14 May 2008

Identity As A Construct - Part II-b: Fashion & Identity

Identity As A Construct - Part II: Fashion & Identity
Identity As A Construct - Part I

For much of its history, fashion was an indicator of class, with styles sharply delineated by social status and financial position. It seems to me that since the mid-1900s, age has replaced class as the leading fashion signifier in western society.

Quality (and name brands) of clothing is still somewhat restricted to economic status, but styles are available in almost all price ranges – the same style of jeans is available for $25.00, $250.00 or more – making fashion more democratic than it has been in the past.

Today people tend to dress in age-appropriate clothing and those who attempt to cross the barriers in too obvious a manner are often considered spectacles of fashion awkwardness. There are also hazards in falling too far out of step with current fashions. In What We Wore, fashion historian Ellen Melinkoff describes “the pompadour ladies,” women who are a decade or more out of fashion, women who “get so fixated on the aesthetic of their early years” that they continue to dress for their entire adult lives in styles that are strongly influenced by what they wore during their own youth (16). My mother tells a story of being so afraid her mother would wear one particular turquoise dress, a dress she thought was hopelessly out of style, to a school function that she actually hid the dress in the back of her mother’s closet.

I remember also being embarrassed by the clothes my mother wore. I thought she was so un-hip. But I think I would have been more embarrassed if she, like some of my friends’ mothers, had dressed in the bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed pullovers, peace signs, chain-link belts and platform shoes that I wore.

It’s funny, but if I go to my daughter’s closets today I find the very same sorts of styles. The re-cycling of fashion is a curious thing to me. The fashion styles I see in my daughters’ closets are not my fashions, even though the actual garments would be quite similar, almost interchangeable, in fact. My clothing had an entirely different “meaning” and were viewed as signifiers of a counter-culture identity that was focused on more than just the rebellion, drugs and free sex that most people now associate with it. It was an identity that embraced a new vision of the world aptly described by the now cliché “peace, love and understanding.” Today the self-same clothes that I wore as an outsider, clothes that I had to scrounge and modify and make by hand, now fill rack after rack in the department stores. Tie-dyes, ethnic prints, beads, bells, patches, all have become a ready-made style to be marketed to a youth that has no idea of what it meant, personally and politically, to dress in those garments a generation ago.

No comments: