Clothing is both what we are and what we want to be. Where we want to belong and where we actually do belong. Clothing is the interface between us and the world. And although we are tired of knowing that we should not judge a book by its cover, what are we to do when it is the cover that holds the pages of the story together? We went to investigate the role of Fashion in our identity and, in between, to try to understand how the future is dressed.
We can zero in on Fashion or be Carrie Bradshaw: as long as we live, it’s a part of us. Whether we use it as a second skin or sheep’s clothing is another story altogether — as fashion is both part of the same. “The choice of a certain style can be based on internal motivations (self-esteem, need to belong, emotional state, beliefs and life scripts) or on external factors (social or professional environment, popularity, publicity)”, explains Ana Correia. The specialist in clinical and health psychology sees fashion and clothing as tools that allow us to play with our image, both in terms of internal representation as well as externally. “From the psycho-social point of view, Fashion touches on notions such as identity, belonging, individuality and self-definition and this is built on the relationship and interaction with others. The person, by building their own style, is representing him or herself and creating an identity that reveals their similarities and differences to others and with the context in which they act.” In its “double function”, “clothing is a visible expression and a kind of wrapping of what we are in all our dimensions. We’re not what we wear but we use what we believe we are and what we’d like to be and show to others,” she explains. It is a process in motion: it’s inside and outside of us.
In a Time online article that looks at why we buy (so many) clothes, the author said that when we buy we visualise our future self and that’s why so many people love to shop — it’s a preparation exercise. “Buying stimulates our imagination. As we consider different items, we imagine how others will respond to them, how we will feel as we wear them,” it states. It’s kind of a threesome: us, the others and Fashion. It is also no novelty to us that our emotional state is reflected in our daily choices of outfit and, therefore, in the midst of these various meanings, clothes “undoubtedly have a structuring, functional, symbolic and communicational meaning”, sums up the psychologist. “Clothing is a form of expression and communication: who am I, what I like, what I do, where I belong, how I feel, how I want to be seen” — but is it possible to encapsulate our persona inside a wardrobe, without it getting moth-eaten? Fashion crystallizes identity, offering us the necessary tools to express who we are. They may not be the same ones we’ll use tomorrow, or at that stage of secondary school, but while we’re building our identity, let’s face it: let’s not do it naked. As Bill Cunningham summed it up in the documentary of the same name: “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. One can’t exist without the other. It would be like ignoring civilization.”
This relationship of ‘tell me what you wear and I’ll tell you who you are’ (and who you want to be) didn’t come about the first time a man killed an animal to make a fur coat. The concern at that time was more ‘I don’t want to die of cold’ than ‘I have style’, although some researchers claim that as soon as man understood that this gave him some kind of status within the group (the more skins he had, the stronger he seemed), clothing ceased to have just a protective function.“If we accept the perspective according to which we have a broader history of clothing, which would have accompanied man from the moment he began to cover his body, and, in parallel, a History of Fashion, the birth of which (for the Western world) we could define at the end of the 14th century, with the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, we will find that the association between Fashion and identity has also been relevant since the beginning,” states Catarina Moura, director of the 1st Cycle in Fashion Design and Vice-President of the Faculty of Arts and Letters of Beira Interior University. She further states that in the specific case of Fashion, its history is built not only on its contribution to the definition of a collective identity (“although this element is clearly present during the first centuries — we only have to think of the example of the French Court and the way in which, in this context, fashion was consciously used as a means of affirming political power and influence”), but also for individual identity, a dimension that is reinforced to this day. “One of the characteristics of Fashion is precisely the way in which it stimulates in the individual the belief that, through it, that person will be able to find and affirm his/her own identity, using clothing as a means of expression of the style that his/her preferences dictate at each moment/stage of life. (…) Fashion allows difference, it is in itself this promise and possibility of developing a style felt as individual, unique, own, but at the same time it is still a phenomenon that operates by contagion, generating identification and ensuring belonging by copying another or the adoption of trends that standardise by definition.”
At the same time that we want to belong, we want to preserve our individuality — Fashion makes us part of a whole and, at the same time, sets us apart. At the same time that Fashion is a reflection of time and guides us to ‘function’ in a certain space and time, it is also a dream universe where each one can create their own fantasy/reality. Fashion, like the human being, is made up of contradictions, and has as a starting point the way in which it, as a cultural phenomenon, manages them as if they were apparently not contradictions, explains Catarina. “On the one hand, Fashion establishes the boundaries of a space-time logic, clearly assuming itself as a translation, for each time and place, of its zeitgeist, of the spirit of its time. The definition of a set of trends is based on something more profound, which translates not only a way of being, but also an idea of what is or isn’t acceptable. In this sense, Fashion contributes to showing what each era considers the norm and what is a transgression, moving between these two territories. In doing so, it both reinforces and dilutes the border that separates them, and this is another of the contradictions that it manages naturally, as a system that absorbs everything. In this sense, it generates comfort zones, clearly regulating, as well as defining ruptures, which are transgressors by definition. In both cases (as well as in all degrees of the broad spectrum that these poles represent), Fashion is not and has never been an exclusive reflection of reality and its contingencies — on the contrary, it continues to represent today, as always, the possibility of dreaming and fantasizing. This is true to the extent that much of what Fashion is relates to the set of ideals that, as cultures and communities, we build and pursue over time. This is also why Fashion is so easily associated with the production or reinforcement of stereotypes (such as those of beauty or of the body, for example), in the same way that we observe its association with the deconstruction of these, seeking to ethically and politically position itself.” In the history of female fashion, the “bloomers” of the mid-nineteenth century — a type of women’s clothing that sought to incorporate the use of loose trousers —, the shortening of the dress hem to knee height in the twentieth century, the mini-skirt, shorter hair, the use of a bra as an option and the vulgarisation of trousers in women’s clothing, among others, represent profoundly significant changes enumerated by Catarina — “also because, in parallel, we saw the woman leave the private sphere to which she had been confined for centuries, taking on a progressive role in the most varied of public spheres that we can’t dissociate from the contemporary definition of her identity.”
Some people turn on the television and tune in to the news to hear the state of the world. We can also look at fashion trends. Autumn/Winter 2019: “the wardrobe for this winter has been built not for the woman of the future, but for the woman of now,” reports the French edition of Vogue — and the fact that an unprecedented number of women are campaigning to get the Democratic Party nomination for the November 2020 presidential elections will not be a coincidence. Combat boots, tailoring, capes, sustainable materials, the 1980’s, just to name a few because it doesn’t matter either: the fashion shows of this season were less about a checklist of pieces to retain and more about a state of mind, which goes from celebration to protection in an apocalyptic scenario, as has done in at least the two most recent seasons. It is as if the notion of individualism were always present, as if Fashion were tired of its dictatorial character and in trying to please everyone it has offered an article for either one or it has touched on the themes we are all talking about on Instagram (hello, Greta Thunberg). And, btw, where’s the novelty? Do we look… lost? Or diversified and inclusive? I ask Cláudia Barros, a stylist, how she would represent the identity of now in a fashion editorial. “We live in an era of the absence of silence, with an excess of information and articles and quick access to everything,” she says. “Either I would go to the opposite of what I feel is happening, in order to transmit a political message — that is, something more minimal and clean, or I would represent this excess, a generation with an eagerness to produce, you know, to do and dream.” According to her, it is hard to point to the outcome of what we are doing today, but the Internet will be somewhere at the epicentre of this change. “It has brought proximity, it has democratised and it has broken down barriers. It helps you to open your mind — for example, if you see a punk on the street, you don’t relate that to something else, just Google it and search, and it stops being that ‘scary’ thing that it was a while ago. If you educate yourself, you normalize, which works to break down stereotypes, but at the same time tomorrow you use elements of this culture without identifying with the punk movement or knowing what it represented,” — is our new identity saying goodbye to urban tribes? “Maybe we are becoming less ‘unique’ or peculiar because there is no longer that need to identify ourselves as someone different to convey a message…”, says the stylist. “And when this will arises, because at the end of the day we all want to be special, it ceases to be organic and natural — so, will you really be any different?” she asks.
The democratisation brought by fast fashion has given us the possibility of wearing the sweater in a different way every day — or, at least, to try that, but is having the same as being? If we see traces of the punk culture, folded in four, on the shelves of a Zara, where was the fracturing message behind what we wear, besides liking what we see in the mirror? “Despite the “political flags” of, say, feminism, diversity, inclusivity and sustainability that Fashion raises today with frequency, we also realize the ease it seems to have in emptying what it appropriates, dissociating the aesthetic from an effective ethical and political content and condemning it to a superficiality that, basically, has always been pointed out as a stigma,” explains Catarina Moura. “We live in a culture that easily confuses surface with superficial, tending to confuse that which deals with the first — because, in it, it is also the appearance that is at stake — with the latter and, consequently, denying it a depth and seriousness that we cannot (nor should we) dissociate from anything so closely connected to the definition of our individual and collective identity. However, it is a fact that Fashion, as an industry, phenomenon and system on a global scale, operates more easily from the ideological vacuum, even if under the appearance of its constant social commitment to numerous causes.”
It is practically impossible to disassociate Fashion from appearance and consumption (even because it is also a business) and, however, it is this message that Constança Entrudo, designer, tries to convey. It will not be the common practice of creators to question their consumers about the need to buy their work… “I try to make the interest in an article of mine make them reflect on the true value of things and, consequently, on who they are as consumers and people. Design is not a matter of price but we can’t deny that our choices as consumers say a lot about us,” advocates the designer, who looks at her profession as ‘designing for a purpose’. From campaigns to communication on social media and fashion shows, not only through the articles but also through the casting of models, it clearly and coherently conveys her identity and purpose, one in which she intends that “people reflect and deconstruct the various prejudices that often prevent us from being freer people”. A line of thought that seems to follow the trends of now — but what do you feel about what you see and feel? “I would say that we are going through a phase of transition, a very fast transition or evolution (in my opinion, although many people do not consider it the same), which is generating a certain conflict of mentalities and generations. I feel that social media (in particular Instagram) make us almost feel obliged to have a voice, not just to be ‘one more’. Which is great because, whether or not we are well informed about them, we are all more aware of the problems of our world and more aware of issues such as sustainability, for example. However, I feel that people are all in a frantic search for their identity and for constant approval of it, and they use style and posts on social media as a means to achieve that end. When the logic should, in fact, be the opposite.” Psychology — along with our anxiety — explains: “We live in a time when the idea of the ‘perfect’ is still very much ingrained and we are constantly immersed by external influences (advertising, fashion blogs, influencers, trends) that strongly dictate image and lifestyle standards from which it is difficult to escape,” says Ana Correia. The outcome? A list of idealisations and comparisons that, from the Instagram feed to our guts, only serve to keep us away from our essence: “We are not isolated beings and we will always be immersed by influential contexts, in a more or less direct way. The ‘trick’ is to find this dynamic balance between ‘feeling good about me’ and ‘feeling part of a whole’. We all need to feel unique but, at the same time, integrated into the world and clothing serves these needs and functions.”
It is difficult to try to map our current identity and what Fashion is today, in the light of the present, without being in a questioning form, as if we were back when we were old enough to ask our parents why: “Like everything that is human, Fashion is also a reflection of who we are and what we do in each moment of our history,” says Catarina. But of all the concepts that appear glued to what we see in the now, there is one that seems to be messing with the physical structures of thought and construction of society — we risk betting our identifying chips on genderless Fashion: “It is no longer just a matter of understanding to what extent Fashion can contribute to the dilution of barriers between the apparently rigid territories of masculinity and femininity, allowing men and women to pass between them naturally and opening space for new constructions of masculinity and femininity (because they are, effectively, historical and cultural constructions that we speak of when we refer to those concepts and not of ‘natural’, biological associations to man and to woman). It is now a question of also (or above all) understanding to what extent Fashion can contribute to deconstructing the concept of gender, namely the binary logic according to which it has been contracted,” explains Catarina. We’re not just talking about a unisex T-shirt — not least because that seems to be cheating — but about a truly neutral construction, sewn along the lines of discomfort generated by the destitution of a binary culture and thoughts. A complicated task, even for Fashion. It is, therefore, interesting to observe this evolution — because, in the end, it can also translate the evolution of our way of being,” says Catarina. “Taking on ‘without gender’ as a new banner is not insignificant when considering fashion’s presence and its impact on a global scale — and, consequently, the role that, in fact, it can also represent on this level in the context of a much needed change of mentalities towards a culture more capable of ensuring the dignity of the other, whoever that other may be.” Respect, empathy and acceptance? Now there’s a jacket I wouldn’t mind wearing. With one advantage: it suits us all.
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