Monday, 7 June 2010

On Clothes and Identity

Aneri of Cat's Meow writes a lot about minimalism and the meaninglessness of "stuff", and her recent post on why we buy is as thought-provoking as anything I have read on the topic of shopping. She argues that "[w]e think we have to express our personality through our purchases. We buy bohemian, intellectual, smart, sexy, adventurous, sporty, and so on. If you think about how many aspects there are to each individual personality, it naturally follows that we will have closets bursting with clothes and book shelves ready to topple over under the weight."

Aneri's words echoed in my head as I read The NYT Book Review yesterday. It acquainted me with two new books about shopping. One, The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, The Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter by Linda Grant links shopping and clothes with identity, and the other, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict by Avis Cardella looks at the ugly side of the same issue and how compulsive shopping can become a hindrance to one's identity and self.

One of the statements you hear any fashion-and-clothing-enthusiast say is that clothes are a way of expressing one's identity. When we wear clothes, we are showing the outside world (and ourselves, in case we have forgotten) who we are. Our identity shapes the way we shop and vice versa. We use clothes to play with our identities. Wearing a black biker leather jacket oozes effortless "cool". Pastel shades and sweet florals let us entertain the romantic, the whimsy in us. Pair a safari jacket with some animal prints in the summertime, and you can almost feel the heat of the savanna, far away from home. Wear a red beret while riding your bike, and your fascination with French cinema becomes common knowledge. There are no limits to who we can be with the help of clothing. After reading the review of these two books though, I couldn't help wondering if we tell these things to ourselves just to justify our spending, or to escape the boredom that is ourselves. I wonder whether we babble on about identity because we are ashamed to say that we just like clothes.

I haven't read Linda Grant's book, but the NYT review gives some interesting tasters: she says that "[w]hen you start to dress yourself, you are beginning a lifelong journey into your own future, the subtle, everyday construction of who you are through what you wear." I can see the logic, I have used it myself to make sense of my (previously notorious) shopping habits. It made sense to talk about identity and clothes because to some extent that is how I felt: I used to wear things to portray an image. I escaped my sometimes monotonous existence with the help of clothes, just like I still do with books and movies. It is not all bad, because reality can be overwhelming at times, and there is nothing wrong with entertaining oneself. But when we construct an ideology that makes it necessary for us to live in a world where clothes matter as much as (or even more than) our inner selves do, we might be running into trouble. If our identities are up for grabs on the basis of what we choose to wear, then who are we, really?

If our lives revolve around experimenting with our identities with the help of clothes, how do we keep track of what makes us "us"? Life, then, becomes a role play of sorts, as Avis Cardella's experiences suggest: "How can a woman with a closet so full feel so empty inside?" Our whole existence can turn into the-chicken-or-the-egg type of debate: which comes first, our identity, or our clothes that shape and conrol it? If we use clothes to discover new identities, our "various selves", what does that say about us and our inner worlds? To me, it says a whole lotta nothing. The more I think about the concept of linking identity with the clothes I wear, the more I dislike the connection. I am not interested in "developing my identity through my clothes", because to be honest, there is no reason why a couple of pieces of fabric would have the power to say anything about me to myself. The outside world can interpret what I wear in any way they like, but you know what, I just like clothes, and that's why I wear them. I think my clothes are pretty, and I don't need this nonsense about identity to justify what I like.

What do you guys think? Is it helpful or harmful to link our identities with the clothes we wear? Do our clothes tell the outside world anything about who we really are?

Blouse: second hand / Salvation Army
Skirt: Gina Tricot
Socks: GoldToe
Shoes: Steve Madden
Larimar-pendant: JBL


Sal said...

This is just the kick I needed to pick up the copy of "Thoughtful Dresser" that's been languishing unread on my shelf.

I think that, like anything, utilizing style to express identity is absolutely fine ... in moderation. That’s where things get dicey. In an ideal world, dressing would be merely one of many expressions of self. Problems arise only when shopping, clothing, and conspicuous consumption become our only defining traits.

jesse.anne.o said...

I think there's got to be a happy medium since we do judge folks by appearances, even when we try not to (and many folks *don't* try not to). I don't think clothing cultivates identity but I feel like most people are aware of how they're visually presenting - both with clothing and how they're perceived with attributes they cannot change - and how they're judged by others with regards to those things (for better or worse).

I agree that using it as an excuse to shop more and validate that is pretty shaky ground. But I do remember when I used to dress like a boy (to get ladies) and how much I missed dresses and not having to gender-present the way I felt I did to maintain the identity I had. It actually was really nice to just grow my hair in and wear dresses again because I felt like it, despite the hearty guffaws I got from my queer friends (they got over it). While I felt better about myself all girlied-up, there was a max-out level with that...I couldn't just keep buying more clothes to be happiER. I just had to realize that dressing in a way that pleased me and was true to what I liked and felt was "me" was enough.

But that was knowing the difference between my personal identity (which at the time was more about binary gender) being fulfilled and trying to fill a hole with buying new stuff all the time to "reinforce" who I am.

I'm not sure that's exactly how you meant it but that's what popped into my head.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Not an easy one, this question of yours. I don't know if the clothes we wear (or the clothes we wear because someone wants us to buy them...)tell the outside world that much..Not always anyway.
On the other hand, they can really do so- if we want them to.

We can show ourselves as being "hip", "trendy" or that we have read style guides of how to dress your own body type.

Or we can wear army boots and dye our hair pink, wear a pin with a peace sign in it. Or we can walk around in a Beatles t-shirt just for the sake of loving good music.

We can wear an orange piece of clothing, shave our heads like munks in Tibet- show that we are trying to find our own spiritual path.

But what I think is common for all our choices, is that they are all based on "belonging" rather than standing out. We want to think that we are unique, special individuals, but deep down we want to be a part of a group that shares our beliefs and intrests.

And I think that it can be profoundly personal and bring joy to our lives, or it can leave us wondering this question: "I have everything I ever wanted, why do I still feel empty inside?"

Clothes can be political, they can be religious, cultural, neutral, provoking, or anything in between.
And it has always been that way. Our western culture, the culture of "always wanting more" is based on this illusion of self expression and strong identity, through shopping yourself "a new better me" every other day. Even though we just copy, like crazy.

Through history people have always expressed themselves by clothes and other decorations, we have painted our faces, in every part of the world. And by wearing a certain clothing or painting our face with ornaments we show and we share, and belong.

I think it can be either helpful or harmfull to link our clothes to our identities. It has everything to do with the idea behind our choices. We should wear somethig beautiful when we celebrate important events in our lifes, we should have clothes that comfort in a time of grief, clothes that tie us to our culture, world and to other people.

We should try to forget this "shop this, then you'll be happier" ideology, and embrace the thought of celebrating life from inside out. Then our clothes can tell something of who we really are.


Teenysparkles said...

Goodness, the more I was reading about identity being tied up in clothes, the more frustrated I was becoming. I very much agree with your last comments. Identity is personal; whatever the external world wants to believe about a person judging solely on that person's outfit is likely to be a completely different idea than what the wearer intended. Therefore the concept of "identity" through clothing is misguided. How we behave and interact with others and our environment would give a more accurate judgement than clothing. Never judge a book by it's cover. I wear my clothes because I enjoy how the colours, textures and shapes make me feel.

Eyeliah said...

I think it definitely does, if not who we are definitely what we want to project.

Ru said...

Well - I think it depends how you mean "identity," first of all.

Before I get into that, though - in today's world all these clothing personas tend to be performed by women and not so much men, and I have commented on blogs in the past that one could read this as if our culture is set up so that men feel entitled to a harem, and thus a woman who partners with a man is under pressure to provide him with virtual variety -- to "roleplay" to a certain extent, so he can exercise his birthright to sexual tourism.

I'm not saying that's what we're all doing but I do think it could be part of the subtext of this concept of the "many" personalities or moods that women are typically assigned.

That said...there is a difference between dressing up in a costumey way or in a way that stereotypically radiates one of the qualities listed by Aneri. I know that I don't do that. I *do* express myself in dress, but it's not to give myself a particular air (such as "intellectual" or something like that). Some people DO though. What *I* do is simply choose things I like, and do not follow a formula given by some fashion authority, nor any style that could be classified in the usual manner ("Classic" or "Bohemian" are examples). We can simply choose what we like, mix them the way we like, accessorize the way we like. Self-expression can be simply that - SELF-expression. Once you start looking to a certain publically agreed-upon uniform or style, you are no longer quite expressing your SELF but are taking direction.

Not that there's anything WRONG with that...but for me, "image" isn't important. Having fun with my clothes is. :)

a cat of impossible colour said...

I don't actually feel like my identity is overly tied up in my clothing, although I do love the things I wear. To me, playing with clothing and outfits is a natural progression from the games I used to play with Barbies and Lego when I was little - it's putting colourful things together to make something pretty and fun, being creative for the sake of it. And I don't really see anything wrong with that. It's my hobby and I enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

A wise man once said that our identity does not simply exist; it is constantly shaped. But, what's more, it is shaped not by us but by other people surrounding us; it is other people who make us who we are.
And now back from clouds to clothes: this whole concept of revealing our true identity by means of clothing always seemed a tad suspicious to me. Because most of the time we dress according to social occasions- work, Sunday trips, gardening. And if you take into account how much time we do spend dressed in a way we *have to* be dressed then you start to get the idea how little room there is left for our personality.
I'd rather stuck to much simpler concepts, such as clothes being the emanation of our concept of usefulness and prettiness.
Because, pace all the books about fashion, I think there's too much philosophy going into covering our nudity.
Then again, a great and thought-provoking text.
Cheers to you,

tigerteacher said...

I have no definitive response to your question about identity and its presentation through clothing...but I do LOVE clothing and I really enjoy putting new outfits together each morning (well...depending on my train schedule!) but maybe just that enjoyment itself is really all that's communicated. Also, I have to say, I'm wearing a leopard printed dress today and just tried on a safari jacket to wear over it! I ended up thinking that I looked like all I needed was a pith helmet to look truly like I was in costume - I went with a denim jacket and adorable gold flats instead. :-)

storiteller said...

I think in many ways, it's important to figure out you who are, and then find ways to reflect that in your closet. Very recently, I got fed up with the fact that my work wardrobe simply didn't match my personality. I'm smart and weird and risk-taking and my wardrobe was dull, boring, and very ordinary. Most of the clothes weren't flattering and I would look in the mirror and say, "That's not the person who is in here!" As a communications person, I realized the visual message I was sending people about myself didn't match the message I wanted to send. So I've really been making an effort to only buy clothes that I love and somehow reflects who I am. It certainly takes more time than being content with clothes that I was unhappy with, but I'm a lot happier when I look in the mirror. Plus, because I've found some second-hand shops, I have a lot less of the guilt than I used on the rare occasion I went shopping at the mall. So I can testify that having a wardrobe that doesn't reflect who you are can have a negative psychological effect. Again, you don't want to go over the top, but it can definitely help.

Anonymous said...

I like your point about any one personality having so many facets that dressing to express one's inner self becomes complicated. I think that it is much more about dressing to convey which tribe you belong to. Teenagers admit this freely -- my fifteen year old wants to dress just like her friends and refuses to wear anything too emo or preppy -- but I don't think that grown women like to admit this.

La Historiadora de Moda said...

This is a very thought-provoking post. I think it's important to remember that we are being bombarded by media that tell us to shop our way to whatever product will bring us 30 seconds of blissful escape: Ipads, Dove body wash, ModCloth dresses, all of it. And the whole goal is to convince consumers that they can become x by having y. This extends far beyond clothing.

I also agree with jesse.anne.o that almost all of us judge to some extent based on appearance. Even if we later form deeper understandings of a person, often -- even if we try to train ourselves not to do so -- we cannot help but make some basic assumptions about someone based on their clothing choices, the jewelry they wear or lack, thereof, etc. Whether we want to admit it or not, for many, clothes are a marker of class, gender politics, body awareness, and potentially religious and ethnic markers.

wardrobeexperience said...

this skirt os so gorgeous....

i like 'anonymous sis.' comment very much...

Charlotte said...

I think it's unavoidable that the clothes you wear end up saying something about you--perhaps it's an inaccurate sentence, or perhaps it's spot-on. "An expression of identity" comes through the way you dress, talk, carry yourself, behave, think, work, and play. A well-educated person can give a mistaken impression of herself by using poor grammar, but her decision to use poor grammar while knowing better is the real key to understanding her--not the poor grammar itself. The same, I think, with clothes.
One has only to see the wave of tan trenchcoats coming out of the stock exchange, the wave of blue jeans coming out of a college classroom, or the wave of black clothes at a writers' conference, to be hit full in the face with the groupthink of some forms of identity dressing.
Why this kind of identity dressing should be thought acceptable, while dressing in a distinctive manner makes one either pretentious or guilty of trying to shape her or his identity through clothes, is worth considering.
There's a big difference between shopping to fill a void in your emotional life and dressing to capture your identity, rather than just wearing "ordinary" clothes--which in themselves convey an identity.
I'm pleased when friends and family point to a garment in a store or catalog and tell me, "This looks like something you'd wear." It doesn't mean that I'm going to immediately spend a bundle on it, or even buy it--or that it confirms for me that I'm not a cipher. It just means that the clothes I choose to wear are distinctive enough that they create an impression of personal style. The fact that they all come from the thrift shop might also be taken into account--if someone sees me in Eileen Fisher, he or she might think that I'm in the "upscale casual" bracket. But if I paid $3 for the skirt and $2 for the blouse, does that still mean I'm identified as "upscale casual"? Or am I just thrifty? And the thrifty person who pays $5 for a tee-shirt at Wal-mart and $15 for a pair of jeans? She's outspent me by $ the impression formed by wearing inexpensive looking clothes might be that A)she hasn't much money; B)she doesn't care about her clothes no matter how much money she has; C)she's dressing to fit in with a particular social group; or D)she's filthy rich but tight as a tick and will only wear brand-new clothes.
All are emblems of identity.