Dress and Identity

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Through my images I want to prove that gender is fluid with the capacity to be reduced to mere artificial or “performative” parts: a gesture, a hairstyle, a wink or a dab of lipstick. To do this I quickly realised that clothing and styling would be of paramount importance in reflecting this notion. Having done much research into the realm of gender and identity from a sociological viewpoint it was now time to move into a purely visual realm. I wanted to learn the visual aesthetics, items and styles we consider to be masculine, feminine, gay and androgynous. Why are skirts seen as feminine? Why are beards seen as masculine? And so on. To begin I wanted to learn more about the relationship fashion has with gender and identity. Butler suggested that gender is “performative” a social construct and I’ve come to believe that fashion is very much the same. Fashion and dress can be used as tools to reflect gender and identity but what’s more blur. The latter being the most enticing and relevant to my work. But first let me begin with a brief analysis on dress and identity.

Dress is a distinct characteristic to the human species. Turner states in “The Body and Society”, “There is an obvious and prominent fact about human bodies, they have bodies and they are bodies”. In other words, the body constitutes the environment of the self, to be inseparable from the self. However, what Turner also omits in his analysis is that the human body is a dressed body. And he’s not wrong! Dress is a basic fact of social life and all people “dress” their body in some way. In fact, we humans devote copious amounts of time and resources in preparing our bodies for presentation to ourselves and others. Preparations include both direct modifications to our bodies such as tattoos or surgery and additions added onto our bodies such as clothing. Even when the human body is naked it is likely to be adorned, by jewellery perhaps, or indeed even perfume: when asked about what she wore to bed Marilyn Monroe simply stated “Chanel No. 5”, illustrating beautifully how the body even without garments can still be “dressed” . But all these modifications are not simply to make us look and feel good they have an endless number of functions like indicating age, social status, gender and occupation, all of which build an image of our identity and sense of self.

However, dress cannot sufficiently reflect every part of an individuals’ identity. Think of a New York transvestite performing on stage? We don’t exactly think homosexual married man with two children waiting at home do we? But many transvestites are married and completely well “normal”. And here marks the beginning of the on-going “it’s complicated” relationship between dress and identity. And let me tell you it is complex! Dress serves as one of the most visible forms of consumption and performs a major role in the social construction of identity. But dress can be misleading. On the one hand, clothes we decide to wear can express identity, telling outsiders something about our gender, class, status and so on. But on the other hand, clothes cannot always be “read” as they do not straightforwardly “speak” and can therefore be open to misinterpretation. Thus a tension between clothes as revealing and clothes as concealing identity ensues. The reason dress is problematic in relation to identity is because identity itself is not straightforward and neither is human perception.

A person’s identity has many layers and can change depending on the social situation, which brings me to an important point. Identity is a social construction so is therefore open to change and transformation. From the perspective of symbolic interaction theory, individuals acquire identity through social interaction in various social, physical and biological settings. So conceptualized, identities are communicated by dress as it announces social positions of wearer to both wearer and observers within a particular social interaction situation. We define self as a composite… As dress cannot be straightforwardly “read” this proves that the link between sex, gender and sexuality: key components to any identity, do not link. A key point to bear in mind and one I will explore in more detail later.

Overall, fashion cannot readily reflect identity, something I can use to my advantage. By expressing the stereotypical styles and items and mixing those with discursive means will reinforce that identities are changing: there are no longer straight down the line males and females. Everything is now (or should become) a blur. Now I understand the complexity of fashion and identity it was time to understand how fashion reflects or blurs gender. As I will be photographing individuals which gender bend to a serious degree it was important to understand what is considered masculine and feminine and how these are reinforced by certain fashions, colours and styles.

To read more on identity, categorisation and perception please refer to my previous research by the following the links provided: Intro and Categorisation, Concepts, Categories and Perception.

References:

Turner, B (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Sage Publications Ltd.

Roach-Higgins, M and Eicher, J and Johnson, K (1995) Dress and Identity. New York: Fairchild Publications.

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