The clothes that we wear have a practical purpose. They keep us warm and comfortable at the very least.
Our clothes also become a part of our identity. Whether we like it or not, what we wear gives off signals that help people to form an impression of us.
There are many ways of seeing fashion. But is it a way to reduce the gap between your inner state and your outer appearance, an expression of your personality?
Is it a visual representation of your culture or social group? Or is your dress sense little more than an adherence to cultural norms? The truth is it might be a combination of all three!
Physical appearance is a kind of language, a subtle communication.
Clothing can’t tell people who you are deep down, but it is part of the slim profile of information that a person has about you on first meeting.
You are putting something out there, whether you are aware of it or not.
The question to ask yourself is whether you dressing for yourself or for others?
Most people want to think that their decision of what to wear is a personal choice, but is it free from outside influence, or are you putting out signals for the sake of other people, too? Probably both.
As a form of self-expression, fashion can make us feel empowered and more in touch with our inner self.
We can feel more confident if the clothes we are wearing and the way we present ourselves matches up with our personality, identify and mood.
These signals about the “self” are also sent to others, but there are elements of this expression that are more about belonging to a specific group or conforming to expectations within our culture and society.
More so than you might think.
Authors like Joanne Entwistle have explored the relationship between dress, individuality and society, and concluded that the emphasis on individuality often overshadows the fact that there are almost always implicit constraints in our environment.
There are norms for business and work, based on beliefs about how much skin should be covered or showing, as well as for events, including dress codes to follow in given situations.
Even when the constraints are blurry or less strict, social pressures still, to a greater or lesser extent, define the boundaries of what we feel comfortable wearing — for better or worse.
Fashion often represents a specific era, type of person or group of people. Take poker, a sub-culture with strong ties to fashion.
During its early years, the “old-school” players wore cowboy hats, demonstrating their connections to the Wild West days of poker’s roots.
Nowadays, many of the players wear casual hoodies, seeing as they are young online pros. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a red cowboy hat or a neon hoodie, both fall into a category that represents a specific point in space and time.
We could, as eager pioneers of self-expression, aim to break these boundaries down. We could be that brave soul that walks into work wearing our real colours.
But it’s more likely that we will break the mould only within an acceptable framework. We wear a striped tie to the office, but we still wear our suit.
We put on smart casual for a restaurant, but we change into something more suitable when we hit the clubs.
It could be that fashion as self-expression is a myth. Fashion and dress sense is nearly always influenced by external factors, the context is one of them.
We express ourselves within the confines of the context, and we make decisions that are influenced by our culture, on practicality, on what group we belong to (or don’t belong to) and on how we want to be perceived by others.
There are also economic and social constraints that define what a person can afford to wear or what they are willing to spend.
Ultimately, fashion and the way in which you dress plays an important role when it comes to self-identity and confidence, as well as in how other people perceive you. In one respect, it is an empowering form of self-expression.
But what we choose to wear may not entirely come down to an act of individual free will — it can be influenced by external factors and social norms.
It is fair to say that fashion is an expression within a constraint and a context and recognizing this allows us to understand more about the role that it plays.
It’s not all about individuality and the “self,” it also represents history, culture and a snapshot of a society in a specific time and place. The flair that we give it within its context is our self-expression.