You Are What You Wear: Conceptions of Agency and Fashion Choices

In reading the articles, our group was struck by Bordo, Davis, and Pham’s articulations of the ways in which individuals navigate, and exercise agency within, societal beauty norms. Davis articulates beauty “as a way to keep women in line, lulling them with the promise of control over at least one part of their lives” (1991, 27). Yet individuals’ attempts to conform to some of these norms are not just them blindly playing into expectations, rather, they are forming strategies that allow them to push back from within the system. Bordo writes, “people know the routes to success in this culture–they are advertised widely enough–and they are not dopes to pursue them. Often given the racism, sexism, and narcissism of the culture, their personal happiness and economic security depend on them” (Bordo 1993, 30). Pham reminds us that fashion “shapes how we are read by others…the most ordinary and intimate of acts, getting dressed, has very real political and economic consequence” (2011).

These ideas of pushing the norm (or attempting to join the norm) have been concepts familiar with many members of our group. Sarah, on one hand, often dresses for what are collectively understood to be normative markers of non-binary identity in their context (in this case, Carleton). They are privileged to live and study in a community where they can be out, and where, if they undercut their hair and dress in second-hand menswear, at least a few people will ask their pronouns rather than assume their gender. But that recognition is predicated on them being white, and slender, and assigned female at birth – these are our predominant, if not only, societal models for androgyny – and, most relevantly for this question, on them cutting their hair, doing their make-up, dressing themselves, spending money on gender-affirming clothes and makeup, and performing their gender, in ways that are read and legitimized as non-binary. Because Sarah knows how powerful validation from others feels, and because what feels gender-affirming is caught up in what they have been taught by society is masculine, or just not feminine, their agency is inextricably caught up in navigating how they will be perceived by others, even when they are trying to only dress for their own comfort.

While Sarah’s story emphasizes subverting gendered social norms surrounding fashion, Sophia attempted to conform to mainstream Western fashion norms to “fit in” within her middle school community. In 6th grade, she wore skinny jeans for the first time. She wanted to be socially accepted, and that’s what the popular girls wore. After school, her best friend started crying, asking her why she did it. One of her friends had started wearing “fashionable” clothes and makeup and then left her for the popular group. She was worried that Sophia’s skinny jeans were her gateway to the same thing. Sophia then wondered how one pair of pants could have so much power, but has realized over time that her choice to wear skinny jeans to be accepted, while proof of her exercising agency within a series of expectations, also shows how powerful those expectations were.

Our group members’ personal experiences made the ideas in the scholarly articles written by Bordo, Davis, and Pham relatable. Clothing is a crucial aspect of someone’s form of personal expression and conformity (or nonconformity) with societal beauty standards.

-sophia789, sarahpkt, edieemm, tgainezz, sunchenxi


Bordo, Susan. Unbearable weight feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1993.

Davis, Kathy. Dubious equalities and embodied differences: cultural studies on cosmetic surgery. Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Pham, Minh-Ha T. “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion.” Ms. Magazine, Fall 2011.


3 thoughts on “You Are What You Wear: Conceptions of Agency and Fashion Choices

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  1. Thank you guys for this post! “….Their agency is inextricably caught up in navigating how they will be perceived by others, even when they are trying to only dress for their own comfort.” Oh yes!! So I dated a guy for a while who basically wanted to change a lot about my appearance (Why did I date him? I really don’t know). Having played sports all my life, I love to wear my basketball shorts and Nike socks and sandals all the time. It’s comfortable. And it’s my go-to outfit because I usually have practice after class. Anyway, my ex-boyfriend would point out that I was wearing “boy shorts” and couldn’t I wear “normal” shorts like the rest of the girls? Was I trying to look like a guy? When we would go on dates he would make sure to point out that I looked much better in leggings than I did in the boy shorts! I looked like an “actual” girl this time! When we went on vacation with his parents, he was mad that one day I didn’t wear makeup and dress up. He pouted the whole day saying he had been looking forward to me looking nice, but instead I decided to wear those damn boy shorts. We argued a lot about how I looked, because apparently to him I didn’t look “girl” enough. This blatant patriarchal and critical aspect of my ex-boyfriend just goes to point out the extreme gender norms that our society pushes to no end when it comes to clothing.


  2. I think looking at agency in fashion is a really interesting topic! Clothing is a great way to demonstrate your personality and individuality, but can be super complicated. I absolutely relate to Sophia’s experience in middle school – I think most of us struggled in primary school with figuring out how we wanted to come across to other people. I specifically remember struggling with portraying my sexuality in my clothing. I would see other girls wear things more sexual, but I wasn’t quite ready to dress in those ways (or my parents wouldn’t approve). And while now, in college, I am much more confident in my look and my sexuality, I still often reflect on my clothing choices (specifically why I like wearing skinny jeans or other tight clothing) and wonder how much I wear these things with the goal of being seen by men in a sexual way, as if my sexiness determines my self-worth.

    When I was in Sri Lanka for study abroad, all of my clothing was loose and rather frumpy. I didn’t even bring a pair of jeans because I thought they were too tight and would be too inappropriate. But by the second and third month in, I was missing those jeans so bad! I was missing being able to see my body, to have agency and wear what I wanted without it being seen as sexual. I finally bought a pair of jeans in Sri Lanka that were not super tight but still pretty tight – I still covered my bottom with long tops, but I noticed that when I wore those pants, I got more comments from men in public and even had a man try to grab my butt as he passed. Being back in the US and able to wear fitted clothing and feel attractive again without unwanted attention is really liberating. Yet, maybe I am still holding on to the desire for men to “see” me, but not to the extent of making me uncomfortable.


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