The Myth of Fashion As Self-Expression

September 8, 2016

by Gracia Ventus

Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat

When I was younger I used to think that displaying one's tastes externally was cool, despite knowing that deep down inside I risked being uncool by wanting to be cool. However the compulsion was strong. I wore my Tool shirt with much pride, paired with the skinniest of jeans and the most hardcore of Harley Davidson boots. Ideally they should destroy someone's naked toes if I step on them. While my outlook remained the same, my interest gradually switched to fashion. I made sure people know of my hobby, which in itself is probably not a bad thing because every human craves for validation. But I was also secretly judging people for being unadventurous with their clothing choices. Instead of letting people be who they want to be, or wear whatever pleases them, I'd instinctively be tut-tutting their choice of clothing silently (she's wearing t-shirt and shorts with her birkin?!). I was an awful, despicable snob.

I was reminded of my old self because recently someone I spoke to complained of a girl who chided his preference for J. Crew. Her exact word was 'GROSS', before going off on a rant about how clothing is a way to express one's personality. To choose nondescript clothing labels to wear was a sign of a lack of it.

Her words echo this popular notion that fashion is a form a self-expression, that it is a genuine way of showcasing our inner self. I say it's utter nonsense.

Dress is an important dimension in the articulation of personal identity but not in the sense of voluntarism, whereby one's choice of dress is freely-willed, expressive and creative. On the contrary, this 'personal identity' is managed through dress in rather boring ways because societal pressures encourage us to stay within the bounds of what is defined as a 'normal' body and 'appropriate' dress. Too much attention has been given to self-expression and individuality, while ignoring the implicit constraints that we face every day (Enwistle, 2001, available here and here). In fact, we often make sartorial decisions based on practicality, whom to impress, whom not to offend, which fashion tribe to align to, what our heroes are wearing, and how we want the world to perceive us. There's also budgetary, class and social constraints that we have to adhere to. If fashion was truly a form of carefree self-expression, many of us would choose to be naked, and men would not feel insecure about their fragile masculinity when confronted with feminine clothing. The external pressure to dress a certain way is most evident in the realm of fashion blogging and street style, whereby the need to be recognised or conform to certain aesthetics (Southern prep anyone? Or the cool kids of Vetements?) often trumps other hidden desires. Even yours truly still falls prey to that. I know I love the clothes that I wear, but I'm also aware of the external influences of the zeitgeist, which is why my favourite shoes currently are my Rafdidas.

There are several reasons for one to feel the need to express their identity and these mainly revolve around issues of social status, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, religious condition, recreation and individualism. With the creative use of fashion, individuals are able to either confirm or subvert several of these facets about their identities, consequently transmitting culturally coded, visual messages about themselves. This personal identity that is often tied into fashion is a created self that has to be crafted through social interactions. While one can argue that we internalise these influences to make them a part of our existence, there are still plenty of other external forces that play a strong role in our decision-making processes, as mentioned above.

So why then are we so hung up on the idea that fashion is an authentic form of self-expression and personal identity? It's a romantic idea that is as clichéd and unhealthy as the line 'You complete me.'. Do we really believe that Justin Beiber is a big fan of Metallica when he wore their t-shirts? Should we care? Why do many of the most creative people in the world choose to wear black t-shirts all the time?

At the end of the day, we have to stop swallowing this myth because it turns us into judgmental creatures. It shouldn't matter whether a person dresses normal, lavish, outrageous, subtle, boring, so long as they're appropriate within the context of the situation (again, bowing down to external forces). We do our darndest to not judge a book by its cover, and we should do the same for fellow human beings.

Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre CoatIssey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat

Issey Miyake Bergdorf Goodman Ombre Coat


4 thoughts on “The Myth of Fashion As Self-Expression

  • Jack

    by Jack on September 9, 2016 at 1:12 am

    I never comment on random blogs, but I want to now because I think this is really interesting.

    For the most part, I agree: the idea that our fashion is a reflection of a unique identity and self-expression, rather than something shaped by a hundred internal and external factors, is a myth we propogate for one reason or another. Purely the idea that most of our clothing is mass-manufactured renders the idea of self-expression a bit moot.

    But I’ve learned to start thinking about fashion more as curation, rather than expression. Rather than thinking of outfits or pieces as reflective of identity, to me, it’s just a reflection of taste and thought and care being put into your outfit, as well as what sort of things do or don’t appeal to you. Any 100 people can own a pair of Balmain jeans or Raf Simons something or other–if that says anything about your identity, it can only say that you’re a bit boring. But when those pieces are paired well (which I don’t think happens all that often), I think that sense of curation is (as far as I’m concerned) a signal of thoghtfulness in composition, among other things.

    My favorite part of “fashion,” isn’t the pieces I wear or the look I put out. It’s being able to put together an outfit myself and feeling that it’s congruous, both with my own vision and with what others see.

  • Ben

    by Ben on September 9, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Hi Gracia,

    Can’t an authentic expression still be influenced and constrained by our preconceptions and values? Our implicit constraints are everywhere, and I would argue that any expression or action we take is bound by those things. Either all expressions are authentic to the individual, or none are.

  • Syed

    by Syed on September 14, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    When I first started getting into fashion I too thought in terms of that romantic notion of “self-expression”, but nowadays I have thankfully left that behind. Of course we will always find ways of marking individuality and expressing out tastes, but there is no singular identity – we are merely expressing ourselves within the confines of whatever socially accepted uniform. If I go to a red carpet event I am not going in a velour tracksuit (…ok, I wouldn’t go anywhere in a velour tracksuit, but having typed that…a black velour tracksuit would be pretty nice when on the sofa), but choosing to wear a tuxedo and maybe expressing myself with the little details, whether it be choice of cummerbund or lapel pin.

    I always think people confuse dressing loudly with expressing themselves. I know because I have done that in the past, but the louder I dressed, the more lost I actually was – it was only once I gained a better sense of myself and confidence in myself and my body that I started dressing a lot quieter (thankfully Yohji also has louder pieces when I feel like it).

    I always find it funny when my friends think I might criticise what other people are wearing because I am into fashion, but personally, I enjoy whatever people wear provided they are actually comfortable and happy wearing it. I would rather see someone wearing flipping Crocs and a tracksuit on the street if they feel happy and comfortable, rather than seeing them awkwardly walking around in something they clearly would rather not be wearing. But then the appropriateness of setting also comes into play like you said, and I think the best dressed people are always those who suit the setting, but can find the leeway within that to still pay attention to the cut, the colours, the textures, the movement, and all the rest of what make up a good outfit – I don’t care how amazing the cut of your suit is and how polished your shoes are, but if you are wearing it to a pottery class, that just looks stupid. It’s the reason that I can see people wearing these otherwise immaculate outfits, but it comes off entirely as costume – wearing a ballgown to the supermarket is not chic, it’s just play dressing; but at the same time, if that’s what you always wear, power to you. I think I just often see people trying so hard to be “fashionable” and look cool, when actually they would be better served by slowing down and actually finding out what they enjoy, rather than what they think other people enjoy (dressing for the internet etc.).

    And heck yeah to Entwistle, her writing is so good :)

  • rilu

    by rilu on September 16, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I completely disagree! :D Posted some thoughts on why on unwoven:

    P.S. Beautiful fit, Gracia!


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