News - Musings

The Myth of Clothing as Self-Expression

This article was originally published at The-Rosenrot.com on September 8.


When I was younger I used to think that displaying one’s tastes externally was cool, despite knowing that deep down inside I risked being uncool by wanting to be cool. However the compulsion was strong. I wore my Tool shirt with much pride, paired with the skinniest of jeans and the most hardcore of Harley Davidson boots. Ideally they should destroy someone’s naked toes if I step on them. While my outlook remained the same, my interest gradually switched to fashion. I made sure people know of my hobby, which in itself is probably not a bad thing because every human craves for validation. But I was also secretly judging people for being unadventurous with their clothing choices. Instead of letting people be who they want to be, or wear whatever pleases them, I’d instinctively be tut-tutting their choice of clothing silently (she’s wearing t-shirt and shorts with her birkin?!). I was an awful, despicable snob.

I was reminded of my old self because recently someone I spoke to complained of a girl who chided his preference for J. Crew. Her exact word was ‘GROSS’, before going off on a rant about how clothing is a way to express one’s personality. To choose nondescript clothing labels to wear was a sign of a lack of it.

Her words echo this popular notion that fashion is a form a self-expression, that it is a genuine way of showcasing our inner self. I say it’s utter nonsense.

Dress is an important dimension in the articulation of personal identity, but not in the sense of voluntarism, whereby one’s choice of dress is freely-willed, expressive and creative. On the contrary, this ‘personal identity’ is managed through dress in rather boring ways because societal pressures encourage us to stay within the bounds of what is defined as a ‘normal’ body and ‘appropriate’ dress. Too much attention has been given to self-expression and individuality, while ignoring the implicit constraints that we face every day (Enwistle, 2001, available here and here). In fact, we often make sartorial decisions based on practicality, whom to impress, whom not to offend, which fashion tribe to align to, what our heroes are wearing, and how we want the world to perceive us. There’s also budgetary, class and social constraints that we have to adhere to. If fashion was truly a form of carefree self-expression, many of us would choose to be naked, and men would not feel insecure about their fragile masculinity when confronted with feminine clothing. The external pressure to dress a certain way is most evident in the realm of fashion blogging and street style, whereby the need to be recognized or conform to certain aesthetics (Southern prep anyone? Or the cool kids of Vêtements?) often trumps other hidden desires. Even yours truly still falls prey to that. I know I love the clothes that I wear, but I’m also aware of the external influences of the zeitgeist, which is why my favorite shoes currently are my Rafdidas.

There are several reasons for one to feel the need to express their identity and these mainly revolve around issues of social status, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, religious condition, recreation and individualism. With the creative use of fashion, individuals are able to either confirm or subvert several of these facets about their identities, consequently transmitting culturally coded, visual messages about themselves. This personal identity that is often tied into fashion is a created self that has to be crafted through social interactions. While one can argue that we internalise these influences to make them a part of our existence, there are still plenty of other external forces that play a strong role in our decision-making processes, as mentioned above.

So why then are we so hung up on the idea that fashion is an authentic form of self-expression and personal identity? It’s a romantic idea that is as clichéd and unhealthy as the line ‘You complete me.’. Do we really believe that Justin Beiber is a big fan of Metallica when he wore their t-shirts? Should we care? Why do many of the most creative people in the world choose to wear black t-shirts all the time?

At the end of the day, we have to stop swallowing this myth because it turns us into judgmental creatures. It shouldn’t matter whether a person dresses normal, lavish, outrageous, subtle, boring, so long as they’re appropriate within the context of the situation (again, bowing down to external forces). We do our darndest to not judge a book by its cover, and we should do the same for fellow human beings.

the myth of clothing as self-expressionthe myth of clothing as self-expression

the myth of clothing as self-expression

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  1. If you pass by public schools, you see all the kids looking like Justin Bieber and the other yokels in music videos, and there is no way all those feel they are so similar to each other.

    This article nails it in saying that clothing is more about status and intention than expression.