On June 4, Peggy Kolm posted her article Red hills of distant planets. Prior to that date, one title proposed for the article was “The color of alien plants”. During a discussion about the article, the proposed title was misheard as “The color of alien pants“. And the idea for this article was born.
Really, what color would alien pants be? And for that matter, would they wear them at all? This isn’t to suggest that all aliens are exhibitionists: maybe they just don’t need clothing.
Human use of clothing dates back (most likely) between 100,000 and 500,000 years. Its main purpose (initially) was protection against environmental threats; as humans evolved and lost natural physical protections like body hair, we needed extra help surviving harsh weather and difficult terrain. Clothing has evolved along with us, growing more sophisticated as we have: sewing needles date back as far as 30,000 years; flax fibers are known to have existed 30,000 years ago; and there’s strong evidence that humans have been weaving for a good 10,000 years or more.
But the use of clothing developed out of a natural need. The ape family, our closest biological relatives, didn’t develop the use of clothing – but then, apes still have relatively tougher bodies with protective hair covering them.
Evolution happens because of adaptation to environmental changes. Clothing was a sort of evolution – just not one that physically changed our bodies. But it was due to environmental factors.
So why would we assume that an alien species would encounter the same environmental factors that we have? Or that their evolutionary response would be the same?
It’s completely plausible that, depending on the climate they encounter, an alien race could evolve sentience and human-level intelligence without losing their body hair (assuming they had hair to begin with). They could adapt tougher skin to protect from harsh weather. They could even develop internal genitalia that doesn’t need as much surface protection as human genitalia does. In those cases, the need for extra protection is dramatically lessened, and therefore the need for clothing. If clothing isn’t necessary, it’s entirely possible that it never develops.
Of course, while clothing developed as a form of protection for us, it currently exists for many more reasons. The development of our intelligence brought about the concepts of shame, privacy, and modesty, leading to clothing-as-concealment. There are countless cultural meanings for clothing: status symbol, group affiliation, rank within armed forces, representation of traditional heritage, and so on. All of these meanings serve a purpose, and those purposes are just as likely to be existent in alien cultures as in our own; so alien use of clothing could develop for those reasons. Or… it might not.
And what about color? We place a lot of emphasis, for various reasons, of the color of clothing – again, there are countless cultural influences. Will aliens perceive color with anything close to the same significance we do? And we know it’s possible for animals and even humans to be color-blind – will aliens be able to see color at all? Will they even have eyes?
The biggest problem we have in determining what to expect from aliens with regard to clothes is that we can’t help but anthropomorphize. We have a habit of assuming that, whatever an alien might be, it will in essence be a slightly “off” version of ourselves. Of course, with the vast diversity of life just on our own planet, making such assumptions about extra-terrestrial life is a mistake. And we’ll look pretty foolish offering a pair of jeans to an alien that has four legs and a tail.