Fashion & Identity

Goodlifer: Fashion & Identity

I love clothing, in every way shape and form. It’s fascinating how what you choose to wear on a particular day can determine your whole persona; the way you see the world and the way the world sees you. This may seem shallow, but is nevertheless true. We are inherently trained to judge by appearances, it is a trait that carries through from our hunter-gatherer days when the ability to make snap-judgements could mean life or death. This is what we’ve always done. Tartan patterns of Scottish clans, regional styles of Indian saris, headdresses and hairstyles of Native American tribes, Nordic folk dress and even military uniforms are all examples of how dress defines who we are.

In Scotland, tartan patterns indicate to what clan you belong. Image by conner395, Creative Commons.

In Scotland, tartan patterns indicate to what clan you belong. Image by conner395, Creative Commons.

Variations of Swedish folk dress. Image via

Variations of Swedish folk dress. Image via

Military uniforms gives soldiers a sense of unity. Image by

Military uniforms gives soldiers a sense of unity. Image by Tinou Bao, Creative Commons.

The emergence of affordable, ready-to-wear clothing virtually erased any visual class boundaries, and someone of lesser means but impeccable taste could all of a sudden look just as good as a person born of means. In my opinion, the sense of power this imbued people with equates to that of any public education system. We could finally be judged more by who we actually are than where we came from, get jobs based of merit instead of pedigree, and form social circles based on interests and personality.

Naturally, the people of means were frustrated by this, because how would they now distinguish themselves from the common folk? Enter the fashion label. Traditionally, only royalty could afford or were even allowed to wear the finest clothing known to man. But the emergence of European couture houses like Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Hermès in the early 19th Century made luxury affordable to all people of means. This was also around the same time that garment factories of the industrial revolution began democratizing fashion, and the race for newer, nicer and cheaper began. To compete with mainstream fashion and keep their clients wanting more, the couture houses constantly had to invent newer and ever-changing styles. What had previously been made to last a lifetime became purposely designed for obsolescence. Instead of being produced in small scale by skilled artisans, luxury too moved into the factory. In her book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas describes this transformation, and how luxury conglomerates now target the middle class as well, so that they can meet stockholder demands for constant growth. This pressure of producing constantly increasing profits also means that your new luxury handbag is most likely no longer made by artisans in France, but by sweatshop laborers in China, sometimes underage, and working in conditions akin to slavery.

There’s something very wrong with this. When your fancy handbag has been made by a child in China you are not buying luxury, you are buying into a world of poverty and despair. The rate at which goods are being produced is unsustainable. The logomania fad a few years back paved the way for an avalanche of counterfeit goods—an enormous problem all over the world today. In Britain, so-called chavs even embraced obviously fake Burberry as their signature look. You may think that it is an innocent act to buy that $20 Louis Vuitton knockoff on Canal Street, but in reality, you are financing organized crime and supporting human rights violations. In one part of the aforementioned book Thomas describes how counterfeiters in Thailand break children’s legs so that they will no longer want to go out and play and, in the end, can produce more fake bags. No fashion accessory could ever be worth that price.

Fake is not cool.

Fake is not cool. Image via The Fashion Row.

Customs shoveling through

A German customs officer overlooks the destruction of fake designer shoes in Hamburg, northern Germany in 2006, after seizing what they said could be the world’s largest haul of counterfeit goods, including nearly 1 million pairs of ‘knock-off’ Nike sneakers. Image via AP.

The real questions is, why do we all want the same stuff? Isn’t this liberation of style about creating your own persona? Who even gets impressed by a heavily logoed bag anymore? The epitome of fashion is creating your own signature, like Jean Paul Gaultier’s black and white striped shirts or Anna Wintour’s haircut—they never change, but since they don’t follow any particular trend, they never go out of style either. The best example of this could very well be design guru Massimo Vignelli‘s all-black ensemble. The Vignelli clothing line was created in 1991; in Design is one, Massimo talks about why. “One day I realized that all my suits were obsolete. I started to look for alternatives, but discovered none. So I decided that I would not be a fashion victim any longer. We have a motto: ‘If you can’t find it, design it’ So I went to the office and we started to design and manufacture a line of clothing that follows the body rather than fashion. The task of design is to solve problems; that of fashion is to create them.” He goes on to say that they wear the clothing all the time and “for the last fifteen years, we have received nothing but appreciation.” Perhaps this is the ultimate statement, foregoing visual embellishment in favor of simplicity and sanity.

The utalitarian Vignelli clothing line, shown as sketches, on models and as worn by Massimo and Leyla. Image from Design is One,

The utalitarian Vignelli clothing line, shown as sketches, on models and as worn by Massimo and Leyla. Images from Design is one.

The rate of school uniform usage has risen dramatically in the United States—according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the number of American public schools requiring school uniforms rose from 3% in 1997 to 21% in 2000. There is a raging debate among educators and parents about whether this helps keep crime, violence, bullying, theft and tardiness out of schools or not. Proponents say it instills discipline and a sense of community, and reduces distractions for students. It also keeps teachers and parents from having to play the role of “clothes police.” Opponents, on the other hand, says forcing children to wear uniforms is a serious violation of their rights to freedom of expression, stifles creativity and does nothing to reduce crime or improve academic performance. Ironically, in part because of a little show called Gossip Girl, school uniform has now become fashion too. Have we come full circle here?

Are school uniforms a good thing? Image by Indiewench, Creative Commons.

Are school uniforms a good thing? Image by Indiewench, Creative Commons.

Are they a bad thing? Or, do they simple not make a difference? Image by Christiano Betta, Creative Commons.

Are they a bad thing? Or, do they simple not make a difference? Image by Christiano Betta, Creative Commons.

It’s time we look beyond labels. In many ways, we are what we wear, and through our stylistic choices we endorse every part of that clothing’s production. The next time you walk into a store, think about what lies beneath. Who made this? Were does this come from? More importantly, if we want to create a sustainable world, we have to look further than the next fashion week. If you will not wear it a year from today, don’t buy it. Clothing accounts for about 7% of our landfills today and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. Buying organic certainly helps, but we need a change in mindset, and organic T-shirts from Walmart are not the answer. Think about who you really are and what image you want to portray to the world. Style is who you are, fashion is what you are sold.

Top photo by Ethan Hein, Creative Commons.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. “Style is who you are, fashion is what you are sold.” – I love it!

  2. Very well said. Keep up the excellent words and positive vibes.

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