January 27, 2016

What are You Wearing?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Most of us ask this question of others at one time or another. We might ask if we're going to a special event and want to make sure our clothing is appropriate, or we might silently wonder this at the sight of others if we are surprised by their wardrobe choices. Reporters ask celebrities a version of this question during red carpet interviews at award shows.

Clothing is profoundly social—it reflects culture, it might make a statement about a subculture we identify with, about our economic status (or the economic status we hope to project to others), about gender, and about our sense of self. Even if we are not consciously making choices to impress others or to fit in with a group, the clothing options available to us at any given time are produced in a social, cultural, and economic context.

For instance, wearing a headscarf can reflect our religious beliefs, relations of gender and power, the temperature, and fashion trends. And in the current political climate, wearing a headscarf can also yield negative reactions from others and has even been banned in some places. So a scarf is more than just a scarf.

I recently visited Disneyland with family members, including my young nephews. One of them asked us why so many adults were wearing costumes in the park, particularly since it wasn't Halloween. I admit I was a bit surprised to see as many people dressed up for the occasion, wearing Disney-themed clothing, bags, shoes, lanyards with Disney pins, Star Wars t-shirts and even some animal outfits without an obvious Disney connection. (Just days after our visit, the park issued a rule prohibiting people over the age of 14 from entering the park wearing costumes for security reasons.)

To know for sure why people chose to wear costumes, we would need to conduct research and actually ask them, but I would hypothesize that wearing a costume with cat, mouse, or bunny ears as we saw, is a break from our typical dress code, and part of the pleasure of going to Disneyland is to enter a world of fun. Perhaps wearing a costume is a way of being part of this fantasy world. It might also be a way of reconnecting with a sense of play they experienced as children visiting Disneyland. I remember the fun of wearing personalized mouse ears in the park as a child (but don't remember ever seeing an adult wearing them or any costumes).

The truth is we wear costumes every day. We dress as students, professors, clerks, shoppers, doctors, patients, party goers, and so forth. Much of the time, what we wear is about being comfortable—not just physically comfortable, but socially comfortable as well. The person wearing a sweater and jeans might feel perfectly dressed for the grocery store, but maybe not for a black tie wedding (yes, I once saw someone inexplicably wearing this outfit at a fancy wedding).

What we wear is a good way to think about the concept of social roles, or who we are in relation to others. For instance, I am a professor at work, but when I am with my friends it is best that I leave this role behind (no one wants a lecture when they are at dinner, or to be corrected if they mispronounce something on the menu). We might have many distinct social roles, and sometimes our outfits in one role aren't appropriate in another. What you might wear to work, especially if you have to wear a uniform, is probably not what you would choose to wear during an evening out.

Social roles are not just about our interpersonal relationships, but are related to social institutions as well. If you are a student, this means that you are part of a larger educational institution. These institutions often have dress codes that formally shape what you are allowed to wear, just as theme parks and other establishments might have written rules about proper guest attire.

What we wear is about more than our personal style and taste. It reflects our larger social context, our social roles, and the institutions that we participate in.


Hello, i am a student from Santa Barbara City College and I'm curious to see what you think about when people dress up on certain holidays such as: Halloween, Easter, or even Christmas?

Hello, I'm a SBCC student and I am doing a respond on this article as my sociology class assignment.

Dress code, especially in college setting, is possibly the largest component of my culture shock when I went to school in the United States. Back in Indonesia, a country which the major population members are Muslims, women are pressured to always dress respectfully in any occasion where the public eyes can see them. This means dressing with as minimal exposure as possible. I could only dream on wearing tank tops and shorts as short as the ones I wore in America without people staring and judging me as a cheap woman or someone from a lower class status who is uneducated. Likewise, the clothes I wore back in Indonesia would be considered too old-fashioned to be worn in Santa Barbara. Additionally, Indonesian university students from any genders are always demanded to dress with sleeved tops and medium to long length bottoms to classes. This semi formal dress code reflects the people’s general mindset that the educated peope are usually the members of the higher end of the social ladder. As a result, I was utterly flabbergasted when I saw an American student wore flip-flops, cropped skin-tight tank top, and ripped denim shorts to class and the professor did not even bat an eyelash to her. Consequently, this bewilderment is one of the reasons why I chose to review this article. In a way, I guess I feel that being a student in the United States needs less impression management, because people care more about your achievements than your outer appearance and attire.

Furthermore, this article made me review about how tight our society tries to control us, and how hard people try to fit themselves into that rigid mold of social hierarchy. Our status most of the time dictates what we should and should not do. We are not only required to maintain our attitude and speech, but also our material possessions and physical appearance to make ourselves acceptable to our social group. Like how Erving Goffman said that we are always being actors who play our roles, I feel that in a way, our society does not fully appreciate our self as who we really are (even though parents often encouraged their kids to “just be themselves”). It is no wonder that sometimes people feel alienated from their peers and society—everything are just too plastic and pretentious to give any sense of attachment.

I am a strong believer in the idea of “look good feel good” if you are comfortable and happy in what you are wearing, it will shine through your face and attitude. Wearing clothes that make you feel nice, will look the best on you too. It all starts with your inner emotions and can be portrayed in your outfits. I also believe that fashion is a timeless art that is every changing and one of the most unique ever. You can style yourself in any way you desire with the freedom to express yourself through clothing. This article caught my attention because all my life I have been interested and passionate about fashion. Different designers, collections and styles have always blown me away, some pieces of clothing should be hung up in a museum! On the other hand, the most formal occasion I have had to dress up for was my senior ball last spring. Prom season is a tedious and so much thought and time goes into every detail, but it all pays off when you alongside all of your friends are glamorous and beautiful. It was an amazing time, but after the heels came off and the hairspray brushed out, I was my exact same self, and it was pretty mind boggling to think how nothing about me really changed, I was just dramatized and dolled up. So this article helped me understand how our everyday choices and outfits have an impact on who we are and how the world views us.

I chose this article because it is relevant to my elementary school days. When I was younger I went to a private school and we had to wear uniforms. I always complained that the uniforms were so ugly because you could only wear three different colors, blue white and tan. Every piece of clothing had to be a certain length; therefore our outfits were very appropriate. I would always say, “I wish I could dress like normal people to school.” I wanted to wear my regular clothes to school but that would go against the code of conduct. I could only imagine wearing flip-flops, bright colors, or shorts to school like the ones I wore outside of school. While I was in public wearing my school uniform, it reflected that I was from a higher-class family who is not only educated, but also wealthy. It was known how expansive private schools costs, so members of these private schools were looked up to as the higher end of the social class. What you wore to private schools shows that social roles are related to social institutions. Dress codes shape what you are allowed to wear which reflects us in the social roles we play in society.

Now that I am in college technically I wear a costume every day to class, as this article states. Since colleges don’t have a formal dress code you can wear skimpy clothes and your professor wouldn’t say a word to you. I believe that if you want to dress like that, than it should not be in a professional setting it should be when you go out with your friends on the weekend because you being part of a larger educational institution should show, but not through skimpy clothes. You can judge a lot by a person on the outside by what they are wearing. What you wear to go out to a formal dinner is not what you should be wearing to school.

I had a sociological interest in this article because I found it unorthodox that our clothes have some sort of relationship with society. I thought clothing was about expressing to people our personal taste and style. After reading Sternheimer’s article, I chose to write about it because it has a relevance to my life and the social world. The uniforms I wear everyday has other meanings than to express my personality. It represents my social role as a student at an education institution in the social world. Not only does it just represent my social role, but shows my passion for the role I play. I wear different uniforms, which could be for sports or piano concerts. In sports, I wear uniforms that represent my team and the sport I play. Furthermore, it shows that I love to play the sport and how much fun it is. It’s a passion I want to continue for a lifetime and still wear the uniform because it completes me. When it comes to piano concerts, I wear formal uniforms like a tie, button-up, dress-up pants, and dress shoes. It is required to look well groomed during a performance. It is proper to follow the piano concert dress code to gain the audience’s attention and show how passionate I am to play the piano for them. I agree with everything Sternheimer wrote about in her article. She definitely hits the key components about the connection between what we wear with society. Just by reading her article from her point of view. I was able to gain a better understanding and meaning of people’s clothes in society. It does not just express their personality and personal style in clothing. Her evidence is suffice enough to support her claim and I agreed with everything she had to say. Also, there is one point she could have said, but didn’t. Instead of looking at people’s uniforms with a positive mentality, there are some people with a negative mentality. An example would be the police, which their prestige has decreased now since many terrible incidents in the past. An epitome would be the Ferguson Case. There are some people that look at different people wearing the uniform of a police with a negative attitude. This caused by a stereotype that has shaped their perspective on cops believing they are all bad people.

ID #k00446625
Date: 11/02/16
Course title: Sociology
CRN: 37254

I thought this article was intresting and fansnating about the sitution with what we wear has to do with society. Its intresting that when a person is trying to be perffesional they tend to wear a more classy outfit then what they wear in a regular day. I do agruee with the fact that we have different "costumes" since the day we were born. It applys to me in my daily life, I have different "costumes" that describe my social roles at school, home and work. Which makes me wonder how you define Halloween costumes ?

Great article. Couldn’t be written much better! Keep it up!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Water Wars and Reliable Data: From Bolivia to Flint, Michigan | Main | Why Some Students Refuse to Learn »