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Fashion is a key resource through which individuals construct their identities and position themselves in relation to others. Discuss


Fashion and the study of fashion from the sociological and cultural perspective has come to acquire a lot of significance. What fashion means and in what way it is significant to the construction of identity has become an interesting area of study. This is so because fashion is increasingly used by the individual to make a point about how she perceives her identity or how she would like to be perceived by others. In that sense, fashion, in terms of clothes and other accessories, acquires a lot of significance from a socio-cultural perspective, because these are the means through which social and cultural messages are given by the individual to the others. As pointed out by Gill (1998):

“fashion is an ontological domain; in and through an interaction with fashion subjectivities are literally made and worldly relations established between clothes and bodies. In everyday speech…. we speak of the ‘body’ that is subject to the clothes that literally enclothe it with a significance” (Gill, 1998, p. 43).


This essay discusses the significance of fashion for individuals to construct their identities and positioning themselves in relation to others. The focus of this essay will be on female identity and fashion. The essay argues that notions about gender roles, gender appropriate fashion and behaviour, are powerful and women who challenge these notions are still considered to be radical in some ways.


Bennett (2005) contends that of all the commodities and leisure activities that are available to individuals in contemporary societies for the purpose of constructing and playing out their identities, fashion plays the central role (Bennett, 2005, p. 95). The facets of identities that can thus be confirmed or subverted to by use of fashion may include, gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. In other words, using fashion, or items related to fashion, such as accessories, clothes, handbags, a person may be sending out messages to others as to the construction of their own identity and the way in which an individual positions himself with relation to the others.

The utility of fashion in construction and relaying of identity is in the ready availability of fashion and also the fact that fashion allows the individual to make expressive visual statements, which are self-explanatory as far as the audience is concerned (Bennett, 2005, p. 96). Therefore, it is easier to construct identity and also communicate or express it to the others. The two key factors here are: availability and visual appeal. In this context, it has been said that in contemporary times, fashion provides the easiest method to convey self-identity to others (Entwistle, 2000). This is especially true in the modern cities, which are busy and impersonal spaces. Here people mingle with large impersonal crowds, where they have only fleeting moments to impress one another, because of which the highly visual nature of fashion can be the most useful resource for impressing the others with one’s personality (Entwistle, 2000, p. 112). Fashion’s appeal to crowds of strangers in contemporary cities is instantaneous, where fashion can be the means of conveying wealth, status, individuality, originality, power or success, among many other personal attributes (Bennett, 2005, p. 96).

Fashion emanates from specific sources. For instance, in the nineteenth century Western world, fashion emanated largely from one source, that is, Paris (Crane, 2012, p. 15). Paris and its designers were able to dictate to the rest of the industrialised world as to what the latest fashions were, and these were largely followed as well (Crane, 2012, p. 15). In the postmodern world, the sources of fashion are manifold and hence, the construction of identity with the help of fashion is a much more complicated exercise than is was earlier. Today, fashion may be dictated by Hollywood, media personalities and celebrities. However, for its larger sense, fashion is not always original, but it is inspired, followed. Therefore, fashion may depict cultural messages about identity, but it is not always an original identity that is being depicted. Rather, it is inspired by others and in that sense, the identity is malleable and superficial. With respect to women, fashion also helps to portray gender roles or the individual’s perception of the same. A classic statement of such gender roles is ‘who wears the pants in the home’, as signifying the person who is in control of a household. Therefore, if the women in the household are dominant, they will be said to be the ones ‘who wear the pants’. In this sense, irrespective of female power, the fashion statement refers back to the traditional notion that it is the men who wear the pants and who are the dominant partners. Therefore, in context of female identity, fashion can also play an important role in expressing social and cultural messages about gender relations and equality.

Fashion and Female Identity

Fashion can be a means for informing external gaze; and, fashion can also be the means for providing a source for personalised pleasure. This is stated by Bennett (2005) as follows:

“In addition to informing the external gaze in this way, however, fashion in late modernity also provides a source of highly personalised pleasure. Moreover, such pleasure comes not only from the visual aspects of fashion, but also from the cut and feel of the clothing itself, this contributing significantly to the individual’s phenomenological experience of the everyday” (Bennett, 2005, p. 97).

Therefore, fashion is invaluable for constructing and relaying identity as well as for providing a highly personalised pleasure to the individual. With respect to informing external gaze as to the cultural messages being sent through the use of fashion, it can be said that appearance of an individual and identity are closely related. Physical appearance, which includes attire and other fashion choices of the individual, sends strong messages to the audience as to the identity and the personality of the individual. Again, the important factor here is that of the appeal to the visual that is ingrained in physical appearance.

The notion of identity as it relates to fashion, is something that is constantly mutating; and can be said to be decentred and fragmentary. This has been explained by Negrin as follows:

“the aesthetic cult of the self has been increasingly conceived in individual terms, there has been a deindividualisation of the self. In place of the Enlightenment notion of the self as a unified entity with a fixed essence, it is now seen as something that is fragmentary, decentred and constantly mutating. Indicative of this is the increasing ease with which individuals adopt and discard various guises in the world of postmodern fashion, where no single style reigns supreme. Confronted with a melange of different styles derived from a diverse range of sources, individuals today are more likely to experiment with a range of different ‘looks’” (Negrin, 2008, pp. 9-10).

The use of fashion for constructing and communicating identity has meant that the nature of identity itself is not fixed but is rather malleable as contended above. The access to fashion allows individuals to change or shift their identity or guises more frequently and with great ease. This has been seen in case of some strong examples of female power in recent times, such as Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga has been one of the most visibly outrageous celebrities in recent times. She managed to achieve significant fan following and spotlight, in part due to her personality that has been carefully cultivated through the use of eye catching and

avant-garde fashion (Click, et al., 2013). Fashion has played an important role in how Lady Gaga constructed her identity and also expressed it. She herself has used fashion to tease, queer and question notions of beauty, femininity, and sexiness (Gray & Rutnam, 2014). These questions about femininity, gender roles, appropriate fashion for women, are relevant even today as despite post modernism, women continue to face these issues at home and workplace (Banks & Milestone, 2011). It is noteworthy that the new economy that the world is witnessing has offered women freedom from the earlier ‘feudal chains’ that bound them to fixed roles. The new cultural economy is creative and egalitarian, seen particularly in areas such new media, design and fashion. (Banks & Milestone, 2011). Lady Gaga’s example is pertinent because she has taken advantage of this new cultural freedom to expose or question the traditional values and ideas about women, femininity and gender roles. She has done this through fashion.

An example of the above can be girls who dress up sexy and those who dress up as tomboys (Dobson, 2014). Both of these images are considered to be excessive and women who subscribe to either of these images, in their fashion sense, are often labelled negatively in the larger social discourse (Dobson, 2014). Women who dress up too sexily are criticized for pandering to the typical male tendency by objectifying themselves as objects of physical desire. On the other hand, women who shun such fashion for the gender neutral dress, are criticized for acting like boys. The real freedom for either of the two categories of women, one who loves to dress up sexy and the other who loves to dress up without emphasizing their femininity, is actually missing. So women are not really free to exercise their individual choices in how they construct their identity, without there being social repercussions, if the expression of identity is seen to be extreme. A young celebrity who has in recent times tried to expose the social double standards with respect to women, is Emma Watson. Recently when she was criticized for not being feminist enough because of a revealing photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine, she responded that feminism was about giving women a choice and not about being a stick with which women can be beat with (The Guardian, 2017). In terms of fashion, this can be construed to mean that women are free to dress sexily or conservatively, gender neutrally, if they so wished.


Fashion is a powerful medium for expression of self- identity to the world. The utility of fashion to do so comes from the fact that it is easily accessible and visually immediate. In terms of feminism, fashion has allowed women to send put strong messages to the world about their own constructions of femininity. However, such ideas are still considered radical as the labelling of women into feminist or sexist, etc., is related to the way in which women dress. The fact that female celebrities, such as Lady Gaga and Emma Watson, continue to use fashion as strong statements of their own constructions of femininity and feminism, also proves that the traditional notions of these concepts exude great influence, that need to be challenged.


  • Banks, M. & Milestone, K., 2011. Individualization, gender and cultural work. Gender, Work & Organization, 18(1), pp. 73-89.
  • Bennett, A., 2005. Culture and everyday life. London: Sage.
  • Click, M., Lee, H. & Holladay, H., 2013. Making monsters: Lady Gaga, fan identification, and social media. Popular Music and Society, 36(3), pp. 360-379.
  • Crane, D., 2012. Fashion and its social agendas: Class, gender, and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Dobson, A., 2014. “Sexy” and “Laddish” girls: Unpacking complicity between two cultural imag (inations) es of young femininity. Feminist Media Studies, 14(2), pp. 253-269.
  • Entwistle, J., 2000. Fashion and the fleshy body: Dress as embodied practice. Fashion Theory, 4(3), pp. 323-347.
  • Gill, A., 1998. Deconstruction fashion: The making of unfinished, decomposing and re-assembled clothes. Fashion Theory, 2(1), pp. 25-49.
  • Gray, S. & Rutnam, A., 2014. Her Own Real Thing: Lady Gaga and the Haus of Fashion. In: M. Iddon & M. L. Marshall, eds. Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture. New York : Routledge, p. 44–66.
  • Hobson, J., 2017. Celebrity Feminism: More than a Gateway. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(4), pp. 999-1007.
  • Negrin, L., 2008. Appearance and identity. In: L. Negrin, ed. Appearance and Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan , pp. 9-32.
  • The Guardian, 2017. Emma Watson on Vanity Fair cover: 'Feminism is about giving women choice'. [Online]
  • https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/05/emma-watson-vanity-fair-cover-feminism [Accessed 5 June 2017].

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