2 Identity, Social Justice, and Dress

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 3.1 Identify foundational concepts related to social justice, identity and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 3.2 Identify driving forces of transformative social change. [CLO 5]
  • MLO 3.3 Articulate your own positionalities. [CLO 4]
  • MLO 3.4 Reflect on one’s progress towards development of empathy related to social justice issues, identity, and dress. [CLO 4]

Social Justice

Social justice is the equal distribution of privilege, opportunities, and wealth. Social injustice, then, is when there is unequal distribution of privilege, opportunities, and wealth. In the current U.S. society, there is a significant imbalance in the distribution of privilege, opportunities, and wealth across a wide variety of areas.

Required Reading:

Ornstein, A.C. Social Justice: History, Purpose and Meaning. Society  54,541–548 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-017-0188-8

Inequity and the United States

Image Source: Ron Lach 

The gender pay gap is one example of inequality in the United States. Studies have demonstrated that when women and men perform the same jobs, women on average are paid less than men. The gender pay gap varies across industries, but women who are financial managers, physicians, accountants, retail sales workers, registered nurses, lawyers, education administrators, and chief executives earn between 65% and 92% of what men earn for performing the same job responsibilities; the only differentiating factor is their gender. The fashion industry also suffers from gender inequality. While there are numerous women working in the fashion industry, research from 2018 found that the highest-paid employees in the fashion industry were male, about 80% of executives. Therefore, despite the fashion industry being dominated by women employees and women’s clothing having more sales than men’s clothing, men are more often occupying the higher paid jobs in the fashion industry.

Racial inequality is still a significant issue in the United States and another example of the unequal distribution of privilege. However, many white people feel that racism or racial inequality is not a significant issue in 2019.

Image Source: Screenshot from 2019 Ashley Graham interview, available on YouTube

Despite the progress since the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, Black people are still at a significant disadvantage. For example, one study found that when researchers sent resumes with either African American or white-sounding names, the white-sounding name candidate needed to send about 10 resumes to obtain a single call back whereas the African American sounding name candidate needed to send on average 15 resumes to obtain a single call back for an interview.

Racial inequality can also be found within the fashion industry. For example, while there have been numerous successful Black designers in the fashion industry, the industry at the same time experiences systemic racial inequality issues. For example, most fashion models are white as compared to people of color; while this inequality in fashion models has lessened over time, the industry more often casts white models to represent the ideal of beauty over models of color.



These inequities are interconnected to the concept of privilege. The resources at the links below discuss privilege and the ways it intersects with varying identities.

This short video visually demonstrates what privilege is and how it relates to power and oppression.


Kimberly Crenshaw was a pioneering scholar discussing intersectionality in the 1990s. This resource at the link below provided by Rider University, discusses the concepts of privilege and intersectionality.

In this short film, Crenshaw discusses what intersectionality is and why it is needed when examining experiences of different individuals.

In this short film, the individuals engage it what is called privilege walk. It is a visual of how privilege impacts people differently depending on their intersectional identities.


  • We all stereotype
  • It is a form of classification to help make sense of the complex world
  • Based on limited information
  • Infer a network of characteristics of the person
  • Learned through direct experience, hearsay, cultural experience (media)

Dangers of Stereotyping

  • Blinder effect:  one cue blinds perceiver to other qualities of a person
  • Prejudice:  rigid use of typing in which the perceiver ignores information that conflicts with the stereotype the perceiver holds
  • Can also be connected to implicit bias.

Implicit Bias

According to a research center at the Ohio State University, implicit bias “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” They are enacted “without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.” These implicit biases have been learned over time, yet they are malleable and can be unlearned. Therefore, even if individual’s have an unconscious bias towards a group of people, these attitudes are able to be changed.

One example related to fashion is the concept that people with disabilities have rarely had accessible or adaptive clothing available on the market. This does not necessarily mean that the fashion industry professionals actively and overtly think “they do not like people with disabilities or do not think they should have clothing.” What likely is happening in the industry is that people have an unconscious bias towards people with disabilities and are not thinking about their needs or interests as individuals. The fashion industry has also until much recently, lacked visible models with disabilities in their fashion advertisements.

Implicit Bias Association Test

Harvard University has an on-going Implicit Association test.

  • The test measures the strength of associations between concepts (Black people, gay people) and evaluations (good, bad) or stereotypes (athletic, clumsy).
  • Making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key.
  • One has an implicit preference for straight people relative to gay people if they are faster to complete the task when Straight People + Good / Gay People + Bad are paired together compared to when Gay People + Good / Straight People + Bad are paired together.


  • Microaggressions are small slights that the “majority” often do towards marginalized groups without noticing, sometimes due to their implicit bias.
  • Often done out of ignorance or surprise at being in the presence of someone who appears different
  • Both individuals and institutions may perform micro-aggressions
  • Many surveys at institutions are full of micro-aggressions

Watch this short film demonstrating microaggressions through various examples. Please note that between 1:07-1:08 in the film, the phrase “fucking annoying” is used.

How to reduce implicit bias?

There are numerous ways to reduce implicit bias. In this article published in Psychology Today, the authors discuss how while awareness of your biases is a first step, it is not enough. The authors explain that in order to significantly reduce bias, practices should include: exposing people to counter-stereotypic examples, developing an understanding of the outgroup member, and engaging with members of the outgroup in a positive interaction. In a large-scale study, scholars examined that while interventions aimed at reducing bias had good intentions, these interventions did not always work to reduce people’s biases and that more data was needed to be able to determine the best methods to reduce bias.


Empathy refers to the ability to understand individuals who are in outgroups, or individuals who are a part of a group that we do not self-identify with or belong to. That is, empathy is the ability to understand the experiences or expressions of individuals who are not like us.


  • Is an approach toward greater understanding of diversity.
  • Involves seeking to understand others by considering their backgrounds and life situations.
  • Does not require liking of someone or approval.
  • Empathy assists in avoiding microaggressions.

If you were in charge of selecting models for a fashion photo shoot and you knew it made people with disabilities feel poorly about themselves if they did not see themselves represented (feeling negatively towards oneself about lack of representation, too, is not limited to people with disabilities), would that influence your decision about who to choose? Understanding their experiences or listening to their stories can help increase empathy.

Aaron Rose Philip, a Antiguan-American model, is physically disabled and works in high fashion. She has discussed her work publicly with Who What Wear in a lineup of six models who have had to contend with ableism in the fashion industry. Image Source: Aaron Philip on Instagram

A Lens of Individual and Systemic Oppression

A lens is a way of looking at a particular idea, event, and/or experience. In this course, we discuss oppression and one can evaluate oppression using different lenses: an individual lens, an interpersonal lens, and a systemic lens. Review this source on the different lenses:

  • The Lens of Systematic Oppression
  • Example of individual oppression in the fashion system that is conscious: A person’s religion informs their beliefs that transgender people are wrong and thus they believe that transgender people should not embrace their identity through dress. For example, they do not think that a person assigned female at birth should wear a chest binder to affirm their gender identity as a man.
  • Example of individual oppression in the fashion system that is unconscious: A person is outwardly supportive of transgender people and the ways transgender people express their gender through fashion. However, in one instance, the person is creating a fashion line of undergarments and does not actively think about the needs of transgender people such as producing chest binders.
  • Example of interpersonal oppression in the fashion system: A person is outwardly supportive of transgender people and the ways they express their gender through fashion; however, this person often will stare at a transgender-appearing person because they are confused by their appearance.
  • Example of systemic oppression in the fashion system that is institutional: A fashion brand produces undergarments and in their practices they have never produced garments that cater to transgender individuals. They only produce products that are for cisgender people and market them this way.
  • Example of systemic oppression in the fashion system that is structural: Throughout the entire fashion industry over time, there are no fashion brands that produce undergarments that cater to the needs of transgender individuals. Therefore, transgender individuals who want to affirm their gender identity through dress, such as wearing a chest binder, do not have options to do so.

Transformative Social Change

Review these resources on how to engage in transformative social change

Focused Example: For Everyone Collective

The For Everyone Collective is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is a collective that uses T-shirt activism to advocate for prison abolition. On the website, they describe themselves as, “Worker owned by a multiracial group of people impacted by incarceration. Our only non-impacted employee-owner is our founder, who created Forgive Everyone to raise money for the abolitionist movement” (For Everyone Co., 2021).

This organization centers social justice philosophies in all of their processes, from their production practices employing formerly incarcerated people to their business’ shared ownership model. Their workers earn at least $15 an hour and are provided medical benefits, and they employ currently incarcerated artists to design T-shirts while funneling all of their profits into prison abolition education, empowerment, and justice.

In addition to requesting support for their work through purchasing their products, they seek to be “a central hub for advocacy and activism resources for activists in criminal justice reform, prison abolition, and transformative justice work” (For Everyone Co., 2021).

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.

Identity, Social Justice, and Dress 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:

Identity Social Justice and Dress 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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