Can what we wear say something about us as individuals?
The way we dress has for decades been seen as something negligible, but previous research has shown that choice of clothing is something more than that. Every day when we get out of bed, the very first thing we do is to put on clothes. Even though it’s not always a thought or reasoning behind our outfit choices, we often base our decisions on what we see fits best for the occasion or the given day. The shirt we throw on in a hurry might say something about us, even if it’s just another sweater in the closet. In other words, our clothes communicate something about us, who we are, what we want to become, and what we stand for.
We might not always acknowledge it, but we care about what the people we meet wear. Perhaps more than we think. On a daily basis we meet new people, people who we have no impression or opinion about, but based on how they choose to present themself in terms of external design, we form an opinion about them. In return, the person in question constitutes a perception of us based on what we are wearing ourselves. Clothes can thereby be seen as a non-verbal communication, in the sense that we express ourselves without oral or written words.
About one year ago, I started writing my bachelor thesis in Fashion Science. I’ve always been interested in how we communicate our personality through our clothing, which led me to study clothing choices among students at Lund University.
This is What I Found Out…
Among the people I interviewed, it turned out that many of them had changed the way they dress after moving to Lund. This could be a result of a change in environment and surroundings, moreover, interactions with new people and a new culture for many. The changes in the students’ clothing style could indicate that the change of environment, new interactions and social relationships affect us to change our exterior preheranses. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, we idealize people who, for example, have a lot of money or high status within a group, and therefore try to look like or imitate them by dressing like them, in an attempt to fit into the social contexts. This same example could be applied to students moving to a new city or country, trying to idealize with an established social group.
But Do We Intentionally Change the Way We Dress to Fit Into a Social Context?
Lector Malcolm Barnard believes that we communicate messages or assumptions about who we are through our clothes, but that we don’t put any significant thought into what exactly we want to communicate. Most of my informants seemed to agree that they want to express different identities with their clothes regardless of whether they do it consciously or unconsciously. One of the persons I interviewed also indicated that clothes are important for those who aim to express a certain identity or try to fit into a context.
In other words, the clothes we wear are associated with how we look at ourselves and have a large impact on what we radiate to others. We choose clothes based on how we want others to see us, which can lead us to dress more for others than for ourselves. It appears that being out in the public presents a need to show ourselves from our best side by wearing stylish clothes to express our identity and make statements about who we are.
How Do Lunda-students Dress?
One of the questions I asked during my interviews of students at Lund University was whether the students dressed similar to the people they socialized with or if they wore whatever they felt like. Ethnologist Maja Jacobson believes that our clothing preferences and what we consider as nice or not is influenced by the group of people we associate with, as groups often have similar aesthetic values and opinions. Basically, since childhood, we have been affected by other people’s opinions and values as we have created perceptions based on what our parents, friends or our social group think about things.
When we reach the desired group affiliation, we unconsciously identify ourselves through our clothes with the others in the respected group. Despite our desire to identify ourselves with others and belonging to a social group, I believe that there still exists a longing to stand out and to be unique. At least I hope so.
One of my informants came to Lund from Stockholm, and told me how she was met with preconceived assumptions based on her clothing. Erving Goffman asserts that a person’s facade may become a collective representation when the personal facade is based on impersonal impressions, such as choice of clothing. This again gives rise to stereotyped expectations of the person concerned.
Depending on the location and environment you grew up in, it appears that you are able to understand different clothing styles and trends. If you come from a small town, it can be seen from the way you dress, which may also implies that you stand out from the crowd in a different way than capitol-citizens do. Also note, that this is of course not always the case. Nonetheless, the way we dress is affected by, among other things, how we grew up and the people we hang out with, which can explain why those who come to Lund from the same city forms a majority of people dressing identically.
When we are comfortable in the clothes we wear our attitude towards the outside world changes; we become more self-confident and get a different approach. But when we are uncomfortable in the garments we are wearing, our aura changes, and our clothes would rather look like a costume we are forced to wear. If we dress in the wrong clothes or style, we may experience what is called the “Hysteresis” or “Don Quiote” effect, meaning that we obtain a feeling of not belonging or fits into the social environment.
What Have We Learned from This?
Summing up what the interviewers said, clothes can be a way of expressing a desired identity and a tool that can both strengthen and destroy our self-esteem. This became apparent when some of them described how their self-esteem changed depending on whether they felt comfortable in the clothes they wore or not. If they wore something they did not like, they found themselves looking irritable and having less fun in the situation they were in compared to if they were comfortable in what they were wearing. To conclude, how we dress says something about us; who we are and what we stand for. But how comfortable we actually feel in our clothes seem to express more than how we dress. It can be instructive to reflect over why you wear the clothes you wear, who you really dress for, and lastly, what you want to communicate through your clothing.