Fashion, Humor and Managing Identity or Role Conflict
Sunday, April 10, 2011In earlier postings, we explored studies that show how fashion choices are being used to manage emotions and conflicting roles and identities. This latter function of fashion is particularly fascinating. We normally think of fashion as a means of expression, not as an active and constructive means of dealing with some of life’s more complex difficulties. What is going on here? And what is meant by role or identity conflict?
The notion of struggling with “conflicting roles” is most often described in relation to various forms of gender roles, or when these come into misalignment with other aspects of identity. The clearest example from the scientific literature already presented was the case of Muslim business women. The traditional role of the Muslim woman is largely house-bound, although this, of course, is changing in the modern world. Business women, on the other hand, in today’s world must be free to move about to undertake negotiations and, in general, do business. For Muslim women those puts them into a situation where their economic role demands a different and conflicting set of expectations than does their ethnically grounded gender role. The study showed that one of the ways that Muslim women deal with this conflict is through the use of more traditional clothing choices than would normally be expected of a business woman or a mix of some less traditional features with more traditional elements. In a sense, the fashion choices are being used to negotiate a range of responses among different communities.
Another example of the use of fashion in this way is among gay men. Gay men sometimes use outre fashions to “provoke” their social communities into accepting them despite their “different appearance” and hence negotiate an acceptation of difference. In addition, particular fashion choices may become associated with groups – as in the checked shirt for gay men. From these examples, we can see that sometimes fashion choices can be more conform to tradition than expected, or less conform, depending on the context and the message being conveyed.
However, the use of outre fashions to solicit greater acceptance of difference also highlights the possible role of humor in these “conflictual fashions”. Many gay men exhibit a great deal of humor in their choice of clothing. To some extent, humor is itself a “great leveler” of difference – when people can laugh at difference, they are already further along the road to accepting it. One fashion for men proposed last year (2010) highlighted this sense of humor in ways that draw attention to what men still find difficult or challenging to wear. This combination of hot pink with a masculine deshabille obviously never made it into Mr. Everyman’s wardrobe!
Transvestites also traditionally draw on humor to make their “cross-dressing” fashions more acceptable to others. Although we are often uncomfortable around cross-dressers whom we may meet in our own lives, people are fascinated by cross-dressing in general. In addition to the sense of humor that men may use in their own cross-dressing, hollywood and the media love to exploit a sense of humor to present examples of cross-dressing on the screen – a classic case of this here in Quebec is “momma” played by Serge Heriault from the TV series “La Petite Vie”.
Some niche community fashion choices may be made in all seriousness, and yet still represent an example of humor at play. Many punk fashion styles exhibit this characteristic, as do more recent examples of goth. Both of these are good examples of fashions generated by communities struggling with role and identity conflicts – in this case, conflicting expectations regarding youth.
These examples highlight the use of fashion choices by individuals to generate new responses on the part of their surrounding social communities. Fashion choices may be nearly invisible to one community, yet highly visible to another. Hence a classic business suit at a goth party would be instantly marked as inappropriate. What appears to be conservative, is so only to a particular community. The use of humor within fashion choices is also a powerful lever for generating greater tolerance. How do your fashion choices rack up against these issues?