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Dressing Constructs Identity with Fashion Materials


The history of fashion is interconnected with the history of humanity. Ever since ancient men and women started wearing furs to cover their bodies, the concept of fashion was born. The choice of appearances for men and women had been changing from one century to another, as new trends, materials, and decorations were invented and introduced into the mainstream. The way we dress in the 21st century is very different from how it was done a mere century ago. Suits and long dresses were replaced by short shorts and T-shirts, which are equally popular among all genders (Bennett 2015). Self-expression has become the name of the game, with clothes representing not only the status but also the opinions on certain matters in society.

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At the same time, style changes within the same time period can be very significant, depending on political, social, and economic events that have transpired. Fashion is directly tied to several concepts that form up the contemporary identity of a person, including gender, race, and sexuality (Bennett 2015). People across the world have been expressing these three aspects of identity in their clothes. The fashion of the 21st century is classified by its androgynous appearances for both men and women, erasing some of the centuries-old differences as a result of the feminist revolution, re-evaluation of values, and globalization. The purpose of this paper is to explore these factors in light of contemporary events.

Fashion, Self-Expression, and Identity

Self-expression is defined as an avenue for presenting one’s opinions, thoughts, and desires through various means. Music and art are some examples of self-expression. Fashion, however, can also be used to express oneself through the choice of colors, articles of clothing, and their position on the body (Entwistle 2000). Some researchers identify fashion in the same category as body art. Although modern fashion is considered to be diverse and open to self-expression, there are certain conservative standards present, such as skirts being made for women while business suits are largely present in a man’s section. A male wearing a skirt or excessively “feminine” clothing with bright colors counts as self-expression and a protest against the existing status quo (Entwistle 2000). The same could be said for a woman who chooses to adopt a male outlook in order to challenge whatever preconceptions society has about women. It is an example of self-expression and a political statement through conscious choices of clothes.

The concept of self-expression is tied to the concept of identity (Gauntlett 2002). In the past, there were clearly defined identities of men and women, which corresponded to the development of completely different styles dedicated to each gender. However, the 21st century showed the rise of queer theory, developed by Judith Butler during the 1990s and popularized in the early 2000s (Warhol & Lancer 2015). It claims that there is no such thing as identity and inner self. Instead, there are constructed notions and perceptions of self-expression and oneself, solidified by repetition and discussion. The theory claims the concepts of gender, race, and sexuality have been constructed and reinforced by society. Thus, it is possible to follow a line of logic, which is as follows (Warhol & Lancer 2015):

  • Society defines gender, race, and sexuality;
  • Gender, race, and sexuality define fashion choices;
  • Fashion choices reflect the approval, or disapproval of society.

Thus, it is possible to trace how gender, race, and sexuality are affected by various perturbations going on in contemporary society. In turn, these factors can be used to explain fashion choices currently in trend.

Gender in Connection to Fashion and the Society

The fashion of the 21st century had been transformed by the increased influence of feminism in western society. The ideas of sexual liberation gave birth to unorthodox and immodest clothing worn not for the sake of appeasing men but for the sake of allowing women to feel beautiful and sexual in their own right (Gauntlett 2002). At the same time, the borders between genders, so strongly enforced throughout the previous century, began to blur. The deconstruction of male stereotypes in regards to power, responsibility, and body-shyness resulted in more variety of fashion choices for men who do not wish to conform to these norms. This led to the appearance of various articles of clothes that fit both genders or are considered inappropriate to either gender by the traditional clothing style (Gauntlett 2002). At the same time, while women’s fashion had centuries of development, male fashion remains constrained by its history of uniformity. It is the reason why many innovative designs for men look feminine since it is where designers take inspiration from.

Sexuality in Connection to Fashion and the Society

For the majority of humanity’s history, society was dominated by patriarchy, which set up standards for both men and women in terms of fashion and appearance. With men having access to numerous privileges a society had to provide, such as education, career, and riches, they had more than a single venue of showing their worth and value in the society (Negrin 2008). Women, for the most part, were viewed as possessions. Their choices of fashion had the purpose of making them sexually attractive in appearance to men. These choices often went against the wearer’s sense of comfort. The fashion of the 19th century, for example, was extremely uncomfortable for women, if not outright traumatizing, through the use of corsets and large dresses that had to be supported by an internal framework to not collapse on the wearer (Negrin 2008). These views were enforced, and, according to the queer theory, informed the sexual preferences of both men and women.

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The 21st century saw a revolution in sexuality for both men and women. The LGBTQ community made significant strides to achieve equality and acceptance in society. This presented a challenge for fashion, which was traditionally utilized to inform sexual desires and preferences by making individuals appealing to potential sexual partners. With more options available for either gender, as well as the re-defining of traditional standards of beauty and appeal, fashion was allowed to move in a variety of different directions in order to appeal to the new types of emerging sexualities.

While women’s fashion was motivated by the exploration of new aspects of their individual and sexual identities, men’s fashion reflected a tendency towards feminization in an attempt to appeal to other men as well. Tight jeans, short shirts, and otherwise revealing outfits are the most basic examples of how the events transpiring in society have transformed sexuality, which, in turn, affected fashion developments. Not all countries and fashions were equally affected by these developments, however. Some countries in the Middle East, where religion and state power are heavily supported by patriarchy, do not share the same pluralism of sexual acceptance the rest of the world does. This stagnancy in their society reflects in the traditional religion-based outfits designated for both men and women, such as the Niqab (long headscarf) for women and Thawb (white ankle-length robe) for men (Negrin 2008).

Race and Geography in Relation to Society and Fashion

Fashion preferences in every nation and country have been developed under different historical circumstances, affected by religious beliefs, economic position, and the availability (or a lack of) materials. For example, China is considered the birthplace of silk due to its unique access to silkworms. Their fashion, especially among the nobility, involved silken fabrics of different colors (Negrin 2008). They chose long, flowing robes in order to showcase these materials. African fashion, historically, revolved less around clothes and more around tattoos and decorations on the neck, ears, and nose, due to the scarcity of materials and high temperatures (Negrin 2008). Over time, certain fashion trends became associated with certain nations and even races.

The 21st century brought a decisive change to national fashions. The globalization of markets, in combination with the creation of new materials, significantly broadened the diversity of goods available to the average customer while at the same time creating a universal fashion culture (Negrin 2008). In most industrialized countries, it is typical for men and women to follow familiar fashion trends. One can wear the same clothes in New York or Tokyo without standing out too much. Many articles of clothes, such as jeans and T-shirts, have become ubiquitous and universal. They demonstrate the transcendence of mainstream fashion over the constructs of race and nationality.

Nevertheless, some fashion stereotypes persist despite the overwhelming influence of globalization. These constructs are typically based on tradition and culture associated with a particular race or a group. For example, sweatshirts with hoodies in the US are connected with the popular image of Afro-Americans, following the racist stereotypes of black communities being ridden with crimes (Negrin 2008). Some areas, such as the Middle East, have resisted globalization trends due to strong traditions in religion. Many Islamic cultures do not allow women to wear pants and show their hair, contributing to the stereotype of Muslims wearing burkas.

The Reasons Behind Changes in the Society

So far, it has been established that fashion has become more cosmopolitan, androgynous, and inclusive because of drastic changes that happened to the worldwide society as a result of feminism, globalization, and struggles for acceptance of the LGBTQ community. However, the underlying factors that enabled these events to occur have not been thoroughly explored. The main and primary factor that enabled society to change as quickly as it did was the technological revolution (Kinley 2017). People across the world are capable of communicating with one another, sharing thoughts and opinions without censorship, control, and long waits between messages. Information technology-enabled not only communication between individuals but also allowed for effective control over businesses overseas, something that was not possible before the age of the Internet (Kinley 2017). Thus, communication bolstered not only an informational but also a technological revolution, which formed the backbone behind the increased globalization of society.

The industrial revolution of the 20th century was the reason behind the empowerment of feminism throughout the 1970s-1980s, which allowed women to have a greater economic and political pull, which resurfaced 20 years later (Kinley 2017). Being able to support themselves and not having to rely on men for provision and protection enabled the free choice of expression focused on personal preferences and not on the need to placate and attract others. At the same time, without leverage on women, men were forced to adapt their clothing preferences in order to attract partners, without being automatically entitled to affection based on privilege and inequality. To summarize, changes to the constructs that made up society became possible mainly because of advances in technology, which in turn have affected modern fashion choices.

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Many feminist scholars have perceived fashion as a tool of oppression that forced women to a specific mindset, shaping their identity to fit that of a patriarchal agenda. While there is some truth to that statement, the analysis provided above shows that fashion is a mirror of underlying social constructs. The queer theory argues that gender, sex, and race are all social constructs that change along with the rest of society. The fashion of the 21st century was shaped by the technological and communicational revolutions, which enabled the motions that altered society’s perceptions of the three constructs. As a result, it became more radical, open, and androgynous in order to reflect the changes that have happened.

The greater variety of self-expression found in modern fashion is a direct result of the increased amount of variety and acceptance fostered by the changes in social constructs and cultures. However, the globalization and homogeneity of world fashion had different effects in various parts of the world, affecting those with long-standing religious traditions less. It shows that social constructs of race and culture are more resistant to globalization when supported by strong religious beliefs.

Reference List

Bennett, A 2005, Culture and everyday life, Sage, London.

Entwistle, J 2000, The fashioned body: Fashion, dress, and modern social theory, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Gauntlett, D 2002, Media, gender, and identity, Routledge, London.

Kinley, T 2017, ‘Dress, fashion, and technology: From prehistory to the present’, Fashion, Style, and Popular Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 261-263.

Negrin, L 2008, Appearance and identity: Fashioning the body in postmodernity, Palgrave Macmillan, Cowden.

Warhol, R & Lanser, SS 2015, Narrative theory unbound: Queer and feminist interventions, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH.

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