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Identity

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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. 

Colloquialisms like ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ have been present in the English language for decades, and although rather wise and largely true, psychology would suggest that to an extent, what we wear is in fact a reflection of who we are. 

Style is undoubtedly a significant part of our society; the fashion industry is thriving with its regular coverage in magazines and the media, globally-celebrated ‘fashion weeks’ and attention on social media through the work of online influencers. People are style-conscious; we take great pride in what we wear and where we shop, suggesting how we look must stand for more than just vanity. In fact, psychology has indicated it can boost our self-esteem, create a personal identity and reinforce a sense of belonging.

Perhaps the most prominent use of clothing is to build a sense of style and consequently, identity. In doing so, it has been argued that we build relationships between ourselves and our clothing. These can express three views of the self: the ideal self (‘the person I want to be’), the actual self (‘the person I am most of the time’) and the ‘person I fear I could be’. These self-concepts can be translated to our peers, colleagues and even strangers we pass in the street; before we even speak to another person it is likely we have, consciously or not, already built an idea in our minds about who they are. 

Although this may seem somewhat abstract and rather trivial, research has proved the significance of this sense of ‘self’. For example, it has been found that our self-esteem is lowered when we experience a large difference between our perceived actual and ideal self (Self Discrepancy Theory; Higgins, 1987). We feel frustration and disappointment if the person we see in the mirror isn’t the person we are aspiring to be. However, clothing can be used as a way to reduce this discrepancy and enhance self-esteem, if successful. Women have reported that through their clothing they are able to maintain an identity. They feel valued and liberated when their clothing successfully conveys to others ‘the person they want to be’. By developing and refining a personal style, it can be empowering, creating a feeling of control over our bodies; we can enhance aspects of ourselves we like, and conceal those we are more insecure over (Guy & Banim, 2000). Having a sense of style is, therefore, more than just an obsession with one’s image – it is a way to boost confidence, express creativity and empower. 

While we may use personal style to independently build an identity, it is also often a successful and arguably beneficial way to prescribe identities to others. This may seem domineering but having some externally-appointed identities can also boost our self-esteem; it encourages the formation of in-groups and consequently a sense of belonging. For example, in Cape Verde, fashion is known to be used amongst the ‘youth culture’ to construct both individual and social identities (Saucier, 2015). A key style worn by teenagers is inspired by hip-hop culture. They often describe it as ‘the blackest of cultures’ therefore, ‘to be young and black is to dress within the confines of hip-hop culture’ (Gilroy, 1994). The styles adopted by a teen can communicate who is authentic and sincere racially and culturally, which shaped personal and group identification. Other more widely-used ways clothing is used to construct identities is through the use of uniforms. Not only does it ensure students, employees and group-members are dressed appropriately but it encourages a feeling of responsibility and belonging between pupils, colleagues and friends. Therefore, although our old school-uniforms may not have been the most comfortable nor stylish outfit, they would have held significant symbolic meaning, shaping the people we are today and those we surround ourselves with.

Clothing most poignantly provides a medium for self-expression; colours, tones, textures and shapes can be used to experiment and explore what we like, feel good in and find enjoyment in wearing. Whether we choose to follow seasonal trends, take inspiration from celebrities and time periods or just do our own thing, what we wear has something to say about us as an individual, our group memberships and society we live in. Although perhaps more importantly, psychology has suggested that there’s more than meets the eye; style can support our self-esteem, empower us as individuals and aid the relationships we create. 

Having a sense of style most certainly isn’t the cure to all our problems, but there’s no shame in holding pride and autonomy in what you choose to wear as it could contribute to improving your quality of life and psychological well-being. 

Fashion psychologists suggest that the link between style and mood is stronger than we think

The subjective complexion of human emotions has made distinct sensations, like “happiness”, difficult to quantify. Happiness is generally contingent upon a person’s unique perspective, perception, or preference. The way we dress can flamboyantly express our preferences, but it can also attract superfluous perceptions. When we wake up in the morning, we have a divine power that no other species on this planet has. That power is called Choice. Unless you have an occupation that issues standard uniforms, when you begin your day, you have a choice of what you can (and should) drape over your body. If you’re happy, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses your happiness. If you’re sad, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses the feeling of sadness. The correlation between how we dress and how we feel have raised questions in the psychology community that researchers are in the midst of passionately pursuing. If how we dress commences the feeling of happiness, is it possible that being consistently happy can affect what we choose to wear?

While fashion experts continue to capitalize on the effects of clothing, psychology experts are examining the influence that clothing has on moods. Professor Karen Pine, a leading expert in fashion psychology, confirms that the more we know about enclothed cognition and how it can lift a person’s mood, the less we will need anti-depressant medication. In a current news release published by Goodtherapy.org, several Applied Psychology professionals conducted research on the link between clothing choices and emotional states.
 
A group of one hundred women, ranging from the ages 21 to 64 years old, participated in this informative study. The results of this study found that clothing choices such as jeans, sweatshirts, and baggier apparel, could all be associated with depressed or sad moods. Interestingly, 51% of the women in the study wore jeans when they felt sad or depressed, while only 33% of the women wore jeans when they felt happy or positive. Donna Stellhorn, a Feng Shui expert who contributed her professional thoughts on how we interact with our environment, agreed with these results.

“When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”

​​She believes that lazy attire, such as jeans or t-shirts, indicate where a person’s mental energy is focused. “When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”, Stellhorn explained. Other results of the study found that accessories, such as hats and jewelry, can also affect women’s moods. Hats in particular, on men and women, usually pinpoint a person of power. Hats warrant attention, and in some cases, it helps a person cover up an insecurity so that the person can feel confident enough to interact with other individuals. Interacting with the opposite sex has been another major point of emphasis for clothing choices as well, but limited studies have yet to secure concrete results in this area.
 
Although men weren’t included in this study, some results could be similar for them as well. “A separate study on men should be considered. Men are much more focused on functionality in their wardrobe than women, regardless of emotional state. So, I do think there may be some general similarities, but overall women’s results would probably be more dramatic”, explained Shauna Mackenzie Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting.
 
Overall, the emphasis of the study explained fashion’s powerful ability to create a perception of happiness.  When we’re feeling happy, we generally wear clothes that have good quality, good fit, and bright colors. When we are feeling unhappy, we take the focus off of our appearance and put our mental energy on whatever is making us unhappy. While women tend to be more in tuned with their emotions, they’re more likely to express their moods through visual stimulations—a theory that adheres to how women attract men. Men’s emotional adherence to clothing tends to be associated with colors—colors make a person standout more. Dressing happy when we’re happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just predictable!

Being predictable, based on your mood, isn’t what fashion is about. Fashion isn’t about making the effort to “look the part”. Fashion is about being the part. Fashion is about expressing who you are, no matter what mood you’re in. Daniel Gilbert’s concept of Synthetic Happiness suggests that we have the power to manipulate what makes us happy. In other words, we can either give clothes the power to make us happy, or we can use clothing as a tool to express how we’re feeling at any given time.