Appearance Management as Border Construction: Least Favorite Clothing, Group Distancing, and Identity Not!1


  • Anthony Freitas,

    1. a doctoral student in communication at the University of California, San Diego. His research focuses on formations of the queer, diseased, and foreign body and self within popular and scientific communities.
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  • Susan Kaiser,

    1. professor of textiles and clothing and Associate Dean for Human Health and Development in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science, University of California at Davis. Her current research explores how subjectivities become mobile and material through intersecting identities expressed through appearance styles. She is the author of The Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context, and has published in such journals as Clothing and Textiles Research Journal and Symbolic Interaction.
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  • Davis Joan Chandler,

    1. University of California
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  • Davis Carol Hall,

    1. Cooperative Extension, Iberville Parish, LA
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  • Jung-Won Kim,

    1. Kyungpook Sanup University, Korea
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  • Tania Hammidi

    1. University of California, Davis
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  • 1

    The authors wish to thank Dora Epstein, Oscar Huidor, Susan Kim, and Carla Piedrahita for their assistance in collecting and analyzing interview material used in this paper.


Who we say we are and how we strive to look are but part of the negotiation of identity and appearance. While previous research has focused on the construction of who we are, in this paper we examine the negotiation of who we are not. We explore the vantage point and examine statements of identity not, questioning whether they allude to the mere antithesis of identity or to more complex identity ambivalences. Drawing from nearly 300 interviews, we question the primacy of master statuses and attempt to undo the binaries they support by illuminating salient cross-cutting themes and by introducing descriptors to accompany the categories (age/temporality, gender/sexuality, ethnicity/intersecting cultural identities). In asking about least favorite clothes or about groups one avoids dressing like, we query not so much: What do clothes mean (or not mean)? Rather, we ask: How do we use clothes to negotiate tenuous, fragile, and elastic self/other, past/ present, and present/future relations?

Like a barbed wire fence; Strung tight; Strung tense; Prickling with pretense; A borderline. Every income, every age, every fashion-plated rage, every measure, every gauge, creates a borderline.