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How are Fashion and Appearance Central to the Construction of Social Identities?

Fashion and appearance, throughout history, have many times been perceived as status statements. The fault lines between social classes or between diverse values and beliefs of cultures have always been expressed through dress code and image alteration. From African tribes to traditional European countries, all societies have used fashion as a tool to unite relatively homogeneous groups and to socially categorize individuals. Adornment and display have been propelled to the forefront of cultural and social spheres in postmodernism as a way to counteract standardization trends and uniformization. This paper will discuss the role of fashion and appearance in the construction of social identities, providing specific research as well examples from various eras and cultures.

Social identity is intimately connected with status and with belonging to a group. It encompasses processes of categorization, identification, comparison and perceived distinctiveness. People identify with certain groups and behave as part of them; in fashion this translates into conscious choices of dress and image to reflect the affiliation to a group. Social identities are as much associated with rewards and rights as they are with sanctions and obligations. The choice of artifacts, such as clothes, jewels or other accessories, consolidates a person's bond with the social group and exposes the individual to stereotypical portrayals. In constructing an identity through fashion people express their preference of social belonging - groups they belong to or wish to belong to.

Social Identity and Fashion

Generally speaking the function of dress is threefold, as Gibson (2006) points out: to protect the body, to serve modesty and to adorn. The primacy of one of these functions over the others, as well as the specific rules and norms within each function, communicate important information regarding the culture of a given group. Tribes in the Amazon river basin use bone disks to adorn their lower lips as a social norm, in Central Africa different societies scar their bodies as a sign of adulthood attainment, in the Pacific region people extensively tattoo their bodies, whereas in the Western world social rules regarding fashion and appearance are less strict but equally important.

In her book "Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender and identity in clothing", Diana Crane (2001) analyzes the construction of social identities in the nineteenth century, presenting a historical overview of fashion evolution. The author indicates that the changes in fashion have always accompanied shifts in social relationships, and the way they were presented in the public forum. The increasing availability and decreasing costs of clothes in the last century has switched the focus of fashion from the economic sphere to the social one. Clothes in the past represented valuable possessions; they could be traded as currency, pawned or left as forms of property to relatives after death. Only rich people could afford more than one suit of clothes. This situation persisted even after the industrial revolution, when working class men could generally afford only one suit that was used literally a lifetime for a variety of purposes. In the rigid social structures of the past, fashion delimited status boundaries, whereas more recently it has become more closely associated with gender and cultural boundaries. Thus social identities portrayed through fashion have also been linked with some form of categorization and discrimination. Fashion and appearance are about social belonging, but at the same time they are about social distance.

In the nineteenth century clothing was a clear marker for social status, providing indication of wealth, class, occupation, regional identity and even religion. All these aspects were central in shaping a person's identity. Some of these aspects persist today. Muslim women, for example, follow rigid norms regarding the dress code. People from higher social classes prefer luxury products and brands as symbols of their status. Regional culture in some areas is also an important factor in shaping fashion choices. Thus appearance and clothes have been central to indicating the ascribed or the aspired social status of individuals for more than a century.

Postmodernity has brought radical changes in fashion, and in its influence on social identity. According to Kratz and Reimer (1998) postmodern times are characterized by increasing heterogeneity in the social sphere, by blurring distinctions and boundaries, by a general trend toward globalization, by rapid and constant change in all spheres, and by intertextual relationships. The industrial revolution has made clothes accessible to everyone, and fashion has become an expression of style rather than an expression of wealth or class. The focus has been put increasingly on individual choices and social groups rather than on a collective mindset. Fashion in this context is more than clothes; it comprises a whole image and attitude, make-up, color and accessories (in the forms of jewels, watches, symbolic objects etc.). The discourse and analysis regarding postmodernism should be centered on the concept of fashions (plural) rather than fashion.

Creating an identity is an ongoing social process in which individuals continually construct and deconstruct defining elements. Clothes are important tools in this process, allowing people to express their ideas, values, beliefs, affiliations and style. Another defining aspect of postmodernism is the accelerated pace at which old fashions are being replaced by new ones. The dictates of fashion have a large influence over the choices of clothes made by numerous individuals; there are those who choose to follow trends almost religiously, there are those who choose to go against them, and there are those who prefer a traditional style in which the dictates of fashion are ignored or marginalized.

In postmodern times, as Kratz and Reimer (1998, p. 193) highlight, "everyday life has become more heterogeneous". This is due to a number of factors, including the multiplicity and increasing fragmentation of sources for information and fashion inspiration, as well as to large-scale travel, increased mobility and curiosity for other cultures. Boundaries between different cultural spaces have become blurry.

Moreover, intertextual relationships have also changed fashion and the role that fashion plays in life and in shaping social identities. The references and connection with other cultural products have become more frequent and more relevant. In this new context social identities are determined in a complex web of intertwined choices - in terms of fashion, music, favorite activities etc. Clothes and accessories have become symbols of different types of lifestyles and choices in other spheres. Various types of music are associated with various artifacts. There are subtle differences between different clothes, even if functionally similar. As Kratz and Reimer (1998) acknowledge, there is a substantial difference between a Harley Davidson T-shirt and a CHANEL T-shirt as far as social identities are concerned.

The intertextuality can also be assessed in relationship with the increasing influence of music or movie stars in fashion and in building identities. Madonna, for example, is a contemporary style icon. Her evolution throughout the last two decades has marked a transformation in identity, not only in style - encompassing meaningful elements of fashion, not only physical, but also attitude, nationality, chamaleonism, slenderness, and so on (Soley-Beltran, 2006). A similar example is Robbie Williams who, through clothes and accessories, assumed an identity of "naughty boy", a rebel (Barnard, 2002). The intertextuality typical of modern times can be exemplified also through the continual mixing of art, fashion, performance and spectacle (very relevant examples are contemporary music video clips or motion pictures). Being good at only one is not enough anymore. Identity is created at the meeting point of multiple dimensions. Nowadays stars (from the artistic fields, from athletic disciplines and even from the political arena) are trendsetters in fashion, but are equally important leaders in shaping social identities.

As previously stated fashion is a cultural product. Three main stages are involved in its creation: production, adoption and consumption. These stages influence one another continually, and the consumer plays a key role. Fashion is produced and consumed in a given social context, which frames the process of its adoption. Fashion consumption, on the other hand, can never be analyzed in isolation; it is a social phenomenon and the collective mindset (in terms of perceptions and associations) is critical.

Individuals play an active role not only in the adoption and consumption of fashion; they also participate in its creation. Whereas in the past the dictates of fashion were diffused from the top down (initially from royalties or personalities, and subsequently from world renowned designers or stars to catwalks and then to the streets), in postmodern societies fashion is influenced from the bottom up, from the streets to fashion houses. People have become more conscious about their clothes and about the personal statements that they make in choosing an image. Fashion is, first and foremost, a cultural phenomenon (Kratz and Reimer, 1998). The world is shrinking and the pace of change in fashion is picking up. There's a complementary relationship among the three processes involved in the creation of fashion (Kawamura, 2005). Fashion is thus created in an interplay between consumers, trend-setters and designers (the industry in general).

Considering all these arguments it can be concluded that fashion is a cultural commodity, but not all cultures export it in equal measures. Clothes, and appearance in general, play an important role in shaping social identities, but the relationship goes both ways. The cultural framework shapes expectations and the underlying assumptions in which fashion is judged, adopted and consumed. Fashion signals social belonging, or desire of belonging, but also social distance. It says who the wearer is, and who s/he is not. Auty and Elliot (1998) name this process "choice by rejection of the unacceptable" or "refusal of other tastes". Fashion contours a social portrait of each individual.

The intertextuality typical of postmodern societies intimately connects fashion with other cultural phenomena such as music or art. There is a rock fashion, a hip-hop fashion, a punk fashion and so on (Hunter, 2003). And similarly these fashions reflect different social identities. The link between fashion and social identities lies in meanings, in symbols and values. Fashion is a glue which contributes to keeping communities together. These communities are imagined and transcend physical or cultural borders. People dispersed all over the world share common preferences and share similar identities. Fashion helps make these imagined communities visible. One main trait of postmodernity is that there are a lot more communities to choose from, and there are a lot more possibilities to acquire and mix clothes and accessories in order to express one's identity. Heterogeneity takes center-stage in this new cultural context. It is undeniable that fashion and appearance are central to the construction of social identities, and the multiplicity of identities reflects the increasingly fragmented nature of social structures. Fashion is about meaning, about communication, about shared beliefs and preferences; it is the visible tip of a cultural iceberg which encompasses a much vaster base of phenomena - from music to aesthetics and aspirations.


Auty, S. and Elliot, R. (1998) Social identity and the meaning of fashion brands. European Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, pp. 1-10.

Barnard, M. (2002) Fashion as communication. London: Routledge.

Crane, D. (2001) Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender, and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gibson, P. C. (2006) Analysing Fashion. In Tim Jackson and David Shaw (eds.) The Fashion handbook. London: Routledge.

Hunter, J. (2003) Flying-through-the-air Magic': Skateboarders, Fashion and Social Identity.

Kawamura, Y. (2005) Fashion-ology: an introduction to fashion studies. Oxford: Berg.

Kratz, C. and Reimer, B. (1998) Fashion is the face of postmodernity. A. A. Berger (ed.) The Postmodern Presence: Readings on Postmodernism in American Culture & Society, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Soley-Beltran, P. (2006) Fashion Models as Ideal Embodiments of Normative Identity. Tripodos, No. 18, pp. 23-43.