As part of my senior thesis project, I wrote a literature review regarding fashion theory and its relation to identity politics. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Give it a read if you dare!
Fashion as a Means of Identity Expression
The works on fashion theory that I have selected examine clothing as a way to both stand out from, and fit in with, certain cultural norms, making clothing an indicator of personal identity and public representation. I have split these theories into the following sections: identity and agency, group identification, culturally situated standards, class, and the development of clothing trends. Additionally, I have selected various ethnographic works on clothing that differ in terms of place and date in order to include a diverse sample. Through reviewing this literature, it is my goal to assess various fashion theories in order to apply them to the distinct ethnographies I have chosen to analyze.
Clothing choice is a form of agency that allows the individual to selectively display his or her identity to the public (Pham 2011; Crane 2000; Norell 1967; Finnane 2005). It puts the ability to present oneself in the hands of the agent. Brenner’s work on Muslim women living in Java highlights this theory in her exploration of the new, local trend in veiling (1996). Veiling is not a historically grounded tradition in Indonesia, however, its popularity is growing in women who decide to remove themselves from their pasts and mark a new awakening into the practice of Islam. Through the process of veiling, these women choose to represent themselves as devout Muslims. They differentiate themselves from non-veiling Muslims in order to portray their deep religiosity to the public.
However, while fashion is an individual choice, it is widely used as method of identification with specific groups, cultures, and religions (Miller 1993; Simmel 1957; Thompson 1997; Sproles 1974; LeBlanc 2000; Crane 2006; Finnane 2005; Jones 2007). Thus, dress can also be used to portray a group identity to the public. Sproles argues that fashion is “temporarily adopted by a discernable proportion of members in a social group because that chosen behavior is perceived to be socially appropriate for the time and situation” (1974). Therefore, he argues that fashion’s primary use is not to display individuality; rather, it is employed so individuals can find a sense of belonging through conforming to group norms.
As stated above, fashion is used as a social indicator of affiliation with cultures, groups, and belief systems. Individuals who dress alike are believed to be somehow linked to one another. LeBlanc’s ethnographic work in Bouake illuminates the fear of standing out by wearing clothing that are not the norm (2000). When asked about veiling in public, one of her subjects stated: “Most of my friends are not Muslims. How could I wear the veil when I go out with them? It would be embarrassing. It would look very odd. I would not feel at ease” (463). Her subject chose to conform to the dress of the group of her friends even though it contrasted with the religious garb she was supposed to wear in public. She prioritized her group identity over that of her personal identity out of fear of being ostracized.
LeBlanc states that fashion is a way to locate oneself within a societal setting (2000). Different types of clothing (cloth and material), patterns, colors, forms of draping, and ways of covering the body are all culturally situated (Hansen 2004; Heath 1992; Crane 2006; Jones 2007). Clothing is thus a developing presentation of cultural values, standards, and principles. Hansen provides a regional tour of clothing and its symbolic meanings cross-culturally (2004). For instance, changing political regimes have had a profound effect on the shifts of dress in Latin America. At the same time, there has been a historical continuation of the importance of local garb of the Pacific Islander population in relation to ceremonial symbolism. The comparison of these two examples shows how cultural, political, and geographical differences influence clothing, situating the development of dress in everyday life.
In the past, fashion was utilized in order to purposefully differentiate between social classes (Crane 2000; Summers 1970; Evans 1991; Simmel 1957). Simmel’s theory on the adoption of clothing trends states that higher social classes set trends that eventually trickle-down to the working class (1957). The working class then adopts that trend to associate with the elite. At that point, the higher classes select a new trend in order to differentiate from the visual identity of the working class. However, this theory has become outdated due to the increased intermixing of classes and culture through processes of globalization. As Hansen argues, fashion influences travel in all directions through class stratifications because of increased social connectivity (2004).
Both personal identity and clothing trends are constantly refashioned. As already discussed, shifts in clothing trends no longer follow a trickle-down pattern. Rather, they are created through social combination and networks of cultural collaboration that are at work, yet they remain unseen (Godart 2009). Therefore, group identity is the true shaper of fashion adoption and change. An individual may feel as though they have a unique sense of fashion; yet, they either consciously or subconsciously picked up that idea from someone else in a sort of unknowing conformity. Increased globalization and worldwide social interconnections created a blending of dress, challenging the classical hegemonic model of western imperialism in relation to fashion (Bikhchandani 1992; Hansen 2004). The exclusivity that once defined the world of fashion has opened its doors to the diversity of culture through means of accessibility, such as television and the Internet (Entwistle 2006; Finnane 2005; McRobbie 2002).
The exploration of dress and identity draws upon deep, cultural meanings about personal independence, group affiliation, and changes in trend adoption over time. While it is not comprehensive, this literature list has allowed me to develop a broad understanding of the ways in which identity and fashion coexist.