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Personal Experience Paper: the Social Psychology of Dress

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In this paper, I will be exploring my past in regard to dress and comparing it to the present in order to best demonstrate how dress is, and always has been, an extremely important aspect of my everyday life. Dress is defined as, “the total arrangement of all outwardly detectable modifications of the body and all material objects added to it”. In other words, it is any intentional modification to the body or supplement added to the body. Dress not only helped me realize my passion, but also helped me form my identity. This paper will provide an overview of the frustrations I faced in my childhood when I felt like I couldn’t express myself through dress freely. Then I will discuss how dress has now opened an outlet for me to develop an identity. Self-expression through dress has built my confidence, made me a more positive and productive person, and opened my eyes to what I want to do with my life. This paper also examines how a subcultural change enabled me to view dress from a completely different perspective.

The Past

The first eighteen years of my life were spent in a small town in Florida, called Sarasota. As a child, I was the considered the “black sheep” of my family. There was a certain “norm” regarding the way people dressed in this area. Norms are general guidelines for behaviors in a certain group of people. Here, experimenting with fashion and different styles of clothing was very outside the norm. I always struggled with this because I thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with my dress, however, I hated the reaction I would get from the people around me for trying something new. Beyond experimenting with different styles of clothing, I tried to make certain body modifications when I got bored of my look. Body modifications are “changes made directly to the body itself, such as change in shape, color, texture, surface embellishment, etc. ” At this point in my life, I hadn’t realized what I was truly passionate about which I think subconsciously gave me the desire to experiment with these body modifications. The first change I made while being frustrated with finding my “look” was dying my hair. I can remember all of my friends and everyone in my family trying to persuade me not to, but I was determined to try something new. I dyed my light brown hair dark brown, then even darker brown, which washed out to an interesting auburn color over time. This led me to trying highlights, which drove me to becoming blonde, which is where I finally felt aligned with my identity. Even to this day, I have family members constantly telling me they think I should go back to my natural color.

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Regarding trends and styles, there wasn’t much room for creativity in Sarasota either. In school, the only things that were “fashionable” were plain black leggings and a solid colored tank top or shirt. I can remember one day when I decided to wear a pair of wedges to school. I was so excited about my new shoes and being a part of a trend that I didn’t see every day, however, I will never forget the awful stares that I got from the moment I walked in the door. I felt so uncomfortable that I ended up going to my car and changing into the spare sneakers that I kept in my trunk. I think, even at a young age, I want to be an early adopter (people who create the visibility of styles), but because of the norms and pressure I felt in my surroundings to “fit in” I ended up being a fashion follower (someone who waits to adopt a trend until it is widely accepted and on the way out) for many years. Culture is something that played a major role in my dress, as well. Culture is, “a complex whole that includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, laws, customs, and other capabilities and habits, which is acquired by humans as members of society”. When I think of my culture, I would think of it being “American culture”, but what I think really affected my dress was my subculture. A subculture is on a smaller scale and includes people who share, “geographic area, lifestyle, interests, beliefs, social culture, and language”. Considering Sarasota as a subculture, as a general rule, there’s wasn’t much, if any, celebration of fashion or interest in dress. This was always very difficult for me because I wanted to express myself without the judgement from the people around me. Interestingly enough, I don’t think I had realized that I had such a passion for fashion or dress in general for a very long time because it was always viewed in a demeaning manner. I can remember often feeling frustrated when I would dress my body, as if something was missing. When I think about it now, I think that I wanted to explore and experiment with different styles, but I felt so trapped in the social norms of where I lived. I had an internal conflict of figuring out my identity. I could talk to my friends endlessly, but we never had the same interests. I never did the “typical” things that people my age participated in. I was never interested in sports, I didn’t want to grow up and be a lawyer or nurse (or a different traditional career), and I certainly did not want to go to a normal state school and live the “authentic” college experience in Florida. The TransitionI always knew I wanted to live a life different to the ones I was viewing around me. I wanted to be able to be creative and experiment with different looks. However, growing up where I did, and not having the exposure to the fashion world beyond a few visual representations, such as magazines, I never considered a career in fashion. What I did know though, was that I had to get out of Florida. While my parents begged me to go to college in state, I applied to colleges in Manhattan and London because they were the two places I was familiar with and had seen people expressing themselves creatively through their dress, which was completely acceptable, and in fact encouraged, by people around them.

After figuring out what would best work financially, I somehow convinced my parents that it was a good idea to study in New York. I began by majoring in digital journalism, which was interesting, but it didn’t give me quite the same feeling that I get after putting a great outfit together. It wasn’t until after living in New York City for a few months and experimenting with different trends, hairstyles, and make up and getting positive feedback that I finally realized how much I love fashion and dressing my body. I was a relatively shy girl in Florida that never felt like I really fit in; I was never fully comfortable in my skin. Identity is, “a definition of who someone is”. I never found my identity while I lived in Florida. Everything that I was interested in was seen as abnormal and I didn’t excel in the “normal” things which was really frustrating for me a s a child and teenager. The PresentMoving to New York changed my entire perspective on dress. According to Merriam-Webster, perspective is, “the interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed”. Seeing people around me who expressed themselves through various clothing, hair styles, and make up opened my eyes to who I wanted to be. After years of feeling like an outcast for being interested in something “so superficial” (as many people in Florida would say), I finally feel like I am able to illustrate my passion through the way I present myself. Some days I want to wear heels and a blazer and feel professional and others I am more in to a streetwear look. No matter how I want to present myself, I know I won’t feel like an outcast, because New York is a completely different subculture in American than Sarasota, Florida. I was never artistic in the sense of being able to make a beautiful sketch or painting, and I was never taught that dress was a form of art in itself. As mentioned, I wasn’t athletic, I couldn’t play any instruments, nor was I extremely academic in high school. The only thing I found myself at all “good” at was putting together an outfit or doing my friend’s hair or makeup. Even to this day, my favorite part of every day is waking up and putting together my look. What type of vibe do I want to go for? Will I wear my hair up, down, curly or straight? Should I do natural makeup or more glam? All of these decisions have given me an outlet of freedom that I didn’t feel like I was able to utilize previously.

Dress has made such an impact on my life that it even affects my everyday mood. When I don’t like my outfit, hair, or make up, I almost always have a bad day. I don’t feel great in my skin and I feel a little self-conscious, similar to how I felt growing up. On the other hand, when I do like my look, my confidence increases, I feel like I am more productive, more outgoing, and, in general, a more positive person. It wasn’t until moving here and expanding my horizons that I realized it was an area where I could pursue a career. Dress has made me extremely excited for my future because I have finally discovered a field of work that I am truly passionate about seeking.


Dress and free expression of dress has changed my life. It has made me more confident and excited about my future. Living in a different subculture of America and experimenting with different looks has made me feel like less of an outcast. Going to school where dress is celebrated and meeting tons of people from all around the world that are passionate about the same things as me has greatly improved my life and overall attitude. I wasn’t sure where I fit in or what I wanted to do with my life before, and the freedom to dress my body as I please, has given me hope about my future. I have realized that dress is not only a hobby and passion of mine, but also something that I can turn into a career. Whether it be something small, like getting a new ear piercing, or something bigger, like wearing an extremely new trend, being an early adopter has made me eager to dress my body each and every day. Dress has also served as a huge relief to me because I am able to demonstrate my mood and what I hope to become through how I present myself to others. Sometimes it is hard to express my feelings with words, and dress has been able to do that for me. I almost get emotional when a stranger can just look at me and say, “You must work or want to work in fashion” because I feel like I have finally found what I always hoped to be. Through this paper, I have realized how much I struggled as a child when trying to find my identity. I finally feel able to be who I’ve always strived to be, and dress has given me that power.


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