The difference between clothing and cartography

Posted August 20th, 2017 by Nate Wessel

I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for more than a year now, unpublished and unfinished. Time to set it free!

The difference between clothing design and cartography seemed at first impassable to me. I wanted to conceive of this business, comprising some of the things I do best, as coherently as possible rendering me able to succinctly shout it’s premise along with it’s name across a crowded bar. The want of that economy is the reason I’ve told so few people of my full endeavour as yet: “I make maps and pants!” begs too much time or none at all.

I don’t wish here to emphasize the difference between two distinct fields, thus demonstrating my knowledge of both. Rather, my project is to make the ‘two’ into one, or to find the one that encompasses both. Partly this is an irreducibly psychological need for unity in purpose. Partly it’s an actual, tentative logical connection that I wish to pursue to it’s ends out of curiosity.

What do clothing design and cartography have in common? How can I explain that I make both maps and pants in a way that makes sense of everything there and might even suggest other specific pursuits? If they are conceivable as one, what keeps them separate?

A map’s purpose is to show the state or nature of some thing that doesn’t readily present itself to our senses. Generally speaking, what’s of interest are atemporal, spatial relationships. The map is a snapshot, a representation of a moment, of a thing that exists in space. Usually the space in question is a large one in proportion to our bodies: a city, region, or planet. Like a snapshot, the map is not the same as the thing itself but represents the thing itself with symbols on a flat medium. The symbols are reductions of the physicality of the thing to the level of complete abstraction. A river, a big wet uncontainable thing, becomes a blue line. Further, the abstraction necessitates a degree of selection and reduction since the only thing that could contain all of the information contained in the thing itself would be the thing itself or something larger than the thing such as the totality of space.

Aside: What about 3D maps or maps of change over time??? Not to worry. A snapshot of an absolute moment has never yet been taken(exposure time and also considerations of relativity), and the metaphor can easily be extended to sculpture for 3D maps.

The important thing to remember is that the whole thing is imperceptible or a map would not be necessary, and that the thing has to be selectively reduced to it’s essentials as judged by the cartographer.

What then is clothing? Clothing is also a symbolic abstraction of a thing beyond our perceptions. In this case, that thing is a person. A person is indeed beyond our perceptions, or at least the part of them that’s most important: they’re mind.

Clothing (or maps) will communicate indirectly though effectively the subjective qualities of the thing when such qualities are worth noting. Yet a map is not the thing itself. The thing itself holds all of it’s own qualities, equally open to any observer. The map is a summation, an abstraction, a condensation of the thing itself. It is the thing itself prepared for consumption and made digestible, when necessary, made palatable. The meat is carved from the flesh and made into stew.

Maps can aspire. They can lie; they must. A map is as much a comment on the drives of it’s creator as it is on the object. I see highways and cars as a blight on everything they touch and every map I make will reflect that if subtly. I am at this point in my life incapable of failing to assert that judgement.

Maps can be and often are done quite poorly. The literal accuracy of digital geospatial data, the objective component, too often confers an unwarranted authority on the subjective interpretation, the design, feel, and ambiance of the map not to mention the more important choice of emphasis.


Clothing design I understand less; it is much more complex. Clothing elucidates a clearly subjective entity: a person. It uses symbols and signs to show us the person as they are, as they want to be seen, or in their sartorial ineptitude, as they are not nor want to be.

Both clothing and maps are essentially physical artifacts that attempt to make some claim about an objective/subjective phenomenon through the use of symbols. The symbols say things that are necessarily simpler than and abstracted from the materiality of the phenomenon and so rely on selection and simplification.

Cities1 can often be best understood as subjects rather than objects just as people often but not always can be.

The main difference, beside that of physical/temporal scale of the object, is that a map depicts it’s object from a remove. It’s description is atemporal and aspatial and depicts a moment. Clothing can act only when it enshrouds it’s object. It is therefore inextricably linked to the objects physicality. Far from depicting a moment, clothing engages with it’s object in space-time. A snapshot of a person in clothing plays closer to the role a map does, but then expands to include other aspects of styling, pose, etc.


  1. as I’ll argue in depth later