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How are fashion and appearance central to the construction of social identities Essay

We live in a world were physical appearance is the measurement of our self-worth. Media advertisements more often than not show how people can improve their appearance and why it is important. From job interviews to social events, how people look and dress determine other people’s impression. In this age of increased self-consciousness, fashion and appearance play a crucial role in establishing the social identity of a person. Fashion, as defined by many books and other resources, can be defined as the prevalent style and custom at a certain point in time and the word may also mean the study of this certain fashion trends.

Even though there are many things that can be considered prevalent at a certain time, fashion more often than not points more to clothing or clothing style. Different periods of time have different fashion. There is no other applied art which affects the everyday lives of the people other than fashion. Fashion design is responsible for the clothing that we wear since the ancient times. Clothing does not only help us keep warm but it also shapes us in the psychological and social aspect. Basically, clothing forms a basis of a person’s social identity.

Fashion has become a part of the culture since the early times. Different ethnic groups have different clothes which reflect their culture. Fashion based on some researches done by cultural scientists played a role in social and cultural structure, social differentiation and social integration (Davis, 1994, p. 16). Social identity is the way people are categorized or label themselves. This can be in forms of their race or ethnicity. This can also be defined as how people associate or identify themselves into certain groups which serve to heighten their self esteem because they have the same social identities.

Since people are social animals, sociologists deemed that social identity is an important aspect of a person. People want to be assured that they belong to one group or they positively compare with other group of people. When talking about social identity in terms of fashion, it is more than how majority of sociologist in the world restrict the concept as mere social class or status. Social identity includes how people communicate with others through symbolic means such as the way they dress or through clothing. It is also the configuration of attributes and attitudes which people seek to attain and discuss about themselves.

Fashion contributes to the redefinition and reconstruction of a certain social identity by continually adding something new to cultural artifacts. Everything undergoes evolution and perhaps fashion is one thing that changes fast it is fashion. People change the way they dress when the weather changes. People change the way they carry their clothes when something in their environment shifts. Studies and researchers which were geared towards understanding the culture of a certain society more often than not focus on artifacts which are evidences of the past and present culture of a place.

The woven pieces of clothing are often considered as indicators of social customs and social hierarchies. Anthropologists consider clothing as less prone to changes done by the capitalist market and are therefore richer or more stable indicators of sociological and cultural truths. Because of this, anthropologists invested far more energy and resources in investigating and examining the significance of the structure, form, and pattern of clothing than other cultural artifacts. For an instance, the way American Indians wear their clothes which were originally made from animal skin is still the same as before.

Emergence of new ways of clothing did not change their original culture (Breward, 2003, p. 64). Fashion and its effect on nineteenth century Attempts to reform the way people dress first appeared during the nineteenth century. The people were starting to get tired of the constricting features of clothing and the too elaborate features of dresses. Women who were fighting for their rights such as Elizabeth Stanton, Elizabeth Miller and Amelia Bloomer were the women who designed the then very famous bloomer dress which was consisted of an uncorseted mid-calf dress which was set over pantaloons (Stearns, 1994, p. 12). Many improvements were made since then to people’s clothing. Different eras reflected different styles of clothing and are more often than not also reflective of the prevalent social identity. For example, during the Victorian era it can be said that the clothing of the people were like straitjackets which aimed to constrict the movements and manners of people. Women during the Victorian era were expected by the society to move and behave only when instructed by their male counterpart.

Another example of how clothing or fashion plays a role in the construction of social identity is the wearing of uniforms of the military, police or religious personas. The wearing of uniforms based on social researches done impose an aura of confidence and authority so that they can make the people around them follow their orders either willingly or unwillingly (Crane, 2001, p. 3). Clothing also affected the way people measure their social status or whether they were rich or poor during the early nineteenth century.

Clothes were generally considered as one of the most valuable possessions during this time. During the Industrial Revolution, clothes were started to be manufactured by machines or in factories and these clothes cost more than average. Newly made clothes were not available to the poor because of the cost and they were left to use hand-me-downs or used clothing. Clothes were very expensive that it was even considered a form of currency by the rich and often replaced gold as means of payment. Fashion and clothing are also means in which people differentiate themselves from others.

Rare fashion finds such as antique clothes are used by people who want to express their uniqueness from others. They may wear it as everyday clothing or on special occasion. Regardless of when they will wear it, these kinds of clothing are worn by people to establish an identity which is different from others (Barnard, 2002, p. 61). Another example of how clothing constructs social identities was when large immigrants arrived in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The immigrants who arrived immediately disposed their new clothing and used the new clothes available in the country. Through this method, anthropologists were able to deduce that the people wanted to start a new social identity so they immediately dropped their old ways of clothing. Hats were also famous article of clothing during the nineteenth century and it played the most important role in distinguishing the social status of a person. The bowler hat which was designed in England in 1850 was originally made as an occupational hat but was soon adopted by the people from the upper class for sports.

It was not too long until people from all social strata adopted the bowler hat for everyday use. Another example, the cap with visor which was mainly used by military officers, was also adopted by the working class by the middle of the nineteenth century. The visor cap, then known as the peaked cap was considered to be the most common head covering for the working man. Fashion and its effect on the twenty-first century In the recent years, especially the twenty-first century, clothes were not deemed with the same economic importance unlike in the previous centuries.

Because of the cheap ready-made clothes that were made available to all social classes, clothes were not used as replacement for gold unlike before. Even though the economic value of clothes was not as significant as before, their symbolic value remained as important as before. The availability of clothes to all social classes made it possible for those who are not so very affluent to still express their individualities and own cultures. Another example of how clothes changed the way people perceive their social identities is if before women were not allowed to wear tight clothes or those which confine their body.

Today women can wear tight clothes such as leotards and spandex whenever they like because of their liberalization. Women of today are not expected to conform much to how the society expects them to behave or to act. They are also not forced to stay at home anymore but women are now doing what the men do. Indeed, the gender equality experienced in this century is reflected in the way women dress. Cross-dressing or the wearing of clothing that is associated with a different gender, is also another way of how fashion reconstructed the social identity of people (Bullough, 1993, p. ). Homosexuals before were forced to follow the prescribed way of dressing for their gender. Unlike today where in homosexuals are free to dress the way they want, without being afraid of other people and punishments. They can wear women’s clothing and express their identities freely unlike before. Teenagers or adolescents also use fashion to set their own social identity from their parents or those from an older generation. If we turn on the television or visit a high school, we can see teenagers strutting outrageous clothes such as those with bright colors or elaborate designs.

If people from an older generation prefer simpler designs of clothes, teenagers prefer those with dramatic effects to highlight the generation difference (Sloan, 2009). Perhaps this is how the youth of today’s generation set their social identity. If ever we see an old person dressing up the way the teenagers do, these persons are often considered out of the ordinary. This social identity is somehow embedded in the minds of the people and teenagers are now remembered this way. People who prefer work than leisure or vice versa can also be determined by the way they dress.

During they first years of the twentieth century, the three-piece business suit was considered by many to be the epitome of the high social class and are often worn during important events. Though some wear the business suit as everyday apparel, others still consider it as a social class distinction. There were also strict regulations as to how a business should be worn and made. There were exact measurements for the lapels, collars and sleeves. The strict regulations about business suits were deemed as a factor in how people will achieve success. The use of the popular T-Shirt was associated with leisure.

Because of its availability and cheap cost, majority of the public during the early twentieth century prefer shirts over the business suits. As time passed, t-shirts were used by people to set off political agendas such as imprinting political statements on t-shirts or other humorous statements. No matter what social class people belong in, rich or poor, t-shirts are favored by these people. Fashion transmitted by popular culture or music come and go very rapidly. Clothes designed because of the effect of the popular culture and the entertainment media are often highly androgynous.

There are people who call themselves gothic and they are identified socially by their gloomy appearance and wearing of black colored clothes. Established rock groups also affect the fashion scene by popularizing leather clothes. Rap musicians like rock groups popularized the baggy clothes worn by some teenagers today. Indeed fashion drew a line between different genres of music and avid fans of the different music genres also follow this fashion therefore setting a social identity for them. Fashion undoubtedly constructs and affects the social identity of a person in more ways than one.

Fashion and all the attributes it entails are a vast reservoir of meanings and culture of a certain society. From fashion magazines to television advertisements, fashion is a way of introducing something new to the public. Because of what they see in these popular advertisements, the people’s way of thinking is affected. People also depend on clothes and trend of fashion to express themselves and their uniqueness. Without this part of our culture, people will have lesser chances of expressing themselves and their individuality.


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