5 Culture

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will

  • MLO 5.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to culture, identity, and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 5.2 Identify the factors that 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]
  • MLO 5.6 Deconstruct your own perspectives and approach to understanding the dress of others. [CLO 4]

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 begin to change aspects of their cultures by incorporating 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 (Little, 2018). That is, Native communities were forced to assimilate into European culture; Native people were not interested in incorporating European cultural elements.

Culture vs. Cultured

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

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

Culture is a system of learned behavior patterns that 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 an ongoing process of socialization. Parents, families, schools, peers, and workplaces, for example, 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 are learned behaviors—not knowledge that is innate, instinctual, or determined by genetic programming.

Cultural patterns are characteristic behaviors and often include a complex array of choices. 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

Culture is a complex whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits that members of a society acquire (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.

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

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

Culture is mentifacts, what people know; sociofacts, what people do; and artifacts, what people make (Spradley, 1972):

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 includes stereotypes that are held about groups of people who look certain ways. Note that “how we know” also refers to educational and media systems. Fashion magazines are part of these media systems; so are 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 United States, 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 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 officers wear uniforms to indicate their occupations and rank within the police force. A store like Target has a 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 shows 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 United States today, socioeconomic status is usually only vaguely communicated in our clothing. One hundred years ago, the social class of everyone passing us on the street would have been made clear by their dress.

Artifacts: Things People Make and Tools and Processes for Making Them

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

Dress such as clothing, makeup, 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  materials used. For example, Gore-Tex  fabric, now used in high-performance sportswear, was invented through the NASA space program.

Technological advancements and economic reality may exclude some clothing options. In ready-to-wear clothing that most people in the United States buy today, only simple seams, darts, and a few gathers comprise construction. Knits and pandex rather than intricate construction details accomplish, a tight fit. During the 1940s and earlier, however, ordinary clothing often had many tucks, darts, godets, and complex seams, for example. The 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 their 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 who anyone might be on first meeting of them. Dress is a product of systematic human interaction, and it helps us to coordinate our interactions with others.

What Factors Influence Types of Dress Worn in a Culture?

Ruth Benedict (1959) drew 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, chooses  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, whose members had no contact with anyone outside of their community until the 1970s. This isolation affected their dress in numerous ways.

To access a transcript for the video above, download this file: The Tree House People Korowai Video Transcript [DOC]

Principles of Cultural Perspective

Taking a cultural perspective on dress throughout the semester requires that we adopt specific 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 United States, where we  value individuality so much, so many students on college campuses wear jeans and T-shirts to classes?

Cultural relativism

Seek to understand dress as it has meaning to a society “insider.” What dress worn in nations outside your home country means to you, a visitor or tourist, is not necessarily related to what it means to people in that culture. We need to examine the characteristics of a culture and talk to people within that 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 is a common funeral color in Zambia, Africa, and a 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  dress to her wedding in the United States today?


Ethnocentrism is judgment of people of other cultures by one’s own cultural standards and beliefs. Dress that is different from our own can be challenging to accept or appreciate.

Ethnocentricity is hard to avoid, for example, when members of other cultures or some groups within our own culture do things to the body that are harmful to the individuals. Acting to end these practices may  be seen as important for humanity. It is equally 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. We must take great care when we attempt to change deeply held beliefs about these practices. Change is likely to be slow.

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

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
  • corset wearing
  • foot binding
  • tanning
  • web sites promoting anorexia
  • female circumcision
  • little people lengthening their legs
  • embracing one’s transgender identity
  • women exposing their breasts in public
  • steroid use
  • scarification, or the carving of permanent designs in the skin
  • practicing bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadochism and masochism (BDSM) or kink such as wearing dog collars, chastity  belts, or other restrictive garments.


Video Example: 

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 as harmful.

Cultural Appropriation

Another term related to changing cultural aesthetics or norms is cultural appropriation. The concept of cultural appropriation is highly debated. For example, in a video that went viral, Amandla Stenberg discusses her opinions about white people adopting Black hairstyles (2015). 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 as “thugs” or “gangsters,” yet when white people adopt these styles they can be seen as “cool” or “edgy,” which reinforces longstanding 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; they merely appreciate that part of another culture (Brucculieri, 2018).

In the following film, about 28 minutes long, Denise Green of Cornell University delivers a compelling lecture on cultural appropriation and the Cowichan sweater (CTV News, 2015).

To access a transcript for the video above, download this file: What is the cost of not fitting in Video Transcript [DOC]

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

To access a transcript for the video above, download this file: Indigenous Cultural Appropriation in Fashion with Bethany Yellowtail and James St. James Video Transcript [DOC]

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, R. (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: University of Chicago Press.

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

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. Remember to check the submission against the rubric.



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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.