We hear this bark by fashion houses, Instagram, even the average dresser. Heck, academics like Judith Butler (who argued that gender is performative) have built their careers on this point.
It’s a popular ideology that can be traced back to Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s lesser-known nephew. Bernays was a 20th-century public relations figurehead hired by major corporations to advertise products.
Using Freud’s theories of the unconscious, Bernays employed psychological techniques in advertising that shaped consumerism forever.*
Bernays convinced women to start smoking. He popularized fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan and strategized department store sales.
One of Bernays’ biggest impacts in fashion was paying celebrities to say that clothes “express your character.”
Recognizing the capitalist origins of this phrase, let’s again pose the question: is clothing a form of self expression?
To me, clothing can be different, but rarely special or original.
Yes, I appreciate style. And yes, clothing conveys messages to others.
But our preferences are shaped by what exists and what came before, whether we conform to these standards or not. Our thoughts are not as special as they seem. I’m typically skeptical with defenses aligning with vague concepts like “individuality” and “freedom.”
It’s an interesting topic to explore. Next time we shop, we can consider what items we buy. And why we buy them.
*There’s a BBC documentary on Edward Bernays called The Century of the Self, viewable on YouTube.