Fashioning an Identity and the Culture of Clothing

Rationale for Colloquium

April 2014

I transferred to Gallatin after my first four semesters as a student in the Liberal Studies program so I could focus on identity cultivation and clothing. After studying how art history impacted culture and how culture impacted art for three semesters in a series of core classes called Cultural Foundations, I was extremely interested in diving deeper into this conversation with a narrower scope. I originally planned to be an American literature major because I love the way characters are crafted and understanding why they behave the way they do. My concentration grew from this interest in human personalities to the way in which visual representations of the inner self are portrayed through clothing and adornment.  After living in New York City for two years I wanted to see how and why real live people chose to cover their bodies- or not. In transferring to Gallatin, I had the opportunity to take tutorials that were purely about fashion while also exploring other topics that did not mention clothing at all. Some of my favorite classes at Gallatin were the ones that had nothing to do with fashion because they gave me the opportunity to make the connections that solidified my passion for what may seem like a niche area of study. Gradually, I began to form my concentration: Fashioning an Identity and The Culture of Clothing.

Over many centuries, the meaning of the word fashion may have evolved into a description of an entire industry but the root of the word is a means to shape something, which is central to its application. It was in the 15th century that fashion was first used to describe the self, inside and out. Prior to the Italian Renaissance, it was widely accepted in the Western world that humans were stagnant in their being; they were merely creatures of God. Fifteenth Century theorist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man where he explored the intersections of theology and philosophy. He explained that due to what he called “The Chain of Being”: God had given man the ability of free will, meaning that man was limitless in his nature and had the ability to absorb and apply information in order to grow or transform into whoever he or she wants to be.

There are hundreds of books published on how to better oneself but there are only a handful that have stood the test of time. From the begrudgingly written Ancient Chinese philosophical text known as The Tao to You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, by one of the first self-professed fashion psychologists, it states that we as humans have been looking to literature for self-betterment for centuries. In The Tao, Lao Tzu explains that humans are made up of their past, present and future. Jennifer Baumgartner, the author of You are What You Wear explains that our choice of clothing is based on our past and present experiences and feelings, as well as the recognition that the clothing choice impacts our future. Just as Pico explained, humans are limitless creatures who have the ability to change based on prior knowledge.

In everyday life the word fashion is most often used to describe the act of adorning one’s body. It has been asserted by Sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that humans are always performing: our choice of clothing is one visual aspect of this. When we choose the clothes we wear, we do so to convey a message that will be received by our audience. The way in which we choose our clothing is impacted by our past experiences. One of the most oft quoted Shakespeare lines is “All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players”. The concept of performativity as explained by Goffman and Shakespeare is that humans are performing or “playing” at all times.

Fashion has been at the center of multiple revolutions throughout history, whether it be the sumptuary laws predating the French Revolution or Mahatma Gandhi’s choice to wear a loin cloth made of local fabric rather than support the British economy. Gandhi was educated in England where he wore a suit and tie to class every day.  When he moved back to India, he knew he needed to advocate his political beliefs on a visual level.

Having the right to choose how to adorn one’s body is an important means of self expression that we often fail to recognize because as Americans we have the ability (within budget) to choose our clothing– a privilege not all of the citizens of the world have. Even post-dating The Civil War, Black Americans were not allowed to wear certain clothes because clothing was an indicator of a social status they did not have the right to. In the decades following The Civil War, Black men began to dress in outrageously formal fashions as a way of exerting their new status. These men mimicked former slave owners by wearing top hats and suit jackets. This style is now known as “Dandy”.

The fact that certain pieces of clothing have implied meanings further indicates that we visually represent how we feel through our clothes. We wear black to funerals, describe pleated plaid skirts in any environment as intrinsically like a “Catholic school girl,” while robes are a sign of power worn by judges, royalty or religious leaders. A white lab coat has become synonymous with medical Doctor’s uniform so much that if one were to create a Doctor’s costume all he or she would need to add to the coat to be recognized as a doctor would be any medical instrument.

Fashion academia suggest clothes influence how the wearer behaves. A Northwestern University Study titled “Enclothed Cognition” tested the effects of wearing a simple, white lab coat.  The pre-test established that lab coats are predominantly associated with attentiveness and carefulness.  Galinsky and Hajop predicted that wearing the lab coat would produce increased performance in attention-related tasks.  Their first experiment showed that the physical act of wearing the lab coat increased selective attention compared to its absence.  In the second experiment, participants wore a “doctor’s” lab coat then a “painter’s” coat.  Participants displayed increased sustained attention while wearing the “doctor’s” coat versus the “painter’s” coat.  

This study is an example of current research which suggests the principle of “enclothed cognition”: wearers’ psychological processes are systematically influenced by the articles they wear and dependent upon both symbolic meaning and the physical experience of the clothing.

One of the earliest pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh written in 2500 B.C., describes the archetype that will come to be known as the the “Hero Journey,” in conjunction with becoming “civilized” through clothing. The hero, Gilgamesh defends the people from monsters and savages. Humans are the only species that wear clothing because unlike animals, we are not covered in fur and therefore cannot be protected from the elements. Gilgamesh’s’ first challenger is a creation of the goddess Aruru. She produces Enkidu, a human man who lives outside the city with the animals. After being taught the way of physical love by a harlot, Enkidu discovers his humanity and is no longer capable of interacting with the animals. Enkidu then gets ready to go inside the city to fight Gilgamesh. The harlot presents clothing to Enkidu because, in order to go into the civilized city, he must be clothed lest he be mistaken for an animal. The clothes communicate not only one’s civility but also place within civility. Because Gilgamesh is the king, he wears a crown and robes. There is even a difference in the way the civilized people who live in the countryside dress compared to the citizens of the city. The country folk wear furs because they are readily available while the people in the city wear clothing made of fabric.

The dialectic between what we wear and how that impacts who we are and who we are impacts what we wear is extremely important. How we feel is one of the major influences on what we wear on any occasion — even occasions that have implied dress codes. The proof can be seen everywhere, from weddings to business meetings to red carpet events. Terms like “business casual”, “cocktail attire” and “black/white tie” are typically specified on invitations to events that do not have unspoken dress codes. Given these social cues, people generally wear different variations of the same dress length or color, or sometimes even the exact same outfit.

Stories like Gilgamesh  that include a transformation narrative typically involve some sort of makeover (or under) scene in terms of clothing choices. There are times when the makeover is necessary in order to survive or a sign of deterioration of the spirit. The latter is exemplified in the character Miss Havisham in Great Expectations who wears her wedding dress every day after being left at the altar. She wears only one shoe because she learned of her fiance’s betrayal as she was putting on her shoes.

Her reaction to rejection is to live in her sadness from the moment her life was brought to a halt. Constantly wearing her deteriorating wedding dress for years perpetuated her sadness.  As her dress got tattered and became yellow, her personality became surly and she became more vicious.

However, clothing does not merely reinforce the status quo but has the capacity to transcend and transform embedded societal boundaries, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.  In order to transform, one or more of these boundaries has to be crossed. Once the boundaries are crossed and transformation is complete the wearer can “pass” for whatever the wearer is looking to achieve. This is exemplified in clothing and can be used as physical and psychological armour. In As You Like It Rosalind, the daughter of the former Duke, wears mens clothing to get safe passage through the Forest of Ardenne. Dressed as a male she is not only crossing gender boundaries but also class boundaries as she dresses as a common male youth. After taking the bold and inspired decision to dress as the youth Ganymede, Rosalind fully transforms as a character. Through dressing as a man and performing that identity she allows the headstrong woman inside to come to the forefront for all to see.

From an academic and literary standpoint, the connection between clothing and identity is clear but this connection has practical implications and connotations.  Clothing is not only functional but transformative.  As a learned species, we make instant assumptions based on visual cues. The way we interpret those cues are based on our past experiences and the present context and environment. These cues are not merely reactive but are instrumental in creating and reinterpreting new identities.  From epic characters like Gilgamesh, Othello, Jay Gatsby to glorious heroines like Eliza Dootlittle, Rosalind and Shug Avery we as readers have learned that bettering oneself is possible. Although clothing is often the first step to creating a character identity it is not the last. As Pico explained over half a millenium ago, humans are limitless–  we have the agency to learn and apply skills in order to protect, disguise or better ourselves and clothing may be the easiest option to convey a visual message.

Book List:

Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Classics

At least seven works produced before the mid-1600s;

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Othello– William Shakespeare

Oration on the Dignity of Man– Pico Della Mirandolla

As You Like It- William Shakespeare

The Analects- Confucius 

The Prince- Niccolò Machiavelli

The Treasure of the City of Ladies– Christine de Pizan

The Tao– Laozi

Modernity-The Humanities

At least four works, produced after the mid-1600s, in Humanities disciplines such as Literature, Philosophy, History, the Arts, Critical Theory, and Religion;

Pygmalion– George Bernard Shaw 

Passing– Nella Larsen

The Great Gatsby– F Scott Fitzgerald

Great Expectations– Charles Dickens

The Color Purple- Alice Walker 

Modernity-The Social and Natural Sciences 

At least four non-fiction works, produced after the mid-1600s, in the Natural Sciences and Social Science disciplines such as Political Science, Economics, Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life- Erving Goffman

Theory of the Leisure Class-Thorstein Veblen 

Feminist literary Theory and Criticism- A Norton Reader

Rennaisance Self Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare: Stephen Greenblatt 

Sexing The Body – Ann Fousto Sterling

Area of Concentration 

At least five additional works representing the student’s area or areas of concentration; students whose area of concentration already appears among the above categories may simply choose five additional works from these categories.

Fashion and Celebrity Culture- Pamela Church Gibson

Enclothed Cognition- Adam D. Galinsky and Adam Hajo

The Social Psychology of Clothing:  Symbolic Appearances in Context– Susan B. Kaiser 

The Celebrity Culture Reader – P. David Marshall

Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth Century Culture- Warren Susman

You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You– Jennifer Baumgartner 

The Psychology of Clothes- J.C. Flugel 

The Psychology of Fashion- Michael Solomon 


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