Fashion - Cultural and Historical Studies

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In the today's world, everything is changing at an exponential rate. It has brought about competition in every aspect of life ranging from gender to identity politics. The fierce competition has given its rise to pressure for individuals to find their identity and voice in the society. When people talk about style, they incline to generalize the term to refer to clothing. However, fashion goes way beyond that. Kratz and Reimer (1998) define it as a cultural phenomenon. because the reason is that it is concerned with symbols and meanings, which make it an instant method of direct visual communication. Fashion allows us to make a statement about ourselves and our identity with the use of accessories, clothes, and other physical items. It enables us visibly communicate our identities, which we would want to be, the type of social groups that we belong to and who we associate ourselves with. Kratz and Reimer observe that style also includes accessories, make-up, and hairstyles. It can include items that do not have anything to do with clothes. Likewise, clothing can serve other things apart from fashion, for instance, protection.

Many assumptions can be drawn about a person through a mere observation of her or his dressing. You can draw a logical assumption about somebody's place of origin, the kind of job done or the economic class they belong to just by looking at the dress code. Fashion allows people from different backgrounds to show their cultures. For instance, when one moves to a new country, it acts as a way of preserving and maintaining the cultural identity. Therefore, as Roche (2000) has concluded, fashion is about identity; and it is the most communicative social fact.

 

Bennet (2005) defines identity as a mode of social representation that arbitrates the relationship between a person and the social world. The reasons that make individuals want to express their personalities revolve around gender, social status, economic class, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, race, and individualism. With the use of creative fashion, persons can confirm or unsettle certain various aspects of their identities. They transmit visually and culturally coded messages about themselves. According to Bennet (2005), a fashioned body illustrates the one's character, taste, educational achievement, economic status, sexual preference, and so on. Simmel and Veblen, who were sociologists, looked at fashion as a way of expressing economic class and social status. Their work proposes that style has to do with the issues of power and status; and it is a visual impression of wealth. Bennet (2005) also makes a similar suggestion saying that people use items of fashion to signify their membership to certain social groups and distance themselves from the individuals who hold a lower class. Thorstein Veblen has described in his conspicuous consumption theory that when individuals consume fashionable goods, they show awareness on the current trends and demonstrate good taste and wealth. This way, they form a bond with people of the same social status while distancing themselves from the persons who cannot pay for the same.

The most emphasized characteristics when searching for fashion and identity are sex and gender. It is crucial to note that these two issues have a different meaning just like clothing and fashion. Gender is constructed culturally while sex is biological. Women's fashion changes more from season to season as compared to men's. Moreover, males culturally build as the active sex users and the producers in the society. Women, on the other hand, are seen as the passive sex partners and the fashionable consumers. Therefore, men's fashion has to accentuate more on practicality and function rather than aesthetic value. It facilitates them to fulfil their culturally constructed duties as providers. Women's style, on the other hand, does embraces a little bit of function and practicality but places more emphasis on the design and aesthetic appeal of the product. Barnard (1996) has observed that fashion and clothing are important for gender and sexual roles.

Style helps in carving the male and female images and determines what is socially acceptable or not. When men took an interest in fashion, it was considered to be unnatural and unmanly. Meanwhile women sporting men's clothes were considered as power dressing. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, when the rock bands such as Roxy music and performers such as Boy George and David Bowie emerged, some of the conventional norms were broken. Men wore different indicators of femininity, for example, makeup, nail varnish, and skirts. Naturally, the initial judgment that a person can draw about another one from their attire concerns their sex and gender.

Individuals also use fashion to make statements on their nationality, race or ethnicity. Human beings are normally attracted to those people who are like them and share a common background or history. Barker (2012) has observed that the global ethnos cape which refers to the quick movement of individuals from one region of the world to another gave its rise to the world style and the need for persons to show their origin in foreign environments. Therefore, they can communicate with other ones who share the same origin. Ethnic dresses are worn by some members of a particular group to help in distinguishing themselves from outfits, traditional items, and body modifications. Most cultures, religions, and countries have a different outlook of gender images. In many cases, the national dress of a state is usually the gowning of the specific ethnic group in a multicultural surrounding, which contains the largest community of individuals. For instance, the sari is dressed in India. Muslim women strongly represent their religious identity by wearing the bukha which is their religious clothing. It also acts as a national dress for the Muslim females in theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia.

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Youth Subcultures

The youth have been presented as playful consumers of style, fashion, and different leisure activities. A subculture can be defined as a whole way of life. Subcultures enjoy a difference or distinction from the larger culture or society. They have often been looked at the areas of deviant cultures. Therefore, with subcultures, the question of resistance comes to play (Barker 2012). According to Brake (1995), they arise as an attempt to solve a collectively experienced problem arising from contradictions in social culture. They establish a kind of a collective identity. However, the adaptation to world fashion and the expression of identity by the youth often clashes with ethnic and national dress norms. For instance, an article in The Daily Mail brought to light the stoning of 90 school girls in Iraq for wearing tight clothes and strange hair. However, the internal ministry condemned such activities and ordered the eradication of such subcultures. It is an example of the cultural norms that surround the male and female images in different societies.

Punk Subculture

The punk subculture pivots around punk rock music and includes a wide range of ideologies, fashion, visual art, literature, dance, and film. It is characterized by some views against established authority and the support of individual freedom. The subculture centres on punk rock, which is a genre of rock music being loud and aggressive. Barker (2012) has argued that punk did not simply respond to the British crisis manifested in joblessness, as well as a change in moral standards and poverty; though it dramatized it. Punk style was an expression of frustration and anger. It became symptomatic of an array of contemporary problems. Barker describes the subculture as self-aware. It combined epochs, which had previously belonged to different periods. It had a cluster of distorted reflections of all the post-war subcultures. This style was a combination of chaos and noise at every level. It was a revolting trend which had created a group of abnormal and perverse. The subculture was characterized by printed faces, dyed hair, safety pins, graffiti shirts, bin liners, and the iconizing of sexual fetishes using fishnet stockings and bondage gear. Through offensive language, anarchic graphics disordered dancing and desecrating lyrics, punk did not only undermine the wardrobe but every relevant discourse (Barker 2012).

In the 1950s, the British government enforced some social and political reforms that increased the people's disposable income and made them more optimistic about their future. The youth spent their disposable money on being gregarious. Therefore, the fashion business took advantage of this. However, the good economic times did not go on for long; and the result was a generation gap that was keeping broadening. The youth who were not aware of the pre-war country were now identified with these changing times. Since the young people did not all share similar ideologies, cultures, and styles, it gave its rise to the emergence of subcultures such as Punks, Teddy Boys, and Mods. They could be identified by their dressing and social behaviour. As Brake points out, sub cultures come up because of commonly shared problems arising from contradicting political and social cultures. Punk is identified as one of the most significant trends when assessing fashion and identity.

Using their anti-fashion way of dressing, Punks showed the effects the changing social and political cultures had on them. They took items from their everyday life and absorbed them into dressing to form a bricolage which communicated something. Barker (2012) has observed that their cultural responses and creativity were not just random, but they expressed the set of social contradictions and the situation at the time. They communicated the changing moral standards, poverty, and sheer joblessness. Moreover, Punks dramatized it using sexual fetishism, chains, dyed hair, and so on. They adapted these items and the anti-fashion ideology which clearly demonstrated their anger and frustration. More radical rituals of body modification such as piercing and tattooing were also common with Punk and Goth subcultural groups. Body modification generated an even more impactful statement about their identity because of the permanent nature of fashion (Bennet 2005).

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Punks used their bodies to express opposition to the things that were considered normal. The idea was to make non-members of the subculture question their ideologies. They had played with gender identity. Therefore, sometimes men looked like women and vice versa. They tore the usual view of gender as a dichotomy. They practiced cross-dressing with males wearing fishnet tights, ripped skirt,s and a lot of make-up. Women would have shaved heads and wear combat boots, oversized shirts and jean jackets. Punks had set the pace for androgyny and other forms of gender expression. Some scholars have observed that Punks did not embrace the popular ideas of femininity. It has been attributed to the concept that femininity is mainly equated with the beauty which Punks had rejected. Punk men allowed their women to create a farcical masculinity using their bodies. Everything that was supposed to be private regarding clothing was also worn in public. For instance, women would put on their bras or underwear on top of other clothing; and sometimes they sexualized themselves by wearing only their bra and underwear. Punks were also known to showcase their visual art which mainly depicted economic disparity and social injustices. However, some of their artwork had been also used to provoke contempt from its viewers.

Conclusion

This essay interprets the meaning of identity and fashion and how one can adapt them to successfully communicate different facets of their identity, for instance, sex, gender, nationality, as well as social and economic class or the affiliation to a particular subculture. Identity construction is a process by which we communicate to the world our personality, the social groups that we are affiliated with or wish to belong to and those that we don't associate ourselves with. Even with the season's fashion being controlled by London, New York, and Paris individuals are now increasingly aware of alternative trends that they can best use to express themselves. Style can be viewed as a form of cultural production because people attribute fashion items to meanings and symbols. It leads to a constant construction and creation of the identities that exist such as the male and female identities. Moreover, humans are all unique in their way. They feel the need to express their uniqueness and thereby have a sense of belonging. Fashion can be classified as one of the biggest factors aiding the process of identity construction. It can be seen as a way of celebrating every person's individualism. Therefore, abiding with Bennet's (2005) statement, fashion provides one among the readiest means through which individuals can visually express their personalities.

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