Once during the summer after eighth grade, I wore a salmon-colored chiffon sleeveless button down tucked into black and white high waisted cotton shorts and teal faux suede Oxford shoes to my Sunday School class. I looked like an Orange Push Pop with bangs. But, as I sat in a little plastic chair with my Adventure Bible, one of the more popular girls in the youth group stopped and said to me, “Erin, I love your outfit! You look so cute!” And for my timid middle school self with my social anxiety and my little Bible and my goosebumps, that little moment was pivotal. I didn’t realize she knew my name. I clicked my teal heels together in happiness for the rest of the day.
That morning was the first time in my life in which I felt clothes give me power. From that moment on, I became incredibly conscious of how I presented myself with my clothing and how that communicated parts of my personality and identity. How I dress myself still plays a huge role in my life today, and it affects and/or reflects everything from the weather to my mood to my mental health.
I wanted to find out if other students at Oxford felt the same types of connection to clothing that I did, so I interviewed eleven students to hear their thoughts. Their relationships to clothing vary greatly in expression, meaning, and importance.
Emily Cort does not share my strong feelings about clothing and style. She questions just how much a person can learn about another from their clothing. “Someone once told me that first impressions happen in the first twenty-fifth of a second—how much can you know about a person in a 25th of a second?” She makes a valid point: the way someone dresses can never tell the entirety of a their story. But for some, it is a crucial element of their identity. “A lot of people know me because I dress well,” says Mahaa Mahmood, “and I like being identified that way.” Mahaa’s desire to be recognized for dressing well is not on unique to her, but it is expressed in different ways for different people. Some dress to express, while others dress to conceal, contradict, or rebel. Combinations of these three motives inform the way certain people dress in relation to their identity—both positively and negatively.
For Keri Zhang, her worries about being perceived as the stereotypical quiet Asian American girl led her to dress more “loudly” in high school, eventually mellowing out her outfit choices as she grew into a more confident and vocal person. “I define a lot of myself through my clothing,”
Keri says, reminiscing on how she used to dress the way she did as a method of resistance—not only against the stereotypes she faced in school, but also against her own mother’s worries of Keri being seen as vain. She now rests in a comfortable balance between serving/resisting those forces, explaining that “vanity isn’t necessarily bad…but I don’t need clothes to do as much of the talking for me anymore.”
Angela Yang has a similar experience with her style reflecting a sort of retaliation against rules of home life. She dresses differ
ently at college than at home because “at home, I feel the restraints from my parents on what I put on my face and body.” Issues with her identity also contribute to how she chooses not to dress. “I like the look of traditional Chinese style, but I don’t feel like it belongs to me…I am an Asian American who isn’t Asian and isn’t American. At my lowest lows, I feel as though I am appropriating my own culture.”
For Fatima Elfakahany, her clothing reflects a desire to shield herself from the attention that stereotypes naturally bring. “I don’t like that I dress as the stereotypical gay woman…I want to be known for something other than my appearance,” she says. She finds that the way she dre
sses now still feeds into that stereotype, but she doesn’t fight it anymore because the clothing itself brings her comfort and hides the things she needs it to hide. When asked what she wants her appearance to say to others, then, she responds with “don’t look at me; don’t pay attention to me.” Instead of receiving any sort of response to her look, even positive, she would rather her appearance go unnoticed altogether.
Mental Health and Self Expression
Fatima’s statements made me question how we perceive attention to our appearances either as a tool or a hinderance to our self expression. For people
like Alex Araujo, positive attention can completely change his mood. If he dresses in a way that is “exciting, professional, and put-together” when he is feeling off, he can muster the strength to get through the day and “put my best foot forward.” When Haley Williams has a difficult day, she admits that “whoever
sees me first will NOT get the best sight of me…but there will be a point when I go back to my room, cry it all out, and get all f***ing dolled up.” To Haley, getting dressed up gives her a sort of temporary power. It prepares her emotionally for the coming challenges—and although she admits that there are points in those bad days at which she feels foolish for doing it, she dons
the makeup and the dresses time and time again.
Good and Bad Power
The more I ask my informants about their relationships with clothing and the more I receive conflicting answers, I ask myself whether or not the power we allow clothing to have over our identities and moods is actually a good thing. Many of the students I interviewed wo
uld agree that the clothing they wear and the way they wear it serves a purpose for empowering them. Other students I encounter claim that the power we give clothing is a superficial one, and if we rely on it to dictate how we feel about ourselves and others then we are giving into a shallow view of the world. But what if we were to separate the concept of “style” or “fashion” from our concept of clothing and its impact?
Ellie Agler is a perfect example. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, she was not afforded many freedoms in her life, and it was extremely apparent in the way she dressed. Choosing to leave that community and moving to college with no intent of following the its teachings any longer, she expressed her new-found freedom with her dress—and still was faced with ridicule for her appearance after the transition. Leaving what she considered to be a hyper-judgmental environment only to enter another one “imposed upon me that clothing does in fact speak about who you are.” But despite the superficiality of the judgements she received based on her style, the fact that she was wearing something as basic as jeans or printed tees or short hair had an impact on her life that was completely separate from the aesthetic it represented. “What am I trying to tell people with my clothing? I am trying to tell them that I don’t care anymore.” For Ellie, her clothing gave her a power that was distinct from whatever attention she received. “Breaking out of power dynamics is a struggle. At times I still crave the security of fundamentalist ideals…but I want people like my younger siblings, who are still in that environment, to know that if you don’t want to fit the mold, you have the power to change.”
So, I return to Emily’s initial question: how much can you learn about a person in a twenty-fifth of a second? Not a lot. But we have to recognize that whether or not a person considers themselves “fashionable,” “put together,” or any other concept surrounding clothing and choice, that clothes do have power. For me and my Orange Push-Pop shirt and teal heels, my clothing opened a door for human connection to which I didn’t previously feel I had access. For others, it can hide, complement, or amplify. Clothing is never, however, silent—and that can be daunting—but its voice has the potential to be an extension of our own. In the words of Shah, “this is what I choose for myself”—and dressing everyday with that resolve holds more power than anything.
Find this same article and others on Erin’s blog at www.ProjectMaganda.com.
Photos courtesy of informants