Fashion and clothing styles define identity of a person in a society characterized by diversity. Fashions are very diverse and unique in that they can satisfy virtually all human needs in the world in terms of social, religious, and cultural demands of identity.
Compared with ancient society, modern society is experiencing tremendous change in fashions due to the increasing social, religious, and cultural identities due civilization and technology advancement.
During ancient times, fashions were only limited to cultural and religious identity, but currently there are emergences of social identities within cultural set up that define unique groups of people like celebrities, youth, and the old.
In sociological perspective “…we know that through clothing people communicate some things about their persons, and at the collective level this results into typically in locating them symbolically in some structured universe of status claims and lifestyle attachment” (Davis 1992, p.4).
Thus, clothing and fashions are critical in identification and classification of people in the society that is so diverse in terms of social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects.
This essay critically analyses how fashion and clothing have contributed to the determination and definition of people’s identity in terms of culture, social class, religion, and gender since the late 19th century.
Fashion and Clothing
Fashion and clothing are very critical in reflecting identity of people in a diverse society in terms of culture, social orientation, religion, gender, and class. The identity of society has been changing tremendously due to the evolution of fashions and clothing coupled with different aspects of civilization and technology.
Civilization has led to the integration and amalgamation of varied cultures, social lifestyles, and religious values resulting into emergence of fashions and new clothing in modern society (Keenan 2001, p.201). Moreover, the advancement in technology has greatly contributed to increased variety of fashion designs that satisfy unlimited identities of different people across the world.
Hence, civilization and technology are two major factors that influence trends in fashion and clothing, creating complex and diverse identities in the society. Carter argues that, “the chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the unconscious symbolisms attaching to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given culture” (2003, p.153).
It is very difficult to attribute varied elements of fashion and clothing to specific identities in the society without confusing their meanings or impressions. Correct identification of fashions and clothing in the modern society needs comparative studies of diverse identities in the society.
Since 19th century, fashions and clothing have been changing tremendously due to cultural, religious, social, and economic changes that accompanied modernization.
The modern society now holds cumulative fashions and clothing of the past centuries because critical analysis reflects residual and historical evolution of identities. Fashions and clothing has been defining and indentifying human beings across all the ages of civilization and the modern society due to the presence of diverse fashion identities of the people.
Complexity in the nature of fashions relative to social identities has significantly increased ambiguity in design and development of fashions and clothing. Barthes argues that, “western social thought and social science have over the centuries developed an almost institutionalized aversions toward dealing in the analytical constructive ways with ambiguity in fashions” (2006, p.28).
The ambiguity results from symbolic nature of fashions and clothing that are so diverse making it difficult to have conventional design, which depicts specific societal identity. Thus, evolution of fashions and clothing over centuries occurred courtesy of sporadic identities in the society such as culture, gender, class, religion, and other social identities.
In the view of evolution of fashions and clothing, the modern society is shaping its identity by allowing unique members in the society to have freedom of exercising their values and beliefs in relation to their social identity.
Critical examination of the modern society shows that there is significant increase in the diversity of fashions and identities as compared to the 19th century courtesy of emergence of new cultural, social and religious aspects of society. Fashion designers focus on meeting two prime qualities of clothing, conventional value and aesthetic value at the same time.
Lloyd argues that, “conventional codes are designed to communicate directly and unambiguously messages and notions which are already known, but aesthetic code expression aims to communicate notions, subtleties and complexities which have not yet been formulated” (1986, p.122).
Therefore, modern society has fully explored conventional and aesthetic qualities in fashion design and has come up with diverse fashions and clothing that are very unique to unlimited identities that are present and many others that are still cropping up courtesy of civilization and globalization. Fashions and clothing are evolving tremendously in the modern society resulting into increased social identities that give new shape of the society.
Society consists of varied cultures that collectively shape societal identity. The identities of the individual cultures lie in the physical appearance of fashions, which depict literal or symbolic meanings. Every culture has unique fashion and clothing that reflect their lifestyles and historical values that are inherent to a particular culture (Gelder 2005, p.47).
Fashions and clothing give more information concerning cultural values, lifestyles, beliefs, ethics and economic status in relation to the conventional identity. Across the world, cultural differences portray diversity of fashions and clothing that different races and ethnic groups have.
The uniqueness of fashions is not only due to the design but it is also due to cultural symbolism and interpretation of the meaning. “Same cultural fashion designs connote different things for different groups and cultures because modern culture is so diverse with infinite meanings that are attached to varied symbolism” (Bell 1976, p.45).
Thus, symbolism attached to same cultural fashions is determinant of the identity of a particular culture. Cultures derive their identity from cultural values and beliefs that evolve from one generation to another in response to influence of globalization and civilization.
For instance, Asians, Americans, Africans, and Europeans have different cultural identities as reflected by their clothing. Although climate may be another factor that determines the kind of clothing, cultural values, and beliefs take precedence regarding fashion and identity.
It is evident that people who are in foreign countries still wear clothing that depicts their respective culture despite the changes in climate, meaning that fashions depicts cultural identity and as Finkelstein posits, “Fashion and clothing style depicts cultural identity of people and is a powerful expression of unity among diversity” (1991, p.212).
In the modern society, Asians, Americans, Africans and Europeans have unique clothing that reflects their cultural identity. Hence, fashions and clothing have cultural meanings that portray indentify in the universe with diversity.
Globalization and civilization has led to integration and amalgamation of diverse cultures resulting into formation of a modern culture. Modern culture reflects diverse values and beliefs associated with respective cultures forming it.
During 19th century, fashions that existed in the society emerged from individual cultures but the 21st century fashions are products of combined cultures that dominate the world.
Normally, United States of America and the European Union are leading the world in the course of civilization and globalization, and therefore these economic giants significantly shape and influence cultural identity in terms of fashion.
Crane asserts that, “westernization is the overwhelming force in modern society that dictates the course of culture and identity” (2000, p. 206), meaning that modern culture has dominant values and elements of the western world concerning fashions and clothing.
Social Class Identity
Modern society has economic inequalities while lifestyles of the people vary according to their economic status. Fashions and clothing is one of the identities that classify people into their respective social classes.
New and expensive fashions of clothing are social class identities of the rich people, while old and cheap fashions of clothing define social class identities of the poor people in the society. Due to variability in economic status, people fit into their respective social classes when they buy clothes and consequently reflect their social class identities as poor, average, or rich.
Craik argues that, “clothing in the market are designed for various classes of people, some are cheap, some are expensive, but they all serve the same purpose” (1993, p.11). Hence, clothes can significantly tell economic status of the people in an unequal society.
Clothing can also classify people according to their respective professions. In the modern world, different professions have different kinds of clothing that define and differentiate professionals from ordinary people. For instance, police have unique uniform for members of the public to identify and differentiate them from ordinary people.
Sportspersons also have uniforms that identify them with their teams so that fans and referees can easily identify them. Moreover, students have uniforms that help school administration in identifying and differentiating their students from other students of different schools.
Bauman explains that modern society has formed “standard identification of professionals by associating certain clothing with certain professions resulting into irreversible identity because ‘it is hard for the modern society to change conventional dressing code” (1992, p.303). Dressing code has professional connotation; therefore, doctors, nurses, and police have standard clothing that identify them uniquely.
Diverse religions in the world have unique kind of clothing that signifies their religious values and beliefs. Within religious circles, the nature of clothing is very critical as it portrays fundamental values and beliefs of different religions.
For example, among Christians and Muslims, decent dressing code is appropriate for they believe that nakedness is immoral and sin for it encourages fornication and adultery. “Religious doctrines stipulate on how the believers should dress appropriately in the society that has infinite fashions of clothing, both decent and indecent” (Blumer 1969, p.441).
Muslims are very conspicuous in crowd due to their unique dressing code that is associated with Islamic religion. While Muslims men wear long white robes, women wear long black robes and cover their heads. The dressing code of Muslims is very common and most people in the world can easily identify a Muslim based on the clothing.
Comparatively, Christians are less restrictive in their dressing because they do not have standard dressing code as Muslims. Even though Christians do not have definite dressing code, they believe that it should be decent and reflective of gender difference.
Lipovetsky argues that, “since religion is the custodian and source of morals in the society, it has contributed significantly to the kinds of fashions that people wear” (1994, p.167). Therefore, Christianity being one of the religions in the world has advocated for decent dressing code that does not tempt others to commit immorality.
Other religions also determine the kind of dressing code based on their fundamental beliefs that they uphold. In various religions, dressing code differentiates hierarchy of leadership meaning that it signifies divine powers bestowed to each level of leadership. Thus, fashion and clothing has significance importance in religious differentiation and identity.
Gender identity is the major social identity that classifies human beings according to their sex and roles in the society. Conventionally, men wear trousers while women wear skirts, but due to civilization and globalization, other complex designs of clothing are in the market.
The classical identity of a woman in skirt and men in trouser depicted gender identity in early 19th century and has been changing gradually with time.
According to Entwistle, “…power dressing was to play an important part in structuring the career woman’s everyday experience of herself, serving as a mode of self-presentation that enabled her construct herself and be recognized as executive or business career women” (2000, p.158).
Since the society considers that masculine identity is stronger than feminine identity, women have been struggling to change their dressing code to enhance their self-image in order to attain masculine identity. Thus, fashions and clothing depicts power struggles of masculinity and femininity as constructs of gender in the society.
The emergence of modern culture has led to the tremendous changes in the gender identity issue due to clothing; current designs of clothing are very complex and almost similar in both genders except for a few details.
In the modern society, women have changed conventional dressing code in that they no longer like wearing skirts; on the contrary, they wear trousers for they think that wearing trousers they will enhance feminine identity.
Wilson criticizes women saying that, “women will not wear skirts because they don’t like this artificial gender distinction, they don’t wish to shave their legs, they will not reacquaint with discomfort of feminine shoes … they are at peace with the freedom and comfort of trousers” (1985, p.178). The current women have deserted feminine identity in search of masculine identity by just changing fashions and clothing style.
Fashion and clothing are powerful elements of identity for they are not only shaping the images of individuals in the society but also various facets of society and ultimately the entire society. Critical examination of fashions and clothing has shown that they have significant influence in determining people’s identities in terms of culture, social class, religion, and gender.
Different types of clothing styles and fashions that exist in the world today exemplify the diverse cultures across the world. Since fashions and clothing vary in terms of value, they have classified people into different social classes depending on their economic status.
Moreover, fashion and clothing define religious and gender identity of people in the society, even though there have been marked changes due to the influence of civilization. Ultimately, fashions and clothing styles are determinants of human identities in the society.
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