What are we doing when we wear what we wear? 

This article was written and photographed by freelance contributor Nifemi Ashani

I employ clothing in a fashionable sense to express my creativity by way of my body; whatever I am thinking of, I want to display it through my appearance. There are many ways I can be innovative and imaginative. I can think inventively, write artistically, or verbalize creative ideas, but expressing these things through my appearance has always been an interest of mine. 

How? Understanding my body as a canvas and my clothing as the paint brush through which I can envision combinations of colors, shapes, patterns and work on connecting them to tell my story. I look at clothing in an intensified way, it’s like a puzzle piece that I actively try to unlock each day, just like we are continually trying to understand life daily. Therefore my closet stays well organized to see all of my clothing vividly, making fitting the puzzle pieces a bit easier during my experimentation. Once I am aware of the elements of clothing style that flow with the day, perhaps based on an inspiration or experience I have internalized, I grab the paintbrushes, that is – my clothing – and then pattern the elements on my body. A full painting has been captured, and I am ready to take on the day. 

This is how fashion functions in my life. It aids in my creative journey, reinforcing positive energy, confidence, and coolness in my own body. In the book Social Psychology of Dress, this creative journey of self-recognition is identified as “identity construction,” whereby a person actively models their identity to fit their ideal selves. We are always developing our identities. It’s an ever-evolving process of one’s life that never ends, and one way we are able to structure our identity is through our daily clothing choices. Cultivating a more in-depth fashion cognizance has heightened my value of self and my growing lens of understanding society’s daily interactions through fashion identity. 

Lately, an interest of mine has been understanding how others embody the symbolism of their clothing and how they grow attached to them. Occasionally I ask myself, what stories are others telling through their clothing? And do they know if they are telling a story? A great deal of research has concluded that what we wear is significantly influenced by our beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, thus reflecting our identities. The more self-aware we are, the better we can understand this phenomenon. My interest in understanding others’ self-conception of fashion identity sparked conversations with some friends at one of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery events I attended in January of this year.

“What role does fashion play in your life?” I asked my good friend Courtney;

“Fashion is quite sentimental and has a lot to do with comfort for me, so a lot of the clothing I wear I remember who I bought it from, or who I was with when I got it, or oftentimes something I get from a friend. I also wear certain colors or clothing depending on the energy that I need that day. Like today, I needed to feel cozy and comfortable but also wanted to be bright, which is why I am wearing green. Green is my power color — I wear green a lot.” 

Being that green is my favorite color, this response put a big smile on my face. Courtney is a woman who holds a strong identity connection to her clothing competence. As fashion can represent how we choose to display our identity, we understand that Courtney’s intimate memories of friends of high importance in her life render the confidence to style her body in a way that would exhibit similar positive energy. Memory holds great power; when we recall nostalgic moments, we can remember what we wore or what someone wore that day. Those pieces of clothing can be an addition to the ongoing story of one’s life. Like the green coat Courtney wore- she specifically chose to wear it because it reinforced a feeling of comfort and reflected her vibrant mood that day. She attached coziness to the green coat because she recollects receiving the coat from a friend who holds a powerful and welcoming energy in her life. Many of our strong memories tend to involve another person; thus, our interactions with others have a considerable impact on our identity. This is called the “interactionist theory” or “symbolic interactionism.” Through clothing, we can attach strong meaning to an event where you dressed to impress a significant other or a possible employer. If both events went well, our memory would equate positive attributes to the clothing worn even after the noteworthy interaction. Our clothing can be aided in the constructions of our dynamic social interactions.

What we wear is a representation of our identity. It’s who we are on the inside, actively reflected in our appearance through fashion. As Malcolm Barnard fittingly says: “representation is correctly placed at the centre, at the heart of fashion and what we wear.” On the Maslow Hierarchy of need, one of our basic needs is the need to feel accepted in our environment. As this plays to our psychological needs, we could also say that clothing is a way for us to symbolically assert the perception of self, and it is also how one sustains the image of self within their milieu. 

I ask Courtney a follow up question to get some more perspective.  “ What would you say you’re communicating through your clothing?”

“I would say I try to portray that I am an artist. I try to dress intentionally, I think deeply about my clothing, and also it depends on the day. Some days I’d dress in a sort of welcoming way if I am open to conversations or if they are times I am feeling more introverted, those days I’d cover my hair actually so that people can’t see that I have red hair, and maybe they won’t talk to me because of my hair. I think I’m not intentionally trying to portray my mood, but I think that my outfits are reflective of it.” 

The “self-verification theory,” developed by Dr.Swann, explains that we actively strive for others to view us how we view ourselves. Creative artists tend to search for collective groups that exemplify their identities, whether through a particular fashion trend or an art discipline, to reinforce the self-affirmation that a person seeks within their social group. Courtney is an outstanding creative artist. Her work doesn’t only verify this, but her community of friends can also connect to this through unique dressing style. She intentionally cultivates her style as an invitation to others who dress similar to her, or dress so that they will be interested in how she dresses. 

One of the sound processes that molds our personal and collective identity is “social feedback.” As other people are positively or negatively engaging with our appearance, it can help us navigate how we want to continue presenting ourselves to the public. A famous proverb used by many African parents states, “show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Although we seek to cultivate a sense of belonging, researchers have asserted that nobody will ever be similar in their identity. Our identities are unique, which is valid due to the diverse social experiences we all face in life. Comparatively, my friend Morris’s response to this same question confirmed this fact.

“I have no theme or coherent look that I go for, but everyday I wake up and I ask myself; “who do I want to look like today” of course it’s still going to be me but these days I’m experimenting with fashion knowing that I resemble a look that has been done before, but with my own twist of course. I’d say I am a part of a scene, but I differentiate myself. Also, I have decided to dedicate my life to arts, and fashion is an art form. It’s a practice I will never stop doing even when I am older. So, I’d say 80% of how I dress is for me, the other 20% is for other people.” 

As much as Morris takes pride in his collective identity, he also sets himself apart from others within that scene. By taking references from looks already done, he reproduces his looks through a stylistic approach of adding unique elements -like occasionally wearing fur coats or wearing a vibrant green corduroy jacket with a black turtleneck suit and vintage brown scarf to complete his cozy-edgy look. This is something we don’t typically see within the punk scene. Knowing Morris personally, his edgy but dreamy fashion style genuinely exemplifies his way of life. 

I have a word that I attach to myself, and people who I feel connect to this expression of self —Morris is always “on roads,” meaning that he is a “student of life,” steadily seeking to maintain a higher frequency of self-exploration. And uniquely, Morris embodies a balance between his personal and collective identity. Lately, he has been styling his outfits around his pants as a fun new way to experiment with his look. His skill in doing this paints a high level of self-awareness reinforced through his fashion identity. 

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Although the self is constantly changing, its changes are sustained through our social relationships. We can use fashion and clothing as the paintbrush to symbolize our canvas’s narrative. Our body’s story. Fashioned by our hopes, fantasies, emotions, realities, beliefs or behaviours, we use our clothing to reflect who we are, whether intentionally or not. As complex as our identities are, Joan Brumberg, in her book The Body Project encourages us to view our bodies as a “DIY (do it yourself) project.” Exploring what fashion means in our lives can help us understand the symbols we express and the attachments we hold through clothing. We better comprehend what we are doing when we decide to wear something, and through it, the journey of our identity can be actively examined. The next time you’re picking out an outfit from your closet, ask yourself; What is something that sparked my curiosity or spoke to me heavily in the past day? Then try to draw elements from your wardrobe to express your feeling or thought to whatever sparked your curiosity or profoundly spoke to you. Suppose you have always wanted to be explorative with your wardrobe. In that case, this is a great way to develop your own sense of style. But keep in mind self-exploration is a journey that takes time and effort. Be open with the possible experimentations that can mold your identity.  

“There is much to support the view that it is clothing that wears us and not we them. We may make them take the mold of our arm or breast, but they mold our hearts, our brain, our tongue to their liking.” – Virginia Woolf

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