The Role of Fashion in the Construction of Gender

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In most instances, individuals’ relationship with objects, in this case, fashion, on a personal level that gives an implication of what they want others to perceive what they believe. The direct physical and personal intimacy of clothes and the body generates a significant visual representation of social identity, especially gender. The fashion sense or material people choose to wear are obvious and individuals create social contact involved in the unstable interaction between the outside world and the body. Given the close relationship between fashion and self-identity, clothes act as a form of material culture and are best suited as a way of expressing people’s values and the values assigned to material possessions. The argument is that dressing reflects and impacts one’s perception of themselves and retains a specific its characteristic as a material object given the direct and close contact with the human body which places its as a filter between the person and the immediate social environment.

It is also vital to note that societies recognize the body as a cultural symbol which is characterized as either masculine or feminine. It is for this reason that many cultures around the world have strict restrictions on what a man and woman should wear. At the same time, each individual perceives and experiences their bodies differently and through fashion, these experiences can be protected or hidden by the clothes they choose to wear and in some sense limit how they express their personality. As such, over the years these limits and restrictions on expression through fashion have been renegotiated to create new images of feminism and masculinity. In the following paragraphs, this paper will analyze the role fashion has on the creation of gender identity and how historical events in both fashion and social fronts have changed how gender is defined through the clothes people wear.

The meaning of gender

            Times are changing. The same can be said about cultures and societies as well as the values held within these societies. With these changes comes unavoidable consequence is how people create and perceive their social identity. Over the centuries the definition of gender has increasingly become vague which is a direct reflection of the cultural and societal uncertainties that compound the female and male roles. Such roles are responsible for the gender identity one adopts rather than the biological definitions of sex (Arvanitidou and Gasouka 2013, p.111). These changes have diluted the binary nature of gender both from biological and sociological perspective. Bisexual, transgender, and gender fluid individuals and their opinions have increasingly gained recognition in the contemporary society. The meaning of this is that the traditional stereotypical feminine and masculine qualifications no longer qualify to the personal characteristics for both women and men rather there are merely social constructs of gender that provides the background through which the society places expectations on men and women (Arvanitidou and Gasouka 2013, p.111). It is through these expectations that people organize their social identity through providing as referencing point which redefines how boys and girls, as well as men and women, interact and perceive each other.

            In a society where the initial biological binary definition of gender is suppressed, it is safe to assume that social identity as either man or woman is determined by the individuals themselves. According to Woodward (2008), if a person perceives themselves as a woman based on their biological characteristics or the social roles they have adopted, this perceptions does not apply to all (20). The same applies to men. One man’s self-perception of masculinity does not necessarily represent the opinion and feelings of the entire population. Individual difference in gender identity is present. The argument here is that gender identity and the origins of self-identity are not psychological innate categories but result from specific social situations that people develop. These differences are expected to be visible in the manner in which people behave, in this case, the manner in which their choice of fashion reflects their gender identity and position in the society.

The role of fashion in the construction of gender

            From a sociological perspective, when an individual meets another the first definition they make about the new person is whether they are a male or female. Such a definition depends on the immediate visual cues one receives from the other party one of which what the person is wearing. Clothes play two important functions in the society. One, it acts as a modifier of the biological processes. In this sense, clothes take the responsibility of protecting the body from elements in the external environment such as cold weather (Arvanitidou and Gasouka 2013, p.112). Secondly, clothes are a medium of communication. However, it is important to note that clothes by themselves hold no meaning. It is the assigned function and meaning placed on them by the individual wearing the clothes that are communicated when they are worn. In this state, the represents a meaning which is dependent on the time or places the dress is worn. At a young age, children have been found to differentiate between men and women based on the clothes they wear. Biological and psychological differences do not play a part in their definition of masculinity and femininity.

Clothes play a vital role as one of the most visual forms of consumption in the performance and definition of social indemnity (Crane 2000, p.12). According to Crane (2000), people, especially those categorized as affluent, are more concerned with the identity created by their consumption of clothing and employ this consumption to manipulate their representation of their identity. In this sense, it is the individual that controls what they are wearing would say about the gender identity. However, as seen with young children, the relationship is mutual. Fashion defines personal identity and position in the society and at the same time, they define what their choice of fashion means. Sexuality and gender are generally viewed as a specific exemplification of power and social relations expressed through the body and to significant level the clothes people wear. Although the differences between the female and male bodies are visually obvious, these differences are further accentuated by the manner in which people dress and how they behave within their society. Also, consider that since gender roles in the contemporary society have been neutralized, people tend to be oblivious of their role in creating these roles but only realize this role when others do the production. This sometimes goes against the institutionalized societal norms which if one goes against they tend to be isolated. Clothing in this context is a communication medium that shows an individual’s compliance or defiance of these rules and helps in creating a personal definition or perception of gender.

Historically, however, these meanings have been known to change depending on time and place. Various social events in history have changed how the society views women and men as well as the roles they play. The same is the case of how fashion has been viewed over the years. Prior to the 1800s, the differences between how men and women dressed where virtually non-existence. Both sexes wore long decorated attires with the difference only present on the ground of which social group a person belonged. The shapes and nature of the clothing did not reflect gender. Fast-forward to the Victorian period clothes become more expressive. The way an individual dressed signified more than just their social status. People began assigning gender perceptions on various types of clothes. It is during this period that gender roles gained sharp definitions. A woman’s position in the society was determined by how they dressed and at the same time their dress code reflected their husbands’ position in society as the provider of fashion.

Most importantly, social standings during this period placed a restriction on what people, especially women, could wear based on gender. For example, women in these generations were prohibited from wearing trousers based on the argument that such clothes represented the male gender and masculinity. In the following years, such restrictions were gradual as various socio-cultural events redefined gender roles and the position of women in the society. Take the example of the French Revolution. Crane (2001) argued that during this historical event woman in France felt that the legislative changes greatly adversely affected their progression from taking the role of home keepers to assuming an active role outside family responsibilities (107). They felt that although there were strong feminist movements during the revolutionary years, these movements failed to secure them a better place in the society. Instead, the rights of men were enhanced and women were further excluded from the mainstream society (Crane 2001, p.108). As a form of political and social rebellion, women started adopting fashion styles culturally seen as masculine such as wearing trousers. Fashion designers such as Chanel in making efforts to popularize the socially accepted male attires among the female population. In addition to using male fabric in her designs, Chanel took inspirations from various male clothing such as the Marines’ straitjackets, masculine woolen sweaters, cufflinks, and cuffed shirts in designing what later came to be known a cross-gender fashion (English 2007, p. 39).

The gender equality and feminist movement’s efforts in the nineteenth century were inherited into the twentieth century. Historians often described this period as one which the society was ready to accept gender roles changes. The acceptable nature of the society in the twentieth century saw the introduction of radical fashion designs which were increasingly moving away from the socially defined gender restrictions on dress codes. For instance, the Ravers from 1985 to 1995 and the 1960’s hippies were seen as protagonists of social movements who attempted to do away with gender differences through fashion by the introduction of unisex clothing. However, Arvanitidou and Gasouka (2013) argue that these movements failed since their representation of unisex designs were seen as male-dominated. In the same light, antagonist styles where perceived to unifying the sexes and resulting in the re-introduction of primordial cosmic unity that would solve the confusion between gender roles and the gender messages sent by the way people dressed (Arvanitidou and Gasouka 2013, p.114).

What the history of fashion and the manner in which changes were adopted in the way women and men dressed shows is the role of clothing in defining and constructing gender is a subject of social perception and attitudes. The same way gender is socially and individually defined, this role is determined by the communications or meaning people intend to make when they dress in a certain way. With the society moving towards the recognition of the lack of duality in gender, fashion is increasingly becoming a tool for describing the position one holds in the society. It has a functional character and is often used unconsciously by people to portray themselves in a certain way or to declare the group he or she belongs (Arvanitidou and Gasouka, 2013 p.114).

In conclusion, the changes in the late ninetieth century and twentieth century neutralized the clear distinctions of masculinity and femininity expressed by the choice of clothes. Despite these changes, fashion still acts as a tool for gender construction and differentiation. Sociologists argue that from a tender age children are assigned gender roles by the activities they are introduced in as well as the clothes they wear. They recognize their position in the society through a simplified way of dressing where some clothes or some colors are associated with masculinity or femininity. As they grow up, however, their individuality and the manner they perceive themselves would eventually define their gender and their membership in a certain social group. Hence, fashion can be seen as a tool for social gender construction but it can also be used as a tool for communicating the psychological and sociological position, in terms of gender, an individual perceives to belong.


Arvanitidou, Z., and Gasouka M. (2013). Construction of gender through fashion and dressing. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 4(11): 111-115.

Crane, D. (2000). Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

English, B. (2013). A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk. New York: A& C Black.

Woodward, S. (2007). Why Women Wear What They Wear. New York: Berg.

August 01, 2023


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