The Influence Of Fashion As It Relates To Societal Values And Mental Wellbeing

By: Haixiao Feng


Celebrities turning up dressed in black at award ceremonies, protesters dressing up to match their political agenda, political runways held around the globe all emphasize Fashion’s potential to influence politics and culture… In a day n’ age where social movements and unity have become increasingly important in fixing society’s fragmented state, fashion has been on the center stage for its accessible and effective way of expressing individual values, and inducing social/societal change. In today's blog article, we are going to try to understand the influence of fashion as it contributes to solving both individual and social issues?

What Is Fashion, And What Is The Point, Anyway?

“Fashion”, according to the editorial policy of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, is defined as "the cultural construction of the embodied identity." Fashion is a form of expression, embodiment of life and values, and a celebration of a person’s sexuality… fashion is so much more than simply what we wear. It is the reasons and values behind the construction of our individual in a form that tells our story.   (To get more insights into interpreting “fashion”, read this amazing compilation of people sharing their opinions in the industry: I Asked a Bunch of Industry People: What’s the Point of Fashion?, an article about the interpretation of fashion from individuals with different backgrounds in the industry).

On a border sense, fashion can, and should be interpreted as the way in which we could express our values. Often, the term “fashion” connects to contemporary and trendy “wearables”, but fashion is more of an “approach” or “philosophy” to voicing change and our beliefs. For example, driving a certain type of vehicle, such as a bicycle, is a fashion in which a person can express certain aspects of their values on sustainability.

Political Fashion: is it Good Or Bad?

One use of fashion that has been raising is political fashion, or political dressing. Fashion in the world of politics can be sometimes quite in your face, but other times less blunt. Regardless of the execution, the intent is increasing — From the all-white professional outfits of the Trump administration, to the more recent masks that encourage voter registration, to individual collections of activism-related designs from designers and brands… No doubt fashion has taken on extensive functions in a more significant manner than ever before.

Most people probably don’t think of politics as “fashionable”, but the fact is, fashion is political, like the America Equals patriotics collection acknowledges and promotes, more and more brands have been designing fashion pieces with a specific intent in mind focusing on and emphasizing the virtues that define society. So to answer our beginning question, the idea of using fashion is to express our particular beliefs — however “political” they might be.

Fashion As It Relates To Values: What Is “The Trend”?

Some people choose to wear all black, but is there a meaning, or a voice behind that decision? What about the ones that opt to go with a rainbow-colored scarf as a statement piece? Why did the Mercedes Formula One Team that changed their famous “silver arrow” livery to all-black? As pointed out in the research article titled “Fashion trends and their impact on the society”, the majority of fashion items aim to focus on self expression and self image, with a special emphasis on uniqueness and social conformation since the postmodern era. Fashion is influenced partially (and significantly) by the current societal values, and more and more businesses of all sizes brands, in addition to the efforts by many, many celebrities and influencers, are aligning their product lines to address society/social concerns, like the social justice collection from us at America Equals with positive, constructive values. These efforts made by the fashion industry to improve society are both intentional and inherent, and it all goes back to the definition of fashion as it is a form of accessible expression.

To that end, fashion is taking on more and more functional forms, meaning that it is becoming more value-oriented, and oftentimes is used for voicing particular opinions and/or facts, in addition to merely covering the body or being aesthetically pleasing. There are many ways to express individual values through fashion, some opt to take on uncompromising color(s) and forms, like the Black Panthers at Dior, while others prefer a more straightforward approach of putting punchy words on their T-shirts.

Political Fashion And “Power Dressing”: The History

The concept of power dressing for women can be seen across all sorts of runways around the globe (give a quick google search on bigger fashion icons like Blenciaga and Giorgio Armani on their power dressing designs, you will be inspired!). But what did power dressings look like throughout history?

The very origin of power dressing is found in the Chanel suit of the 1920s which was composed of a tight skirt and by a wool, collarless button-up jacket, metallic buttons and fitted sleeves. But the first prominent era when how women dressed started to change didn’t start until the 1980s with most power dressing focusing on professional outfits. Female “suits” started to deviate more and more from the feminine designs/silhouettes and closer to their male counterparts. But power dressing at this stage still served more of a camouflage than statement. 

As time passed, power dressing was able to be observed outside of work places, taking on more casual or celebratory forms. Power dressing now exists outside of the form, but also direct words and particular designs (i.e. shapes and colors) that translate to stronger, more powerful messages to the society (it’s important to differentiate the use of fashion on the topic apart from certain methods of dressing, which we will not talk about…).

The Connection Between Mental Wellbeing and Fashion

Fashion brands have been increasingly keen to cash in on the wellness industry, particularly targeting Gen Z and Millennials, and going further and beyond to address the topic of mental health. But, in addition to political dressing, fashion itself, regardless of its content of intent, is a feel-good source of improving one’s mental wellbeing. Researchers from Northwestern University in the US found that wearing specific clothes had an effect on the wearer's psychology and performance. This concept is called "enclothed cognition", which is the idea that clothes can influence our psychological state. When we wear what contradicts with our likings, we feel worse. When we wear what we like, more importantly what aligns with our values, we feel good. For the ones that are fashion-minded and passionate about fashion, it is even easier to improve mental wellbeing through fashion, because a developed fashion effort is usually accompanied by quick & effective change — both internally and externally. 

A special note: it is important not to associate the increase in mental health issues for the ones working in the fashion industry (models, designers, photographers…) with “fashion” itself. It can be argued that the fashion industry is a very complex space to say the least, but the kind nature of fashion has nothing to do with the complex ecosystem that it predominantly exists in. It should be our goal to make ourselves feel better and achieve that “feel-good” factor when experimenting with how we express ourselves through and with fashion.

To Conclude…

Fashion is effective in expressing opinions, values, and can ultimately drive change and make a difference. But what does it mean to you? Do you have something to say? Do you disagree with certain aspects of our current society?