Dress And Personal Identity Essay

Dress And Personal Identity Essay

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In what sense is dress involved in the construction of personal identity? It can be said that in very large part our identities - our sense of who and what we are take shape in terms of how we balance and attempt to resolve the ambivalences to which our natures, our times, and our culture make us heir (Strauss 1959, taken from Davis 1992:24) Dress and fashion is an underestimated social force. It functions effectively not only as an economic colossus but also to engineer social practices. The formation of identities passes by way of continuous mirroring effects afforded by others, self-images are social constructions in which dress plays an important performative role. In a world of looking and being looked at, clothing constantly undergoes coding and decoding in intricate processes of social interaction and judgement. Fashion has become increasingly connected with identity formation and maintenance among all classes, races and groups. The desire for fashionable attire was not just a means of gaining the admiration and recognition of the other ..clothing was the essence of identity (Finkelstein 1991: p1) Identity relies on boundaries to individuate the self. Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect self and 'other'. Clothing is both a boundary and not a boundary, that it is ambiguous and produces a complex relation between self and 'not self'. In examining the role of dress in social structures, clothing can be seen as both restricting and liberating individual and collective identity. Dress offers individuals the opportunity to play with their identities, it gives people the freedom to play with their shape, to don various styles and looks and through this construct one s image to the world. In the past, individuals were seen to have an identity apart from the goods they possessed, in the present era one s identity is defined in terms of the image that one creates through one s consumption of goods, including the clothes one wears. Appearance has become the central means of defining one s identity ;appearance has repeatedly been shown to have a potent and immediate effect on others in a wide range of circumstances. In particular, the consequences of women s appearance are severe and have social, economic, and legal ramifications. From the more obvious role of uniforms in social control through to the subtle interplay between size and status, appearance counts. The vast number of people seeking body modifications through dieting, tattooing, piecing and plastic surgery attests to the importance of how we look, not only to others but also to ourselves. When an architect knots his bowtie, a lesbian laces her Doc Marten's, a nun ponders red shoes, or a nude model disrobes, each is constructing an intensely personal and deeply social identity. In fact, clothing the body is one of the most complicated acts of our daily existence. In an increasingly material world, negotiating dress codes is a nuanced art, informed by shifting patterns of power and authority, play and performance, as well as gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and race. Throughout the nineteenth century clothes were widely seen as signifying personal identity there should be continuity between inner and outer : clothes were the form through which identity would be revealed. (Jervis 1998:121) Taste has carried connotations of status, it is a manner of familiarity suitable to the age of the status- conscious individual, found in a culture where individualism, as a value, connects the dynamics of status and class. Style becomes apparent as a mode of self-presentation, appropriate to the world and society in which we live where judging someone s appearance becomes fundamental, symbolizing taste and revealing one to be a person of quality . If taste can therefore be a symbol of status, them we may also define one s status aspiration. A person s fashion sense can reveal their taste and style and therefore there personal identity in society. A person s social status can be read in their dress, behaviour and personal style, personality therefore becomes a matter of appearance. Fashion is a product of class distinction (Simmel,1971:297) Fashion differs for social classes, the dress and style of the upper classes of society are never identical to those of the lower. The whole approach of human expression, are constantly transformed by fashion, that is the latest fashion only effects the upper classes, once the lower classes adopt the style the upper classes embrace a new one and the whole process begins again. We can therefore identify classes through this separation of what is fashion and what is not. This interaction with consumer tastes, social habits and personal identity was noted by ThorsteinVeblen, he believed that the upper classes invented fashion to distinguish themselves from those below. When the styles and routines of the upper classes were imitated, when their fashions were adopted by the lower class, the upper classes were driven to reconstitute themselves. The members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. (Veblem 1953:243) The novelist Alison Lurie, who wrote The Language of Clothes , has few doubts that we all use divulging details in our dress to allude to other interior qualities. Laurie has the belief that when we encounter one another in the anonymous sphere of the public domain, our clothes become garrulous and disclose our values, beliefs and desires. It seems obvious to her to use appearance to mark culture, gender, class, religion and sexual proclivities. The woman in the sensible grey wool suit and the frilly pink blouse is a serious, hard working, mouse with a frivolous and feminine soul (Finkelstein 1991:1) Religions constrain the bodies of their members through dress. In many cases, dress immediately identifies a member of the community to the outside world and separates them from a society. Dress identifies the wearer s community to other groups and communities. Most interestingly, perhaps dress is a measure of one s level of commitment to the community. While communities vary greatly in terms of what is permissible, strict conformity to internal codes invariably is interpreted
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