Constructing Our Identities Through the Medium of Fashion

Every year more than a billion people take the London tube.

Every year more than a billion people are observed, scrutinized, and judged by strangers.

We try to guess people’s identity, from their sexuality to their social class to their overall personality, simply by taking a five second look at their appearance.

By judging people simply on their clothes, we are putting them into small boxes, perhaps working as a reassuring act that helps us keep everything under control – we’re sought to believe that everyone belongs somewhere and individuality is seen as odd and scary. With a glance we create a quick judgement: the 40 year old man wearing a navy suit is a business man whose primary interest is finance; the 20 year old girl with a travelling backpack and Afghani trousers is a hippie who fights for drug legalization and works in human rights. The young mother wearing a tracksuit is a high school dropout chav who got accidentally impregnated when she was sixteen. The fifteen year old with the long black fringe and piercings is a goth who has no apparent reason to be unhappy and is just looking for attention.

These, and many more, are all stereotypes that damage our interactions of society. They make us more distant. They make us more reluctant. They make us more fearful. They make us judge and feel judged. Why does fashion matter so much in our daily behaviour? Why does it play such a big influence in our lives?

Personally, fashion has always been my vehicle of rebellion. I was the shy respectful kid who would always do what he was told do, quite mediocre in everything I did. However, this did not mean I felt comfortable, accepted, or happy with society. I felt different from mainstream accepted political and cultural ideas which unsettled me; I felt different due to my religious beliefs, as I knew absolutely nothing about Catholicism but quite a lot about being a Baha’i; I felt physically different from people around me, as everyone always emphasized in their interactions with me my non-whiteness. I felt the need to express my difference and I did so with fashion.

I grew up in a small Italian town where individuality is repressed and anything that goes past the norm is gossiped about, judged and oppressed. Social norms told me that dyeing your hair is for girls, and so I dyed it. Social norms told me that an appropriate school outfit is jeans and hoodies, and so I wore Burmese tunics. Social norms told me that I was supposed to wear formal outfits to exams, and so I wore my red cheetah-printed trousers. As an unconfident shy teenager I relied entirely on what people could see of me, not what I could say to them. My discomfort was entirely processed in my wardrobe choices every morning. When people asked me the reason behind my outfits, I would mumble that there was none; and yet every morning I found myself wearing spikes around my arm and three pairs of belts around my hips.

I never considered myself being part of any youth subcultures, and yet people have been constantly trying to fit me into these categories. I’ve been asked “What are you”, or been yelled at across the street “emo”/“gay”/“stoner”. While you can find elements of subcultures in my fashion sense, my identity is personal, individual, as is everyone else’s. This should be cherished, not repressed; grouping individuals into boxes might be easier, but it makes us under-appreciate the identity behind the human. I have a hard time labelling my cultural identity, my sexuality, AND my fashion sense. I don’t think identity is label-able, I think identity is individual.

Next time you find yourself people-watching, my advice is not to label people, but to imagine stories. The man in the suit could be the CEO of a sex shop and hide latex underwear under his trousers; while the blonde haired Asian looking guy could be wearing really plain underwear under his bright green trousers, and tries so hard in dressing differently just because he is told not to.

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Jon Bellebono is a second year Social Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies student at SOAS. His most hated questions include ‘Where are you really from?” and “Since you’re Italian… What football team do you root for?”