Fashion as identity
For teens and 20-somethings, it’s hard to think of a time when perceptions about identity weren’t tightly intertwined with social media usage. It’s incredibly easy to form an opinion about someone before even scrolling all the way through their Instagram profile; one picture of them wearing Vineyard Vines already has them pegged as a “preppy Republican.”
However, using fashion as a way to not only identify oneself, but also others, is not a concept unique to the social media age. It dates back to the “invention” of the teenager, the word’s first appearing in a 1944 Life Magazine article called “Teen-age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own.” This article chronicled the lives of a group of suburban teenagers, focusing heavily on what they wore.
In retrospect, the article seems fairly misogynistic, but it’s still important because it revolutionized the idea of what it meant to be a teenager. Before then, there was no separation between child and adult; now, there’s a time in between where it’s socially acceptable to be heavily concerned with appearance. For all young people—tweens, teens, 20-somethings—fashion seems like one of the few things they actually have control over.Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D. from Psychology Today believes that that sense of control comes from the ability to choose how to present oneself to the world.
“Trends are not only a source of novelty but reinvention,” Baumgartner said. “Like painting the walls or changing the pillows of our home, an addition of a new and trendy item in our wardrobe allows for us to experience the excitement of self-reinvention.”
Nico Gonzalez, a theatrical arts production major with a concentration in costume design, agrees with Baumgartner that fashion is a conscious choice of self expression.
“Fashion is the most obvious way to get a first impression from someone, and fashion is a very personal thing,” Gonzalez said. “No matter if it’s a designer outfit worth thousands of dollars or sweatpants and a T-shirt, you obviously put that outfit on for a certain reason.”
With the invention of the teenager, fashion became a unifier. Young people felt connected to the people around them through what they wore. Whether it was the bobby soxers of the ‘50s, hippies of the ‘60s or disco pant-fanatics of the ‘70s, people formed ties easily based just on what was en vogue at the time. While subcultures existed, it took effort to seek them out, and it was much easier to just follow what the mainstream look was at the time.
Today, while fashion can still unify, it can also divide. With social media, users are able to see things through a selective lens, ignoring certain groups of people while admiring others. There is more room for diversity in fashion because every social media user has access to every other social media user at any given time. Communities are being formed not by proximity, but by fashion identification.
In a way, this gives young people a measure of autonomy they’ve never had before. They have the power to choose what to emulate and what to reject. It’s no longer about what’s being worn in one’s town or school—it’s about finding trends to actually connect with.
However, this “world-at-our-fingertips” mentality has also lead to a greater divide between different groups of people. People are categorized and written off based solely on how they dress. In the ‘50s, when the teenager was a new concept, it was good to look like everyone else, to style hair the way everyone else was styling it, to wear the same make-up as a friend or an older sibling. It indicated that one was part of a community. Today, it’s seen as “basic” to wear what everyone else is wearing.
But is there any true difference between someone wearing Uggs and an infinity scarf in order to look like everyone else if someone else is wearing a flannel and Dr. Martens to do the same thing? The way that young people so strongly identify themselves with the way they dress is not a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of. It colors their perceptions of the way people are in relation to them. According to Wendy Bendoni from the Woodbury University Fashion Marketing Department in an interview with Huffington Post, social media has definitely exacerbated this.
“There is so much data that you need to take a step back and listen,” Bendoni said. “For example, I search photos of girls at Coachella and look at the self-portraits they post on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest to imagine the story they are telling about themselves. It’s about lifestyle, conversation and monitoring.”
Gonzalez agrees with Bendoni’s assertion.
“Social media is a new form of advertising,” Gonzalez said. “In the past, you went to a store and you liked something because you saw it on a mannequin, but now there are people dressed like you all across the world. It’s sort of globalized fashion. Now, it’s much easier to get a look across. And especially in recent years, outfits change and trends change so quickly.”
Judging someone based on their appearance is a 5th grade-level no-no, but everyone does it anyway. The cliché “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has been said so many times that it’s probably lost all meaning. But to divorce someone’s outward appearance from their inner personality is almost impossible.
According to Leonard Mlodinow from Psychology Today, it is perfectly natural and innate to let someone’s appearance color perceptions of them, not only with romantic partners but with every human interaction.
“In all our perceptions, from vision to hearing to the pictures we build of people’s character, our unconscious mind starts from whatever objective data is available to us—usually spotty—and helps to shape and construct the more complete picture we consciously perceive,” Mlodinow said. “In order to offer us this more complete picture, our unconscious employs clever tricks and educated guessing to fill in some blanks. In our perception of people, and their perceptions of us, the hidden, subliminal mind takes limited data, and creates a picture that seems clear and real, but is actually built largely on unconscious inferences that are made employing factors such as a person’s body language, voice, clothing, appearance and social category.”
So even though everyone is chided at some point in their lives for judging someone superficially, the reality is that it’s literally a neurological reflex. To stop it would be the same as trying to stop a knee from popping up when a doctor hits it with a rubber hammer. But while it’s a difficult habit to stop, it’s important to learn to work past it and give people chances beyond their first impression.
In reality, maybe it’s true that a guy in a Death Grips shirt and a guy wearing Sperrys might not get along. And having these fashion-based factions is actually a good way to identify people whose interests, at least superficially, align with one’s own. But regardless of base human instincts, it’s important to try not to let assumptions stand in the way of human connection. It may not be all wearing poodle skirts and leather jackets and going to sock hops like it was at the time of the “invention of the teenager,” but even in the social media age, it’s possible to work past external differences and see that all young people are in this “being a millennial” thing together.
Alex Coburn is a first-year cinema and photography major whose book is never without a cover. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.