Beauty and the Beast: Study on the Relationship between clothing and social status

This topic submitted by Julie Housiaux and Leah Kritzer (Kritzelr@muohio.eud) at 1:17 am on 2/28/01. Additions were last made on Monday, March 19, 2001. Section: Myers.

Beauty and the Beast:
A Study on the Relationship Between
Clothing and Social Status

I. Introduction
We believe that there is going to be a direct link between the clothing that people choose to wear and their social status or level of "coolness". We think that the relationship between clothing style and status will decrease with maturity, but clothing will still influence perceptions of status. Our hypotheses will be tested by gathering research completed by others as well as conducting our own experiment. We have decided to photograph two people (one man, one woman) in six different clothing styles. We are going to show the photographs to twenty-five students at Talawanda Middle School and twenty-five students at Miami University. The responses will be subject to qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Upon the completion of our experiment, we will have a better understanding of the institution of popularity and how it affects social standing. This research is important because people can neither avoid being labeled nor can they avoid an assignment of social status. The research that we find through the interviews may provide us clues into the birth of popularity and "coolness". It also provides a greater understanding of how materialism influences status at all age levels.

II. Relevance to Research Question
We are looking at how clothing impacts identity development. Clothing is one way in which humans differentiate between each other, while also conforming to group norms. We have found research on clothing and its relationship to social status, identity, and group socialization. Although we did not find any studies that have employed the same research methods as us, their findings are relevant to our understanding of our topic.

Clothes help identify an individual with peers (Fass, 231). It serves as a means to distinguish between individuals. "Clothing and appearance are used to allow the viewer to readily identify the types of characters, and these cues may communicate stereotypes" (Kaiser, 240). But the stereotypes can serve a function to understanding social status and group membership. "The display of status through one's clothes and other means of adornment appears to be a universal phenomenon" (Kaiser, 49). The proof of universality of this phenomenon is reminiscent of Wright's method of verifying natural selection in terms of a social hierarchy. There is sometimes intent to display one's wealth, to demonstrate skill in one area, or display achievement through clothing (Kaiser, 49). These attributes may serve as a facilitator of guaranteeing reproductive success by reinforcing social status.

The fashion industry is also a contributor to ensuring this success. "Some scholars have maintained that fashion's sole symbolic end is registering and re-registering invidious distinctions ofÉclass and social status" (Davis, 77). Natural selection attempts to weed out those without wealth or status and clothing may representative of who will make a good match. "Fitness is maximized by achieving the highest possible status role" (Barash, 222). Group membership sometimes allows for distinction between individuals.

Clothing serves as a tool of group association. Clothes are one way for groups to demonstrate loyalty and to define competition (Fass, 233). This requires conformity among the group in terms of dress. "Conformity with the norms of a group or an organization may be symbolized through clothing styles" (Kaiser, 131). Clothing is a symbol of identity which is initially used to obtain a superficial understanding of one's personality. "We tend to organize our actions around clothing symbols because they help us in defining situations and understanding others" (Kaiser, 185). Personal appearance can be used as a "visual medium through which individuals communicate cues or symbols about themselves and their social encounters" (Kaiser, 8). This is helpful in understanding social hierarchy in terms of dress, which is carried over to other characteristics. But we also recognize that clothing is not always an overt means of expressing status since it varies in different contexts (Kaiser, 388). Clothing has provided a means for us to understand social interactions, identification, group membership, and status.

Through the examination of clothing we can also examine the bigger picture in terms of how dress can be confining to staying in one's position of social status. If an adolescent is deemed a "hippie" does he have the ability to make it into the "preppie" crowd? How hard is it to defy the societal norms and parameters that are already in place in many environments? We also want to think about other means of defining oneself and how they are affected in different settings. For example, other material goods confine social status and interactions. Clothing is just of many ways to understand the functioning of humans in hierarchal society.

III. Materials and Methods

Our experimental design focuses on interviews that we will be conducting with students at Talawanda Middle School (early adolescents) and at Miami University (young adults). The population will be picked at random for age groups and will conduct twenty-five interviews for both groups. We will be presenting each age group with the same series of photographs showing two people (one man, one woman) in six different styles of clothing. We chose to represent "hippie", "preppie", "sporty", "slutty", "skater", and an undefined/ambiguous category. Although we came up with our own categories of dress, we want the participants to create labels independent of ours.
We originally wanted to take pictures of twelve different people (six males, six females) dressed in the various styles previously mentioned. However, we decided that we would have one male and one female model all six of the categories to establish some control in the observation portion of our experiment. By using the same person throughout the different styles, the clothing rather than the beauty of the model will be evaluated.

During the interviews we will ask participants to categorize the individual based on dress and assign the individual's social status based on their clothing style. We will write down the different labels that the students assign each photograph. These labels will be tallied to see how many people come up with the same classifications. The second part of our research will assess how the participants' evaluated the status of the individual's in the photograph. We will do this by asking them to rank the six individual's "coolness" on a scale of one through six. The person with the most popularity or greatest social power will be a "one" while the person with the least popularity or least social power will be a "six".

The quantitative results will be represented in the form of charts that will numerically show how the participants 1) categorized clothing style and 2) determined status. We have accounted for the ambiguity of our research methods, which why the other portion of our analysis will be qualitative. We plan on recording and analyzing the comments and questions that the participants had.
The materials that we will be relying on most heavily are the photographs that were taken. They are a key visual aid on our project for the interview portion. We will also be handing out sheets of paper for the students, which will include space for them to write down their answers.
Aside from our photographic presentation, we do not have any other critical materials. We want to involve our class in the project by having them voice their opinions about the photographs. They will not be filling out a survey, but will label the photographs as a class. Each student in our NS class will get out a piece of paper and write down their own categories and assign status to the individuals in the photographs. They will read their responses out loud to class and then we will tally the results and discuss them. Following this we hope the class will give us feedback on the way we plan to conduct our research.

Week 9: continue research search; make contact with middle school regarding interviews
Week 10: begin interviewing process at middle school and college levels
Weeks 11-15: continue interviewing at both levels while recording and analyzing results
Week 16: turn in final project

Sample Survey: Please consider each set of photographs. For each picture assign the first label that comes to your mind and include a brief explanation for your word association. Once you have labeled the pictures, rank each picture on a scale of one to six. One is for the most popular or who has the most social power. Six is for the least popular or who has the least social power.

Label for Photograph Social Status (Rank from One to Six)

Works Cited

Barash, David P. Sociobiology and Behavior. New York: Elsevier, 1977.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Fass, Paula S. The Damned And the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Kaiser, Susan B. The Social Psychology of Clothing. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1985.

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