Mini Modern Fashion: A Social Hierarchy Statement or Self Expression?
The foundations of society are constructed so that some people become inferior to other based off of the way they are physically viewed by others. Groups people are viewed as “different” based off of their race, gender, and even personal style. Fashion is used in modern society as a catalyst for the separation between the upper and lower classes, which then results in a stratified, but also self expressive population (Marcious, 2012). Fashion is a commonly heard word in our lives, and usually refers to what people wear from day-to-day, what a majority of the people are wearing, or what the latest styles of the time are. But with the constantly changing norms of fashion, the association that fashion has with the body also changes, as we increasingly “become what we wear.” This can be noticeably seen in the ways that parents choose to dress their children, and what is considered “in” or “exclusive” in children's fashion. In this essay, I will be analyzing modern fashion, specifically looking at the way that parents chose to dress their children, and how it contributes to reputations and the marking of children by society. I will be using multiple sociological theories, such as the theory of embodied capital, symbolic interactionism, and the basis of sociological feminism to show the close relationship between children's fashion and family identity, with regards to social class, race, and gender.
Fashion has already dramatically evolved since the early 1800's, and continues to do so. A popular mode of expression, it's common that fashion trends at specific points in time reflect the cultural and political trends of the time. For example, the 1960's were a notable period when the fashions of the time reflected the social changes that were occuring. “In the 1960's, the fashion world turned ‘topsy-turvy'” (Rothman, 2017), as nearly every major political or cultural event of the time, from the civil rights movement to the space race, was reelected in the clothing worn by the American public. As American society began to break from its previous norms about what was “proper,” the fashion industry began to do the same. Women began to wear looser clothing, art movements became increasingly known in the fashion scene, black models represented the pride of the civil rights movements. The miniskirt, which defined the ideal of femininity at the time, became increasingly popular. Individuals began to express themselves in ways they never did before; through the clothes they wore. During this time period, fashion trends also began to gain momentum at an outrageous speed, as young people cheaply made clothing to follow the new (but exclusive) trends of the time (Idacavage, 2016). The term “fast fashion” was coined shortly after this time, which refers to the designing, creating, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers (Barnes, 2006). Many massive textile mills opening across the new and developing fashion world, which only helped to make fashion trends of the time available to anyone who could afford them.
This fad that supposedly started in the early 20th century is still alive and shows through in society today. Leaders of the fast fashion industry include Zara, H&M, TopShop, and Primark (Indcavage, 2016). Each brand focuses on producing cheap, but trendy clothing for everyday use. Clothing and fashion in general continue to be easy, cheap, and accessible ways for people to individualize their bodies and express themselves. But, which changing decades, changing political times, and our constantly evolving culture, it's becoming more and more relevant to stay hip to the changing fashion trends of the time. A personal sense of style is something that can help to muster creativity and uniqueness, but also can be an indicator of one's social, political, or economic status.
Fashion changes slightly though when we look at childrens clothing. When it comes to children, there are different societal expectations throughout the various stages of children's development concerning their capabilities and limitations, as well as how they should act, look, and dress (Person, 2012). There have been and continue to be differences between the practices of dress between those of minority groups, and those of majority groups. Children who come from a higher income family are going to be dressed differently than those who come from a lower income family, and this applies for different races, sexual identities, religions, and other social groups. The important thing to realize with childrens clothing is that they are bound to outgrow them. So what is the point of high income, privileged families buying expensive, original, and designer clothes for their children?
We can use the theory of embodied capital to help understand this phenomenon, and why people feel inclined to buy designer, one-of-a-kind fashion for not only themselves, but for their children too. Pierre Bourdieu created the concept of cultural capital in order to account for the cultural practices in place that maintain distinctions between groups. According to his theory, the material body is the outward expression of social practices, and it displays the preferences that distinguish between specific social classes. He further explains that there are specific physical attributes that signify a class specific disposition towards the body, and in this case it is individual fashion and clothing choices. The constantly changing cycles of fashion, according to embodied capital, exist in order to keep distinctions between different social classes. Fashion attempts to make itself exclusive to one social class or another, and is a physical attribute that can signify a class specific disposition. For example, on the Gucci website (a well known high fashion brand) there is a bag for sale with a price tag od $1,790. The bag is priced so high so that it is only available to those who are wealthy enough to afford it. According to the theory of embodied capital, someone who where to buy and wear that bag in public, would be working to keep the distinctions between those who can afford the bag and who can not. As individuals, we do have the right to buy whatever we like, so far as we have the money to afford them. But, buying such a bag, or giving into expensive and exclusive fashion trends contributes to the marking of bodies in society, and more specifically the marking of individual social class through what we are choosing to buy and wear. When looking at how parents dress their children and the theory of embodied capital, we can see that parents are simply making their children as a specific class, race, gender, or, religion in order to keep distinctions between such groups. For example, a parent who dresses their child in a gucci sweatsuit with a pair of yeezys is marking their child as from a higher income family than a child who is wearing a t-shirt and leggings from the children's place. A kid wearing the designer outfit is more likely to send the message, “I am very rich” or “I come from a very rich family” (Caron, 2018). These messages that begin at childhood stick with the children as they grow up, which keeps distinctions between groups in place, and as a result the kids embody and associate themselves with one social class or another based off what they grew up wearing.
Another important sociological theory to look at is the theory of symbolic interactionism. According to symbolic interactionism, symbols and details that we see in everyday life have different meaning and change how we interact with each other (Macionis, 2012). Members of society attach different meanings to symbols, and then act according to their subjective interpretation of these symbols. Symbolic interactionism gives serious thought to how people act, an then seeks to determine what meaning individuals assign to their own actions and symbols. In fashion with regards to the body, clothes are symbols that carry meaning. Clothing allows us to communicate with others by telling them who we are, and also allows us to learn who other people are based off a glance at their clothing (Kaiser, 1991). With regards to changes in the cycles (or trends) in fashion, symbolic interactionism helps us to see that social categories, trends, and our identities all change over time, and that fashion helps us to express our changing identities. It's likely that the fashion industry feeds on the personal ambiguities that each of us holds, and as a result invests a lot of effort in trying to predict which new styles might capture our current needs for self-expression. As adults, clothing allows to to communicate with others and express our changing identities, but when applied to children's fashion and clothing, symbolic interactionism changes a bit. How a parent dresses their child, or how a parent allows their child to dress is often a symbol of how good/bad of a parent they are. Childrens fashion can often make or break the reputation of a parent or family. For example, one mother was questioned greatly when she allowed her 13 year-old daughter wear a pair of short-shorts to school one day (Armstrong, 2012). When asked why she let her kid wear the shorts, she replied and said “You have to choose your battles,” but the parents who asked her continued to see her daughters clothing, and the exposure of her daughters body as a symbol of how bad of a mother she was.
The final sociological theory used in the analysis of children's clothing is the sociological theory of feminism. In this theory, sociologists are concerned with improving the conditions of women in society. Sociological feminism is the critique of the essential notions womanhood. The focus of this theory is on issues of racism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism. Sociological feminists develop ideas, concepts, and philosophies and other intellectual programs that help meet their agenda of analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women they claim the right to equality with men. In fashion, feminism states that clothes are one of the most important means of expressing gender, but that fashion is also a huge aspect of the patriarchy. The patriarchy, which is a system of male domination over women, see's fashion as a female preoccupation, and as a means to diminish women by turning them into sexual objects for the pleasure of men. But, fashion through the feminist perspective can also be seen as a continuation of the “girl power” movement (Hodder, 2016). The girl power movement of the 1960's encouraged women to assert their power, and worked alongside the civil rights movement, and various other revolutionary movement of the time. Feminism in fashion also looks greatly at the ambiguities of gender identity that underlie the rise of new fashion trends, since fashion is one of the most important means of expressing gener. When looking at children, we can look at specific examples of sexualization and cross dressing. Young girls are often sexulaized through clothing companies, by greatly advertising items that make them seem older. When parents buy things for their children, such as a push-up bathing suit top for ages 7-14 from abercrombie kids, they are conforming to the particachy and to the sexualization of young girls (Pages, 2011). Parents who dress their kids in “sexy” clothing are diminishing girls by turning them into sexual objects, with a focus on youth and slenderness. Another topic that is important to touch upon when talking about kids, fashion, and feminism is the cross-dressing of children, and how their genders are identified in society by others. Clothing is used to reflect and identify what we feel, who we are, and who we want to be. Cross-dressing, another form of self expression, is most commonly described as a person of one gender (female) dressing stereotypically as another gender would (male) (Pritzker, 2017). When a child begins to express the desire to dress as another gender, according to feminist theory, parents need to do their best to not force gender norms onto their children and should let them express themselves. It's important for parents to listen to what children are saying, and how they want to dress, because there is nothing wrong with them or the choice that they are making. Parents who allow their children to cross dress as they desire are marking not only themselves as liberal in beliefs, but are also giving consent to letting their children mark themselves as they want to.
Sociological theories of embodied capital, symbolic interactionism, and feminism all contribute to the marking of the children via the clothing they wear in different and diverse ways. By using these, we can develop a greater understanding about why parents choose to buy the clothes they do, and why they dress their children in the ways that they do based off of class, family income, reputation, race, religion, and other defining and marginalizing factors in society.
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