Fashion plays an integral role in the formation and expression of individual identity

Discuss this statement with reference to examples

Fashion is a non-verbal style of identity expression. The way we dress allows us to transmit messages, regarding our affiliation with particular groups, through collectivism. Fashion also allows individuals to distinguish themselves from such groups, by engaging in individualistic behaviours. As we develop and mature we become associated with a number of different groups (Jackson 2014, p. 136). According to Jackson, there are over fifteen types of identities, inclusive of, personal, class, sexual, gender, cultural and religious identities. Fashion impacts on multiple facets of identification and assists in the formation of ones self, as a whole. Clothing and style can be affiliated with ones avowed identity, that is, the way, in which, we wish to portray ourselves to others. It can also have meaning ascribed to it, through judgments and stereotypes constructed by society. Essentially, fashion is a universally recognised, semiotic marker of identity that retains significant communicative functions.

Personal identity defines an individual in terms of his or her differences to others. (Liu 2011, p. 290-91) Avowal refers to the process of telling others what identity you wish to present and or, how you see yourself. (Oetzel 2009, p. 62) Expression through avenues inclusive of clothing, shoes, accessories, hair styles and body modifications can be a powerful tool, used to shape ones personality, therefore, linking fashion closely with personal identity. “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You” is a book, published in 2012, written by clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer Baumgartner, that explores the “psychology of dress.” Within the discourse, Baumgartner discusses a study conducted in at North-western University that examined a concept called “enclothed cognition.” Researchers define the term as “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes,” meaning what your clothes are saying to you, rather than about you. (Forbes Magazine 2012) During the experiment, researchers distributed standard white lab coats to a number of participants, telling some that it was a doctor’s coat and some that it was a painter’s smock. All participants performed the same task. Findings showed that participants who wore the “doctor’s coat” were more careful and attentive; in essence, their actions were influenced by their clothing. (Forbes Magazine 2012)  The symbolic meaning participants ascribed to their clothing was, therefore, influential. They let their clothes dictate their actions and behaviours, thus, impacting upon their personality, making evident fashion’s communicative function, as a semiotic marker of personal identity.

Class identity, according to Martin and Nakayama, refers to ‘a sense of belonging to a group that shares similar economic, occupational or social status’. Fashion has long been engrained in the distinction of social class. This becomes evident through the examination of fashion trends and allocation during the Eighteenth Century French Revolution as compared to class division in the Twenty First Century. Categorisation and separation of social classes was based solely on attire, as dress was a prominent indicator of social class during the time of the French Revolution. Society was divided into the Three Estates of the Realm. The First Estate consisted of clergymen, the second, of French nobility and royalty and the third, of the working class (Bourgeoisie) and peasantry. In relation to women’s fashions, in particular, the First Estate wore simple elegant dresses made of silk with white gloves, glamorous jewelry and wigs. The Second Estate wore elaborate dresses made of silk with satin heels and extravagant jewellery. The Third Estate wore plain, unimpressive dresses made of simple fabrics, for they lacked funds to purchase expensive materials. Today, social class is still defined by access to fashion trends.  Through the examination of modern fashion magazines inclusive of Vogue, Marie Claire and Harpers Bazaar, we uncover stark class division.  Targeted marketing, quality, branding, and exclusivity create a significant divide between classes, as high-end and popular fashion magazines target audiences with disposable incomes as opposed to individuals on a tight budget, due to ascribed difference in behaviours and spending habits of consumers, based on socially established stereotypes of class. In regards to being a symbolic indicator of class, it is clear that fashion has been a significant marker of class identity that has transcended time. This makes apparent, the universality of fashion as a communicative device that assists in the construction of identity.

A person may express their sexuality in a multitude of ways. Fashion is, but one, avenue through which, an individual can communicate their sexuality to others. A study conducted in Manchester, United Kingdom in 2005, explored the importance of fashion and clothing for homosexual males as ‘semiotic markers for identity creation and communication’ (Schofield 2005). Through the conduction of participant observation, interviews and a focus group, researchers found that the communication of individual identity through clothes provided a marker for “gayness” which allowed homosexual men to indicate tribal allegiance to a particular group or subculture. Researchers also concluded that clothing facilitated acceptance and integration into group situations. “The proactive use of clothing as a semiotic marker enables the fluid construction and linking of multiple identities.” (Schofield 2005) In this case, evidence suggests that fashion is, indeed, universally recognised as a semiotic marker of identity that retains significant communicative functions.

Drag queens present a challenge to the norms of gender identity in relation to fashion. Individuals who participate in drag deflect heteronormative standards in the fashion industry and allow for self-expression of a heightened caliber. Participation in drag allows men to challenge gender identity norms with the application of dramatic makeup and the wearing of sensational clothing. RuPaul’s Drag Race is an American reality television series that documents the search for ‘America’s next drag superstar.’ The televised competition has provided opportunity for it’s contestants to make ground breaking progress within the fashion industry. Drag queens from the show have featured in fashion campaigns by the likes of Marc Jacobs, Harper’s Bazaar and Interview Magazine, paving the way for further acceptance of drag, and protesting gender norms, as constructed by contemporary society. Along with the acceptance of drag comes the acceptance of gender fluidity and androgyny as a part of an individual’s identity. In 2015, Marcia Alvarado walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, sporting menswear despite being a female. Alvarado is signed with an agency as a male model, her masculine qualities aligning her with that of a man. Alvarado’s success is a sign of the ever-growing LGBTQI inclusiveness within fashion and advertising, with gender-neutral clothing gaining prominence globally. Thus, fashion is an exemplary communicative tool that can assist in the acceptance of varied gender identities.

Cultural and religious identities are two facets that become intertwined when considering how fashion can be associated with the expression of both culture and religion. Membership of a particular cultural or religious group can be indicated by specific types of dress. The traditional attire of Indians practicing Sikhism dates back centuries. The Sikh code of conduct specifies the wearing of kachhera and a turban for all Sikh males, giving Sikh females the option of wearing a headscarf tocover their hair. (ThoughtCo 2018) Similar options are available for practicing Muslim women. The Hijab is the most common type of headscarf worn. It is a headscarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear. The niqab is a combination of a head covering and scarf that covers all of a woman’s face except for her eyes. The burqa covers the whole body from the top of the head to the ground. It is the most concealing of all Islamic veils, covering the entire face, including the eyes. (Vice 2016) Such garments are worn to indicate religious affiliation and as a symbol of modesty and privacy. Together with customs, practices and ceremonies, cultural and religious dress is foremost in the expression and celebration of collective culture, religion and worship. Consequently, fashion and clothing can be symbolic of both individual and collective identity, thus, retaining exceptional communicative functions.

Personality, class, sexuality, gender, culture and religion assist us in forming our own identity and sense of self. Furthermore, fashion, in association with such traits, enhances individual and collective identity through means of self-expression. Our fashion choices and the statements we choose to make, through the clothes we wear, are, often times, indicative of the ways, in which, we wish to portray ourselves to the surrounding world. Our avowed identity is multifaceted, and fashion, being a form of expression, is an essential part of the process of self-awareness and identity creation. Hereby, it is discernible, that fashion is a universally recognised, semiotic marker of identity that retains significant communicative functions.



Barnard, M 2010, ‘Communication and Culture’ Fashion Statements: On Style, Appearance and Reality, pp.23 – 34

Crane, D 2000, ‘Fashion identity and social change’ Fashion and its social agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing, The university of Chicago Press, United States of America, pp.1 – 6

Davis, F 1994, Fashion, Culture and Identity, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Jackson, J 2014, Introducing Language and Intercultural Communication, Routledge, New York.

Tarlo, E 2013, Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America, Bloomsbury, London.


Adam, H 2012, ‘Enclothed cognition’ Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp.918 – 925

Schofield, K 2005, ‘Fashion and clothing: the construction and communication of gay identities’ International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp.310-323


Androgynous models are the new stars of New York Fashion Week, 2015, The Daily Dot, Viewed Monday 14th May 2018, <https://www.dailydot.com/irl/nyfw-marcia-alvarado-model/&gt;

Fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race, 2017, The First Proof, Viewed Monday 14th May 2018, < http://www.thefirstproof.com/conversations/fashion-rupauls-drag-race.html&gt;

 How fashion shapes identity: What do your clothes say about you?, 2016, Ecosalon, Viewed Saturday 12th May 2018, < http://ecosalon.com/how-fashion-shapes-identity-what-do-your-clothes-say-about-you/&gt;

How the hijab went from religious garment to identity marker, 2016, Vice, Viewed Saturday 12th May 2018, < https://i-d.vice.com/en_au/article/papwxy/how-the-hijab-went-from-religious-garment-to-identity-marker&gt;

Introduction to the Traditional Dress of Sikhs, 2018, ThoughtCo, Viewed Sunday 13th May 2018, < https://www.thoughtco.com/traditional-dress-of-sikhs-2993014&gt;

Out of the Closet: Fashion’s Influence on Gender and Sexuality, 2011, Serendip Studio, Viewed Sunday 13th May 2018, <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/kim-k/out-closet-fashions-influence-gender-and-sexuality&gt;

What your clothes say about you, 2012, Forbes, Viewed Sunday 13th May 2018, < https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2012/04/03/what-your-clothes-say-about-you/#3e1824a36699&gt;