4 Culture

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 5.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to culture, identity, and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 5.2 Identify what factors influence different cultural aspects of dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 5.3 Identify the different cultural perspectives an individual can take to approach understanding the dress and identity of others. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 5.4 Explain the role of dress in identity development. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 5.5 Examine how marginalized communities in the United States use dress and appearance to negotiate their identities. [CLO 2]

What is Culture?

Culture refers to aspects of human-made elements including tools, dress, and media in addition to values, attitudes, and norms. Dress is a significant part of almost every culture.

As more cultures have cross-cultural contact, people from different cultures begin to change aspects of their culture by incorporating new aspects of different cultures they come into contact with. This includes changes in dress. This process of cultural change is often referred to as cultural authentication. It should be noted though, that there is a long history of forced assimilation, especially for Native or Indigenous communities in North America. That is, Native communities were forced to assimilate to European culture meaning that Native people were not interested in incorporating European cultural elements into their way of life.

Culture vs. Cultured

All people have culture. Culture is not something held only by the elites of a society, such as only the wealthiest, most educated, or most sophisticated in understanding the arts.

A korean woman in a hanbok, a wrapped dress with an empire waist and a floor-length, red a-line underdress.
Image Source: “Hanbok fashion show” for Hanbok designer Lee Young-hee, Republic of Korea, CC BY SA

A. Culture is a system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society (Hoebel, 1958). Note the emphasis on the learning of behaviors or ways of doing things. Culture is learned, and individuals learn culture through the ongoing process of socialization. Parents, families, schools, peers, workplaces, etc. all socialize individuals to ways of doing things. We find differences across cultures in dress, language, food preferences, and other behaviors in part because these behaviors are learned — not knowledge that is innate, instinctual, or determined by genetic programming.

Cultural patterns are characteristic behaviors and often include a complex array of choices that are common and less common in a culture. A culture may afford more than one way of doing the same thing. Hence, diversity in behaviors may be found in some aspects of any culture.

B. Culture is a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by members of a society (Linton, 1936). Linton emphasized that culture is a complex whole — a network of behaviors related to all aspects of life. Dress is shaped by and reflects many characteristics in any culture, so dress is a complex map of cultural characteristics.

C. Culture includes both abstract and concrete components (Scupin, 1998).

  • Abstract components include: the meanings of symbols, events, activities, or action and how the meanings are created and selected.
  • Concrete components include: the forms of action, behavior, event, activity, or artifacts. Dress may be a concrete object such as a shirt, a pair of shoes, or a hairstyle, but those concrete artifacts develop meanings in a culture. The fashion process, situations in which we use dress, and groups that are associated with wearing of types of dress all bring meaning to those artifacts.

D. Culture is… (Spradley, 1972):

  • what people know (mentifacts)
  • what people do (sociofacts)
  • what people make (artifacts)

Mentifacts: ideas, ideals, values, knowledge, and how we know.

Culture shapes how people think about things. Mentifacts are the ideas, values, and knowledge that shape how we see a culture, and how we know (or recognize) patterns. This would include stereotypes that are held about groups of people who look a certain way. Note that “how we know” also refers to educational and media systems. Fashion magazines are part of these media systems, and we also learn about appearances through television and the Internet.

Copies of the fashion magazine ELLE, with other freebies from a fashion show, strewn on sheets.
Image Source: Barbro Andersen, CC BY

How people in a culture think and what they value are often reflected in dress. For example, in the U.S., where we value the freedom to consume and material plenty, consumers tend to prefer large wardrobes (Sproles & Burns, 1994). In some European countries, the average consumer has a comparatively small wardrobe that often includes several high-quality, expensive items. These few items are worn over and over again during the season in which they are fashionable.

Sociofacts: characteristics of social organizations and how people organize themselves.

Sociofacts reflect how people behave in groups and social interactions. For example, police wear uniforms to indicate their occupations and rank within the police force. A store like Target has a uniform dress code — red shirts and khaki pants — to help customers identify employees. Many individuals dress up or “clean up” when going to dinner at someone’s house. This small act of dressing lends respect to the hosts and indicates participation in a social event.

Sometimes patterns of dress in the larger society reflect how people organize themselves. In the U.S. today, socioeconomic status is usually only vaguely communicated in what we wear. One hundred years ago, we would have clearly known the social class of everyone passing us on the street just by looking at their dress.

Artifacts: things people make and tools and processes for making them.

Dress such as clothing, make-up, tattoos, and shoes are artifacts made by people. Artifacts reflect multiple aspects of a culture such as mentifacts, sociofacts, and the technological knowledge of a culture that shapes manufacturing processes and types of materials used. Gore-Tex fabric now used in high-performance sportswear was, for example, invented through the NASA space program.

A smiling astronaut with her helmet off.
2017 NASA astronaut candidate Jasmin Moghbeli wears a spacesuit prior to underwater spacewalk training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Image Source: NASA/Josh Valcarcel, CC BY NC ND

Technological advancements and economic reality may exclude some types of options for what people wear. In ready-to-wear clothing that most people in the U.S. buy today, there are only simple seams, darts, and a few gathers comprising construction. A tight fit is accomplished by knits and spandex rather than intricate construction details. During the 1940s and earlier, however, ordinary clothing often had many tucks, darts, godets, complex seams, etc. The degree of handwork and sewing skill required for those designs is too expensive to produce today in assembly-line factories. Complex fit through construction also requires customized fitting that is too expensive, time-consuming, and difficult for most of us. We save that expense for business suits and special occasion garments such as wedding dresses.

Society vs. Culture

Anthropologists disagree on how to distinguish the terms “culture” and “society”. We will use the terms fairly interchangeably. One definition of society is “a group of people living and working together in a systematic way” (Mead, 1934). An important implication of this definition is that society requires people to coordinate their actions with each other. Each individual cannot haphazardly do his or her own thing with no concern for others. With no traffic laws, for example, we would run into each other fairly frequently. Indeed, with no coordination of human effort, automobiles and roads would never have been invented. Dress would have no meaning; fashions and traditions in dress would not exist. We would have no idea as to who anyone might be on first meeting of them. Dress is a product of systematic human interaction, and dress helps us to coordinate our interactions with others.

What Factors Influence Types of Dress Worn in a Culture?

Ruth Benedict (1959) drew what she called an “arc of human potential” to indicate that every culture makes choices from among a wide array of possibilities for any form of behavior. Each culture, then, makes choices of different language sounds, foods, dress materials and designs, and other behaviors.

In any culture the following factors shape choices for dress and other behaviors:

  • climate and natural resources
  • religion, ideology, ritual
  • technology
  • culture contact and diffusion of ideas
  • social and political organization
  • history
  • aesthetic rules

This short film features the Korowai tribe who did not have contact with anyone outside of their community until the 1970s. This isolation impacted their dress in numerous ways.

Principles of Cultural Perspective

Taking a cultural perspective on dress throughout the semester requires that we adopt some ways of thinking about people and the world:

Holistic approach

The meaning of dress can be understood only through the study of all aspects of a culture. Dress does not mean one single thing at a time. Many meanings and aspects of a culture are embedded in any example of dress. And sometimes these meanings are difficult to read. For example, why is it that in the U.S. where we value individuality so much, so many students on campus at ISU wear jeans and T-shirts or some other simple top to classes?

Cultural relativism

Seek to understand dress as it has meaning to an “insider” of a society. What dress worn in countries outside your home country means to you, a visitor or tourist in the country, is not necessarily at all related to what it means to people in that culture. We need to examine the characteristics of a culture and talk to people within a culture to find out what their dress means. Something as simple as color may have very different meanings in dress in different cultures. For example:

  • Red = common funeral color in Zambia, Africa
  • Red = wedding dress color in traditional China

What would it mean if someone wore a bright red dress to a close relative’s funeral or a bride wore a bright red wedding dress in the U.S. today?


Judgment of people of other cultures by one’s own cultural standards and beliefs. Dress that is different from how we ourselves dress can be challenging to accept or appreciate.

When ethnocentricity is hard to avoid: There are some things done to the body in other cultures or by some groups within our own culture that are harmful to the individuals. Taking action to end these practices may be seen as important for humanity. It is important to recognize, however, that these practices may have deep meanings and roots in religious values or beauty standards previously considered good or “healthful.” Simply marching in and making such practices illegal will not necessarily end them. Great care must be taken to change deeply held beliefs about the practices. Change is likely to be slow.

A model posing in BDSM gear, including a bright orange body harness, dark makeup, and a choker collar over tight black underclothes.
Image Source: Kamaji Ogino

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to avoid ethnocentrism. Here are some examples that individuals may or may not view as harmful:

  • wearing corsets
  • foot binding
  • tanning
  • web sites promoting anorexia
  • female circumcision
  • little people lengthening legs
  • embracing one’s transgender identity
  • exposing women’s breasts in public
  • steroid use
  • scarification or the carving of permanent designs in the skin
  • practicing BDSM or kink such as wearing dog collars, chastity belts, or other restrictive garments


Watch this short video about BDSM dress, identity, and women’s empowerment. The research presentation is titled Paddles, Strap-Ons, Latex, and Leather: Negotiations of BDSM Women’s Dress, Embodiment, and Bodies in Motion through Spatial-Temporal Dynamics. The video highlights how these women embrace their BDSM identity when others sometimes view these practices are harmful.

Video Example: 

Watch this video, “Paddles, Strap-Ons, Latex, and Leather” from the Fashion & Justice Research Lab, to learn more about BDSM fashion and dress

Cultural Appropriation

Another term related to changing cultural aesthetics or norms is cultural appropriation. The concept of cultural appropriation is highly debated. For example, Amandla Stenberg discusses her opinions about white people adopting Black hairstyles. In the video that went viral, Stenberg discusses how the adoption of hairstyles such as braids or cornrows by white people is wrong because when Black people wear these styles, they are viewed negatively such as “thugs” or “gangsters,” yet when white people adopt these styles they can be seen as “cool” or “edgy,” which reinforces long-standing racial hierarchies and stereotypes of white people having power. There are also arguments such as appreciation versus appropriation where individuals will argue that their adoption of a particular style or aesthetic is not wrong because they merely appreciate that part of another culture.

In the following video, at about 28 minutes, Dr. Denise Green at Cornell University delivers a compelling lecture on cultural appropriation and the Cowichan sweater.

In this short film, Bethan Yellowtail, an Indigenous designer, discusses her experiences as a fashion designer and cultural appropriation.

Required reading:

Puri, S. “Ethnic fashion” obscures cultural identity. Yale Herald. (February 2, 2001). Accessed November 1, 2021, via the Internet Archive:  http://www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxxi/2001.02.02/opinion/page12aethnic.html


Benedict, R. (1959). Patterns of culture. Boston: Houston Mifflin.

Hoebel, E. A. (1958). Man in the primitive world: An introduction to anthropology (2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Linton, (1936). The study of man: An introduction. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self, and society (Ed. by Charles W. Morris). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Scupin, R. (1998). Cultural anthropology: A global perspective (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Spradley, J. P. (1972). Culture and cognition: Rules, maps, and plans. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing.

Sproles, G. B., & Burns, L. D. (1994). Changing appearances. New York: Fairchild.

Representation of thinking and ideas being generated. Two black heads face eachother. One has question marks above the head. The other has yellow light bulbs above their head.

Culture Case Study

Step One: Become familiar with the case study

  1. The case study attached below is a word document and can be downloaded. It includes the task, evaluation, and template for the case study:

Culture Case Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas

  1. Format your document.
  2. Reminder to check the submission against the rubric.



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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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