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Appearance management

Dress can be seen as the interface of the wearer. Besides protecting the human body from the environment, dress forms a link between the individual and their socio-cultural surroundings.

When dress is used to infer information about the Other, the information serves as the basis for interaction. We can use dress to identify another’s social position, as well as deducing other possible identities and subcultural distinctions. As we use dress to make inferences about each other, we can consciously manage it to control others’ assumptions, so managing social perceptions of the self.

Clothing as a form of nonverbal communication is context dependent, in that the specific meaning is communicated by clothing symbols depends on the social context in which it is perceived (Kaiser, 1985, p224). Choosing to wear a hoodie as a man in Silicon Valley may therefore sometimes garner reactions like, “The wearer is breaking down barriers in relation to hierarchal structures in the corporate world.”

Postmodern appearance management can perhaps be compared with the formal technique of collage.

Fashion brands use this technique to place the hoodie within their commercial context, by taking the unwieldy garment and pairing it with feminine or more traditional items. For example, a hoodie (usually regarded as casual non-business wear) paired with a trench coat or blazer, allows the garment to be elevated by items usually worn in more formal settings.

This upscaling of the hoodie has allowed it to grow beyond its street-origins and become universally accepted within a far wider social setting. This raises the question of where, and in what socio-economic sphere, the hoodie ‘belongs’ – and simultaneously, who is allowed to judge its wearer.

Non-verbal communication

By far the greatest amount of research into the social perception of clothing and human behaviour investigates the effect of the visual characteristics (clothing styles) of the social object (the wearer), on judgements made about the social object. The overall body of research presumes that clothing serves as a form of non-verbal communication.

In 1990, researcher Mary Lynn Damhorst found that in 81% of these studies, the information communicated by dress related to competence, power or intelligence — meaning that we can be judged to be smart, for example, by our choice of clothing alone. In 1988, social psychologists Mark Frank and Thomas Gillovisch found that male footballers and ice hockey players wearing black uniforms played more aggressively (as evidenced by the number of penalties awarded) than players in white. In 2012, psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Golinsky found that wearing clothing we feel has greater symbolic meaning has consequences for our behaviour.

The subliminal integration of non-verbal communication with the way we dress becomes clear in a study in which female sexual assault survivors emphasised that their subsequent acts of self-protection included changing their dress to shield themselves from future attacks, as well as from the comments of others. They indicated a desire to dress in jackets, sweaters and oversized hoodies in order to avoid attracting attention.

Finally, several analyses have found social power to be related to dress.

There haven’t been any specific tailored case studies on the social power structures of the hoodie yet, but it would be interesting to investigate its ambiguous position for wearers and onlookers, in order to further map and demystify its cultural relevance.

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“As good as a new designer bag”

In 2016, creative director Jen Brill told Business of Fashion that “Putting on a new Supreme hoodie feels as good as wearing a new designer bag” – thereby defining streetwear as the new luxury.

Supreme doesn’t produce a women’s range, but women wanting to participate in the subculture of streetwear and its urban framework have long bought streetwear in small sizes. Stüssy was one of the first streetwear brands to begin selling a women’s line in 1995, at first largely composed of scaled-down reiterations of its menswear. Others have followed suit – companies like A Bathing Ape and Carhartt now offer women’s ranges, while newer streetwear labels like Married to the Mob and Hlzblz, launched in 2004 and 2005 respectively, were conceived for female consumers from the ground up (Morency, 2016).

If we break down the hoodie to just its fabric pattern, it is clear that women can wear oversized men’s hoodies (specifically tailored to the male body) without much scrutiny in regard to wearing a garment not necessarily meant for them. Some assumptions may come into play: is she wearing her boyfriend’s clothes? In contrast, few men would be likely to want to wear a cropped, midriff-baring pink ‘women’s’ hoodie. Mutations of the hoodie pattern put the female wearer in a position of choice regarding the role they wish to play. 

Choosing from the various styles proposed by fast fashion, luxury fashion and sportswear creates a decision-making process which basically boils down to using the hoodie either to conceal the body, or reveal it.

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Rotterdam’s retail landscape

I also initiated retail mapping in order to render the local landscape and the way it projects and diversifies the hoodie. Over a period of three months, I made multiple retail visits which helped me to position the hoodie within the commercial landscape of Rotterdam. I placed a specific focus on quantities, and the differences between male and female offerings.

I looked too at the multitude of ways the garment is deployed for in-store advertising. Did promotions and supply vary between the genders within the local visual merchandising landscape? The research ultimately centred around the way retailers utilise the hoodie to ‘communicate’ with their consumers, painting a picture of the way consumers perceive the hoodie.

The results of the hoodie counts are recorded in a graphic rendering of Rotterdam’s commercial city centre. It gives a very abstract indication of where the epicentres of supply lie, and the difference between the amounts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ stock in stores that hold the most commercial traction.

The results show that stores like Sting and H&M hold large stocks of hoodies. Overall, however, department stores like the Bijenkorf, but even less expected ones like Peek & Cloppenburg, house the largest quantities. In general, the results in terms of numbers correspond to the assumption that the hoodie reads more as a male than a female garment. For men, double the number of women’s choices is usually available.

When mapping the retail landscape of a city like Rotterdam, it is clear that the gender imbalance also lives in our local retail experience.

The majority of hoodies advertised are communicated through, and for, a woman’s perspective, in a constant attempt to seduce them into buying one. Nevertheless, overall those available for men vastly outnumber the hoodies for women.

Consumer contradictions

Retailers tactically dedicate collections to an impressionable, youthful audience and tend to use the term ‘unisex’ in order to relinquish gender biases with an open-minded approach – naturally in order to sell more clothes. However, the marketing and visual merchandising choices typically sketch a different narrative. In the women’s department of H&M, I found the hoodie dressed up with the help of a camel-coloured trench coat and classic plaid pants, while in the men’s department, hoodies were offered in combination with matching sweatpants.

Shops like X21 and Skatestore exclusively sell men’s streetwear in male sizes, although they also carry a large variety of hoodies in ‘feminine’ colours (baby pink, soft yellow, violet). Even in Weekday, which strongly promotes the concept of unisex clothing, the small undefined unisex rack tends to get lost somewhere among the jeans and accessories.

The aim of unisex garments is to reduce gender inequalities and biases by offering the exact same garment, fit, and pricing for everyone. However, retail stores frequently utilise the hoodie to communicate a ‘girls wear oversized boys’ clothes’ approach. Store layouts often still have separate gendered sections, and unisex capsule collections require women to find them in the men’s department. When looking at the current local retail landscape and taking the number of female mannequins in hoodies into account, it seems that the imagery does not seamlessly fit with the garment’s availability.

If retailers advertise the cool and effortless ways a girl can style a hoodie, why will that garment be in the men’s section of the shop? Does this symbolic interactionism imply that being a woman and shopping in the men’s section makes the act of consumption in itself unisex? Meanwhile, designers are not making unisex patterned garments — the female or male body is always taken into account while designing the fit and silhouette. In its wear, shopping experience, and above all the judgements that come with it, the hoodie has yet to live up to its unisex promise.

Chinouk Filique de Miranda

Design researcher and critical fashion practitioner Chinouk Filique (de Miranda) analyses, translates and visualises the crossover between the fashion system and digital culture with a focus on introducing digital literacy to fashion. In her personal practice she approaches fashion as a subliminal communication vehicle which she aims to de-mystify in order to inform consumers on complex matters regarding individual agency within our current digital culture.