FASHION & SOCIAL IDENTITY: A CULTURAL PHENOMENONPosted: 15/07/2012 | |
A Cultural Studies article deconstructing and exploring the meaning of fashion and identity within a socio-cultural context.
“Fashion provides one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities”. Bennett, A. (2005) Culture and Everyday Life. London: Sage. p. 96.
Discuss this statement with references to individual examples.
We live in a postmodern consumer society where everything it embodies is growing and changing at an exponential and unpredictable rate, unlike ever before. This has given rise to fierce competition in almost every aspect of life; gender, social and identity politics, struggle for survival and thus, the immense pressure for one to successfully find their place and voice in society. Fashion plays a vital, if not the most important role, in enabling individuals to construct, sculpt and express their identities, especially in larger metropolitan cities where they “mingle with crowds of strangers and have only fleeting moments to impress them” (Bennett, 2005: 96). When speaking of fashion, people usually tend to generalize the term to merely clothing but in fact, fashion goes far beyond that. According to Kratz et all (1998), fashion can be defined as a cultural phenomenon as it is concerned with meanings and symbols, thus is an instantaneous mode of direct, visual communication. Fashion enables us to make statements about ourselves and our identities, with the use of clothes, accessories and/or other physical items, enabling us to visually communicate who we are, who we’d like to be, what kind of social group we belong to and who we are most likely not to be associated with. “Fashion also has to do with hair styles, make up, accessories… and can include items that have nothing at all to do with clothes” (Kratz et all, 1998: 195). Similarly, clothing has to do with other things apart from fashion like functionality, practically and protection. A lot of other immediate assumptions can be drawn up about an individual through mere observation of dress – which part of the world they may be from, what kind of job they may possess or what their economic position might be. Thus, fashion is about identity, about the self and as described by Roche (2000: 193), “the most talkative of social facts”.
Identity, on the other hand, can be defined as a form of social representation that mediates the relationship between the individual and the social world (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/jbp/jlp/2003/00000002/00000002/art00002, Accessed: 10.03.2012). There are several reasons for one to feel the need to express their identity and these mainly revolve around issues of social status, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, religious condition, recreation and individualism. With the creative use of fashion, individuals are able to either confirm or subvert several of these facets about their identities, consequently transmitting culturally coded, visual messages about themselves. In simpler words and according to Bennett (2005), the fashioned body is a literalization of the wearer’s character, taste, sexual preference, economic status, educational achievement and so on. George Simmel and Thorstein Veblen are two important 19th century sociologists when looking at fashion as an expression of social status and economic class. Simmel’s work suggests that fashion has to do with wider issues of power and status, and is a visual statement of wealth. With the use of fashionable items, “individuals demonstrated their membership to a particular social group, and their distance from groups who held a lower social position” (Bennett, 2005: 100). Similarly, Veblen explains through his theory of conspicuous consumption that by consuming fashionable goods, individuals not only showed awareness about social trends but also collectively expressed wealth and good taste, thus forming an internal bond with individuals in the same social strata and distancing themselves from others who could not afford the same – mainly, the working class.
Sex and gender are two significantly emphasized characteristics when looking at fashion and identity. It is important to note that just like fashion and clothing, sex and gender is not the same thing. Sex is determined biologically whereas gender is culturally constructed. It is a known fact that men’s fashions change much lesser from season to season in comparison to women’s fashions. Also, men are culturally constructed as producers and the active sex in society while women are seen as the fashionable consumers and hence, the passive sex. Thus, men’s fashions have much more to do with function and practicality rather than aesthetic appeal, facilitating them to work and fulfill their duties as a provider. Women’s fashions, on the other hand, definitely embrace function and practicality but place a much higher importance on the aesthetic appeal and design of a product. “Fashion and clothing are instrumental in the process of socialization into sexual and gender roles” (Barnard, 1996: 111). Fashion helps sculpt the male and female image, thus determining what is or is not socially acceptable. Hence, men taking an interest in fashion was doomed to be unnatural and effeminate but on the contrary, women dressing up in manly attire was socially quite acceptable and also referred to as ‘power dressing’. However, in the 1980s, the emergence of glam rock bands like Roxy Music, performance artists like David Bowie and Boy George and subcultures like the New Romantics, broke the conventional norms of society by wearing evident indicators of femininity like nail varnish, make up, skirts, body conscious silhouettes and so on, suggestively playing with conventions of both gender and sexuality (Bennett, 2005: 107). Inevitably, the very first judgment one can perceive about another concerns sex and gender and this is clearly identifiable from one’s attire – is the person a man or a woman, is he or she heterosexual or homosexual, or simply androgynous?
Fig. 1. Andrej Pejic for Tush (http://fashiongonerogue.com/andrej-pejic-tush-winter-2010-armin-morbach/, Accessed: 12.03.2012)
Looking at Fig. 1, most people would perceive it to be a good-looking, half-naked woman, lying down on a couch with her legs half up in the air, exhibiting sex appeal and expressing evident visual indicators of femininity – long, wavy hair; make up, a printed, fitted jacket and hairless, long, skinny legs. The information gathered here is quite precise, except for one; this individual is not a woman but a man and one of the latest top models in the fashion industry – Andrej Pejic. Pejic’s sex is male but his gender is clearly not quite tuned in the same direction. Pejic is an androgynous, homosexual man and this can be immediately perceived through the way he dresses and presents himself, of course, by subverting the culturally constructed norms of male dress. Thus, sex, gender and sexual orientation are probably the first three judgments one can form about another individual. The wearer visually communicates this information, by either confirming or subverting the conventional norms of fashion and dress that are culturally constructed by society.
Race, ethnicity and nationality are three other important expressions when looking at identity issues. We as human beings are naturally attracted to people who are alike us and share a common history or background. The works of Appadurai (1991) on the phenomenon of change in the 20th century talk about the concept of a global ethnoscape – the mass and rapid movement of people from one part of the world to another. This has not only given rise to world fashions but also the need for people to express where they are from in foreign environments, in order to communicate with others who share the same nativity. According to Eicher et all (1995), ethnic dress is worn by members of one group, distinguishing themselves through differentiation in terms of those items, ensembles and body modifications that speak of an individual’s past, through the adaptation of traditional items which speak of cultural heritage. Also, to note, the word tradition emphasizes the lack of change in comparison to other forms of fashion and dress. Many countries, cultures and religions across the globe have specific notions of the male and female image. National dress is concerned with “the socio-political concept of nation-state and political boundaries”, thus identifying the citizens of a particular country (Eicher et all, 1995: 302). In many instances, national dress may serve as the dress for one ethnic group in a cosmopolitan city that consists of a large variety of people and/or ethnic groups. An example of a country comprising of a vast spectrum of ethnic and religious identities is India.
Fig. 2. Women in saris, salwars and burkhas, in India (http://www.faithfreedom.org/features/news/muslim-students-are-forcing-a-teacher-to-wear-burqa-in-india, Accessed: 12.03.2012)
In Fig. 2, we can see Hindu women wearing ‘saris’ or ‘salwars’ – the national dress of India – co-existing with Muslim women strongly portraying their religious identity through the ‘burkha’ – the religious dress for Muslim women, ethnic dress for certain casts of Muslim women and national dress for women in theocratic Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. Muslim women are expected to conceal all bodily parts when in a social environment and their religious identity can be immediately perceived through their style of dress. A recent article in the Daily Mail – ‘Stoned to death for being an emo’ – brings light to 90 students who were mutilated in Iraq for wearing strange hair and tight clothes. The adaptation of world fashions as an expression of their youth identity clearly clashed with the national and ethnic dress norms of the country and thereby it’s religion, leading to the internal ministry condemning such activities and ordering the annihilation of any such subcultural existence in Iraq. This is a classic example of individuals challenging cultural norms of the male/female image in contemporary society and the tension around identity politics that follows (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2112960/90-students-Iraq-stoned-death-having-Emo-hair-tight-clothes.html?ICO=most_read_module, Accessed: 12.03.2012).
That being said, the youth and subcultures are a very important cultural phenomenon when looking at fashion and identity. As Rouse (1989) explains, social and political reforms brought about by the British government in the 50s improved Britain’s standard of living, increased people’s disposable incomes and made them more confident about their economic future. As the youth now had more disposable income, they spent it on teenage gregariousness and the fashion industry took advantage of this fact. However, the economic incline did not last very long and this resulted in a generation gap that kept widening. Young people who had not known pre-war Britain were now identified with this changing world. As young people did not all share the same styles, cultures and ideologies, this further gave rise to the birth of subcultures like the Teddy Boys, Mods and Punks, who were easily identifiable by the way they dressed and behaved socially. According to Brake (1985), subcultures emerge with an endeavor to resolve collectively experienced problems as a result of contradicting social and/or political structures. They express a form of collective identity from which an individual can be distinguished when outside of that group. One of the most important and controversial subcultures when looking at fashion and identity is Punk from 1970’s Britain.
Fig. 3. Punks about town (http://www.buckingham-uncovered.co.uk/whats_on.html, Accessed: 12.03.2012)
The Punks are probably the most extreme subculture who through their anti-fashion style of dress, expressed the affect the changing political and economic structures had on their lives, and the general situation of post 50’s Britain. With the adaptation of bricolage, Punks borrowed items from everyday life and incorporated it within their overall dress, re-contextualizing them to communicate new meanings. As described by Barker (2000), the creativity and cultural responses of the punks and other subcultural groups were not merely random but expressive of the social contradictions and overall scenario of the time. Punks not only communicated the sheer joblessness, poverty and changing moral standards but dramatized it through their severe ensembles that incorporated chains, safety pins, bin liners, dyed hair, iconography of sexual fetishism and so on. The items and anti-fashion ideology adapted clearly communicated the anger and frustration felt by these youth but it is also important to note that the very resistance of fashion bubbles up as a fashion statement in its own right, and this is most evident when looking at subcultural identity. Furthermore, the rituals of body modification like tattooing and piercing by subcultural groups like Punk and Goth generated an even more impact-making statement about their identities considering its permanence on the fashioned body (Bennett, 2005: 98).
The essay has clearly deconstructed the meaning of fashion and identity and how with the adaptation of fashion, one is successfully able to communicate various facets about their identities like social and economic class, sex and gender, ethnicity and nationality and so on. Identity construction is a social process in which we communicate to the world who we are, what social group we belong to or have the desire to belong to and what groups we do not belong to. Of course, the season’s fashions are directed by top designers in Paris, Milan, London and New York but with the changing face of postmodernity, people are now more aware of alternative fashions available to best communicate themselves. Due to this, the consumption of fashion can be seen as an act of cultural production as people ascribe fashion goods with meanings and symbols, thus leading to the constant construction and reproduction of the male and female image and other identities that exist, thereby communicating this information in individual ways. Above all, we’re human and each one of us in unique in someway or the other. We feel the need to express this and thereby find and feel a sense of belonging. Fashion is one of the biggest factors aiding this process and can be seen as a celebration of individualism. Thus, abiding with Bennett (2005), fashion definitely does provide one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities, thereby communicating an exclusive testimony to every gaze.
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Barker, C. (2000) ‘Youth, Style and Resistance’, in, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage.
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Andrej Pejic for Tush (2010) [online image]. Available from: <http://fashiongonerogue.com/andrej-pejic-tush-winter-2010-armin-morbach/> (Accessed: 12.03.2012)
Chryssochoou, X. (2003) Studying identity in social psychology: Some thoughts on the definition of identity and its relation to action [Internet] Ingenta Connect. Available from: <http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/jbp/jlp/2003/00000002/00000002/art00002/> (Accessed: 10.03.2012)
Mail on Sunday Reporter (2012) Stoned to death for being an emo [Internet] Daily Mail. Available from: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2112960/90-students-Iraq-stoned-death-having-Emo-hair-tight-clothes.html?ICO=most_read_module/> (Accessed: 12.03.2012)
Punks about town (2008) [online image]. Available from: <http://www.buckingham-uncovered.co.uk/whats_on.html> (Accessed: 12.03.2012)
Women in saris, salwars and burkhas, in India (2010) [online image]. Available from: (Accessed: 12.03.2012 )
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