Social perception is the study of how people form impressions of and make inferences about other people. People learn about others’ feelings and emotions by picking up information they gather from physical appearance and communication, both verbal and nonverbal.
It’s a particularly interesting thing to learn about because regardless of who you are, it will affect you. Psychology has looked at this in many different ways, but we’re going to talk about social perception in regards to our clothing choices. For better or worse, your clothes say things about you, even when you’re not saying a word. Business Insider says “clothes don’t just affect your confidence levels, they can affect your success, as ‘clothing significantly influences how others perceive you and how they respond to you.'” There have also been studies which show that wearing the color red might heighten your overall attractiveness, wearing heels can make you appear more confident, skirts make you more inclined to flirt, and suits contribute to business success and assertiveness.
But what about economic perceptions and cultural appropriation? Can wearing something make you look worse off or perpetuate a stereotype? What about borrowing a stylistic influence from another culture and spinning it to be high fashion?
One study done in 2011 took a look at three different hoodies. One of a perceptively higher SES (Social Economic Status), one more low end, one neutral. All 3 hoodies were purchased from Wallmart and had an ironed-on a logo from a varying brand (A&F, Kmart, and label-less). The participants were asked which was more expensive. They said the A&F, then further, the participants said the SES of the person who would wear the Kmart hoodie was significantly lower than that of the person who would wear the A&F hoodie. (Note, in this part of the study, the sweaters were ranked without a model wearing them.)
The researchers then used two models, one black, and one white. They were both similar in looks, age, stature, and SES. Three photos were taken of each model from the waist up with a neutral facial expression in each of the looks (A&F, Kmart, and no logo). They asked the participants several questions like “would you be friends with this person?” “Do you think this person is middle class?” personality questions, perceived attraction, and more. What did they find?
- The models wearing the A&F hoodie were rated in the highest in SES
- The models wearing the Kmart hoodies were rated in the lowest
- Individual comparisons showed the Kmart hoodie condition was rated significantly lower than the A&F and the plain hoodie
- As for the effect of the model? The white model was ranked higher in SES than the black model
- People wearing the non-logo were deemed as most successful and important whereas the person wearing the Kmart was the least
- The white model was thought to have fewer friends as said by the participants when wearing the Kmart hoodie and participants said didn’t want to be friends with the black model wearing the A&F hoodie
It’s not surprising what was found about the SES correlation to the hoodie without a model, but what is interesting is the social implications once the garment is worn. Our preconceived notions about brands and biases around people seem to become more clear when they are in correlation with an individual (a face to the name). This study raises a lot more questions than answers. Are there certain brands perceived as made more for a specific race than another?
The study also begs another question: what happens when brands try to use culture to their benefit? Does it make shoppers more likely to purchase or does it repel shoppers when they see the appropriation? One example that comes to mind is when Marc Jacob’s sent his models out in the Spring 2017 show with faux dreadlocks. “The look incited an immediate discussion about whether or not the hairstyle was an offensive form of cultural appropriation (especially as worn by a predominantly white cast), or if it was merely a show of appreciation for the style” commented Vogue. It wasn’t just a fashion week tactic to get PR, but a nation-wide issue sparking endless debate.
In a case filed by Chastity Jones based on discrimination of grooming, her place of work said that if she did not change her hairstyle, she wouldn’t have a job as her hair was “unprofessional” (she wore her hair in dreadlocks). The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that banning dreadlocks in the workplace was legal. Though this infringement on the civil rights act is certainly affecting black people, the lawyers and court decided that Title VII protected “immutable traits” of race that did not extend to grooming choices.
Social media has opened up conversations that might not have been heard or publicized in the past. Singer Zendaya opened up after being told she looked like she smelled of patchouli on the red carpet by saying “there is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locks on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.”
It seems like cultural appropriation happens everywhere. From the runway to the workplace, to streetwear. We can all agree at this point, with the wide-spread of information and knowledge, an original idea is hard to come by and fashion does often repeat itself. So, where do we draw the line between what is okay to wear and what is not? And if we go so far to say that only ___ race can wear something is that creating an even bigger stigma and cultural divide?
When it comes to cultural appropriation, some choose a “pick your battles” plan of action, but others strive to seek justice for cultures that are being inaccurately and inappropriately represented. Put simply, cultural appropriation is a thing, so it is counterproductive and ignorant to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it begs the question: how do we advocate against cultural appropriation while still advocating for the representation of all cultures in fashion. The answer? Research, conversation, and compassion. If something offends someone, it is worth exploring. Let’s not drive our narratives through shame and aggression, let’s seek to educate one another, be empathetic, and listen with all we have.
Clothing speaks, art speaks, but so do we. Whether we’re drawing judgments based on someone’s clothing choices or wearing another culture’s traditional dress without properly understanding the significants, we all make mistakes, and there is always room to learn.
Let’s celebrate fashion, humanity, culture, and creativity, let’s commit to always learning and growing, and let’s join together to end negativity in the world of fashion to the best of our abilities.