1 Dress, Appearance, and Identity

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 2.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to identity and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 2.2 Identify pioneering scholars in the identity and dress discipline [CLO 1]
  • MLO 2.3 Identify where the information and research for the course content comes from [CLO 1]
  • MLO 2.4 Summarize the role of dress in identity development. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 2.5 Explain the ways individuals learn about how to dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO: 2.6 Explain various motivations for dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 2.7 Analyze the relationship between stigma, stigma management, identity, and dress. [CLO 1]

The material presented in this book comes from studies or research in various fields of inquiry, or disciplines. Some of the fields that relate to the topics covered in this book include those listed below.

  • Psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Cultural studies
  • Women’s studies
  • Fashion studies

Scholars and researchers (e.g., professors, government agencies, and non-profits) do a systematic inquiry through studies, research, and anonymous peer-review handled prior to their work being published.

What is peer review?

Peer review is a really important part of publishing scholarship. Much of the work discussed in this book is from peer-reviewed research. Peer-reviewed research is a lengthy process that is outlined below and can take anywhere from six months to multiple years.

  1. Researcher(s) conducts a study, and write up their results in a paper.
  2. The researcher(s) submit their paper to an editor.
  3. The editor sends the paper out to two or more reviewers who don’t know who the author is and who evaluate the paper for content and rigor.
  4. The reviewers decide if the paper should be published or not, and also suggest changes (often, a significant amount of change).
  5. The researcher/author(s) make edits to their paper based on the reviewers’ feedback (sometimes multiple rounds).
  6. Then, the paper is published.
  7. The entire process can take months or years and is extremely rigorous.
  8. All of the information used in this class comes from peer-reviewed research.

Types of inquiry

There are a lot of different ways to study dress, appearance, and identity. The following are a few examples.

  • Observation: ethnography, prolonged engagement with community, there are both physical and online ethnographic methods
  • Material culture: study of objects such as at a museum or in an archive
  • Historical: the scholar examines documents, garments, and other primary sources to tell the story of the past
  • Survey: fill in the blank, check a box
  • Interviews: both individual and focus groups (multiple people)

Example of a peer-reviewed research paper

Below is an example of a published peer-reviewed paper. The scholars at Cornell University conducted the research and then published it in an academic journal.

Study: Negotiating identities in the furry fandom through costuming


The authors used various methods to understand how individuals negotiate their varying identities through costume at furry conventions.

  • The scholars drew upon ethnography where they attended and observed 2 furry fandom conventions
  • They also conducted in-depth interviews and asked questions of attendees

Watch this short video to see a visual of a furry convention

This video example uses anecdotal evidence, or evidence based on or consisting of reports or observations of usually unscientific observers. That is, this video was not peer-reviewed and published in an academic output. While anecdotal evidence can be important and cannot be discounted, but much of the work in this book is from peer-reviewed literature.

Dress and Dressing

Dress is not just this yellow garment:

A woman wearing a high-end yellow dress and looking away from the camera.
This person is wearing a yellow dress. However, dress in fashion studies refers to much more than the composition of an object such as this yellow garment. Image Source: Built by King

Dress is an intentional and unintentional modification of appearance. What people do to their bodies to maintain, manage, and alter appearance. This includes:

  • Objects worn on or around the body.
  • Modifications to the body.

Dressing is the behavior related to dress or actions related to how one appears.

Pioneering Scholars in fashion studies

  • Susan Kaiser
  • Elizabeth Way
  • Darnell-Jamal Lisby
  • Ben Barry
  • Phyllis Bell Miller
  • Gwendolyn O’Neal
  • Min-ha T. Pham
  • Jasmine Helm
  • Christina Moon
  • Amanda Muhammad
  • Eulanda Sanders
  • Lauren Downing Peters
  • Regan de Loggans
  • Joanne Eicher
  • Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins
  • Kim Johnson
  • Sharron Lennon
  • Nancy Rudd
  • Joanne Entwistle
  • Fred Davis
  • Christopher Breward
  • Denise Nicole Green
  • Tameka Ellington
  • Carol Tulloch
  • Kim Jenkins
  • Dyese Matthews
  • Tanisha Ford
headshot of Dyese Matthews
Dyese Matthews, one of the pioneering scholars in fashion. studies. Image Source Dyese Matthews.


Clothing is an example of an object worn on or around the body and refers to 3-D objects that enclose and envelop the body in some way. They may be:

  • Wrapped around the body
  • Suspended from the body
  • Fitted to the body
  • Pre-shaped to the body

Examples of clothing:


Two young women posting in black-and white hijabs, with matching tops and long, polka dot skirts.
The head covering, also called a hijab, is an example of clothing. The top and skirt are also examples of clothing. Image Source: Rifki Atalla
Three teenagers wearing bright pink hoodies, sweatshirts, and blazers over white tops and sneakers.
The individuals in this image are also wearing different dress objects including a blazer, shorts, sneakers, and jewelry. Image Source: Anna Shvets
An older man with a beard, holding a tattered skateboard and wearing muted colors. His clothing is described in the caption.
This individual is wearing various dress objects including a hat, flannel sleeveless top, and pants. Arguably, the skateboard could be a dress object since it is around or next to the body. Some individuals may carry their skateboard to feel connected to and promote their identity as a person who skateboards. Image Source: RODNAE Productions

Other examples of objects include accessories, shoes, or other objects worn on the body such as braces attached to the teeth.


Modifications are also a part of dress. These could include additions or reductions to the actual body such as losing weight or hair extensions. It also involves changing hair color, clipping nails, tanning, and the process of wearing braces to straighten teeth or reduce gaps between teeth. Wearing perfume, showering, and having hair implants completed are also examples of modifications. Teeth whitening processes also fall under the category of dress as they modify the color of tooth enamel.

Examples of reductions and modifications to the body:

A hand curled inward, showing off painted nails in a dark green with ferns adorning one nail.
Green nail polish is an example of a modification because the person has altered the color of their nails with paint. Image Source: Kristina Paukshtite
A black man applying lip liner in a mirror for a drag performance.
The addition of makeup and fake eyelashes is an example of a dress modification. Image Source: Greta Hoffman
A doctor uses a marker to outline a person's eyelids for plastic surgery.
Plastic surgery, both invasive and non-invasive, is an example of dress modification. In this example, the person is preparing for plastic surgery on the eyelid. Image Source: Cottonbro
White-appearing person with red hair looking in the mirror. The person is shaving her face with a pink razor.
A person shaving their face with a razor is a form of dress reduction. Image Source: John Ondreasz

Motivations for dress

There are four larger motivations for how and why people dress. These do not capture every single nuance, but they are the four most prominent themes.

  • Protection: for example, from natural elements
  • Modesty: avoids indecency
  • Communication: highlights various identities (e.g. age, gender, race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, etc.)
  • Adornment: emphasizes decorative or aesthetic function

Dress and dressing are complex. Dress is more than just objects. It is laden with meaning. The dressed and undressed body is a project of continual construction that is both conscious and subconscious.


There are numerous definitions of identities. In general, identity refers to an organized set of characteristics that express various aspects of who you are. Dress is used to communicate our identities, such as:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Ability
  • Body Size

The situated self

Contexts or situations influence individuals to dress and act differently, depending upon which identity is salient. The concept of the situated self (Kaiser, 1997) refers to the idea that depending upon the context that one is in, a person may dress or act differently depending upon which identity is most salient at the time. This is part of what is called identity negotiation processes. This means that identities are negotiated, or in other words not static and continually in flux. This is especially true for individuals who occupy more than one marginalized identity. For example, Black gay men have described that their Black identity might be more salient in Black spaces, yet within queer spaces they have to choose to whether their Black identity or gay identity might be more salient depending upon the composition of the group (Cole, 2019). This isn’t necessarily always true for Black people, as there are varied experiences of being both Black and queer.

Image Source: Knotted Rope by Mike Finn, CC BY 2.0)

The identity negotiation process is the continual process of shifting and changing appearance and dress depending on the development of identity. It is often thought of as a knot. As one knot loosens, another tightens. This similar to how we as humans experience our different identities. One identity becomes more prominent in different situations.


Socialization refers to learning about how to behave and appear. This is often passed on through agents, individuals who teach us norms and values of our society through modeling or direct instruction.

  • Parents
  • Peers
  • Media
  • Professionals (teachers, coaches, doctors, etc)
  • Cultural beliefs (written/unwritten norms)
  • Personal shopper
  • Retailers/manufacturers

Identity and Dress

Identities are communicated through how we appear and what we wear (Kaiser, 2012). Identities are also communicated other ways beyond appearance and dress, such as other objects around us including: where we live, transportation we use, and many many other examples. Dress and appearance practices though, announce who we are depending upon which identity we are communicating at any one time. For example, while on campus, you might wear a T-shirt of your university, announcing your connection with the university and that you identify as a part of that community as a student, a fan, or perhaps alumni (Lennon, Johnson, and Rudd, 2017). This university community identity might not be important to communicate though if, for example, you are attending a wedding.

There are different types of identities. For example, a collective or social identity is an identity that is a part of a group or an identity that has a group membership. For example, being a member of a particular year in school is a collective identity. Therefore, you could identify as a freshman in college. Another collective identity could be tied to race. For example, a person of African descent may identify as part of the Black community due to their ties to their race (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017). Many people have numerous collective identities surrounding their race, gender (e.g. identify as genderqueer), sexuality (e.g. identify as queer), sex, religion (e.g. identify as Muslim), body size and shape (e.g. identify as a fat person and feel connected to fat acceptance movements), ability, or ethnicity.

A second example of an identity is a personal identity. Personal identities have to do with individual traits. Individual traits can include funny, open, conscientious, agreeable, adventurous, closed-off, etc. (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd). There are numerous parts of one’s identity that reflect personal traits. Therefore, while you might be a person who identifies as an outdoors person, the adventurous part of your identity is called the personal identity whereas the outdoors person could reflect your membership in the group, or your collective identity.

Relational identities are a third example. These identities refer to relationships such as father/son or wife/wife. Relational identities can be reflected in dress just like the other types of identities. For example, sometimes when families take vacations together to Disney World they wear matching outfits or T-shirts. Another example is when two women who are married wear wedding rings. This signifies their relational identity.

Body work (sometimes also referred to as dress modification)

One part of identity negotiations and dress modification is referred to as body work. Body work refers to managing the body through physical activity or exercise, dieting or watching what one eats, using make-up, cosmetic surgery, and many other activities.

Image Source: Cliff Booth

A person might also wear certain style clothes to change the shape of the body such as hiding or emphasizing parts of the body. Hiding parts of the body might be done through wearing baggy clothes, whereas revealing parts of the body might be done through tight or low-coverage clothing (e.g. crop tops). Body work is done by people of all genders (Lennon, Johnson, & Rudd, 2017).

Identity development online

More frequently used in the 21st century due to advances in and increased usage of technology.

Virtual communities are used to ”try-out” different identities (e.g. in VR chat, where you can “put on” an identity within an anonymous space)

Helps to “normalize” identities and behaviors anonymously (e.g. Pro-ana, Trekkies, moms, etc.)

Stigma and Identity

Stigma refers to marks of shame, disapproval, or a stain on one’s reputation (Goffman, 1963). Stigmatized identities refer to those identities that violate a societal norm for a particular time or space. Numerous identities experience stigma. For example, fat people often experience stigma related to their body size and shape. Fat stigma if a widely held belief and can significantly influence people’s experiences.

Some identities experience severe stigmatization

  • Fatness
  • People of color
  • LGBTQ community
  • Disabled bodies
  • Many others
Table 1. Stigma management communication strategies. Based on Meisenbach, 2010
Accept that stigma applies to self Challenge that stigma applies to self
Accept the public understanding of stigma (status quo) Accepting stigma Avoiding stigma
Challenge the public understanding of stigma (change) Evading responsibility for stigma

Reducing the offensiveness of stigma

Denying stigma

Ignoring stigma

Meisenbach (2010) further expands on each of these behaviors:

An individual accepting a stigma may passively accept the status quo, apologize for their stigma, use humor as a source of comfort, blame the stigma for negative outcomes in one’s life, isolate themselves, or bond with other stigmatized people.

A person is standing with their hands clasped in front of them with a black sweater pulled down over where their prosthetic arm attaches at their elbow. The prosthetic is adorned with tattoos and matches the person's skin tone.
Image Source: Polina Tankilevitch

An individual avoiding a stigma might hide or deny their stigmatized attribute, avoid situations where their stigmatized attribute is notable, stop the behavior which stigmatizes them, distance themselves from the stigma, or criticize others in an attempt to make themselves seem favorable by comparison.

An individual evading responsibility for a stigma may accept that they display stigmatized attributes, but challenge the ways in which those attributes are perceived by the public. For example, the individual may argue that they were born with the stigmatized attribute, that it was inflicted upon them, or that they cannot change the way the public perceives them.

An individual reducing the offensiveness of a stigma may attempt to reclaim the stigma by reinforcing the positive aspects of their stigmatized attribute, to minimize the damage of the stigma by arguing that their stigmatized attribute is not as severe or harmful as it is depicted by the public, or to transcend past the stigma by explaining how their stigmatized attribute can be a positive one.

A woman wearing all white sits with a black prosthetic arm lying casually across her lap.
Image Source: Polina Tankilevitch

An individual denying a stigma may result in the individual attempting to prove that the attributes they are stigmatized for should not be stigmatized, providing evidence for why the public perception of their attribute needs to change or highlighting logical fallacies in the way the attribute is addressed. Alternatively, the individual may deny that their attributes are stigmatized at all.

An individual ignoring or displaying a stigma may be done by an individual who wishes to decrease a stigma by normalizing it or by accepting the stigmatized attribute as a part of their identity. An individual using this communication strategy might flaunt their stigmatized attribute through dress or behavior, or forgo means of dress that minimize or serve to hide the stigmatized characteristic.


Focused Example: Quinceanera

A quinceanera is a celebration in Latinx culture where girls celebrate transitions from a child to a woman on the girl’s 15th birthday. Central to the event, is a formal, full-length gown worn by the girl. According to Lennon, Johnson, and Rudd (2017) these events are consumption events becuase they are “a commercial opportunity (a) to buy products and experiences, (b) that impact identity, (c) that involve wearing special clothing and accessories which are used as props in identity assumption, and (d) in which product consumption and experience consumption reinforce the identity” (p. 249).

A quinceanera is one example of the many possibilities in the ways in which people in different stages of life, cultures, communities, ages, and thus identities negotiate their identity through dress.




Cole. S. (2019). The difference is in the detail. Negotiating Black gay male style in the twenty-first century. Dress, 45(1), 39-54.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Touchstone.

Kaiser, S. B. (1997). The social psychology of clothing: Symbolic appearances in context. New York: Fairchild.

Kaiser, S. B. (2012). Fashion and cultural studies. London: Bloomsbury.

Lennon, S., Johnson, K. K. P., & Rudd, N. (2017). Social psychology of dress. London: Bloomsbury.

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.

Dress, Appearance, and Identity 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:

Dress_Appearance_and_Identity_Case_Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas

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


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book