Jill W. Bishop; U of M ID # 1758728; AmSt1003/American Cultures
Hair and clothing styles are a significant indicator of cultural values and beliefs. When my niece Hannah transferred from her small private school to a large public high school she found the students classified in four distinct groups: the preppies, the druggies, the granolas, and the nerds. They were distinguished largely by their clothes, but the clothing choices reflected their conformity to a set of values and behaviors. (In the first three groups, anyway. The last group, the nerds, were those folks that didn't really share any commonality other than that they didn't fit to any of the other three groups.)
In Hannah's previous school there weren't such distinctly different groups. She had gone to that same small school with the same few students since kindergarten, and her dress and behavior decisions had seemed more individual. The exposure to a larger segment of society presented more choices, and serious choices. Hannah was confronted with the decision of which group to dress like and relate to. She was forced to state her values by her choice of clothing.
Individual choices of style generally conform to some sub-culture or segment of society. Style choices can imply agreement with the dominant, mainstream culture, or they can challenge it. The challenges to mainstream thinking are usually seen in the young adults in their teens and twenties. As they assert their identities, expressed in their external appearance, they support or challenge the culture in which they live.
In the 1940s Young Mexican-American males called pachucos were "...second-generation working-class immigrants, stripped of their customs, beliefs, and language. ...a disinherited generation..."(7) The pachucos wore a style of clothing called zoot suits which had "...outrageously padded shoulders and trousers that were fiercely tapered at the ankles..."(4) It was "...an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity."(4)
The zoot suits had different meaning to the Mexican-American youth and to members of the dominant Euro-American culture. "The zoot-suit riots sharply revealed a polarization between two youth groups within wartime society: the gangs of predominantly black and Mexican youths who were a the forefront of the zoot-suit subculture, and the predominantly white American servicemen stationed along the Pacific coast. The riots invariably had racial and social resonances, but the primary issue seems to have been patriotism and attitudes to the war."(8-9) So the zoot suit was very political.
Bell Hooks also connects hairstyle with political choices. She sees the negative implications of African-American women straightening their hair as reinforcing the mainstream cultural values of sexism and racism. Hair straightening is political in that it acknowledges the power of white supremacy, encouraging/forcing black women to deny their natural look to imitate looking white, that is, with straight hair. Hooks says that "Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ...the custom of black folks straightening our hair ...represents an imitation of the dominant white group's appearance and often indicates the internalized racism, self-hatred, and/or low self-esteem."(292)
From the Euro-American point of view, "Naturals were equated with political militancy. Many young black folks found just how much political value was placed on straightened hair as a sign of respectability and conformity to societal expectations when they ceased to straighten their hair."(292)
Rosalind Coward says that "One thing that fashion is quite categorically not is an expression of individuality. ...Being fashionable is ...always the acceptance of prevailing ideas."(318) But living in the small town of Annandale I have found less pressure to use apparel choice as a statement of ideology. Attendance at a meeting or concert or even a trip to the bank or grocery story offers a wide range of what I consider appropriate clothing choices. If I choose to attend school conferences in a flannel shirt, I may look more like the farmers and laborers, but most everyone I see there will know me well enough to know my true identity and that there must be some reason that I chose to show up looking like that. However, when I attend a meeting east of Buffalo, only then will I feel like I have to wear hose to assert and illustrate my dignity and status. Greater society for Hannah was the larger high school, for me it is the world outside my small town.
On a smaller scale yet, in my own house I feel free to wear whatever I wish without making a political statement, and my family members will not care if I show up at the dinner table in jeans, pajamas, or my concert-going wool blazer.
My teenage son, on the other hand, wears outfits to school that his respectable parents prefer he not wear to church with the family. A cool 16-yr-old wears a different costume to impress his classmates than when appearing to acquiesce to his parents' values.
So in an environment large enough to feel the need to assert your identity and/or state political views, hair and clothing choices serve to express those stands. In a more intimate comfortable setting, such as Hannah's small school, my small town, or one's own home, hair and clothing are more individual, less specifically meaningful.
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