as there are prohibitions on what a group, or sect, or faith, or nation, may eat in order to mark its character as at least equal to that of its rivals, so there are prohibitions which, by restricting access to particular foods to an elite, mark off that elite's superiority to and distance from the mass within the larger group, whether it is a college, a guild, a society, an organisation, or an entire nation. Swans in Britain are reserved for the royal table, whilst truffles and caviar, by their rarity and expense, can mark off those who consume them from the mass of their fellows. The gods have ambrosia, a food which is not so much barred to ordinary mortals as simply not available to them. If they transgress that barrier, as Adam and Eve did in eating a fruit that, whether or not it was reserved for God, was denied to them, then the defensive sanction of the deity is instant and absolute.

Whilst the privileged may cultivate their status by monopolising food, they can also cultivate it by sharing food, doing so on a scale sufficiently generous and extravagant as to mark off their own distinctiveness by their ability to provide for others what those others could not provide for themselves. When the prodigal son was welcomed with feasting on the fatted calf, his father was at one and the same time forgiving, and expressing his power to forgive and to nurture. To generously provide for others is to illustrate one's superior capacity, and to confer on them a benediction which they are thereby deemed to be unable to provide for themselves. Alternatively, the fortunate may use the generosity of their provision to impress those who would otherwise be considered their peers. The provision of food can, too, be a means of expressing gratitude for solidarity received from the guests. Babette’s Feast is a culinary return of communal favours made even more luxuriant and elaborate when translated from text to film.58

Identities are both related to and independent of the universal necessity to feed. If all that were involved in eating was simple and straightforward nutrition, then the only differences of any significance between one group of humans and another would be the result of the availability of food, of climate and material habitat. But even when human society could be seen as closer to the natural life of foraging or hunting animals than is now the case, differences can be seen which cannot be explained by the presence or absence of food, or by the ease or difficulty of its consumption. Closely located communities in the Neolithic Middle East had widely different diets, one consuming available fish, another not consuming fish though it was available.59 The rituals and practices whereby social eating is carried out are as much a part of the identifying function of eating as the food itself, and are not a simple reflex of the available raw materials. The history of oysters suggests a similar social construction, and flexibility, of diet, with the mollusc's progress from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ equivalent of fish and chips to the twentieth century's equivalent of caviar. The character of food culture is not determined by the material character of the food, and the same raw materials can, at different times and in different places, contribute to quite different identities. What is evident here is cultural distinction, not an uncultivated response to a universal, determining, physical human need.

The cultural basis of diet is part of the cultivation of identity, and of an identity which, in order to give meaning to itself, gives meaning to the surrounding world. Mary Douglas's account of the food regulations of Leviticus is of a taxonomy of the natural world which enables individuals and communities to identify their environment, but in so doing cultivate human wholeness and holiness.60 Such individual and collective identity is composed of every kind of human action, construction, and cultivation. An individual, ‘adjusting sights all the time, can see himself as a particular kind of person who would always do this sort of thing and never do that. “Moral style” is set collectively. At any given time the pervading cultural environment provides moral standards affecting every kind of resource. Food is inevitably brought within the moral perspective.’61

It is because the culture of food is part of the culture of identity that apparent slights to it can be so powerful. As Douglas puts it, ‘Whenever a people are aware of encroachment and danger, dietary rules controlling what goes into the body would serve as a vivid analogy of the corpus of their cultural categories at risk.’62 So cuisine is more than a symbol of other identifications, it becomes a parallel or supporting cultivation of distinctive identity, coherent with, rather than symbolic or expressive of, some other identity. To threaten a person's diet can be a major threat to his or her identity. In Vichy France, alienation from the Pétain regime and support for armed opposition greatly increased when the regime contaminated wine in June 1943 as part of their policy of requisitioning wine for fuel alcohol. Lucie Aubrac's description of vintage in defence of national identity adds one more dimension to the understanding of the Maquis: ‘More than any rational arguments, more than any patriotic explanation, these glasses of heating oil adulterating a fine Pouilly-fuissé swung the winegrowers of the Mâcon hills to the Resistance.’63

Whilst food culture contributes to identity and solidarity, it contributes also to the exclusions which bolster identity by contrasting it with that of others who do not share one's common character. For George Orwell, food was an instant identifier of identity. ‘Vegetarians’ and ‘fruit-juice drinkers’ were badges of an alien or unorthodox identity in the same way as were ‘pacifist’ and ‘feminist’, and people who got their cookery from Paris were likely also to get their opinions from Moscow. The indigenous patriotism of the upper classes could be called into question by the restaurants they ate in, whilst the solid virtues of ordinary people were indicated by the fact that it was in their homes that a ‘good slice of honest Yorkshire pudding’ was most likely to be found.64 For critics of Jesus, it was a mark of his departure from the society of the devout and the respectable that he ate ‘with publicans and sinners’.65

Just as denial is simpler than assertion, in locating others expressions of distaste or disgust are easier than recipes and menus. The insults between Indians and Pakistanis in Salman Rushdie's Shame are couched in terms of their respective diets.66 When the supporters of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 wanted to stigmatise the weak or absent European, and particularly French, support for their enterprise, they ridiculed ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’.67 A old insult to the English was to call them ‘les rosbifs’, just as for Hogarth it was precisely the roast beef of old England that expressed so much about national character, and the hearty good health with which beef was popularly associated could be contrasted with the starved and pinched person of the French enemy.68

There is only one way in which one cannot eat pork, or shellfish, or black bread. There are, by contrast, an infinity of ways in which one can do so. The simplicity of taboo makes it an accessible and unambiguous way of cultivating identity. Not eating something is far more readily both employed and recognised than a particular way of eating something. Martin Jones comments that ‘Our refusal to eat certain categories of perfectly edible food marks us out as belonging to one particular community, and definitely not belonging to another, foreign community, which in turn is characterized by the despicable practice of consuming that same foul foodstuff with relish.’69 So with food as with all the other aspects of human identity, the least difference has significance for identity, and can sustain solidarity or difference with a force which owes little or nothing to the material reality of food, but to its powerful but also humanly cultivated character and significance. The college or city guild dining hall provides a microcosm of the paradox of identity – members in association apart from the world outside, and distinguished amongst themselves between high or head table and mere members.

Feathering the nest

The creation and nurturing of identity does not stop with the clothing and the accoutrements which attach directly to the person, or with language, movement, or food. Whilst birds build no more than nests, humans construct an architecture both grand and public, and quotidian and domestic – cities and cottages; patios, parks, and plazas; allotments and amphitheatres – which add a further dimension to identity. Humans construct not only their own nests but their own trees in which the nests rest – complex physical environments which, whilst they cater for material needs, also provide the setting for the cultivation of social identity. Identity is cultivated, and that cultivation involves and requires more than the character of the material person; the constructed environment is a part of the person's extended identity. Humans do not limit the creation and cultivation of their identity to the artefacts immediately next to their bodies; more than any other species they construct the material world in which they live and in so doing construct yet further their public identities. People are clothed by their architecture just as much as by their coats and hats. Plazas and palaces and houses and gardens contribute public and private space and scenery to the formation of identity. And just as there is an immediate and visible difference between a swan's nest and a weaver bird's nest, so the settings humans construct can be an immediate and visible dimension of their created and cultivated identity. From the suburban villa which both proclaims its villadom and replaces its number with a name lest it be thought to be just one more villa like all the others, to the presidential palace which proclaims both the grandeur of its occupant as the epitome of his or her people and the exclusion from that grandeur of ordinary subjects because of the uniqueness of that epitomisation, association and distinction are sought simultaneously and the inherent tension of identity cultivation is at work.

The built environment provides the clue to the dimension which is missing from accounts which present people as predominantly or solely the recipients of identity or the products of circumstance, training, education, or socialisation. However distant the connection, some person or people created, or contributed to the creation, of built environments, and whether it is the direct user of or visitor to that environment seeking an appropriate setting for and contribution to their own identity, or a planner, architect, politician, or client seeking a setting to influence others, people are making their own history in circumstances which are partly of their own choosing.

The complexity of dimensions which the built and cultivated environment introduces to an understanding of identity has led to both discussion and disagreement amongst commentators. Three broad viewpoints have emerged: an account of architecture as an instance of power exercised by elites; a denial of any simple connection between architecture and other aspects of identity; and an account of the built environment as a place of continual negotiation and change, where the physical world has no intrinsic meaning or function, and where both powerful and ordinary subjects and citizens mould, alter, ignore, or cultivate significance. This third view, although or because it is the most flexible and unpredictable, can be the most productive in apprehending the contribution to identity of the built and cultivated environment.

The first view nonetheless has great currency, if only because politicians, architects, planners, and reformers have frequently and eloquently espoused it, and there is a dimension of the history of the built environment which sustains it. Even when those who have sought to use architecture and the built environment as a means of maintaining or changing society have been frustrated or diverted from the start, their very difficulties have confirmed the optimism of the belief in the social and political effects of pavements, columns, and porticos. The account given by Carl Schoske of the development of the Ringstrasse in Vienna in the nineteenth century is of an extended and shifting contest between the defenders of military tradition, imperial conservatives, and reforming liberals to use the choice and location of government buildings, museums, and churches as part of a social and political programme of change, maintenance, or enhancement. When liberals succeeded in claiming former parade-ground space in 1870 and replacing it with a parliament building, this could be seen as ‘a triumph of historical eclecticism and the most eloquent spatial expression of bourgeois power in the new capital’.70

The relationship between architecture and the character of society is taken for granted in archaeology: the building is taken to be the expression but also the context of the civilisation, when even the merest outlines of a house or village can provide evidence of social hierarchy, religious practice, and household culture. From the dusty remains of foundations, a whole settlement and its character can be rebuilt in the narrative of the excavating investigator. A worn paving stone or the outline of a courtyard or corridor can constitute the skeletal remains of an entire social order.

In everyday life the assumptions if not the methods of the archaeologist are applied to discern the identity which people are cultivating. The smallest artefact can constitute part of an expressed identity. A door knocker, a carriage lamp, or the pattern of a curtain serves as a shorthand summary for a lifestyle and a life; the curve of a drive or the shape of a flower bed sets down a conception of order and elegance and the discernment of the persons who enjoy them. When the ‘women of the quality, the gentry and the middling sort’ described by Amanda Vickery were contemplating the qualities of potential husbands, a prominent part of the possible groom's marriageable identity consisted of his house and its furnishings.71 This was not merely a matter of assessing wealth but, equally importantly, of ascertaining character and culture. The hostesses of an emerging salon culture were well aware of the role and importance of domestic interiors in publishing their inhabitants’ identity, and the expansion of visiting, and hence of parlours, in the eighteenth century was part of the theatre of social life where what mattered was ‘the prestige of the stage, the props and the hostess that could stand up to the scrutiny of guests.’72 Furniture and furnishings can shape an identity as substantially as can the turn of a staircase or an order of rooms. This was well recognised by the Scottish minister Andrew Boyd, who wrote in 1861 that ‘the scenery amid which a man lives, and the house in which he lives, have a vast deal to do with making him what he is’, and ‘We are all moral chameleons; and we take the colour of the objects among which we are placed.’73 Robert Crawford's poem ‘Us’ records just such an identity at the point of its destruction:

Now someone will bid for, then clear these rooms,

Stripping them of us. We were that floral wallpaper,

That stuck serving-hatch, radiograms polished and broken,

Dogeared carpet-tiles that understood us,

Our locked bureau, crammed with ourselves.74

Crawford is drawing attention to the way in which houses become homes, part of and confirming the identity of those who live in them. Alain de Botton makes a similar point when he speaks of an imaginary house whose ‘owners have returned from periods away and, on looking around them, remembered who they were.’75 This portrayal of a decorated and furnished house might seem to be countered by more austere versions of domesticity, the idea that a house is a machine for living in. But the modernist, rationalist conception of the built environment and Corbusier's conception of building, identify only a part of what is going on. Even people who choose to live in what they consider to be no more than a machine are cultivating a distinct identity for themselves – modern, utilitarian, and functional – and by choosing a rational and materially functional identity for their domestic environment, are cultivating an identity, initially private but potentially public, of themselves as modern, post-Romantic, and realistically ascetic. And these material settings for lives are permanent, solid, and unavoidably present, however flexible may be the human interpretation of them.

The theatrical metaphor used by Vickery for material settings has often seemed neatly appropriate for talking about the role of the constructed material environment in cultivating identity. Buildings and the disposition of public space can readily be compared to scenery, a stage of public life, and there is an immediate illumination in describing them as a setting for the generation of particular public identities of citizenship, empowerment, or subordination, as the theatres where the public drama is acted out. So Richard Beacham, in a study of imperial Rome, can write that the emperor Augustus’s ‘reconceptualization of the city went far beyond mere beautification or monumentalization: it became an essential and highly theatrical expression of the ideology of the principate’.76 But the theatrical metaphor, having initially illuminated, can then dazzle and confuse. The cultivation of identity is not a matter of social costume and greasepaint; the roles which are performed on the public stage are not hung up like an actor's costume at the end of the day, but are dimensions of a sustained public persona. Bricks and mortar, stone and marble, are not like paper and cardboard, to be packed up at the fall of a curtain and replaced in the morning with different landscapes and cityscapes. Both publicly and domestically, buildings are there all the time, either as dwellings or as places of public work or assembly. In this role, they are a permanent context for the cultivation of identity. As a context, they are permanently present at both the public and the domestic level, and however weak or strong their influence on identity, it is not switched on and off with a cultural spotlight. Buildings have a solidity and permanence which gives them an advantage in longevity over clothing. The grander and more public they are, the greater the number of people for whom they form a context. Garments, however much they express common identity, are a part of single identities and attach to single persons and are individually employed, which gives architecture a potential to shape identity as well as to constitute it that is both thinner as an expression but potentially more powerful and longer lasting as an influence. There is a further difference between the built environment and other elements in the cultivating context of identity. Whatever the degree of spontaneity in the generation and influence of cultural contexts, a building is the result of a deliberate set of decisions and expectations. This is a feature of the built environment to which the theatrical metaphor, despite its limitation, draws attention: a play requires an author, a director, and a cast of performers – it does not simply happen. Architecture thus provides a pointer to the gap in any account which sees the person as the recipient but never the provider or creator of identity and its ingredients. Architecture both composes human character and is deliberately produced by it.

The assumption that social order and architectural order can sustain one another has been held by builders, designers, and planners in advance of any academic account, and later academic observation follows on from the working assumptions of earlier architects, planners, politicians, and reformers. In Augustus’s Rome, the pageantry of the living and of the dead was both an expression of the grandeur of the patron or protagonist and a communication of that grandeur to the city and its populace. In this way it expressed both aristocracy and the authority of the populace. This was neither accidental nor unconscious, and Vitruvius was able at the time to observe that ‘The majesty of the Empire has … been expressed through the eminent dignity of its public buildings.’77 The intentions and assumptions of the architects of Augustan Rome were not concealed, and the presentation of them to later audiences does not reveal hidden or accidental purposes, but a portrayal of vernacular ones. Murray Edelman's claim that the built public environment can be a response to ‘the need to establish or reinforce a particular definition of the self in a public official’78 was something that earlier politicians and improving elites would have applauded, and in describing how ‘The theatre of Marcellus and its seating arrangements were fashioned to resemble a microcosm of society and to convey this hierarchy in visual terms,’79 Richard Beacham was theorising from the intentional identity cultivation of Augustan Rome. The grids of well-drilled streets set out in decorous and spacious order in New York, Philadelphia, or Edinburgh's New Town proclaimed and encouraged a particular vision of social order.80 And in describing this vision, academic commentators already have to hand the accounts of less theoretically ambitious contributors which can be expressed at a more general and abstracted level, and then fed back into the practice and cultivation of the architectural settings of identity. The debate over the city in Britain in the nineteenth century took for granted that the arrangement of streets, buildings, and public spaces not only expressed but shaped and cultivated identity. Churches were crafted with the expectation and hope that their character would contribute to an organic and sanctified society, just as art galleries and assembly rooms were advanced as part of a campaign of rational improvement of education, culture, and public life.81 As Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, who made a distinguished contribution to the architecture of nineteenth-century Glasgow, put it, art had the responsibility for the ‘furnishing of our minds with correct images’.82 Building a city was much more than providing shelter from the weather and facilities for work, it was nurturing a garden in which the plants of wholesome humanity would flourish. When the leading citizens of nineteenth-century Manchester were discussing a museum, a library, or a college, the design and shape of the building was as important a part of the character of the envisaged human institution as the contents were of the services it would provide.83 Bentham's widely used panopticon prison design sought to maintain order both by the central human supervision which the arrangement of space would make possible, and by the ordering of space itself, which placed people in neat hierarchies. Educational reformers in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland frequently used a Benthamite panopticon arrangement of space in a desire to promote social order; the function of created space being no less powerful in civil society than in prisons.84 In all of this, the creators of a material world were articulately conscious of what they intended and hoped for, and their testimony provides material for any account of the active human role in creating the circumstances within which identity is cultivated. The explanation of these intentions and these actions continues to inform both practice and explanation, and the social consequences of material environments are a commonplace of public discussion. What applies to the insides of buildings has been applied equally to their shaping of urban space, and the character and arrangement of streets, pavements, and open spaces. Three centuries after the municipal visionaries of Edinburgh and Manchester, the Conservative politician David Davis was able to speculate on ways of ‘designing out crime’.85

Buildings, and the spaces which they contain and create. both state a social identity and shape and encourage one. They are training grounds where people learn and practise their roles and, as Murray Edelman put it, ‘become the executives, the authorities, the psychotics, or the unreliable employees their settings tell them they are.’86 The identity may be one of solidarity or of hierarchy and exclusion. Shops may, with their warm blast of air at the front door, say ‘Come in’, but government buildings more frequently say ‘Keep out’ or ‘You don't belong here,’ or tell those who are allowed in that, compared with the possessors of the space to which they are given brief access, they are socially, as they are architecturally, diminished. Murray Edelman commented on such intimidatory architecture that it ‘reminds the mass of political spectators that they enter the precincts of power as clients or as supplicants, susceptible to arbitrary rebuffs and favors, and that they are subject to remote authorities they only dimly know or understand.’87 Even when the public are admitted to public buildings, they may be admitted only up to a certain point and no further than a clear boundary, and in ways which cultivate their status as permitted outsiders, not as rightful occupiers. Thomas Markus makes the point neatly: ‘In public buildings there is a shallow visitor zone. Visitors interface with the inhabitants at some spatial barrier which prevents deeper penetration: the counter in shops and banks, the bar in pubs, the proscenium arch in theatres, the gallery space of museums. … The person with the greatest power is at the tip of a tree, reached through corridors, stairs, outer and inner offices and waiting lobbies.’88 The more elevated the sought-after identity, the grander and more extensive the stage. Just such a distancing of the apex from the periphery was constructed in the Reich Chancellery which Albert Speer designed for Adolf Hitler. The Chancellery required vast spaces to be traversed before reaching the Führer's office, though office was a very inadequate term for the grand hall at which the suppliant eventually arrived.89 The distance the visitor had to travel, and the removal of the remotest areas from ordinary public access, was a human hierarchy as well as an architectural progression, an instance of what Markus has described when he commented that ‘the number of layers of space one passes through from the outside of a building to reach an internal location … map society’.90 A similar use of intimidatory distance was used in the grandiloquently choreographed spaces of the Nuremburg rallies (figure 1).

There was nothing new in the political theatre of the Chancellery. The progression of visitors to the royal presence at Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles was through a series of courts, vestibules, and courtyards of increasing grandeur and remoteness. To enter the Hall of Mirrors was to be overwhelmed by the distances and soaring heights of the royal architectural presence, with vision vanishing in every direction in an ever repeated succession of gilt and reflected image (figure 2). When the king himself processed through the hall to his chapel, he occupied and commanded its spaces, spaces in which courtiers were observers and permitted visitors, whilst the mirrored spaciousness of the hall served on this and other grand occasions to give visible form to the magnificence of the monarchy. Nor was Versailles anything but one instance of a long history of architectural cultivation of hierarchy and elevation. Charles Goodsell comments that the ‘rites of governance, while usually less dramatic than religious or magical rites, nonetheless invoke their own sanctity. Their formalistic, solemn format reminds those who are present of the grand and even mysterious compulsion of state authority.’91 In the Mycenaean palace at Pylos, a ‘truly elaborate series of routes separates the inside from the outside, constraining access through courtyards, vestibules, pantries, storerooms, lobbies, and entranceways. To move from the throne room to the exterior, a minimum of five spaces must be traversed.’92

The architectural presence of rule and government might have its grandest expressions in regimes with steep political hierarchies, but is evident in all political systems. The theatre of British constitutional monarchic democracy's rule in India was more restrained than totalitarian- or ancient-regime high opera, but Lutyens's New Delhi, completed in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, both proclaimed imperial grandeur and, by its insulating spaces, made clear the relations between rulers and ruled, the boundaries between the palace of government and the streets of mere subjects. The spaces between buildings were as important as the spaces within them in setting out inclusion and exclusion, the identities of rulers and ruled (figure 3). When, after the end of British rule, Le Corbusier and Jane Drew planned the government buildings for an independent and democratic India in Chandigarh, the state capital of the Indian Punjab, a quarter of a century after Lutyens, what they produced, despite being part of a formal democracy, said more with its ‘pedestrian-resistant’ expanses of plaza about the independent authority of rulers than about the rights or participation of citizens.93 Just as in New Delhi under imperial rule, public spaces defined the public, and defined them as subjects rather than as citizens. The grander the identity which buildings create for rulers, the smaller and lowlier by simple contrast is the identity of the ruled.

The new Brazilian capital Brasilia, designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the town planner Lúcio Costa and completed in 1960 in a revived democracy, was similarly constructed in a way which functions in ‘distancing the masses from the seat of courtly power’ by the vast and intimidating spaces which surrounded its governing buildings.94 The offices of government and legislation were viewed across acres of emptiness, constructing separation and distinction at the same time as they proclaimed superior presence. The very spaciousness which elevated the identity of ruling groups diminished the identity of excluded and ordinary subjects.

This importance of built space in cultivating identity was graphically and fictionally acknowledged in Richard Loncraine's 1995 film of Shakespeare's Richard III, where the buildings of contemporary London were used as the context for an imaginative construction of a mid-twentieth-century dictatorship. High columns and grand staircases elevated the regal actors who possessed them, and raised them above the crowd. Those who had always felt that the University of London's Senate House had something of a fascist crematorium about it had their suspicions confirmed as Ian McKellen's Richard the Third strode in jackboots down its marble stairs.95 It is not only political grandeur which can be cultivated in architecture.

All kinds of pre-eminence can be declared by built magnificence, and by elaborations of both structure and decoration such as those which led the Woolworth Building, opened in New York in 1913, to be described as ‘the cathedral of commerce’.96 The use of architecture and built space to cultivate social and political hierarchy is matched by their use to sustain it. John Nash, in planning the layout of Regent Street and its environs at the beginning of the nineteenth century, envisaged them providing ‘a boundary and complete separation between the Streets and Squares occupied by the Nobility and Gentry’ on the one hand and ‘the narrow Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading parts of the community’ on the other.97

Architecture is a built and chosen setting for human life, and can be designed for the whole range of social and political theatre. The democratic response to the architecture of distance and superiority is the architecture of transparency and access. Norman Foster's City Hall in London attempts a different statement from the architecture of dominance and exclusion, displaying the offices of bureaucrats and the deliberations of legislators to the public gaze even as they keep the public safely behind glass (figure 4). In the same way, citizens visiting Enric Miralles's Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood can rise above the spaces used by their elected representatives and peer down on them from above. The superiority of the citizen, whether or not achieved in practice, is nonetheless claimed, expressed, encouraged, cultivated, and enacted in architectural form.

The identity-cultivating and identity-confirming function of architecture is not limited to public buildings and public spaces. Within a domestic setting the construction and shaping of space can be part of the construction and shaping of the hierarchies, solidarities, and exclusions of the household. A round dwelling is more conducive to communal and egalitarian relations than a rectangular one, which can more readily be divided into zones of privilege or exclusion.98 The principal was fictionally expressed in the equality within a knightly elite of King Arthur's round table. It is a function of space illustrated by the difference between theatrical and collegiate seating. A theatre audience, whilst observing, does not normally participate, and is ranked row on row apart from the performers. Rather than being face to face, each row of observers sees only the backs of the row in front. Members of an ecclesiastical choir and directly participating clergy, by contrast, face each other on either side of a central aisle, as do legislators in the upper and lower houses of the British Parliament. Each side is then both observer and participant, actor and witness, with each, by observing, registering the active identity of the other.

But an account of architecture as simply an exercise of power in a single direction misses the feature of the very solidity of buildings and spaces which prevents them from possessing any inherent meaning. One response to this is a radical denial of any coherent relationship at all between the built environment and the rest of society and to insist, in the words of Eric Monkonnen, that ‘It is all too easy to make what might be called the architectural fallacy: to read economics, politics, and society through buildings.’99 Architecture and the construction of space are distinguished from other elements of identity in that they are not part of the immediate physical identity of any individual, but provide identity-shaping contexts, nests rather than plumage. They are, too, both slower and more permanent ways than other means of cultivating, constituting, and expressing identity. They cannot change or mutate with the speed of clothing or language, but once there, they are more solidly permanent, or semi-permanent. For this reason, paradoxically, their social meaning can change at least as radically as can that of other forms of constructed identity. The physical presence, being far more resistant to alteration than clothes or conduct, must, if there is to be change, be either effectively modified, or reassessed and re-presented – or demolished. In all of this, the built environment displays that general feature of identity cultivation which is embodied in all its instances. Making one's own identity in the face of a triumphal avenue or an intimidating palace or a cramping house may require different strategies from changing the way you dress, or speak, or move, but it is an instance of the same broad category, of the person as actor as well as recipient, agent as well as patient.

Architects and builders may have made decisions before the inhabitants arrive and without consulting them. They may, too, have had expectations about the consequences of their plans which were never fulfilled. The extreme version of this hope is the attempt to recreate old societies in new lands when, in Chris Abel's optimistic phrasing, ‘people quite literally recreate familiar environments in alien locations, thus retaining that part of their identity which is their architecture.’100 But New York is not York, nor New Hampshire Hampshire, and optimism cannot clone worlds. Dell Upton's account of the development of nineteenth-century cities in the United States is of a process whereby ‘through everyday experience in and of the material world of buildings, spaces, and people – American urbanites developed active sense of themselves as individuals and as members of a new republican society’, whilst at the same time the expectations of planners and reformers for the creation of calm and civilised order were frequently frustrated.101 But the failure of plans is not the only way in which power is modified or diverted. In altering the social presence of architecture there are layers or levels of choice, cultivation, and creation, particularly in domestic settings. There are many things that can be done within a living space which develop its character without altering its structure. There is nothing inherent in the concept of power which restricts its location to the actions of an elite, and the advocacy of architecture as a means for more decentralised cultivation of the built environment can, in the support of such schemes as self-build, take and redirect an apparently extreme claim such as Abel's that people ‘do not have architecture, therefore, but rather, a part of us is architecture. Architecture is a way of being’. Once the assumption of monopoly of agency is set aside, architecture can provide ‘opportunities for those expressions of personal and social identity which come from having control over one's own home and neighbourhood’.102 Sometimes, more substantial amendment than the choice of furniture or interior decoration is feasible. The stark minimalism of the workers’ houses designed in 1923 by Le Corbusier for the Frugès factories in Lège and Pessac was fairly speedily transformed by their inhabitants with the addition of pitched roofs, shutters, and picket fencing.103 Functional sparseness was attractive to architects and clients, but jarred with the actual inhabitants’ idea of what a home should look like. The 1960s Bijlmermeer estate in Amsterdam was planned for an idealised average Dutch family, but incomers from Surinam with different family sizes and structures adapted the accommodation by knocking through both walls and floors.104 The negotiation, conflict, or failure of communication between planners and users can be more comprehensive. Margaret Cameron in her account of American company towns, having dismissed architectural accounts which take the physical built environment as both simple and given, and as evidence of social, political, and industrial patterns and arrangements, reports results which were never the consequence of the ambitions of any one party, but where workers ‘actively participated in the struggles to define their living and working conditions’.105 The plans of builders and architects are never immune to the desires of users, and every skip in a city street signals further adaptation.

Where buildings are more substantial than individual homes, such reclothing is less easy, and reinterpretation is the more likely outcome. Classical buildings, as Markus comments, ‘are as likely to be associated with 1930s European Fascism as with republicanism or humanism; the Modern Movement with democratic freedom as with doctrinaire bureaucracy.’106 The meaning of stone and space may be at one time and one place intended and clear, but meaning is a human construct, and can evolve, erode, or be transformed. Anthony Alofsin comments on the Vienna Rathaus that ‘At the end of the nineteenth century, people of the empire and Viennese citizens could read it as a combinatory sign of new civic power, imperial fortitude, urban revitalization, and sacred grandiosity. Today, while it houses many functions of city government, it reads as the locus of bureaucracy.’107 The Parliament Building in Budapest was seen by its critics as Gothic and Germanic, but by opponents of Austrian power as British, democratic, and an expression of autonomy.108 The flat roofs and simple lines of modernist design could be attacked by right-wing anti-Semites as marks of alien culture when employed by Mies van der Rohe at the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, or used by Mussolini as an expression of the virtues of fascism.109 This mutation of meaning places the severest strains on the interpretative skills of the archaeologist. It is an illustration, too, of the paradoxical limits by which grand buildings, or their architects and commissioners, are constrained in their ability to shape the social identities of individual citizens. The more removed from the daily, the immediate, and the domestic a building or an urban setting is, the greater the possibility that it can be dismissed, even by those who have to pass through it, as a distant display or backdrop, irrelevant to the business of normal life.

The immediate setting of space and structure is for the living. But the more grand and public and the less domestic a structure, the more it may express identities which outlive individuals. Some human constructions have no other function. Even in death, identities are cultivated, created, and demarcated. The dead can be given unique identity in the plumage with which they are interred. Discussing the traces of the life of early Homo sapiens, Martin Jones has observed that ‘Pierced skeletal fragments, bones, shells, teeth, and ivory … will be strung together in necklaces and headgear of buried bodies, emphasizing the face and head, and sometimes arms, in other words, the body as communicator, as social person.’110 The collective solidarity of members of the armed forces is expressed in the ordered ranks of uniform stones in a military cemetery, just as the hierarchies of civil society and public life are marked out by the range of monuments, from elaborate miniature chapels to simple crosses, in civilian graveyards. The location and character of funerary monuments has proclaimed the virtue of teetotallers as readily as it has the indigent dependency of the poor.111

The dead can be part of the identity of the living as well as of their own. In eighteenth-century Britain, memorial sculptures and monuments to radical politicians could provide ‘a rallying point for groups that stood outside and in opposition to constituted authority and established hierarchies.’112 The living can recruit the dead in support of their assertion of identity and their challenge to identities which threaten or marginalise their own. In Edinburgh, the installation on Calton Hill of a memorial to Scots transported in 1793 and 1794 for sedition was an assertion of a contrary identity to that represented by statues of Pitt, Melville, and George IV in the streets below.113 Whereas the dwellings of the living lost their function with the death of their inhabitants, the tombs and monuments of the departed, as the Viennese architect Adolf Loos observed, constituted an identity for as long as their fabric survived.114 In republican Rome, the architectural theatre of the Forum provided an imposing setting for the funerals of prominent citizens which functioned ‘both as homage to an individual and as powerful propaganda drawing the public's attention to the past accomplishments and future promise of the family staging the ceremony.’115 In creating and honouring the habitations of the dead, the living embellish and sustain their own identities.

The dead link the living to the land in which they lie and on which their successors live. Movements of the populations on the Sino-Russian borders led to the Cossacks’ reassertion of their own identity by the exhumation and reburial, with renewed Christian rites, of ancestors in land whose sacredness was proclaimed as a part of collective transcendental distinctiveness. The ancestors made the land sacred and distinct, and the land made its inhabitants sacred and distinct.116 People are in part the places they inhabit, and if the place is grand enough, it is incorporated in a person's name: ‘de’, ‘von’, or an aristocratic title which dispenses altogether with the pronoun and substitutes the geographical for the familial whilst at the same time implying a familial claim to the named territory. The individual is greater than his or her mere body, and incorporates hills and fields, lakes and boulevards.

Those at first sight natural elements of human environment can, as the landed titles of aristocracy suggest, contribute one further dimension to human identity. The very seemingly prehuman source of the natural world makes it appropriate as a location and symbol of elements of human identity which lie beyond the immediately visible, tangible, or audible aspects of human bodies and human artefacts. Nature can be supernatural, but with a supernatural dimension that embellishes the identity of mortal humans.117 Man may be made in the image of God, but the signs on earth of that divine casting and of other gateways to or manifestations of the supernatural are the result either of human cultivation, or of the attribution by humans of significance to aspects of the existing natural world. The sacred and magical places – trees, rivers, springs, and wells which were the outer boundaries of religious experience – provided both sources of continuing identity for those who felt the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles as a loss, and continuity for those who acquiesced in change but found sustenance in elements of continuity.118 In cultivating sacred meanings in the natural world, men and women expand the dimensions in which their own religious identity is expressed and sustained. The cultivation of human identity in humanity's material environment does not stop with architecture, but grows outwards to shape an entire world.

Identity is everything we do

Woolf's call to political action illustrates the two poles of identity, whatever its form. At one extreme, cultivated identity is part of membership or association in a group, or class, or level of society. To that extent it is not chosen, but is the conventional appearance of who one is because of who one associates with; it is Bourdieu's habitus. But at the other extreme, it is possible to choose from existing possibilities and overcome existing restraints, refusing uniforms and honours. And it is the infinite number of possible points on that scale from the domination of circumstance to the maximum exercise of choice that characterises the variety of actual outcomes and the difficulty of ever predicting them all. Woolf's photographs also illustrate the paradox of identity, for however much the regalia of her elite males marks them off from the ordinary population, at the same time it allows them to set themselves apart from each other, and from those with whom they are in splendour associated – a vice chancellor not a mere dean, an archbishop not a suffragan bishop, a general with more medals than anyone else.

The paradox of identity is that this cultivated persona is pulled in two directions. On the one hand identity is cultivated by association, by membership of a group, or class, or religion, or profession. On the other hand identity is a step back from all those who might be considered similar. The first pole of identity is the whole complexity of conduct, appearance, and speech, which can be described as received rather than chosen by the members of a class, group, or caste, and which constitutes a part of their association with others – taste, as Bourdieu has labelled it.119 The second pole is the cultivation of individuality, a refusal to be identified as merely an example of a general cultural species but as a special or exemplary instance of it.

Human plumage differs in one major quality from the plumage of birds: it can be put on and put off. But whilst this might suggest impermanence and unpredictability, plumage change is not usually carried out in a whimsical manner. Choices are made, but they are made in cultural contexts, and their non-trivial significance is often marked by rituals of transition. A change of plumage, whilst it is an opportunity which humans are markedly more privileged than other creatures in enjoying, is not necessarily made lightly, and will be marked by rubrics and rituals which declare to others the identity choices that are happening. Choices and changes and their accompanying rituals can be carried out in any mode of human action or production. Shifting identities can be cultivated by changing the ways and components of eating, just as existing identities can be consolidated by them. And eating as a mark of transition can be given its own rituals and rubric from wedding cakes to the feasts of Oxbridge colleges, the Inns of Court, or City of London livery companies. When George Orwell was welcomed into a hitherto seemingly menacing congregation of stevedores, navvies, and sailors in a rough lodging house with ‘‘Ave a cup of tea chum,’ it was as much of a culinary ritual as the grandest state banquet, and as little to do with the mere sustenance of life.120 Other rites of transition from one professional, religious, or other social status to another will be marked by formal ceremonies of passage, investitures, graduation ceremonies, ordinations, baptisms, weddings.121

One of many components of changes or embellishments of identity may be a change of name. ‘Christian names’ were at one time precisely that, and those entering monastic orders may still acquire a new name for their new identity. For the grandest and most publicly prominent changes of identity, from cardinal to pope, or heir to the throne to monarch, a change of name proclaims the new person. The Emperor of China left family and personal names behind, Albert Windsor becomes George the Sixth, Joseph Ratzinger becomes Benedict the Sixteenth, and Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper becomes Lord Dacre.

In all of this, identity is negotiated in the engagement of individual action with social contexts, and the restraints and opportunities which existing identities present to individuals. Choices are continually made, and in being made amend and cultivate the range of identity which provides the starting point and context for any further individual decision. And as with every concrete event or situation, the point on the scale from impossible unconstrained freedom to equally impossible wholly determined action will differ, and the degree of circumstantial or coercive and legal sanction in the cultivation of identity will be specific to time and place. In the United Kingdom it is convention alone which leads women on marriage to change their family name to that of their husband. In Japan, a law of 1896 requires married couples to have the same surname. Convention has favoured the male partner in retaining his existing family name rather than adopting his wife's, but has not required it. And in 2015 five Japanese women unsuccessfully sued their government over what they contested was an unconstitutional violation of their rights.122

Whilst identity is the fluid product of a negotiation between structure and agency, accounts and theories which aspire to universality tend to construct their argument around a single cause or function or source of identity, from a near determinism where culture is independent of any individual, who is left no effective freedom or choice, to an account of the constant presentation of self as a free agent. The most extreme point at the determinist end of the scale sees coercion by the state, or in societies with limited government by churches or other state-like institutions, as enforcers of conformity. Gary Watt has argued that clothing functions to ‘instantiate the power and authority of the political State.’123 A milder point on the scale concentrates on convention. But the force of convention and the application of law are only ever single factors in the cultivation of identity, and no temporally or geographically specific instance can be explained solely by their analytical deployment. A duffle coat or a pair of green wellington boots can be as much a part of identity as a party rosette, but the absence or presence of beards, which might be a fashion statement in contemporary Europe, can be coercively governed in Taleban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, while in revolutions outward appearance can be violently regulated and penalised. What might cause beams or bemusement in Kensington could evoke bludgeons in Kabul.

Conclusion: the tension between equality and inequality

The never-ending cultivation of human identity involves artefacts and ornamentation, culture and customs, in the creation of collective and individual distinction along the tense polarity between solidarity and individual distinction. Human societies are structured around these cultivated identities, not at either of its theoretically possible but practically implausible polls. And whilst when the search for identity through solidarity is focussed on a whole community or nation it becomes an aspiration towards equality, the politics of equality is played out along these lines of tension and opposition. The pull towards solidarity is constantly countered by the opposite pull towards group and individual distinctiveness and, frequently, group and individual superiority and inferiority. Whenever visible and audible character appears to express equality, there soon begins a recession towards rank, or hierarchy, or exclusion, or ascendancy. The dilemmas of an egalitarian society were soon apparent in revolutionary France. The passion for equality to accompany liberty and fraternity included a reaction against any appearances which under the old regime had marked superiority or privilege. But ‘“dressing for equality” foundered in practice, first on gender and then on politics … Bodies without signs were unreadable and therefore suspect or dangerous.’124 So the revolution substituted the distinctions of office for the distinctions of rank, marking its leaders and cadres with the very distinctions it denied to monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy.125

Whenever equality is established, there are immediate efforts to make distinctions within it. The very processes which make artefacts the insignia for wider and wider circles of a population are both reacted against and promoted by the aspiration to individual uniqueness. Advertising applauds how products sold in the thousands will make their possessor stand out from the crowd, whilst brand labels become the only distinction between one mass-produced car, or suit, or pair of jeans and another. Mass clothing feeds an aspiration towards distinctiveness just as every other form of equality or solidarity leads to aspirations towards singularity and exclusion. But it does not create it.

It is unwise ever to be dismissive about ‘mere appearance’. If you know the house, and the office, and the wardrobe, and the breakfast, you are getting close to the whole public person. And since for most of the time, in order for orderly relations with the rest of humanity to occur, we need swift and unambiguous signals, we use them and read them. It is what makes us the clothed ape. The constructed person and the person's constructed setting are not a representation of or a clue to that person's identity; they are that person's identity, whatever secret and unexpressed reservations or alternatives the person may have.

One form of social life, politics, has frequently been compared to a theatre, and the performances of its participants as masks. Erving Goffman distinguishes between the performer and the performance, though once all the things which he describes as performance have been gathered together, there is nothing left to be attributed to any other identity or self. Either the self is the performance, which is cautiously suggested when Goffman writes that ‘the very structure of the self can be seen in terms of how we arrange for such performances’ and when he refers to ‘producing and maintaining selves’, or the self consists of awareness or self-consciousness, experiencing ‘fantasies and dreams’ but having no character. Whichever solution is employed, the identity of a person is a social and public thing, not some inner reality.126 David Runciman has drawn attention to the complexity of the metaphor of mask and theatre in discussing political action and political association.127 In his discussion of hypocrisy in public life, he speaks of ‘the masks of politics and what lies behind those masks’, and of masks as concealing ‘whom one really is’, though this distinction between a public front and a deeper reality is qualified when, referring to La Rochefoucauld's description of hypocrisy, he comments that ‘the concealment turns out to be a form of amelioration … Hypocrites who pretend to be better than they really are could also be said to be better than they might be, because they are at least pretending to be good’.128 But both metaphors, of theatre and of masks, when filled out, can move the account towards according the dramatic presentation its own reality, rather than being a pretence for obscuring a deeper, more real, identity. Ferdinand Mount has argued that:

the idea that there is a real (efficient, useful) politics which is masked by an unreal (superficial) sham show is one of the most potent delusions of our time … The myths and rituals which a regime has allowed or, more usually, encouraged to grow up around itself often reveal something very significant about the real nature of that regime – the essentially populist, good-humoured, consensual nature of Macmillan's Toryism, the aristocratic, activist liberalism of the Kennedys, the autocracy of de Gaulle.129

It is possible to take the equal value of onstage and offstage underlying Mount's argument further, and to insist that the show is not even adequately seen as an indication of what lies beneath, but is a public reality in its own right. This is to move even further from a metaphor of masks which would assume or imply that in private, or in more secluded company, a real identity emerges and a false public identity is hung up like a selkie's skin on a coat hanger. But whatever the disjunctures between one dimension of identity and another, a public identity is a real feature of public life, whatever else may be said about it. And whilst there are people, such as spies, who lead two lives and are in that way two people, most identities survive the transition from the relatively public to the relatively private with little damage or moderating, and serve equally well in both. The problem about the inner man or the inner woman is that they are invisible. The outside is all we have to go on. Alternatively, if it is suggested that the mask is permanent, then the mask is the person and the metaphor collapses. And when one distinction goes, another arrives. Even when there is no one else about, the material construction and cultivation of identity goes on. Robinson Crusoe alone on his island showed himself civilised by means of a hat, and did so in the absence of anyone but himself to appreciate his wearing of it. For whilst the drama of identity is composed of public show, the most important member of the audience can be the actor himself or herself. And unlike the life of the theatre, the audience is ever-present, the costumes always there, and there is no dressing-room retreat or curtain close.

The mask metaphor may suggest the view that external actions may be either an expression of or a camouflage net for a secret or inner self. But even if the visible and audible presentation of self is paralleled by some private, lesser, or unexpressed self, as a person living in society and relating to other people it is the external and acted self which is real. The identities which people create are the only ones they have, and if there are secret dreams, unless they receive some expression, they remain secret, and dreams. Quentin Crisp made the point neatly when he said that if for forty years a pig farmer has been saying that really he was meant to be a ballet dancer, by that time pigs were his style.130

Whilst any identity may be composed of many layers and aspects, all the layers need not be of equal importance, and people do not defend all dimensions of identity with equal vigour. What is missed in a one-dimensional, plucked, account and in the search for the one true identity is the complexity and potential instability of the variegated whole. Identity and its cultivation provide the script and the scenery for the human drama, but it is not a drama with a universally coherent plot or a harmonious cast. People cultivate an identity not only for others, but for themselves, and the safest working supposition is that there is coherence, rather than incoherence, between what is done in the sight of the audience, front of house, and what is done backstage. Rulers, leaders, and everyone else, in other words, should be taken at face value unless there are good reasons to believe otherwise. The drama of identification is not conducted with reference to scenery, theatrical effects, and the construction of expressive contexts only in its more public aspects, but in its more secluded or private ones as well. The identity constructed or cultivated by the larger public stage set is normally consistent with, or seeking consistency with, that cultivated by the more immediately personal plumage and scenery.

Human life is endlessly diverse, and once the same understandings are used in giving an account of it as are used in giving accounts of the rest of existence, the only meaning the term ‘human nature’ can have is ‘everything that humans do’. Eating, speaking, moving, dressing, singing, dancing – all go to make up the complexity that is human identity. Accounts in terms of essences or essentials will always be one-dimensional or monochrome, and without being untrue, will be of limited illumination. However comprehensive an account of the cultural setting within which, despite themselves, people operate, or which they may choose as a means of identity cultivation by association, the contrary pull of individual assertion and the possibilities of eccentric dissent and innovation create the permanent lurking promise of surprise, disruption, and unpredictability. That does not make the understanding of human life easy, but it prevents it from being uninteresting or predictable.


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52 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Alfred W. Pollard, H. Frank Heath, Mark H. Liddell, and W. S. McCormick (London: Macmillan, 1925), p. 3.
53 The Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Daniel 4:33.
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55 John Boulting and Roy Boulting, The Guinea Pig [film] (London: Pilgrim Pictures, 1948); Robert Altman, Gosford Park [film] (Sheperton, UK: Sheperton Studios, 2001).
56 Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or The Two Nations (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008), pp. 65–6.
57 The Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Luke 14:10.
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60 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984).
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71 Vickery, Behind Closed Doors, pp. 100–1.
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73 Quoted in Deborah Cohen, Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 26.
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97 Quoted in Rodney Mace, Trafalgar Square, Emblem of Empire (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), p. 33.
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112 Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrell, ‘The Public Memorial of Reform’, in Pickering and Tyrell, Contested Sites, p. 8.
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119 Bourdieu, Distinction.
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125 Richard Wrigley, The Politics of Appearance: The Symbolism of Dress in Revolutionary France (Oxford: Berg, 2002), pp. 59–86.
126 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London: Penguin, 1971), pp. 244–6.
127 David Runciman, Pluralism and the Personality of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
128 David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 226, 10.
129 Ferdinand Mount, The Theatre of Politics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972), pp. 8–9.
130 Quentin Crisp, in performance at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, An Evening With Quentin Crisp, 1978.
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