Fashion As a Means of Expressing Identity Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Fashion and Identity

The following statement is indeed true: "Fashion provides one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities" (Bennett, 2005: 96) as we have studied time and again throughout this class. Because fashion is in a sense one's experiential art: fashion distinguishes itself from all other art forms because one truly does live one's life in one's clothes. In this sense fashion is able to capitalize on the visual medium just as a painting or film does, but unlike films or paintings, it offers the wearer a distinct influence on their experience as a citizen of the world. This major connection between fashion and identity has an intense impact on fashion consumption.

Identity is something which is highly open to influence and which can adapt and be influenced by the changing times: identity is not neutral (Edwards, 2011). Just as so many scholars argue that all art is a product of its time, identity is also susceptible to social and political influences: fashion is one manifestation of that. Perhaps one of the most revelatory examples that history has ever presented of the political manifestations of identity through fashion has been via hippie culture in the 1960s. Hippie culture demonstrated a range of remarkable changes in fashion and hippies dressed and presented themselves to the world in an altogether distinct manner. Hippies dressed in torn and frayed jeans and bell bottoms, love beads, with cheese cloths, velvet, bangles and dirty, snarled hair (Edwards, 2011). The way that they dressed was both a means of expressing their own freedom -- freedoms of dress and self-presentation, along with a statement that they shunned convention. For hippie culture, convention was associated with traditional middle class values that were often very conservative and which generally supported the war that offended most hippies to their core. Thus, for hippies, fashion was a means of expressing an identity that they associated with their own political movement, one which was marked by love, peace, experimentation, music, art and other values that were pinnacle to these people. One could even argue that the expression among hippies still contained the eternal tension between the individual and social, as by rejecting what they considered to be conformist, middle class values, they were actually referring to them, as the opposite of something still refers to the original thing. "At the heart of all of this is the tension of the individual and the social, a sense of oneself as the same and yet different to others, as fitting in and as standing out, and as shaped and yet creative. It is moreover, not surprising, that the swirling world of fashion should have so strong a connection with the equally dynamic world of identity, and as the patterns and shapes of the clothes on the models mutate in front of us, we are also confronted with the three-dimensional kaleidoscope of ourselves" (Edwards, 2011: 105). Fashion and identity will thus always go hand in hand, as the two are able to constantly engage in a certain level of give and take and to establish an on-going dynamic. Thus, consumers will begin to consume garments and accessories which might not reflect their normal patterns of consumption, but which will reflect the manner in which they want themselves to be viewed.

This give and take between fashion and identity is distinct and does indeed exist. As other scholars have pointed out, notable Storry and Childs, "the way that we dress can serve either to confirm or to subvert various facets of our identities, such as our gender, race, class and age" (Bennett, 2005: 95). These scholars aptly point out that fashion doesn't have to be a manifestation of one's identity and background, but can actually be a denial of one's identity and background, serving only to deny who one is or where one comes from. "As this particular observation suggests, by assembling particular items of fashion in particular ways, and through experimentation with dress and appearance, later modern individuals create personal images, designed both to situate the self and send out culturally coded messages to others. Thus, fashion embodies a range of symbolic values which are collectively understood within and across different social groups" (Bennett, 2005: 95). Bennett is able to aptly touch upon some of the central pillars of image creation via the enhancement or adjustment of standard demarcations of identity (race, gender, age) (2005). Thus, one could even argue that fashion is a tool for identity: it can be used as a tool for not only expressing one's identity, but also as a means of adjusting or tweaking one's identity, or presenting the version of the self that one desires the world to see.

Just as much as one's sense of fashion presents, one's sense of fashion conceals. This is apparent even with the hippies of the 1960s. Even though many of them dressed as the epitome of counter-culture and of deviating from the norm, many of these same hippies originated from safe, affluent middle-class and upper-middle class homes and had parents who embodied conservative values. Thus, for many hippies, their fashion sense was a means of denying where they came from, or one could say, it was a means of rebelling against where they came from. Consumption patterns are thus impacted, based on what people want there to be hidden and to be revealed.

Fashion as a means of presenting one's identity is particularly when it comes to hip-hop culture and rap artists. For example, the 1990s marked the period when hip-hop artists started becoming better compensated for their work, rappers started their own production companies and fashion lines: money started pouring in and was quickly spent (Suddreth, 2009). "Although references to wealth have existed since the beginning of hip-hop, the new 'bling-bling' culture became a part of hip-hop's commercial success due to the videos of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records and Master P's No Limit Records. The term 'bling-bling' was first used in 1999 by Cash Money Records artist B.G. On his single 'Bling-Bling,' and the artists on the Cash Money label were considered the epitome of this materialist lifestyle and attitude" (Suddreth, 2009). Many hip-hop artists today actively celebrate this excessive lifestyle to be certain, it's also apparent that many of them use this rampant materialism in the form of platinum jewelry, designer clothes and shoes, as a means of expressing their own identity. Rather than identifying with the many black Americans in this country who are rampantly marginalized and who male middle-class or lower-middle class incomes, these hip-hop artists embrace and embody luxury, as a means of distinguishing themselves from their peers, and of attempting to celebrate their distinction and success. This is comparable to when the zoot suit became all the rage for African-American men in Harlem and Chicago in the 1940s (English, 2007). As members of a race that was consistently marginalized and discriminated against throughout time and history, using luxury and designer goods, one could argue, is a means of allowing this class to distinguish themselves as important and to place value on themselves when the chains of history often refused to. In this sense consumption patterns for this group became aggravated and manifested in ostentatious ways, to reflect the identity they wished to put forth.

This passage on hip-hop artists and fashion presents us with a new area of discussion: how fashion as a means of expressing one's identity is impacted by celebrity culture. As it has been for many decades, fashion is well supported by celebrity culture with actresses, tv presenters, and the wives of footballers being the people who are scrutinized (Gibson, 2006). In the past, it was kings and queens who set the standards of fashion, but nowadays, these individuals will no doubt need help in dressing fashionably and in fashion tips, rather than being the individuals who dictate such tips and amounts of authority. One could argue that the new royalty are whoever are featured by the attention of the media and the mainstream press, and that those are the individuals who dictate what is fashionable and what isn't. Thus, one facet of fashion as a means of expressing one's identity is centered on the desire to imitate, and the desire to resemble certain famous people. For example, lots of men copied Jack Nicholson's famous leather jacket and dark sunglasses when he was a popular actor back in the 1970s and 1980s. Other forms of iconic fashion can "bubble-up" from edgy arenas of film and tv; for example, James Dean was the person who made a white t-shirt and levis blue jeans look popular and tough (Gibson, 2006). Thus, a certain degree of fashion exists as a means of copying those that one admires and of imitating people who are in the public eye. Fashion can be an expression of imitating the lifestyle or the appearance of famous people, as a way of expressing the identity or life that one wishes…

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