Communication Currents

Putting on an Identity

June 1, 2010
Theater & Performance, Visual Communication

Take a look at what you are wearing right now. Go ahead—I'll wait. Now ask yourself what you are trying to communicate with this ensemble. Although we dress ourselves every day, we often do not stop to think about the communicative aspects of clothing. Through our clothing choices we often communicate subtle (and not so subtle) cues of race, class, and gender. All of these can be viewed under the umbrella idea of culture.  

It is useful to think of human interaction from a dramatistic perspective and consider how people continually perform roles. As with any drama, costumes are an integral part of the performance. This is often apparent when someone goes against commonly held views of how one should present him or herself. For example, my students are often surprised by how I dress because I do not look like a stereotypical professor. When I teach I wear a button down shirt and shorts. I do this for two reasons. The first reason is for comfort. The second reason is to decrease the psychological distance between me and my students. I teach courses that grapple with material that is often difficult for students to understand. By dressing in a way that is more relaxed, I attempt to foster an environment in which experimentation and mistakes are tolerated. I also recognize that there is a difference of power between me and my students that I wish to diminish.  

There are other ways that people dress strategically. For example, when applying for my position, I wore a suit and tie because I had to look the part of a job applicant. When my students go out on Friday night, they are dressed to look as attractive as possible, accentuating certain desirable features while downplaying others. Yet in all of these situations, there are unspoken constraints of what is acceptable to wear in each situation. Examining these assumptions can illuminate deeply-held, often invisible cultural norms. 

In a course I teach on communication and gender, I have an activity in which students come to class dressed as gendered as possible. In other words, those who identify as feminine dress as feminine as possible and those who identify as masculine dress as masculine as possible. Some identify as androgynous and are asked to dress gender neutral. I do not give them any specific guidelines, but the women tend to come in dresses, skirts, and high heels, while the men tend to wear such things as boots and jeans or slacks. During the activity, each student has to explain to the class why he or she chose each article of clothing. I do the same, although with a twist—I dress in a formal lava-lava, white shirt, tie, dark socks, and sandals. To the students it looks like I am wearing a skirt, but I explain that I am wearing what a Samoan or Tongan man would wear for a formal occasion. Such exercises require that students think carefully about why they choose to present themselves in a particular way. This also helps them recognize that clothing tends to communicate racial, class, gender, and cultural elements of identity. 

What may be masculine for one group may not be in another. This can be particularly evident when considering how people of different races dress. For example, I once had two male students show up in dramatically different outfits, yet students considered both of them to be highly masculine. An African-American man came to class dressed in thug style, wearing a white undershirt, sagging pants which revealed his boxers, sunglasses, and a large chain with a cross. An Anglo-American man wore cowboy boots, a blue shirt, and jeans. I agreed that they did, indeed, look quite masculine. However, I then asked how their perceptions would change if they were to switch clothing. The students recognized that race is an important determinant in how clothing is coded as masculine or feminine.  

Class is also an important determinant in what counts as masculine and feminine dress. Some students were incredibly brand conscious with their outfits. These students, through their high-end clothing, displayed their upper- and upper-middle-class status. Another student, however, chose to perform the stereotypical redneck. He came to class in cut-off shorts, a fishing hat, a stained white undershirt, and a pair of work boots. As an accessory, he had a bottle in which he spit the juice from his chewing tobacco. Such extreme differences helped to illuminate the sometimes stark differences in class that can be observed through clothing.  

Although some people tend to think only of the clothing itself, there are other markers of gender built into the clothing, such as the fabric type and the color. For example, one male student wore a shirt that caused the rest of that class to rate him as less masculine. Although it was a typical collared golf shirt, it was yellow. He saw only the style of the shirt as relevant, while others in the class saw the color as an issue worth considering. As a new father, I can attest to the notion that the colors available to males and females are constrained almost from birth. My wife and I resisted dressing our son in only the stereotypical blues that are familiar to anyone who has looked at baby clothing. In addition to these colors, we included oranges, greens, and browns, which do not typically signal either males or females. However, this led many to ask whether he was a boy or a girl because they lacked the visual clues that clothing usually provides.  

Culture also plays a large part in defining what constitutes masculine and feminine clothing, as my students learned from my dressing in a lava-lava. I explain to them that different regions of the country can also have different norms of dress. Teaching in the South as a transplant from the West, I am often unfamiliar with the prevailing cultural norms. Some of the women in my exercise wore a string of pearls, explaining that it was a tradition of Southern femininity. I noted that such a tradition was also likely a function of class. Another woman chose to dress androgynously, wearing clothing drawn from the gothic subculture. This provided an opportunity to discuss not only culture, but subcultures within the larger culture.  

Clothing is not simply a neutral covering for our bodies. Although it may seem that we get dressed every day with little thought, the clothing we wear communicates for us. Moreover, we often choose our clothing strategically to display a specific image of ourselves. So, going back to your ensemble—think carefully about what your clothing is communicating about you right now. Although we claim that we simply wear what is comfortable, or that we just like the way we look in a particular outfit, our clothing choices reveal issues of race, class, gender, and culture.

About the author (s)

Brett Lunceford

University of South Alabama

Assistant Professor