Title: The Role of Fashion in Relation to Culture and Identity
Fashion as a concept has various meanings and connotations, but its influence on culture and identity is indisputable. In essence fashion is usually used to disseminate particular aspects or forms of culture (Crane & Bovone 2006). In the contemporary society, fashion is commonly used to connote conspicuously visible styles of clothing and to a lesser extent, in showcasing other kinds of culture or values that are revered at a given time in a particular community. Fashion is used in the production of new styles of dressing and attempting to promote them to the public for mass consumption. In respect to culture and identity, fashion is used in creation and attribution of symbolic values to material culture (Crane & Bovone 2006; Kaiser 2012). This implies that when a person adorns particular attire, he or she creates a meaning to that specific dressing. In this regard, fashion is a way of expressing certain kinds of symbolic values. As a material good, consumption of fashion is a medium through which the consumer uses to communicate messages about the values he or she holds dearly. Values are closely linked to the self and form the core of a person’s identity. Clothing, which is an important component of fashion, is a form of material culture which can be used to study the relationship between the personal identity and values attributed to material goods. This is due to the fact that clothing is closely associated with the perceptions of the self. According to Crane and Bovone (2006), clothes both affect and express perceptions of our individual self.
Since time immemorial, fashion has been used by various segments of people in the society to convey different messages especially concerning that group’s role in the community. For instance, the military is traditionally adorned in distinct attire portraying the security role they play in the society. However, the roles of various groups in the community are sometimes ignored or overlooked in spite of their critical importance. Historically, the roles of minority groups such women have been ignored in the society and fashion have been used by these groups to express their displeasure and assert their position in the mainstream society. This was evident in 1960’s and 1970’s when feminists used fashion to agitate for equality and respect in the then male dominated society.
The 1960’s was particularly the most influential period in the use of fashion in the quest to assert and acknowledge the role of women in the society. Some of the dominant fashion trends, especially in the women dressing in 1960’s included miniskirts, slip dresses and straight skirts (Fig 1).
Fig 1; miniskirts in 1960s fashion
This fashion revolution was accompanied by increased consumerism, profound social changes and expansion of new youth markets factors that promoted cultural revolution represented in fashion by a sharp definitive element of modernity. The fashion and styles of 1960s was characterised by fun and excitement. 1960’s witnessed a greater social change, as far as gender identity and roles are concerned. According to Fawcett and Buckley(2002), the women fashion of the 1960’s was more pronounced than ever before deviating from the reproductive orientation of the woman’s beauty in previous decades. This women fashion change was brought about by various factors, key among them the use of contraceptives in planning of families and more assertive female representation in social, economic and political platforms (Fawcett & Buckley 2002).
Following these changes, the fashion industry in the 1960’s transformed radically, where it emphasized and isolated the sexual imagery of women from the reproductive aspects. The consequence of these changes in fashion was emphasis on women sexual attributes, such as slimness and height. The resulting identity, which Fawcett and Buckley (2002, p .139) refer as sexualised identity stressed on thinness and stylized physical qualities, which represented a highly fraught female model with diminished power and of questionable identity. In addition, the fashion in 1960s and 70s re-emphasized on the youthfulness as an ideal aspect of femininity.
The greater focus on this new found ideal of femininity coincided with agitation for feminism in the society, where women began fighting for independence and equality from the men folks. The apparent inequality was exacerbated by the media and fashion designers, who promoted the image of the ideal beautiful woman in public platforms such as beauty pageants. In this case, advertisers and fashion designers hired models based on their ‘look’, a practice that is widely used up to date (Mears 2010, p.23). The look of a model basically incorporates the unique physical and personality traits of the woman, which appeal to a client during a particular period of time, depending on the product being sold. These looks are gauged on loose height, dress size criteria in addition to basic attractiveness (Milagros & Barry 2009).
Mears (2010) argues that a model’s looks is gauged as a measure of individual tastes and assessment of her physical beauty. In regard to women in 1960’s and 70’s, this categorization of beauty attracted considerable opposition from feminists and ignited intense debates on the effect of these beauty models on how a woman should look like. Mears (2010) argues that modelling is the professionalization of certain type of gender performance, one that interlocks with other social positions like race, class and sexuality. In this respect, models showcased what feminists regard as oppressive beauty standards and objectification of female bodies to satisfy “patriarchal and capitalist needs” (Mears 2010, p.23).
In fact there remains a considerable disparity between the idealized female body in fashion and the average body in reality. According to Mears (2010), the average weight of a model is 23% lower than that of average woman. Similarly, the average height of a model is 5 ‘11’ and weighs about 117 pounds, compared to average women, who have a mean weight of 164 pounds and height of 5’ 4’. Besides the emphasis on the physical attributes, women models were dressed in clothing and shoes to display their sexuality. This was intended to persuade other women in the society to purchase the displayed attires, to expose their sexual attributes to men. Some of the prominent fashion attires in 1960s and 1970s include high heel shoes, brassieres, fake eyelashes and girdles (see Fig 2).
Feminists regarded these attires as instruments of torturing women and oppressive devices, aimed at portraying women as just mere sexual objects. The consequence of the feminists’ opposition to this fashion trend was emergence of women liberation movements, such as the bra burning protest in 1960s and Miss America protests in1968, in attempt to liberate women from beauty stereotypes and other oppressive habits that were perpetrated by men and society at large against women (English 2007).
Fig 2: Tall boots and dress in 1960s fashion
Miss America Pageant protest in 1968 was held at the Atlantic City by New York Radical women, a feminist group (Fawcett & Buckley 2002). During the protest, the demonstrators intended to stop the Miss America pageant permanently, arguing that the event spectators judged women like cattle, on the basis of their physical appearance with strict adherence on the ideal body size, shape and height. The protesters also contended that the pageant was perpetuating racism in the American society, since it discriminated African American contestants. Moreover, the protesters accused the Miss America beauty pageant of inculcating false myth on young girls that physical appearance was the only attribute needed to succeed in life (Fawcett & Buckley 2002). The bra became the fashion symbol for feminist demonstrators in the 1960s. To the demonstrators, the bra was the symbol of oppression, which society and men used to restrict the natural movement and expression of breasts on the women’s body. Therefore during the protests, dubbed “bra burning”, women dumped and burned some of the attires that they considered as oppressive in trash cans, to symbolize their liberation from men and capitalistic fashion trends (See Fig 3).
Fig 3; Bra burning protests in the United States, source http://mediamythalert.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/braburning_atlcty_1968.jpg
To the feminist movements of 1960s and 1970s, the fashion impeded not only on their identity but also on their freedom. The women fashion in 1960s and 1970s offers valuable insights on the changing role of women in the society. Prior to this period, women roles in the society were restricted to giving birth and home keeping (Kaiser 2012). In this case, the women body was viewed as a reproductive tool, a perception that was reflected in fashion, where women dressed in long and conservative dresses, mainly for comfort. Lack of contraceptives before 1960s implied that women did not have control of their reproduction, a situation that subjugated them further to the socially construed roles in the society. The discovery of contraceptives and increased women empowerment in the 1960s changed the women identity. They realised that their bodies were not just for reproduction but also an important aspect of their sexuality. In this regard, women became more adventurous in their dressing and fashion styles, by wearing more revealing and tight attires such as miniskirts and more trendy footwear. In so doing, women appearance was sexualised and their image was no longer that of the conservative woman of the 1950s, but of a bubbling, playful girl. Their roles were no longer restricted in houses and they could endeavour to work in corporate organizations just like men were. The increased women confidence was further enhanced by access to higher education, which meant that they could compete and even outdo men in accessing well paying and skilled jobs. In this respect, women no longer needed men’s approval on their dressing or in determining what was good for them as far as dressing, beauty and social mobility is concerned.
Crane, D. & Bovone, L, 2006. “Approaches to material culture: The sociology of fashion and clothing.” Poetics 34: 319-333.
English, B. 2007. A cultural history of fashion in the 20th Century. Berg: Oxford.
Fawcett, H., & Buckley, C. 2002.Fashioning and the feminine: Representation and women’s’ fashion from the Fin De Siecle to the present. Oxford: I.B. Tauris.
Kaiser, S. B. 2012. Fashion and cultural studies. Berg: Oxford.
Mears A. 2010. “Size zero high-end ethnic: cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modelling”. Poetics 38; 21-46.
Milagros, M., & Barry, P.S. 2009. “Constructing female identities through feminine hygiene TV commercials.” Journal of Pragmatics 41: 2535-2556.