Clothes and Identity

Posted by Jill Chivers in My Story

Hello and welcome to the most sensational Tuesday we’ve had all week.  We’re up to blog #77 today and I’d like to talk today about the role that clothing plays in forming our identities.

We probably need to start by asking:  Does clothing play a role in forming our identity? Identity is the holy grail of many self-help philosophies.  As well as being a great song by Keith Moon of The Who, who are you has been a preoccupation of countless individuals over the centuries. 

I remember reading a story about a woman in her 50s who had struggled with emotional issues of shame and self-loathing for most of her life.  She’d done a lot of work on herself to try to work out what the blazes it was all about – living miserably as she was, she was looking to find the source of the issue and then, well, fix it.

In her journey, she remembered and recounted a story of when she was about 6 years old and on holiday with her family.   On the beach that sunny day, she had been ‘shamed’ by her mother who had disrobed her in full view and forced her into a pair of white cotton bloomer-style bikini bottoms and no top.  This woman had said that that single event, all those decades ago, was the essential moment that had shaped her sense of self (in a devastatingly negative way) since then.

Holy cow.  If her mother had held up a towel and put her in a purple full-piece her whole life may have been different.  Doesn’t that just make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Does mine.

Has me leaning in the definite direction of YES as being the answer to that question.  Yes, clothes pay a part in forming our identity.  Now, they may not form the largest part, sure.  Other things may fill the top spot in the identity-forming stakes, but clothing is in there somewhere.  If it were a jigsaw puzzle, clothing may be the piece with blue sky and a hint of a white fluffy cloud.  But it’s on the board, right?

When thinking about how clothing fits into the identity picture, there’s a few things that are particularly interesting.  Here they are:

The Paradox:  Lars Svendsen is a Nordic professor of philosophy and the author of Fashion: A Philosophy.  Apart from a freakish close up of a mannequins face on the cover of the book (resembling an ad for the Stepford Wives), the book offers an interesting take on fashion – through the lens of philosophy (and as an aside, it’s fascinating to note that Svendsen observes that philosophers study more weighty topics than fashion most of the time, so he is going out on the philosophical limb with this choice of topic). In the book, Svendsen says:

“… fashion always contains two opposing elements … allowing individuals to show themselves as themselves, but at the same time always showing them as members of a group”.  He’s talking about the paradox of clothing in efforts to conform and fit in…. and how clothing expresses something individualistic for each, er, individual. 

So, that’s an interesting paradox wrapped in a riddle.  When it comes to its place in shaping our identity, clothing isn’t just clothing – it’s signalling membership to a group.  Ok, so maybe it’s not membership of the Bloods or the Crips.  But it’s a signal that we belong somewhere.  And clothing isn’t just clothing – it signals something personal about us.  Me.  You.  Who we are as individuals, what we’re feeling and who we’re being (at least on that particular day).

It’s that. And also its opposite.  Svendsen also quotes from two other deep thinkers, the anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood.  These two have written about consumption in an academic treatise that would turn your brain into a giant snowball of thoughts (assuming you could keep up with them).  What they say is that our identity when it comes to clothing is defined by what it IS and, just as importantly, what it ISN’T.  Thankfully they give an example of what they mean: “I’m not a hippie” describes what someone ISN’T but it’s incomplete as a statement of identity.  We need more.  We need to know what their identity IS as well as what it isn’t:  “I’m not a hippie because I am a punk rocker” completes the picture.  (or in my case: “I am not a hippie because I hate tye-died t-shirts and hessian shoes and fringes on anything other than haircuts”)

He concludes that “…identity, in other words, calls for both a negative demarcation and a positive identification”.  Phew!  Got that?

Labels. And finally there’s something about labels.  As part of knowing who we ARE and who we’re NOT…. as part of the paradox of belonging and striking a unique identity…. the fashion world in all its glory has a part to play in this giant jigsaw puzzle of identity formation.  Let’s finish up today on the words of one of the great philosophers of our time, Jennifer Saunders.  From Absolutely Fabulous:

Patsy: “Do you like them or not?”

Eddy:“I like them if they’re Lacroix”

Ah, there we have it.  The final piece has fallen into place.  The clouds have parted and clarity has been restored.  We now know something more about how and why clothing, fashion and style are stepping stones on the road of discovery to who we are.  Right?

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