Fashioning Identity: Are We Simply Shopping for Validation?

By Sylvia Shoshan

Fashion is an artistic decision that we all make each day, whether you care about clothing or not, something is being portrayed to an onlooker. Clothing is the ‘second skin’ with which we present ourselves to the world. It is a controlled and curated tool guiding us through the interaction process of life, ultimately deciding the judgements that people make about us and the social circles that we attract. So, are we essentially able to shop for our identities?

Philosophers have long explored the links between possessions and identity, notably the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stated that “the only way we can know who we are is by observing what we have”. Whilst an introspective intellectual from the 1940s might not know much about fashion in our post-modern times, his take on identity still rings true. The concept itself has varying definitions ranging from personality, the being or feeling a particular way, to our fixed inherited background, ultimately there is no right answer. It is a personal affair in constant development, never a completed one. Identities can change and be defined as we evolve through life. But in fulfilling our sense of self, and outwardly projecting our identities through fashion and other possessions, whether they align with our internal core selves is another question.

While clothing has been a means for self-identification for centuries, for example through social class, occupation, or religion, only recently has it made way for subcultures that visually signpost their diversity through elements of material culture. Notably, the ‘teenage phenomenon’ of the 1950s and 1960s created an increased age identity that tied in with personal preferences such as music and were exhibited through personal styles such as the Mods and Rockers. Social changes, such as feminist and LGBTQ+ rights movements also provided further means for shaping or diverging from certain identities, specifically racial, gender, and sexual identities. Since this period and the transition to an advanced capitalist marketplace, we have seen a steady rise in the product offerings which can be selected to construct and curate our identities.

Gender identity is a particularly prominent factor when it comes to choosing the items we wear. Traditionally, there were very specific garments associated with the male and female genders, down to the colour and fabric used. This goes beyond the ‘pink is for girls and blue is for boys’ idea, as this hasn’t been true forever. For centuries, Europeans wore pink and flamboyant designs as a sign of wealth and power, rather than gender. It was only in the 20th century that pink became associated with femininity and fashions went through a period of restraint. However, lavish dressing reappeared amongst the countercultures of the 1960s. Moving away from a time when young men dressed very much like their fathers and a standard suit was the template, the aforementioned Mods (or Modernists) flagged a rebirth for statement clothes amongst this new youth culture, adopting an elegant and impeccable image that revolved around daring fashions and androgyny. For women, the Mods were the start of the mini skirt, for men tailor-made Italian three-piece suits and coiffed hair was a must. Challenging the rules of traditional masculine etiquette and overlapping fashion with other influential worlds such as music and media, identities were presented through the fashions that were worn. Approaching the 1970s, the traditional distinctions between menswear and womenswear became blurred with the exaggerated wide dimensions of the flared trousers for all genders and the blue denim jeans also highlighting this shift to increasingly unisex and informal clothing. With identity proudly worn, many trends also turned political, with fashion followers rebelling against austerity and uniformity, and for a lot of them, the notion that straight men were not interested in clothes, or that women had to appear ‘feminine’. Today we are seeing designers embracing the shades of pink and subverting gender norms, bringing a connection back to the flamboyance and freedom of past fashions.

With fashion being this extension of ourselves the notion of ‘symbolic identity’ brings forward the use of branding as signposting, almost convincing ourselves or others of our identity. This suggests that we are a different person than we might be without the specific item. If we did not own that Prada bag, would we be someone different? Possessions are then filling a void between actual self and ideal self, essentially using clothing to quench a thirst for self-identity and the ideal self-representation. The social symbolism that is portrayed to others ultimately dictates how they treat us, as there are defining factors that help others decide how to interact with us and the judgements they make. Whilst this can be viewed negatively, masking our true selves, it is in fact also an important factor in signposting to those that have similar interests to you. I can’t help but notice people who are well-dressed or expressing themselves in a way that I find appealing, also in my own self-expression thinking that someone will know what kind of person I am based on the way that I dress. Personally, I find myself leaning more often to purchasing second hand. It is through this symbolic consumption that I am almost constructing my own identity as someone who may be more environmentally conscious, more creatively inclined, or perhaps to distance myself from the norms and lifestyles of those that I don’t feel I relate to. Whether you engage in every micro-trend or have worn the same thing for the last 10 years, there is still something to be said for these choices, with none of them being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another. Personal attire are controlled factors that facilitate people’s interpretations, essentially becoming tools of interaction. Just as clothing can be a distinguishing feature expressing individuality, it can also highlight a group identity and sense of belonging.

Ultimately fashion can be used as a way to feel more authentic and confident, impacting our internal and external selves. It shapes the way that others view and consider us, from what our background might be, to the interests that we hold. The commodity culture of today has allowed for ever changing identities to be fashioned and ultimately may have blurred the boundaries between the external and internal self. Consuming visuals through online media and witnessing trends change in real-time, with the birth of the ‘micro-trend’ has developed a heightened follower culture, but also paradoxically, a heightened desire and acceptance for individuality amongst others. Whilst some get lost amidst the influence, running to buy whatever the hottest new trend is and suggesting an unaligned expression of identity, others renounce this through actively constructing their individuality through clothing. I think there is ultimately something to be said for style and fashion allowing us to articulate the impossibility of identities in the chaos of everyday life.

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