How Fashion Shapes Identity: What Do Your Clothes Say About You?

How Fashion Shapes Identity: What Do Your Clothes Say About You?

Fashion shapes identity in a multitude of different ways; from the colors we pick to the stores we frequent, who we are is ingrained in our style.

Clothes, shoes, accessories, and even body modifications, like piercings, tattoos, hair dye, and cosmetic surgery, are all a part of fashion in one way or another. Somehow we decide why we want those jeans, that pair of shoes, or our first tattoo. Considering we are highly complex individuals who absorb many different characteristics throughout our lives, identity is a complicated concept. From how fashion shapes identity in terms of age, gender, class, and more, we hope that this will help shed some light on who you are, why we make certain style related choices, and how to better understand others.


Women have been taught, oftentimes from a very young age, that there is a certain social standard for how we should dress at different stages in our lives. And if you’ve ever been told that you should dress your age – like when your twelve-year-old self tried to sneak out in a mini skirt, only to be told by your mother that you won’t be leaving looking like that, then you probably understand this concept a little better than most.

Chances are, many women have been on the receiving end of the “dress your age” judgments, even those who are well into their 40s, 50s, 60s and so on. So why is this such a crucial part of our identities? Many of us use clothes to represent our ages, whether the actual one, or how we feel inside, and as we grow older, our fashion sense usually changes with it. Fortunately, though, these rigid roles are beginning to become more fluid in the adult world (sorry twelve-year-old me), allowing your great aunt to proudly display her pink hair and butterfly ink.

Further supported by a paper published by the University of Manchester, which states, “In relation to clothing and dress, it means the end of the old culture of age ordering, of self effacement, and drab and frumpy dress: there is no reason why older people should not wear the same clothes, shop at the same fashion conscious shops as younger people. For women in particular it offers liberation from what is a very negative set of messages around sexuality, appearance and self assertion, policed by a heavily moralistic language.” In other words, rock on Grandma. Rock on.


When we’re born, clothing typically reflects our gender – boys are in blue and girls in pink. But as we grow older and begin to develop likes and dislikes, what we are left with can drastically change. With gender fluidity and the greater social acceptance of transgender individuals, our mainstream ideas of man and woman based on clothing alone is no longer the best identifier. What ends up happening is that we utilize fashion as the self-expression needed to convey our genders, whether actual or desired, to the world.

An insightful article from the Berg Fashion Library on the study of fashion, dress, and gender, notes, “In the humanities, the most influential gender theorist has been Judith Butler, whose canonical book Gender Trouble contributed the concept of gender performativity. This theory argues that seemingly stable gender expressions are actually the result of constant negotiations between an individual’s sense of self and the feedback acquired through social interactions, in a context of signs and symbols that are constantly subject to change.”

Class and Culture

How much money we make helps determine which brands we can afford, where we will acquire clothing, and how we will dress. Fashion shapes identity thereby further supporting the wearer’s lifestyle. Luxury names, branded handbags and clothing, and the ability to afford more cosmetic procedures, which are often out of reach for most, may become an important part of a wealthy person’s life. Whereas, someone on the opposite end of the spectrum may find themselves shopping at thrift stores, or possibly struggling to maintain a clean, tatter-free wardrobe. Our clothing is a stark reminder of our identities, whether we like it or not.


If you’ve ever had a favorite dress that fits perfectly in all the right places, or a power suit that always seems to give you that extra boost of confidence before a meeting, then you probably understand how clothing can have a direct affect on your self-esteem and how class and culture trickle down into this area. Although you don’t have to be rich to look nice and to buy new clothes, when you can’t afford any at all, then self-esteem and self-worth can, understandably, take a hit. The correlation between clothing and how we feel about ourselves is so strong that in “The Psychology of Dress published by the Berg Fashion Library, a team of social psychologists found “that when women put on a swimsuit as part of a research project, they performed more poorly on a subsequent math test than other women who put on a sweater.”

Other’s Opinions

The way we dress is like communicating without words, and whether we like it or not, other people judge us by our appearances. While we shouldn’t allow our self-esteem to ride on the opinions of others, what we glean from people throughout our lives, be it good or bad, helps to shape our identities. Like the story about the homeless man who received little to no assistance, but once he was wearing a suit strangers were more apt to help him, to the excuse about “the way she was dressed” as a way to explain away a motive for sexual assault, there are many predeterminations and misconceptions about outward appearances – it’s up to us to change them.

Although this is just barely scratching the surface, there’s no doubting the effect that fashion has on our identities. Based on these notions, is there one that you most closely relate to? What do your clothes say about you? Share your thoughts with us on the EcoSalon Facebook page!

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Image of Woman in Red Dress via Shutterstock

Jamie Duncan

After starting out in public relations, Jamie finished college with a BFA in interior design. This combination of writing and design knowledge, coupled with her fashion and lifestyle expertise, has paved the way for an exciting freelance career. Her work has been published in magazines and online, plus she’s managed PR campaigns, and is no stranger to copywriting. Jamie’s a vegetarian and cruelty-free product fanatic. Connect with her on Twitter and check out her website to learn more.