FASHIONing Identities Through Cultural Filters

16 March 2024 | Curiously Intercultural, Research

Image Source: Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash

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‘Because if you did not wear spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day.”- The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

We learn and update our cultural codes throughout our entire life. Along with language, we learn how our bodies communicate, and – early in our lives, we begin to make sense of social relations through attire, we teach and learn what “appropriate” means: we dress for the weather and for socialization. The rules of propriety are so deeply embedded in behaviors that we often perceive as “second nature”, our cultural nature. Besides practicality and aesthetic appeal, we learn invisible parameters: standards of modesty, when we should cover (some of) our body parts, how to dress for circumstances, traditionally gender assigned items, age suitability, cleanliness norms, and so on. Appropriateness is learned.

 

Our expectations about someone’s appearance may say more about ourselves than about that individual. The challenge lies in be(com)ing aware of our own values and assumptions. Our deeply ingrained value settings kick in every time we (un)consciously connect to others through dress codes. Failing to decode implicit values may be perceived as “cultural illiteracy”.

Appearance, including attire, often sets directions in our relational orientation.

Our “Colored” Lenses

Considering fashion from an intercultural perspective implies becoming aware of our identity parameters in connection to the “other “and observing the collective lenses that we assume we share. “Problems such as people’s relationship to time, nature, and other human beings—are shared by people; their solutions are not. The latter- as Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner put it, depend on the cultural background of the group concerned”.[i] Making sense of fashion, of our visible culture, requires activating our system of references, a constant inference cycle rooted in our (invisible) values.

Take colors, for example. Understanding the semiotics of color is arguably one of the most contextual, culturally dependent mechanisms of sense-making beyond the non-verbal.

Our implicit assumptions are continuously informed by learned norms and values with contextual application. Michel Pastoureau[ii] reminds us that “What makes color, color, is not nature, it’s not the eye-brain duo, it’s society […] the issues of color are primarily societal issues.”

A single color may have a palette of meanings. In Western cultures, many of us would think of black as color of mourning, or we would easily recognize monastic black. We may have grown up around our grandparents’ non-fashion[iii] garments, the “old people black”, practical, but also associated with modesty and sexual neutrality.

The same cultural programming would, on the other hand, determine different reactions to what Scottish museologists describe as well-mannered black[iv] of the “little black dress” or the “black tie”, or our stance in relation to the rebellious Goth Black.

Fashioning One’s Public Persona

Our attire, hairdo and accessories are modifiable extensions of our bodies. We literally tailor or drape the folds of our personae, our identities in various contexts. But while clothing is a customizable means of expressing individuality, decoding attire is a community-informed, cultural affair. Understanding clothing is a form of social “literacy”, we process fashion as a visual code beyond consciousness. Making sense of fashion, of our visible culture, requires activating our system of references, a constant inference cycle rooted in our (invisible) values. As Malcolm Barnard interprets Marx’s theory of “fetishism of commodities”, we use clothes as “social hieroglyphics” and what we wear legitimizes social distinctions and inequalities. [v]

 

In addition to status-indicating elite brands and aesthetics, the desirable attributes of our “must-haves” are newness and variety, adding to the symbolic expression of buying power.

This recent post on a local parents’ forum, made me contemplate my own child’s future with apprehension. While wealth comparison is not new behavior in time and space, the increasing pressure for fast indulgence raises concerns about the sustainability of our lifestyle and the ecological impact of individual choices.

The Power of Fashion

Social status is part of a larger paradigm of power relations. According to Georg Simmel[vi], the “entire history of society is reflected in the conflict between adaptation to society and individual departure from its demands”.  Let’s examine how these paradoxically interconnected desires to be part of a larger whole and individual need for affirmation permeate society.

Human Rights Activism

Public statements through attire are hardly the affair of the few. An outfit can quickly make social or political dissent visible.

Image Source: www.libcom.org

As Tara Donaldson explains[vii], clothing has been used to make a political statement in the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, from the Sunday Best attire of 1950s and 60s advocacy marches, when respectability was aiming to elevate the black community in the eyes of the public, through the protest power-uniform of the Black Panthers in the 1970s and the message-bearing t-shirts of the Black Lives Matter revival.

The Black Panthers Party[viii] transformed the movement into a matter of power. Their look drew inspiration from the countercultural connotations of leather and the beret, usually a part of military uniforms. Co-founder Huey Newton was seemingly inspired by a film on the French Resistance[ix] and characterized it as “an international hat for the revolutionary”. The color black was used as a symbol pride and beauty, distancing itself from the stigmatization of black as something negative. It was during this time that slogans such as “Black power” and “Black is beautiful” began to emerge.

Image Source: Alfo Medeiros on Pexels

 

The events of 2016-20, echoing 1960’s police brutality, revived public interest in the Black Panther Party fashion staples, if anyone remembers Beyoncé and dancers performing at the 2016 Super Bowl [x].

The most popular canvas for both grassroot activism and celebrity statements seems to be the T-shirt. Star NBA player LeBron James took the “I can’t breathe” slogan to the basketball floor and to Instagram in 2020.

Activism in Times of Fast Fashion

Elevated from under-wear to what everyone wears everywhere, the T-shirt is the “every-body” garment, the basic item that most humans own, regardless of gender, age, or social status. T-shirts can be as taste-free, neutral, and anonymous as white rice, and they can be customized to boldly display customers’ individuality. We have a dual relationship with the graphic T-shirt: we love its potential to display our values and affiliations, yet its disposable and cheap nature condemns the message to a short-lived, highly contextual purpose.

I still remember the angry line from the iconic ’95 movie Se7en: two detectives are forced to drive a serial killer who staged murders based on the seven deadly sins. John Doe says that God has selected him to convey a message about society’s apathy toward immorality and that his dehumanizing atrocities will compel society to take notice. In response, Detective Mills scorns him: “You’re no Messiah… You’re a f*** T-shirt at best.” This mise en perspectivestruck me and it has not aged in decades: the T-shirt has been a medium for messages before the virtual forms of social media, preceding memes and #tags, ranging from humor and inspirational quotes to radical political stance.

Ephemerous, the message printed on wearable cotton is both individual and anonymous. Slogan T-shirts make statements, although not fashion ones. In the recent years, we seem to have moved away from the ‘90s Iron Maiden and Backstreet Boys pop culture to more activist messages.

While a public canvas for identity discourse. T-shirt slogans forgo subtlety, conveying their message with straightforward conviction. Messages on T-shirts either engage us with like-minded people, or challenge those who have different, even opposing values.

I took these two pictures in public spaces in the US, in 2023. I wonder: what would the ”God, Gun, Coffee” lover and the “Dear person behind me, the world is a better place with you in it” talk about? How would they communicate about their values? Maybe they worship the same God or like the same coffee? Could the same person wear these two messages together, one in the front, one in the back?

While all value-centric, some slogans can be adamant (“my way or the highway”), whereas others invite to value-driven dialogue. At some point, we all make choices. Would you, would I wear “A Good Kick in The Balls Will Solve Your Gender Confusion” shirt or an “Abortion is healthcare” sweatshirt (both items available for purchased online)?   If we all wrote our values in print on our shirts or if we wore our layers of identity as clothing, how would we communicate across differences?

Operational Cultural Awareness

When attire statements bring up polarizing values, we often tend to avoid confrontation. I would argue that mutual understanding of values is more efficient than avoidance. We do not need to think of nationalities or ethnicities to realize the complexity of inter-cultural communication.

Cultivating cultural intelligence involves shifting the focus on the people, not on “political” or other polarizing paradigms. By tapping into various layers of our fluid identities we might be able to identify common ground. While we may disagree on some values, we may intersect, find a common denominator in parenthood or spirituality for instance. Being aware of similarity or antipathy bias contributes to higher levels of our cultural literacy.

Among the practical activities for cultural awareness training, drills such as Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate (D.I.V.E.)[xi] may help us pause and consider multiple perspectives. Hosting a diversophy® game or a Human Library[xii] event may also develop un-judging mechanisms. UNESCO’s story circles [xiii] are another adaptable tool for developing intercultural competence[xiv], which refers to the skills, attitudes, and behaviors needed to improve interactions across difference, whether within a society or across borders.

The better we recognize our cultural filters and settings, the better we function as citizens.

About the author

With a multifaceted career spanning over two decades, Luciana Lallaizon, M.A., M.Ed., is an international educator based in Michigan, USA. She has taught and developed curricula in Romania and the United States, both in the public and private education systems, and has initiated multiple international programs.   Luciana dedicates a significant part of her professional commitment to promoting interculturality and advocating for global citizenship education. Her contributions include involvement with the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence, where she has initiated a network of French-speaking researchers and professionals.

 

Feature Image: Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash.

All Images Courtesy of the author unless stated otherwise. 

 

 

Reference List: 

[i] Trompenaars, F. (2012). Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, pp.27–38.

[ii] France Culture. (n.d.). Le noir à travers les âges, avec Michel Pastoureau : épisode • 1/4 du podcast Le Noir est une couleur. [online] Available at: https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/la-compagnie-des-oeuvres/le-noir-a-travers-les-ages-6611725 [Accessed 12 Mar. 2024].

[iii] Barnard, M. (n.d.). Fashion and Choice. www.academia.edu. [online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/43367332/Fashion_and_Choice [Accessed 12 Mar. 2024].

[iv] Arts, G., Culture and Design (n.d.). 100 years of the Little Black Dress. [online] National Museums Scotland. Available at: https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/global-arts-cultures-and-design/100-years-of-the-little-black-dress/.‌

[v] Barnard, M. (2002). Fashion as communication. London: Routledge.

[vi] Simmel, G. (1957). Fashion. American Journal of Sociology, [online] 62(6), pp.541–558. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2773129.

[vii] libcom.org. (n.d.). The Black Panther: newspaper of the Black Panther Party | libcom.org. [online] Available at: https://libcom.org/article/black-panther-newspaper-black-panther-party.

[viii] Abu, F. (2020). How Black Lives Matter changed fashion in 2020. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201215-the-power-of-black-resistance-dressing-and-identity.

[ix] Donaldson, T. (2021). Dress and Protest: Fashion Hasn’t Been a Bystander in the Black Civil Rights Movement. [online] WWD. Available at: https://wwd.com/feature/protest-fashion-black-civil-rights-black-panthers-blm-1234715312/.

[x] Viera, B. (n.d.). The Truth You DON’T Know About the Black Panthers, As Told from a Former Party Member. [online] Teen Vogue. Available at: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-panthers-party-beyonce-superbowl.

[xi] AFS Tools to Suspend Judgment. Available at: https://d22dvihj4pfop3.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/106/2019/03/05001420/Tools_to_Suspend_Judgment_for_AFS_and_Friends.pdf

[xii] The Human Library Organization. (n.d.). Unjudge someone. [online] Available at: https://humanlibrary.org.

[xiii] Unesco.org. (2024). Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000370336.locale=en [Accessed 12 Mar. 2024].

[xiv] Deardorff, D.K. (2020). Manual for developing intercultural competencies. UNESCO Publishing.

 

 

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