“Clothing is Expression”

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.

3 thoughts on ““Clothing is Expression”

  1. this is clearly how you describe it. the unconscious is completely influenced, even by images that we do not remember and that make us feel original, but that we have almost certainly seen and cannot consciously remember.

    I always like to think about my children. “A man buys a painting by a famous artist, hangs it in his room. Often he sits down, contemplates it and the painting transmits unparalleled feelings to him, it is beautiful, its execution is extraordinary …..one day at a party at his house, one of the special art guests … sees the painting and guarantees that it is an excellent forgery ”

    the painting is the same one that filled the owner’s evenings with pleasure, now when contemplating it there is nothing absolute nothing. It only took 5 minutes from one state to another.the unconscious again


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