Essay: Fashion and Identity Fashion, Culture, and Personal

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Fashion and Identity

Fashion, Culture, and Personal Identity

Culture is a complex phenomenon. Any gathering of human beings develops its own culture given enough time; this can be observed on both macro and micro levels. In the study of history and art, scholars speak of Roman culture or Western culture as a way of referring to the broad and generalized values -- both moralistic and aesthetic -- that typify a given society in a certain period of history. On a smaller level, different localities have their own cultures that can be markedly different reflections of the dominant super-culture present in society at large -- the cultures of both San Diego, California and Bangor, Maine will in some ways reflect the larger United States and Western culture, but they also have many differences. Some of these differences are brought about by things beyond human control. Weather, for instance, can be a major contributing factor to the culture of an area. The mild and consistent weather of San Diego is conducive to a more relaxed attitude and way of life than the harsh and extreme winters of Bangor, and this necessarily has an effect on the culture of the two cities.

Weather is also one of the most important factors in determining the clothing that people wear. Using the same examples, it should be fairly obvious that the bathing suits and sandals that make for standard San Diego are would hardly be appropriate in Bangor, just as the snow suits and heavy boots of a Bangorian would be extremely uncomfortable in that standard eighty-degree weather of San Diego. This shows, in one very small yet hopefully quite clear manner, the smaller levels of difference that are used to distinguish smaller groups within a wider culture. Weather is, of course, only one factor (and certainly not the most significant) in shaping a culture, and there are many other unpredictable factors that cause a culture to change both in both subtle and dramatic ways as history progresses and societies evolve.

These forces are at work in cultures at large, in the smaller sub-cultures that appear in different regions and localities, and even down to smaller sub-groups, families, and even so far the every individual expresses their culture in their own slightly unique way. In this way, then, identity is very much linked to culture. It is impossible for one to escape their culture; every individual that lives in a given region or population is by definition a contributing factor in their culture. The many different and subtle influences at work in every individual's lives and that help to shape their personality, however, make each individual express that culture differently. And just like weather influences the type of clothing worn in a given culture, other cultural influences also shape what one wears, and therefore the specific constraints and constructs that allow them to express their identity. Just as there is no individual without a culture, there is no identity for that individual that does not find its expression through the elements of culture.

Clothing is certainly not the only means by which one can shape and express their identity; there are many other cultural artifacts that an individual uses and/or interacts with that can help to both shape and reflect their individual personalities. Yet fashion -- the clothing one wears and other conscious aspects of their general physical appearance -- is the most immediate and forthright statement one makes about themselves, whether or not they would like this to be true. Regardless of the light in which this fact is seen -- that is, whether or not the emphasis placed on fashion is perceived positively or negatively -- it is unequivocally true.

The vast majority of the information human beings receive and process from the world round them occurs visually. Judging someone based on their appearance is not shallow (unless taken to certain extremes), but instead is perfectly natural and even purposeful. This can be observed especially clearly in high schools and other places where large groups of adolescents are found -- the many different styles of dress reflect the different social groups to which each individual belongs, or to which they are trying to belong. Sometimes, this dress varies in an extreme way from the standard or "normal" style of a given culture, making a much more obvious if not more definitive statement about one's identity. As Wilson (1992) puts it, "counter-cultural dress forces us to recognize the individuals and groups use dress in subtle ways to create meaning, to locate themselves in society in a variety of ways." One might take a slight exception to his use of the term "counter-culture"; subculture is perhaps more appropriate, but his basic meaning is clear -- dress is used as a way to identify and to be identified.

At first glance, fashion and an individual's own proclivities in the field might seem to be purely an issue of aesthetics. A deeper examination of the phenomenon, however, reveals how essential the concept of clothing and appearance are in the formation of social identities. Presumably, one likes the aesthetics of most of the clothes one owns, yet each time an individual gets dressed he or she must choose which of their clothes they would like to wear that day. Essentially, getting dressed is a conscious or semi-conscious preparation and construction of identity. Zelinsky (2004) notes that 'the only other set of cultural choices confronted with such regularity or complexity has to do with what we eat and drink," which it should be noted are also matters of survival. Fashion, then, represents the only set of complex cultural decisions we face on a daily basis that are purely related to our sense of identity, not our survival.

It should seem fairly obvious, then, that fashion is perhaps the primary method individuals use to create their sense of social identity within the broader context of cultural constraints. This was not always the case, however: "In the last two decades the postmodernist (POMO) scholars have popularized the concepts of subjectivity, authenticity, modernity and nativity in academia while rejecting the role of larger structural, institutional and historical forces (referred as meta-narrative) in understanding social and cultural issues" (Bahl 2005). The emphasis on how individuals define their identity is not incorrect in and of itself, but the failure to recognize that individuals do so within and in reaction to meta-institutions like (perhaps most importantly given its all-encompassing nature) culture has misconstrued the postmodern sense of identity as an inherently personal, rather than collective, phenomenon.

It must be understood, then, that culture and its constituent parts, namely fashion, play a vital role not only in how we are able to represent ourselves, but also in who we are, and what our identity is able to consist of. An option that is not culturally available -- one that is not simply frowned upon, but truly not represented -- is simply not an option for an individual's identity. Fashion, then, plays a vital role in shaping an individual's identity. How fashion shapes identity, however, can vary greatly from individual to individual, and from demographic to demographic. Gender is, of course, a major component of an individual's identity, and there are drastic differences in the way men and women use fashion to develop and represent their sense of identity.

Women's fashion is in near constant change, and has historically had more variation from individual to individual. Men's fashion, on the other hnad, seldom departs from the traditional "ensemble of jacket and trousers -- almost always in black or a somber shade of gray, blue, or brown, with shirt, tie, stockings, shoes or boots, and optional vest or waistcoat, with or without various accessories" (Zelinsky 2004). This possibly suggests alternative methods for males to develop and represent their identity within historic cultural frameworks, whereas women have traditionally been more dependent on fashion as a means of identification. This dependence is truly a form of imposition, where the fashion of a culture in a given period arguably had a much stronger influence on feminine identity than masculine. Whereas men's fashion remained fairly uniform, reflecting both the established nature of masculine identity and the myriad other channels of differentiation and identity formation among men, the changes in Women's fashion over time can be seen as reflecting the changing attitudes and identities desired and prescribed for women by the dominant culture forces of a given time period.

This theory is given credence both by an examination of historical changes in gender structure and by the changing modes of female dress over time. When twentieth century actresses in China began appropriating male dress, they also appropriated traditionally masculine roles in their profession, and "by playing male characters onstage they openly challenged entrenched definitions of femininity and womanhood" (Cheng 2003). Similarly, the "Mod" style of dress exhibited by the outfit Twiggy is wearing in the first picture is at once a re-appropriation of certain symbols nd a statement about a new female identity.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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