I've been introduced to 着る (for things you put on like a shirt) and 履く (for things you put on like pants) in class, but is there a general way to just say something like
wear clothes? Or must the "method" of putting on be specified?
Yes, there is a general word:
So, you can say:
However, in daily conversation it is more common to say
身につける can mean something different like
Or, after rereading your question, it looks like you don't want to specify what you are wearing. In that case, the other answer is correct.
Or must the "method" of putting on be specified?
This might not be exactly what you're asking, but in Japanese, all the verbs for putting something on, like 着る, 履く or 身につける, are change-of-state verbal phrases, i.e. in their base form, they mean "put on", not "wear".
In order to express "wear" you have to express the resulting state, which is done by ～ている (でいる)
シャツを着る put on a shirt → シャツを着ている wear a shirt
To express wearing clothes, various verbs are used.
General words like 身【み】に着【つ】ける or 着用【ちゃくよう】する has meaning of to wear something on one's body. Not only clothes but including anything carried/held by oneself such as intelligence, technology, skill, medal, armband, good-luck charm, pistol, helmet, armor, etc.
Kanji 着 had original meaning of "to attach/touch/contact" in Chinese. It was assigned to Japanese indigenous word きる (to wear) so that 着【き】る was resulted.
Specific words are as below.
- 着る： to wear clothes to cover upper or whole body
- 被【かぶ】る： to wear something to cover head or face
- かける： to make object in state of 被る with something
- 穿【は】く： to wear clothes to cover lower body
- 履【は】く： to wear something on foot, such as footwear
Usually セーターを着る indicates action of putting one's head or shoulder into clothes and pull it down, while ズボンを穿く indicates action of putting foot into clothes and pull it up. Therefore, 着る has sense of wearing from top down and 穿く has from bottom up. Certainly, exceptions may occur.
As a matter of fact, kanji 穿 is also used for another verb 穿【うが】つ meaning of which is dig/drill/bore. My impression is that wearing trousers could be felt similarity of drilling/boring. I'm wondering whether ancient people had same feeling to assign this kanji to 穿【は】く.