Relation of Fashion, Confidence and Self-Esteem

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Many people claim that confidence stems from being wealthy, whilst others regard it to be about keeping a positive mental attitude and mind-set, but what if confidence is actually about what we wear? (O’Callaghan, 2014). 96% of women aged between 21 and 64 years ‘believe that what they wear affects how confident they feel’ (Weaver, 2012) on a day to day basis. Is there a relationship between fashion and the way that women see their own bodies- whether it being with the items of clothing we wear or their portrayal to us through magazines and the media? This piece will critically analyse the various concepts surrounding the connection between fashion and confidence, for example the idea of dressing for power and success, which emerged in the late 1970’s (Taylor and Wilson, 1989, p.199), possible sexual connotations, body image and the social pressures surrounding women both in the past and in modern day; ‘It’s no secret that assembling an outfit is like selecting social armour, and that what we wear has power over others’ (Bernard, 2012).

Does clothing empower women, giving them confidence to be themselves, to stand out or to give them the courage to try something new? Or retrospectively, does fashion degrade them, it ‘has been subject to prejudices which prevent it from being taken seriously; it has been viewed as trivial, frivolous, irrational, wasteful and ugly’ (Entwistle, 2015, p.67), affecting their self-esteem and mental health, and body-shame those who do not fit in with today’s societies idea of ‘perfection’ (Lillethun and Welters, 2007, p.282)? The definition of ‘fashion’ is highly ambiguous therefore making it difficult to specifically define; there are multiple explanations to is meaning, as it could be perceived as just pieces of clothing, a person’s culture or an art form. Consequently, there could be a complex link between fashion and the idea of confidence, within which I am now going to explore further.

The concept of ‘power dressing’ became apparent in the later years of the 1970’s, more prominently throughout the 80’s, creating a fashion style to enable women to establish power in both social and professional environments, which at the time were typically controlled by men. The trend ‘called for feminizing an otherwise cloned masculine image’, by the addition of ‘silk fabrics’, ‘flowing ties’ and ‘ruffled collars and blouse fronts’ (Davis, 1994, p.27). At this time, women had to ‘think about and act upon their bodies in particular ways’ (Entwistle, 2000, p.330), to achieve authority in the workplace and to ultimately have a successful career. One of the most talked about features of dressing for success was the introduction of shoulder pads within the power suit. To contrast with the additional, more feminine, developments to the male working suit as previously described, padded shoulders were added to contrast with the smaller waist, creating stature and curves. This was often seen as possibly sexualising the way women dressed within a professional environment, however it gave the women wearing the suit the confidence to succeed, illustrating that ‘clothes make the woman’ (Lillethun and Welters, 2007, p.287). Investing their time into the way they presented themselves in the professional industry proved the importance of dressing for confidence at this time. This depicts that the clothing women chose to wear for success in the 80’s empowered them, as it gave them the assurance to stand up for themselves in male dominated territory; highlighting a strong connection between fashion and clothing and the power that confidence can have from it.

Following on from this, ‘power dressing has evolved since the days of relying on shoulder pads and pinstripes’ (Vince, 2017). Women no longer need to wear a tailored structured suit to communicate power and confidence, both in the workplace and throughout everyday life, because ‘wearing what makes you happy makes you comfortable in your own skin’ (Walmsley-Johnson, 2014). Today, fashion is so wide spun, with endless styles and opportunities to be had and experienced, and there being no limit to the expressive power that dress can have (Entwistle, 2015, p.17); clothing is a ‘visual metaphor’ and ‘is capable of communicating many things’ (Davis, 1994, p.25). There is no denying that wearing a perfectly fitted power suit can give a woman confidence, as previously stated, but in today’s society any clothes should give a woman the confidence to do whatever she wants, without her following any specific fashion trends- ‘if our clothes are right, we feel like we can do anything’ (Walmsley-Johnson, 2014). More importantly, a major perception associated with the idea of power dressing is that women feel as though they need to do so to please and compete with others within their environment. However, as fashion has evolved, the concept of dressing for success is more for the wearer’s self-esteem, rather than for the people around them, because the message your clothing conveys is ‘much more potent to the wearer’. Fashion isn’t just to please others; it is for you as a wearer, for your own confidence and individuality (Walmsley-Johnson, 2014). Confidence isn’t just needed for the professional work place, but for all areas across life, therefore implying that the power suit isn’t the only way in which confidence can be achieved through fashion and clothing.

Having considered the power suit giving people confidence through the outlet of fashion, it is also reasonable to look at when maybe this isn’t the case. Fashion is ‘the presentation of self in everyday life’ (Entwistle, 2000, p.337) and often gives women a lack of confidence rather than the former. The modern day world is influenced by so many factors such as the media, photography, modelling and the cosmetic industry, which all contribute to how we feel about our bodily appearance, clothes we wear and lives we live. This has become important to fulfil many women’s’ lives and for their overall happiness. Does this suggest that there is too much pressure on women to appear a certain way or to follow a specific trend from a fashion perspective?

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Famous super model Cindy Crawford said, ‘It’s hard doing a runway show. You’re surrounded by fourty of the most beautiful women in the world. You see all your own imperfections and none of theirs’ (Lillethun and Welters, 2007, p.283) when asked about the confidence issues she faced throughout her working career. For someone of her status and beauty to admit these feelings illustrates that every woman feels the same, no matter what they do for a living. Even though she, or models in general are perceived to be beautiful and have confidence, they themselves may not feel it just like the everyday person. Therefore, this displays a negative perspective of ‘fashion is confidence’, as the way fashion is advertised to women in society doesn’t always fill them with the confidence it could, instead it adds too much pressure for them to conform to a specific look or fashion trend. Adding to this, many people are embarrassed by when the motion of dress goes wrong. For example, if one finds a stain on a shirt or their fly is undone on a pair of trousers whilst out, it has the opposite effect of empowering women, actually revoking the idea of confidence derived from fashion (Entwistle, 2015, p.82).

Moreover, another perspective of how fashion is confidence could totally rely on the space and general situation of a person, as ‘when we dress we do so to make our bodies acceptable to a social situation’ (Entwistle, 2000, p.326). The baseline of what people wear is most often down to the context of the social situation that is going to take place. For example, Entwistle states:

‘…Women dressing up for a night out might wear a coat to cover up an outfit, such as a short skirt and skimpy top, which might feel comfortable when worn in a nightclub, but which might otherwise make them feel vulnerable when walking down a quiet street late at night. In this respect, the spaces of the nightclub and the street impose their own structures on the individual and her sense of her body, and she may in turn employ strategies of dress aimed at managing her body in these spaces.’ (Entwistle, 2000, p.339).

Given that different types and styles of clothing are suited for specific times and places, the relationship between fashion and confidence totally depends on the social context. A woman may attain confidence from a short black mini dress for a social night out with the girls, yet would feel completely out of place and given very little confidence from her outfit choice if taken to a business meeting at work. This links to Douglas’s theory of the dressed body to have ‘two bodies: the physical body and the social body’ (Entwistle, 2000, p.327); the social or physically dressed body when placed in a specific situation will change and alter to what is appropriate at that time. As a result of this, the concept of confidence from fashion is totally ambiguous in this case, as it is almost definitely dependable on the circumstances at the time. Yes, it can be a significantly strong meaning behind fashion is confidence, whereas it can also be the complete opposite.

Another significant factor for the relationship between fashion and confidence would be the sexual connotations that could be associated with it. Wearing particular items of clothing could be empowering to a particular person, as it gives them the confidence to do something that without the confidence boost, they wouldn’t be able to do. For instance, when the corset began to emerge within fashion, it was commonly thought by some as a garment that displays an act of discipline towards the female form, to make her docile and submissive to the opposite sex (Entwistle, 2000, p.321); but why? Why can’t a woman wear something like a corset for her own reasons, without others looking down at her? Just because the garment of choice may have been slightly sexualised and not appropriate for every social situation, doesn’t mean it should be deemed seedy or wrong. This connects with the idea of solely buying expensive or matching lingerie just for the act of pleasure in a sexual manner; lingerie can and should be about more than just the word sex and viewed as a way to make women feel good about their bodies, lifting their body confidence and self-esteem. Having the layer of underwear on under your normal clothes could be a major boost, as the only person who knows it is there is you. It is something that you are wearing for yourself, to make you feel more confident as a person. This clearly alludes that fashion, specifically lingerie in this instance, can be the basis of having confidence as a woman, without it being frowned upon by others because, ‘Lingerie should be a fashion icon that symbolizes women empowerment; that signifies femininity, sexiness, and to inspire women all over the globe’ (Granja-Sierra, 2015). It could also be said that the general perception and definition of sexiness within fashion has evolved over the past 40 years. Heather Gramston (2018), the buying manager for lingerie, hosiery and sportswear at Selfridge’s in London described it to be ‘now defined as how a woman feels when she is wearing something’ opposed to what she is wearing or looks like to someone else.

Furthermore, the ability of digitally editing fashion-related imagery could have a negative effect on the relationship between fashion and confidence significantly. ‘Practically every photo you see in a magazine will have been digitally altered’ (Gunter and Wykes, 2007, p.52), which is often not realised and ‘looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers the self-esteem of more than 80% of women’ (Orbach, 2016). This can affect women in both negative and positive ways, but mostly when a woman sees the use of very thin models in fashion magazines, it ‘contributes to someone developing a negative body image’ (Fitzhugh, 2004, p.5). These ‘faultless’ looking models in articles are beginning to become a stereotype of what the ideal woman should look like. Many women believe they have to live up to these to try and fit in as they think, ‘the best way to be accepted in society is by looking a specific way or by having the perfect body’ (Fitzhugh, 2004, p.5). If this is a known issue within the fashion industry, why can’t we start to make changes to reduce and eventually stop this from happening? Why isn’t airbrushing in magazines restricted or why aren’t a wider range of models used to show diversity and individuality to women as a gender? As a result from changing this, better body confidence could be achieved for more women in general; it wouldn’t stop all women having a negative body confidence, but it could undoubtedly reduce the amount and the impact it has.

Women are affected by airbrushing, as the media is creating a stigma around the ideal image a woman should have, with the constant bombardment of unrealistically thin and blemish free models which feature within most fashion magazines and across social media. The more they put across this stereotypical picture of what the normal woman should look like, the more it is going to be expected. Many women feel as though they need to look like these images, to live up to what society expects of them, therefore resulting them to having a negative body confidence. Consequently, this suggests a negative relationship between fashion and confidence, as the society we live in projects an ideal image of what people should aim to look like, as air brushing ‘exists to sell a fantasy to the consumer that this ‘perfection’ is indeed possible’ (Barr, 2018), whereas for many it is physically unachievable and unrealistic.

Overall, I do believe there is a significant relationship between fashion and confidence. It undoubtedly isn’t the only thing that makes up fashion, but it is one of the many theories and possible definitions that makes it whole. Fashion isn’t just all about the clothes itself, but how comfortable and confident women feel within them, whilst having to live in a world where fashion as a concept and industry is everywhere you look. Ultimately, fashion is an ‘experience and expression of self, and what could be more visible as an aspect of the body than dress’ (Entwistle, 2000, p. 335). From when power dressing emerged in the late 1970’s to the freedom of style accepted in today’s society, clothing empowers women only if they choose to let it. This may not be the case for every female, as they may believe that fashion has more of a negative effect from the use of digital manipulation and the sexual connotations that can occur. Despite this, if you decide to use it wisely and embrace the sides to which fashion can aid in creating self-confidence, its power could change your outlook on life in future situations.

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