Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Labels, Clothing, and Identity: Are You What You Wear?

I saw this image circulating around Facebook, and I agree with it's primary message. I've written about labeling and identity before (see here, here, and here). Labels are useful for making sense of the world. I label myself all the time. I am _______: mother, feminist, wife, sister, daughter, friend, student, teacher, employee, woman, white. Labels help us find our commonalities and appreciate each other's differences, but labels that are thrust upon us by someone else are problematic. Even labels we readily accept become a problem when we are reduced to them or when someone else's interpretation of them overrides our own. I am a mother, but I am not just a mother. I am a wife, but that doesn't mean I ascribe to all of the traditional connotations of "wife." 

And what about clothes? The picture above says "labels are for clothes" to imply that labels are not for people, but what about when clothes label people?

Clothes and Prejudice
I attended a discussion about the Trayvon Martin case that centered around hoodies. With Geraldo Rivera blaming (and then recanting) Martin's death on his hoodie and everyone from entire basketball teams, to college students across the country, to Congressmen donning the garment in solidarity with Martin, the hoodie is in the spotlight. 

In that forum, we talked about what it really meant to be "hooded," and the speaker maintained that George Zimmerman was the most hooded of all that night. He refused to give police his location on the 911 call. He remained elusive about his physical whereabouts and said that police could call him when they arrived and he would meet them then. The speaker then went on to draw some comparisons to another vigilante "justice" group fond of hoods: the KKK. 

But it is Trayvon Martin's hoodie that draws our eyes and our attention. It is this garment that has allowed many (not just Geraldo) to label him a "thug" in internet comments and casual conversation. And many others are making other connections with the hoodie. 

Shaima Alawadi was brutally beaten and killed in California. The Iraqi-American mother of five was wearing a hijab when she was killed, and a note calling her a "terrorist" left next to her body suggests a hate crime based on her race. 

The link is clear; we see a particular garment and then make assumptions about the person wearing it. We allow the garment to stand in for actual knowledge about a person's character because it is easier and because it allows us to pass prejudicial judgment without having to admit that's what we're doing. The clothing becomes a scapegoat for our own prejudices. 

This is not limited to racial prejudices, either. In fact, the use of clothing as a snap judgment stand-in is at the heart of the Slutwalk movement, as well. When a Toronto police officer casually remarked that women should avoid dressing like "sluts" to avoid getting raped, international protests tipped off. Because a short skirt, low-cut top, or tight dress does not tell you anything about a person's character, either. It doesn't make that person less valuable.  

That's simple enough on the surface, right. A hoodie does not make someone a thug. A hijab does not make someone a terrorist. A skirt does not make someone a slut. So what do clothes do? Why do we wear them?

Clothes as Personal Communication
While I unequivocally agree that we should not use clothing as a scapegoat for our prejudices, I cannot deny that clothing does carry meaning. Try telling a man walking out of a Brooks Brothers store that the suit he's carrying doesn't say anything about him. If it didn't, he wouldn't be paying that kind of money for it. If that suit didn't mean something, he'd show up to work in gym shorts and a t-shirt. 

And clothing is one of the easiest ways to demonstrate our own personal sense of style, right? We don't get a chance to talk to everyone we pass in a day. We don't get a chance to say who we are and what we stand for. And, sure, our clothes can't do all of that, but it does give us a chance to send some non-verbal communication to everyone who sees us. Clothes can be powerful. 

I like putting on my favorite pair of jeans and cute top and walking around on the weekends. I think that these things do send a message about me and who I am.  I like identifying myself as a mother and wife. These things are important parts of who I am as well. But just as those labels are not my entire identity, my clothing is not my full identity, either. It is when those tokens of identity get wrenched from my hands and turned on me that they become dangerous. When I am using a label or a piece of clothing to send a message about myself, it's a good thing. When someone else is using that label or piece of clothing to define who I am without my consent, it is not. 

This is a lesson I've been learning for quite some time. I went to a very small high school where everyone knew everyone else. It was nearly impossible to "remake" yourself because your entire life history was common knowledge. Any attempt to grow or redefine yourself had to be drastic. I threw myself in with the outcasts, and clothing was a major way to make that announcement. I rocked my fair share of Jnco jeans and baggy black t-shirts. 

Looking back, I think that these clothing decisions walked the line between personal communication choice and being branded by someone else. Yes, I chose those clothes. Oh, man, did I choose those clothes. I spent hours seeking out the perfect pair of jeans from a thrift store to make myself look like I'd never put any thought into what pants I was wearing. I carefully selected the right black t-shirt with the right nonsensical slogan from Hot Topic and paid for it with cash I'd carefully saved from tutoring and babysitting. (Side note: I walked past a Hot Topic a few weeks ago in a mall and felt older than I thought possible). Those clothes were mine. I picked them out to send a particular message, and I owned that message.

Or did I? That message only had meaning as a rebuttal. Wearing those clothes only made sense because there were other clothes I was "supposed" to be wearing. If it wasn't perfectly clear that those baggy jeans and too-big t-shirts were "unacceptable," then I wouldn't have been wearing them. 

Who Controls the Message?
Despite my rather ridiculous wardrobe choices, I was a good kid. I never did drugs. I went to class and did my homework. I respected adults and made plans for the future. I didn't hide these other qualities. In fact, I was lightheartedly mocked as being too "good" by many of the people I hung out with. Those clothes could never make up for that. But there were many people who never looked at those other qualities. I vividly remember a friend's mom banning her from talking to me. This woman spread vicious (false) rumors about my drug use and promiscuity to people all over town. My senior year, after I had ditched the Jncos, was graduating valedictorian, and had been accepted into college, the same woman was praising me as a shining example of what was possible for kids from our small town. Her daughter reminded her of her previous actions, telling her I was the same person. "Oh. Well, she really shouldn't have dressed like that," the woman said matter-of-factly. 

This space between clothing that is chosen for its message and assumptions that are projected onto certain pieces of clothing is a complicated one. Yes, we choose clothes to send a message about who we are, but the moment that the message is taken out of our control, it becomes a projection of stereotype and unwarranted judgment. We look for ways to make our world simpler. We encounter thousands of opportunities for evaluation and interpretation in a day, and being able to associate someone with a simple snap-judgment just because of what s/he's wearing seems like an easy way to simplify the process. We can even tell ourselves that we're just receiving the messages the wearer is sending. But it's never that simple. 

What do you think? What does your clothing say about you? Who controls that message? 


  1. Fantastic post. It touched on so many of the ideas about clothing that bother, worry, and comfort me. Clothes are not simple. They are functional. They are costumes. They are masks. They are even invitations. They reflect our mood, heritage, state of rebellion, expectations, and more, but they can never tell the whole story.

  2. Most of my life, my clothing was all hand-me-downs. In middle school, most of what I had to wear that wasn't too small was actually adult male clothes (those of my step-dad at the time) so I took a lot of crap for dressing like a slob. It made me angry enough that when my aunt sent some of her used clothing (side note: she really WAS a slut, enjoyed it, and her clothing reflected it) I took a pair of spandex pants and a top that amounted to little more than a very thick, fuzzy bra, and wore them to the mall just in hopes of showing someone, ANYONE from school that I could look hot, too. (Got in trouble with Mom for wearing that in public, too.)

    It's really easy to use clothing as a label, but because of how I grew up I usually just make assumptions about a person's finances based on their clothing. MAYBE about their hobbies, too, but mostly just figuring "oh, they have some money!" the same way I use a person's car to define them.

    In any case, I love this post. Thank you. :)

  3. Your story about high school sort of reminds me of a point that I think is interesting and I can't really define about clothing-who owns the message, who owns the symbol? I agree, stereotypes shouldn't be used to reduce people. People have many many different reasons for wearing what they do, and I might know 1 or none out of the many. But, when a symbol has a meaning to many people, but I wear it for a different one, who's right? If I'm wearing a swastika based on it's original meaning in India, does that outweigh the people who see it as a symbol of antisemitism?

    1. That's a great question, and I think it points to the complexity of contextual analysis with clothes and meaning. I don't think there's any simple formula of the wearer's intention and the viewer's interpretation; it's so unique depending on the way those components come together in that individual interaction.

      I know that's not a very fulfilling answer, but it's something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about without coming to any satisfying solution. It's clear that clothes have a meaning for the people who put them on, but at some point they are a little like any other artistic expression (poem, story, song, painting)--the creator can only control the message up to a point, and then it's in the hands of the audience.

  4. Love this post! I'm very much in agreement with what you say. I have ongoing battles with clothes and their 'meanings'. Being outside of the gender binary, clothes can be incredibly important in expressing myself both to others and to myself, and really it depends on the day as to whether they are a comfort or a torment.