Fashion: The Window to the Self

As fashion advances, so too does its influence on one’s identity.


Unsplash / Katsiaryna Endruszkiewicz

A person wears a bright red shirt in contrast with a dark black jacket which hangs over their frame, along with multicolored sunglasses and a white flower in their mouth. From just this, what can you say about them?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is a powerful phrase used to describe the exclusive advantage of visual imagery in various fields, such as education, art, and even everyday life. Students can learn more efficiently through visual representations than blocks of texts. Art pieces can express sentiments more vividly than words can ever try. Experiencing reality can be more fulfilling than reading a simple description of it. Unlike an essay of words, an image is almost instantaneous, a simple glance revealing to its viewer a sea of information. 

The same holds true in the realm of fashion — a person can reveal so much about themselves just from the way they dress. Each item of clothing or piece of jewelry represents something unique, and their decision to wear it or not suggests what their interests are and what they wish to be associated with. This idea of association extends from a personal level to a collective one, from personal tastes to social identity, and ultimately influences the makeup of one’s overall identity. As Italian billionaire fashion designer Miuccia Prada once said, “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.” 

In terms of the individual, fashion is a means to effectively express specific traits about oneself. In particular, fashion has been an excellent way for people to develop and project their sexual and gender identity. When it comes to showing off a masculine or feminine character, there are endless suits, ties, and dress shoes combinations, as well as dresses, high heels, and jewelry combinations from which to choose. There is also a vast variety of other clothes that one can wear that emphasize colors, patterns, or images representative of one’s identity. For instance, there are a variety of LGBTQ-oriented clothing that people can wear. There are shirts that have colors of the LGBTQ community or words and phrases which encapsulate their identity, such as “LGBTQ” or “Pride” or even both.

Not only does it reflect upon gender identity, but fashion also reveals a significant amount about one’s lifestyle, a wide view of one’s interests, and a summation of one’s personal characteristics.

Currently, content creators and organizations, in an attempt to expand their businesses, create their own clothing brand, and in turn, their supporters buy and wear these clothes/their designs in order to delineate their support and involvement. Do you see a person wearing a t-shirt with MARVEL plastered on the front? They most likely enjoy watching MARVEL Entertainment movies. Do you see a person wearing Coldplay merchandise, the band name in bold on the clothing? They probably are an avid listener of the band. 

Moreover, if a person wore clothing that is commonly worn in professional or formal settings, there are associations between the clothes’ implications and the wearer’s character. One may assume that they are confident and well-organized. On the contrary, a person who wears a worn out shirt with stains is usually associated with the idea of shabbiness and irresponsibility. Knowing this, people tend to wear clothes they would feel confident in. “When I’m wearing an outfit I think is cute, I definitely feel more confident throughout my day, and feel more comfortable going out and seeing people,” said Monica Reilly ’24. 

In fact, this relationship between fashion and identity can potentially explain the rise in fashion consumption during recent years. According to the consumption of apparel worldwide statistics from the Statista Research Department, the rate of consumption grew steadily from 2013 to 2019 and is expected to grow further from 2023 to 2026. One can infer that this is in parallel with the rising vocalization of self-identity, as clothes and accessories are an effective way in developing and consolidating one’s individuality.

However, from a collective lens, the escalation of apparel consumption can be attributed to cultural traditions. We can see this in the differences of clothing between various cultures, from the kimonos worn in Japan to the saris worn in India, and from the kentes worn in Ghana to the hanboks worn in Korea. It is also prevalent in different religious groups, from the hijab worn amongst Muslims to the yarmulke worn amongst Jews. Across the globe, there are a multitude of traditional clothes that one can wear to emphasize that they belong to a larger group, a plethora of people who share a common history and way of living.

Fashion trends are also responsible for such a positive consumption rate, given that one’s personal tastes frequently become intertwined with those of a larger population. In recent times, there has been a rise in popularity of vintage clothing, baggy pants, and low-rise jeans, and a myriad of outfits which assimilate these clothes. Many make the effort to conform to these fashion styles in an attempt to ‘go with the flow’ or fit in with the majority, as not doing so may lead one to feel isolated and inferior. Such a desire to feel belonging can at times encourage conspicuous consumption behavior as well. As seen most commonly in social media, a number of individuals spend immense amounts of money on clothes and accessories in order to enhance their appearance and thus their socio-economic status. As Bill Cunningham, the famed American fashion photographer for The New York Times, said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” 

Despite the highs of fashion, there remain many who are disinterested in fashion trends and simply wear clothes that they are comfortable wearing and they believe are a clear representation of who they actually are. In particular, Reilly said, “I think it defeats the whole purpose of fashion as the point of fashion is to dress how you think looks good and what you feel comfortable in, as well as allowing you to stand out in a good outfit.” Additionally, Kaden Gim ‘24 said, “If you’re comfortable with it and don’t force yourself, it’s fine. If not, you’re not being who you really are or want to be, which can be problematic.” 

Nevertheless, fashion remains an irreplaceable element in identity assimilation, both in terms of the individual and collective population. Just as the eye is the window to the soul, clothes are the window to the self, and they are versatile in their expression and variability. And as fashion consumption continues to grow, its influence will only grow more apparent and widespread.

Fashion remains an irreplaceable element in identity assimilation, both in terms of the individual and collective population. Just as the eye is the window to the soul, clothes are the window to the self, and they are versatile in their expression and variability.