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Self Image

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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.

Using clothes as self-improvement

I have moved cities multiple times over the past several years. Each time is equally nerve-racking as it is exciting, but the one thing that makes those moves bearable is the anticipation of figuring out who I’m going to be, aka what I’m going to wear.

Fashion, for me, has always been about finding my place in the world. Blazers in an office? Too stuffy. Writing at home in sweatpants? Too casual. Writing in a boujee coffee shop wearing a hot pink jumpsuit and cat-eye glasses? Just right.

You see, who we are comes out when we’re wearing something that is precisely us. The colors, fabrics, and silhouettes that we’re attracted to end up attracting the life we want. From friends and partners to jobs and hobbies, fashion is a powerful force that pushes and pulls us into the life we crave — IF we dress for it, that is.

Facing The Facts of Fashion

You’ve heard the famous fashion quotes that have given us energy and confidence when we need it most — sayings like “Dress for success,” “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it,” and “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” — all hold serious merit when it comes to figuring ourselves out as we move from one life transition to the next.

More often than not, when we’re feeling low about ourselves, we turn to fashion for answers. It can be difficult to articulate the power of style through the written word, but we all know how special a certain dress makes us feel, or how we are flooded with inspiration and creativity when putting on that one skirt. To that end, I make the argument that fashion is little more than a feeling.

To me, trying on new clothes is like trying on new selves. Of course, there are other factors that play into how we dress, including where we live, what we do for a living, and who we spend our time with. I believe these influences to be the essence of life, giving us permission (or not) to say what we want to say, do what we want to do, and yes, wear what we want to wear.

Straight From The Experts

Colourful and charismatic personal stylist Anna encourages her clients to “dress how they want to feel,” stating that to be yourself you have to get to know yourself, which requires “lots of trying on new clothes to see which ones make you feel most alive.”

Anna does a lot of inner work with her clients on their style personality and style identity claiming, “When you know your style identity, you are free to dress however you want.”

This is something that both takes time and evolves over time, and there is no “right” or “wrong” in the process.

Fashion stylist and image consultant Jenni Lee emphasises that each of us have endless facets of ourselves to explore, noting that clothes are the easiest way to uncover the different personas we want to step into.

“A lot of women have limiting beliefs based on what they have soaked in from living in a patriarchal society and negative ideas passed down from family,” JenniLee says.

“I am continually coaxing and supporting clients to play with clothes, to try things on that are out of their comfort zones so they can physically experience what it feels like in their body to wear other styles and to see themselves in other personas.”

Finding Your Signature Style is a Journey

Whether you’re shopping in a vintage store, luxury boutique or your own closet, I think we can all agree that each item of clothing we put on, a certain feeling is evoked. This, after all, is essentially what we are all dressing for each day, isn’t it? That one feeling we are trying to grasp, may it be pride, professionalism, boldness or contentment.

And those feelings, just like our style preferences, change and evolve over time.

When I lived in Chicago, for example, I was single and childless with the world at my feet. My style, not surprisingly, matched how I felt about being young and carefree in a bustling city. It was fun, loud, playful, and energetic, just like my personality. 

Now, as a married woman and mother of two residing in Connecticut, that fun and playful me is still intact, but I have learned to lean into the chic and elegant flair of the East Coast.

The point is not to blend in, but to appreciate where you’ve been and where you’re headed. And there is no greater measure to do so than with fashion.

It’s Friday night and I am getting ready to go out out after work. Somewhere fancier than where we usually go – remarkably fancier as it goes – and so inevitably, out come the heels. 

The only problem: It has been close to two years, with lockdowns and closures, since I last gave my heels an outing. Nonetheless, I want to dress up, for the first time in a long time; to feel good, to feel confident – and I must be honest, I do.

What is it about heels?

Heels have been long desired and recognised as a symbol of power, style and strength despite the medical warnings of long term use. They communicate authority and superiority. Those who choose to wear heeled footwear (of any kind) do so for the fashion, the look and the feeling it manifests; not to mention to make that ultimate impression. Studies have revealed the unnatural body shape transformation caused by the wearing of heels not only increases judgements of female attractiveness but also increases the woman’s selection of mates. The benefits definitely seem to outweigh the risks. Here however I ask, could the wearing of heels influence perceptions of intelligence? 

In other words, do women who wear heels embody a feeling of authority which in turn affects the self-perception of their intellect?

Let’s think about this

This conversation was sparked from an article published in 2013 by totalbeauty in which they discussed as a result of wearing heels, women were more likely to make more balanced economic decisions when shopping – could this be true?

The concept of balance seems here to be key. By focusing on the ability to stand tall and steady, could this really focus the mind and perhaps explain why more level-headed decisions are made when shopping?

Studies investigating links between the aesthetic of wearing heels and the science of intellect (or perception of) are few; yet research investigating the importance of fashion and Enclothed Cognition emphasise its ability to increase feelings of self-confidence – and high heels undoubtedly tie into this.

It is the blend of self-assurance combined with self-enhancement and poise from wearing such footwear that provides reason for why, when spending with a budget in mind, women may be more likely to hold true to that financial promise. Does this ring true with you?

Uh oh… and here comes Covid-19

Now however, let’s flip this conversation on its side. As the world felt the effects of the global pandemic in 2020, offices and public places closed and working from home became the norm, heels became redundant. They sat unworn and unneeded in our wardrobes for over a year.

Then, as we felt restrictions begin to lift, for many like myself on that fateful Friday night, the inevitable day came where it was the time to sport those heels once again. Fashion trends today reflect this in their mixing of smart and casual collections easing us back to normality. Flats are having their moment in the form of slippers, pumps, and sandals for the summer, worn with loose flowing dresses and flattering wide leg trousers.  Thus, still embracing the cosy and comfy, whilst moving away from our sweatshirts and leggings we saw the pandemic play out in for over a year – although we hate to admit it.

Therefore, if heels do increase feelings of intelligence, boost the wearer’s self-confidence and self-esteem, should we give up on them completely? Whilst it has been proven that heels boost us if the past year has taught us anything its that we can still be productive and dynamic even in our comfiest pyjamas and fluffiest slippers. While heels may provide confidence for women maybe we shouldn’t be reliant on them to display a perception of our intelligence.

Come on ladies, whilst we can embrace them as a fashion tool, true intelligence should not be measured by the height of your heels.

We all remember the famous study on how wearing a white coat impacts our perception of our identity as well as the profound influence on our performance of a particular task – hence proving the notion of “enclothed cognition”. The sum of the experiment states that when the subjects were told that the coat was a lab coat, they were able to perform their tasks better, with greater focus and clarity, while those who were told it was a simple painter’s coat had no positive improvement in their performance.

So, if such an isolated example of a single piece of wardrobe has a monumental effect on our behavior, self-perception and performance, to what extent does our choice of wardrobe affect our self-image on a more permanent level? It’s yet another chicken-and-egg conundrum that makes us wonder how much we choose to ascribe value to a garment, and how much that particular item symbolizes our own value.

 

The Power Pose Effect

When you are anxious before a presentation, try doing a power pose. According to Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist studying the power of body language, a simple change in posture can completely alter your self-perception, increase your confidence and turn around a situation to your advantage. In short, our nonverbal cues are a significant part of our self-creation.

The same could be said for our clothing, especially since it makes for a large part of our visual presentation to the world. We have a long-standing culture of what counts as a business-worthy outfit, what it means to wear fitted clothes and what is considered “unconventional” or “rebellious”. The moment we put on a pantsuit or a pair of red Converse shoes, we’re not just making a statement, but we are literally putting ourselves into a predefined role that comes with a predetermined set of behaviors. It’s only natural, then, that those five-inch heels literally elevate your look, and a pair of fitness leggings puts us in the workout mindset. 

 

The Qualities we Ascribe to Clothes

To elaborate a bit on the fact that our clothes already have personalities, let’s delve deeper into the matter of our everyday wears. Every color, fabric and shape have meaning, and when combined, they fit into a certain standard. Take, for instance, the little black dress. The color is associated with elegance, sophistication and power, the fabric of your choice will also invoke certain qualities, such as satin or silk that represent luxury and opulence.

Depending on the current fashion trends, we also give importance to the form of clothes, and so the oversized knitted pullover has become the go-to comfort piece, while maxi skirts with floral patterns epitomize the free-spirited boho movement. Naturally, when you put on a long, backless satin dress, you will feel like royalty, while based on professor Karen Pine’s research, a Superman T-shirt will instantly give you more confidence, and wearing a sweater during a maths test will help you get a higher score.

The Suitability Factor

And once again, society has developed a whole set of factors that play into the choice of your wardrobe and add to the intricate cycle of influence between our self and our style. Every culture, religion and the mindset of each society label a piece of clothing as appropriate or not for any given situation and environment. So, with the flow of evolution, our perception of clothes changes and what was once considered as upscale fashion is now outdated and ridiculous, while new styles emerge as the most desirable ones with which we wish to emulate beauty, success and savvy.

That is why brands adapt their creativity to respond to the needs and fluctuations of time and trends. So, one summer, it’s all about one-piece swimsuits, while by the time your next vacation comes, you’ll be wearing a bikini with vibrant colors that is designed to accentuate your curves. Of course, you won’t be wearing the satin dress to the beach, just like you won’t be wearing flipflops to the office, so when you hit a fashion jackpot with your style choices, your confidence and your self-esteem will flourish.

The Perpetual Creation of Self

The cultural and society-approved quality of our clothes is one, while our own personality is another part of this ever-changing equation. But there’s another curious element that will always give fluidity to the idea of using clothes as a means of self-expression, and that is, as the sociologist Georg Simmel would put it, the paradox of wanting to fit in and stand out at the same time.

This inner conflict is something we perpetually face when we open our wardrobes. We have the opportunity to wear a combination that screams uniqueness, but do we risk being judged and ostracized for our creativity, or do we put on the appropriate apparel for the occasion, thus blending in? In making a choice, we create ourselves every day, we conform, confront, and suppress our identity, either to be recognized as an integral part of our culture, or to be the labeled as the quirky lady who wears pajamas and Jimmy Choo boots to the office.