Clothing Identity and the Embodiment of Age

Topics: Sociology, Gerontology, Culture Pages: 18 (6681 words) Published: April 23, 2013
In J. Powell and T. Gilbert (eds) Aging and Identity: A Postmodern Dialogue, New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2009

Clothing, Identity and the Embodiment of Age Julia Twigg1

Identity and dress are intimately linked. Clothes display, express and shape identity, imbuing it with a directly material reality. They thus offer a useful lens through which to explore the possibly changing ways in which older identities are constituted in modern culture. In this chapter I will address three sets of questions. First I will ask how writers have understood the relationship between clothing and identity. How has this been have been theorised in sociological, anthropological and dress studies? I will then address how such understandings or analyses relate to, or can be related to, the situations of older people. Is there something different or specific about age? Lastly I will ask whether questions of clothing and dress shed light on established debates concerning the changing nature of ageing in late modern, consumer culture. Clothing not fashion The focus of the chapter is on clothing and dress rather than fashion. By clothing I mean the empirical reality of dressed bodies; and the approaches I draw on derive from sociological and anthropological traditions that regard clothing as a form of material culture, a species of situated body practice, and part of lived experience of people’s lives (Entwistle 2000a,b, Guy et al 2001, Hansen 2004, Weber and Mitchell 2004, Kuchler and Miller 2005). This focus is important for a group like older people who are not normally encompassed within fashion studies and whose dress is often excluded from its consideration, but who still wear clothes, make choices about them. In this chapter I will largely refer to the situations of older women. This is partly because of the established nature of debates in relation to women, the body and clothing, but it reflects also the 1

School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NY, UK.


greater cultural involvement of women these areas. I do not, however, want to exclude men, and I will extend the analysis to them where possible. Clothing and identity The link between clothing and identity is a long established theme in dress studies, though one that has been given new impetus by the rise of postmodernism with its emphasis on identity. The link has been understood in a number of ways. The most prominent has been in terms of social class. From the time Veblen (1889) and Simmel (1904) onwards sociologists have explored the way in which clothing operates as part of class identity, with fashions diffusing down the social hierarchy as they are successively adopted and abandoned by elites, and as lower groups take up the style. Competitive class emulation is thus the engine of fashion. Bourdieu (1984) refined the account with analysis of the role of clothing as a marker of class distinction in which dress is an aspect of cultural capital, part of how elites establish, maintain and reproduce positions of power, reinforcing relation of dominance and subordination. More recently the dominance of class in the account of fashion has been challenged. The democratisation of fashion and the rise of street styles, has rendered its dynamic less central (Davis 1992, Crane 2000), with the result that other aspects of identity are increasingly emphasised. Of these, gender has always been the most significant. Indeed theorists like Entwistle (2000a) present fashion as essentially preoccupied with gender. Clothes have long been used to hide sexual difference in its strong biological sense, at the same time to pointing up and signaling it through assumptions concerning gender in clothing codes. Fashion thus helps to reproduce gender as a form of body style, producing a complex interplay between sexed bodies and gendered identities. Davis (1992) and Teeslon (1995) similarly regard the ambivalences...

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