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It is common knowledge that our fashion sense changes and evolves along with us- I’m not the same girl I was when I was 14 and the lack of ‘Team Edward’ shirts I wear reflects that (I am still team Edward though). The clothes we wear can help us build our identity and is a crucial tool for transitioning and affirming new identities. However I didn’t understand just how important my clothes were until I discovered the full spectrum of my sexuality. Once I realised I was attracted to women also, there was a shift in my mindset- dressing for male validation and dressing for female validation were two completely different experiences. When I was dressing for what I thought made me most appealing to men, I found myself reaching for tighter fitting clothing, things that would restrict my body in the hopes it would also restrict my big personality that I usually muted for men.

Tighter clothes= smaller me= less space that I was taking.

Loose woman

The tendency for women to monitor, control and restrict their own bodies was explored by Bartky, where he states that a woman’s space is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be freely realised. The term ‘loose woman’ indicates not only a woman with loose morals, but literally in the free and easy way she moves. Fashion has been a tool at both restricting women but also aiding their autonomy, this is evident in the way corsetry in the 1800’s evolved to allow women not only physical freedom, but when the ‘bicycle corset’ was invented, it also allowed them geographical freedom.

When I started dressing for women, I realised I was actually dressing for myself- because there were no expectations of how I should look. When those expectations were stripped, I discovered what outfits I liked myself in, instead of what outfits I liked to be liked in.  Sometimes that looked like form fitting clothes, but it also meant a lot of baggy trousers and generally more comfortable materials and fits. I used fashion to compliment my transitioning mindset that was stepping away from the male gaze. I found this was a similar experience to the character Jules in the ever-loved ‘Euphoria’ series, where she explains she had built her entire identity based on a version of femininity desired by men- but she realises she is no longer interested in that version of herself.

Gender Performance

Furthermore, If you consider how intrinsically linked sexuality is to gender expression, turning to Judith Butler’s theory of Performity can help us understand how clothing is such an instrumental tool in conveying our identities. This theory puts into question how natural gendered behaviours really are, arguing that gender is in fact just a performance imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality- fashion being a key prop to this performance.

Therefore, by breaking away from these ideologies and dressing in ways that feel authentic to yourself, fashion can be an extremely helpful tool in reaching full self-actualisation. Self discrepancy theory explains how detrimental it can be for there to be a discrepancy between who you are and how you dress, resulting in a lack of pride and lower self esteem. So moral of the story: Dress how you feel inside and you’ll be happier for it! Queerness looks like so many different things, but what it isn’t is how you think you should look, but rather what you feel.

As London Pride erupted around the city, I spoke to some fellow queer people and asked them how they felt fashion aided them along their journey of queerness:

Priya

Before accepting queerness
After accepting queerness

How do you think fashion/clothes helped you accept your queer identity?

Throughout a lot of my teens and early twenties I felt a huge pressure to perform femininity with my appearance. I felt that a lot of my value as a person was measured by how attractive I was to men, and this felt suffocating. I started to embrace my queerness and to learn more about feminism, so changing the way I dressed was a way for me to reflect that internal shift. People have often commented on my style and told me that men won’t like it- so going against that has enabled me to reclaim my body and queer identity. 

Did you see a difference in the way you dressed once you did accept your queer identity?

The way I expressed myself with fashion has changed a lot since accepting my queer identity. I feel so much more freedom in what I wear now and choosing not to care what others think has been the most important change for me. Incorporating typically ‘feminine’ aspects into my style now feels like a fun option, rather than a necessity. Some days I choose to dress in a more stereotypically masculine way and I get some confused stares in the ladies’ toilet, but ultimately I feel more like myself.

​​Asia

Before accepting queerness
After accepting queerness

How do you think fashion/clothes helped you accept your queer identity?

Once I came to terms with my sexuality, I stopped wearing things that made me feel uncomfortable such as dresses or heels. I never liked them but wore them because I felt I had to, because I thought that version of me was the only one people were going to accept. 

Did you see a difference in the way you dressed once you did accept your queer identity?

I definitely did, I felt more comfortable and confident, and started caring a lot less about how people perceived me. I also feel like how I dress now helps me express myself and my personality more. 

Mila

Before accepting queerness
After accepting queerness

How do you think fashion/clothes helped you accept your queer identity?

Clothing has granted me a way to play at queerness, the bounds I felt were loosened as the fit of my clothes loosened too. Each of my outfits perpetuate self acceptance because fashion speaks on our behalf. 

Did you see a difference in the way you dressed once you did accept your queer identity?

I used to be embarrassed to exist at all, especially with the unreturnable gift of queerness. My fashion used to be as plain as possible, desires suppressed, to reflect this toxic mindset I had rationalised. These tight anxieties were undone when I learnt the joy of practising excess through fashion: Layering extra necklaces, mixing colours, prints etc. Suddenly I was dressed to take up space, but so had to confront the horror of being perceived- but at least clothing had become fun.

From Subculture to Mainstream

Pear shapes, apple bottoms, and clothes that accentuate these fruity figures were once looked down upon by the mainstream. These standards of beauty were really only valued by “us folk.” The ability to create our own standard of beauty and style speaks not just to the oppressive systems that made it necessary but to our ability to thrive and create when the larger socio-cultural system did not recognise our value.

No longer relegated to certain neighbourhoods or alternative media, urban and mainstream fashion have merged. The days of a few fashion magazines telling us dos and don’ts are no more. Now we are influenced by a wider range of magazines, sites, and influencers who look like us; and we can make our own rules and determine for ourselves what qualifies as fashion or style.  This is great but it also comes with greater responsibility.

Shift in Mainstream Culture

As is common in a democratic society, we all have a right to express ourselves through fashion. You might see someone outside in their PJ’s or in a designer gown complete with opera gloves. There is no longer a consensus of what constitutes good style, and with the democratisation of style you may very well be praised for wearing something that has traditionally been known as bad taste if you have enough social power to do so.

While we have an omnipresent media to keep us informed, we can get swept up in other peoples’ styles. And when everyone’s clothing choices seem cool and of-the-moment, it can feel like no one’s does. So the challenge becomes how do we create individual style with such an overwhelming amount of media?

I think we can look to Black and other historically marginalised style makers whose sense of style reflected a unique self-expression that developed within a very specific sociocultural context. Eighties hip-hop artists donned the styles of their communities; and amplified trends like door-knocker earrings and Addidas sneakers’, forever altering the mainstreams’ perception of desirable dress (think suits with sneakers). And in the 60’s, the afro exploded into a whole socio-political discourse about beauty and acceptable dress. And somehow, the decision to embrace one’s own “natural hair” became a symbol of strength and courage.  

According to psychology, behaviour can be explained by some combination of environment, genetics, and psychology. Thus, these style makers may have been influenced by mainstream and subcultures, predispositions to certain styles, and their distinctive ways of interpreting it to create something unique. So how can we create individual style within our unique sociocultural system?  We may not be able to alter our environment and genetics, but we can have some control over our psychology. Here is how psychology can help us hone our individual style.

Using Clothes to Communicate a Specific Message to Others

Research shows that fashion communicates a message to others. And we interact using clothing symbols that guide our behaviour. So wearing a wedding gown typically means marriage, or wearing a bathing suit typically means swimming.  Are we aware of the clothing symbols attached to our clothing? Love it or hate it— leggings once worn only for workouts or around the house have now become a legitimate part of the outfit. It may be seen as sexy by some, and as lewd by others. And you will have to have enough cultural intelligence to know what to wear when in order to communicate the message you intend.

One theory proposes that people attach specific meanings to appearance cues, or parts of the outfit that stand out. And they use these cues to make inferences about other people. For instance, large hoop earrings may signal spicy, sexy, or sassy while studs may say something more understated. Are you aware of your appearance cues? What stands out on your outfit— the colour, a shape, a piece of jewellery? What message does it send? Consider the look you want to convey and determine which look closely matches that.

Using Clothes Communicate a Specific Message to Yourself

Our fashion choices not only send messages to others but to ourselves as well. Research shows that the meanings we attach to our clothing are validated by others’ responses. So if your pants suit says you’re about business, and people respond to you with a certain reverence, then your message is validated; and will reinforce your perception of yourself as someone to be taken seriously.

Studies also show clothing we wear triggers us to act differently depending on the symbolic meaning the clothes has for us. What symbolic meaning do your clothes hold for you? Do you feel good because you are wearing shoes you saw X celebrity wear? Many of us are driven by the emotional experience that occurs when we wear something we saw on someone we admire. 

We feel peer validation by evoking the image through our clothing; and this reinforces positive feelings about ourselves. It is through this process that clothing as symbols are strengthened. And the more we are aware of it, the more we can be in control of our style choices rather than feel controlled and overwhelmed by them.

For my first day of school, my mother dressed me in a gorgeous velvet dress with organza bell sleeves and matching shoes. It is a common thing to dress up for special occasions, but this was something else.

Further down the road, we meet a 3rd grader with actual high heel boots, and a teen who didn’t own a plain clothing item such as a simple white t-shirt. It had to be bedazzled or embroidered or different in some way.

My first day of school picture.

My mother’s need for standing out is something I feel to this day, by always wishing to make a statement with the clothes I wear. Doing research helped me get to the bottom of this phenomenon. It got me thinking – what message are we trying to send with our clothes? What lies beneath it?

Stand out or die trying

Did you know that therapists can tell about the patient’s mental health based on their clothing? Apparently, either showing an exaggerated interest in clothes or a lack of one is concerning. For instance, research shows that people going through a rough patch try to cope with it by seeking praise and admiration based on their style. 

Fashion is a form of personal expression that we use to get attention. Take our favourite TV fashionista, Carrie Bradshaw for instance. We watched her run around New York in gorgeous heels and head-turning outfits – a lot of them would be impossible to miss on the street.  

Carrie is an epitome of noticeable fashion style. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she is case in point – does Carrie show narcissistic traits? This article suggests that she, in fact, does. Carrie is seen many times asking for her friends’ unlimited support and rarely (never) missing out on the opportunity to make her problem the main discussion topic. Carrie’s troubles always seem to be a bit bigger, life has often treated her unfairly and it is never her fault. Sounds familiar? 

By dressing loudly we often try to get a reaction and be noticed. Research shows that by trying to grab others’ attention we are actually striving to confirm our own value. That might be the reason why we try to feed our self-image through possession of stunning and one-of-a-kind pieces of clothing. 

Should I blend in or should I go now?

Dressing in a certain way makes us feel like we belong to a group, in a way defining our self-esteem. This suggests that, when we feel like we are breaking the rules of the group by standing out, it might spark an internal struggle.

Research concludes that we often try to blend in with the norms of the society or a group which we identify with. This is particularly characteristic of teens, but it might follow us to an adult age. If we are afraid of being subjected to evaluation, it is important to us to blend in with a certain group, and clothing is no exception to this rule. 

Two sides of the same coin

So what is it with the sense of self-value and clothing? Either we try to re-evaluate it by seeking admiration from others, or we minimise ourselves so nobody observes us for long enough to question it. It all comes down to this: Why are we so afraid to be noticed? And why are we so eager to be noticed? So we either seek to be in the limelight to find validation from others, or we blend in the crowd hoping to feel accepted and thus worthy.

Clothes and our idealised social self

In our modern society, some clothing items have a value that has nothing to do with money. We all know them – they’re Converse sneakers, a simple black Chanel, a Burberry coat amongst others. Our idealized social self is the image we wish to convey in public. 

When we choose our clothes, we very much pay attention to the sublime messages they are giving out. Not only that, we attribute certain characteristics to certain clothing items or brands as well.  Let’s take Converse sneakers for example. They have been mainstreamed by the global fashion community – they seem to be everywhere. What does that mean in terms of our two categories?
This means that an individual who would like to blend in will wear them gladly and heave a sigh of relief. Are the same sentiments evoked with our other group? Highly unlikely. Our attention-seekers would rather opt for something more colorful and unique.

Humans are social beings and we have been living in groups for a long time. When it comes to an uncertain sense of self-worth, we might feel that if other people are giving us approval based on how we dress, that, in return, we’ll get a glimpse of who we are.

But the truth is: Nobody will be able to define our own worth but us. Our value isn’t mirrored in the eyes of the beholder, but comes from within. That isn’t to say that clothes shouldn’t be a powerful way of self-expression and exploration. The hard part is making a line between ‘I want to express’ and ‘I want to impress’, which aren’t the same.

With the average woman owning 103 items in her wardrobe but reporting to only wear 10% of it, I think it is clear to say we have complex relationships with our clothing collections. But why do so many of us fall victim to these hoarding behaviours, how can we overcome them, and what does that mere 10% actually say about us? These are all questions the study of ‘wardrobe ethnography’ aims to answer. 

Wardrobe ethnography is a term used to describe the analysis of the items that accumulate, to make up our wardrobes. By looking at the relationship between ourselves and what we own or regularly wear, it can reveal a form of our identities. However, this can also extend to look at the way we organise items (what we choose to hang or fold, and how), and the places we keep gifted or inherited items, which may indicate the types of relationships you hold with those who gifted them. All of these small elements can tell a story; one which you may not even be aware of. 

 While the clothes we wear are predominantly for assurance and fashion, the process of shopping for and selecting items can also become an equally negative experience in becoming a breeding ground for body dissatisfaction (Tiggemann & Lacey, 2009). This means the relationship we have with our clothing and the decisions we make about what to wear incredibly important when we form perceptions of ourselves.

 However, it’s not just what we do wear that forms a reflection of who we are – what we choose to store in our cupboards unworn, forgotten, or treasured is equally significant (Woodward & Greasley, 2017). Our clothes and accessories act as an externalisation of our past selves, memories, and relationships so it’s only natural that as we evolve and grow, our wardrobes do too. 

By looking at the relationship between ourselves and what we own or regularly wear, it can reveal a form of our identities.

One clear example of this transition and change is the patterns of behaviour women show during pregnancy when styling themselves. After analysing the ways mothers-to-be interact with their wardrobes two key themes regularly emerge glamour and display (Gregson & Beale, 2004). When pregnant, many women choose to wear items of clothing that enhance their bumps – even if this is an area they would have previously sought to camouflage. Even so, the novelty of purchasing these maternity-specific items is often only endorsed for short-term uses like special occasions, rather than daily wear. After the postpartum period, maternity clothing is regularly seen to be passed on to other mothers-to-be – once again, reflecting the changes in our clothing and self-identity that occur simultaneously. 

 Despite its benefits, this seemingly interwoven relationship between what our wardrobes contain and our sense of identity is also proving problematic in today’s society. With almost-instant access to affordable fast-fashion, our desire to create the ‘perfect’ wardrobe are more prominent than ever (Petersson McIntyre, 2019). Our efforts to live more minimally and sustainably are easily overturned by the lure of weekly new-collections and the need to be perceived positively by others, with our value becoming increasingly equitable to the possession of materialistic objects (Crăciun, 2014)

But where does this leave us? Will we ever reach a harmony between achieving both wardrobe sustainability and satisfaction? 

 Well, one answer could lie in improving not only the physical durability of clothing items, but their emotional durability too. Emotional durability is a measure of the length of time an item remains relevant and attractive to its user. By designing products with the physical properties (i.e. appearance, functionality) as well as their emotional and symbolic values in mind, high-quality garments with great emotional appeal can be created (Burcikova, 2019). This encourages consumers to hold onto and care for their clothes, ultimately reducing the desire to aimlessly add new items to their collections.

If you’re now left wondering what your wardrobe could say about you, take our quiz to find out.