“Identity is a mirage that shifts in and out of context” – Winnie Ha
I was sitting in a lecture by fashion writer Winnie Ha about a year ago, and this quote in particular is one that stuck with me and kept me thinking.
When I searched for the definition of "identity", I realised that it's actually quite a hard thing to define, even for professional word-definers. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, "the fact of being who or what a person or thing is". The use of the word "Fact" in this definition suggests identity is something that's absolute and unchangeable, yet the concept of a distinct "identity" is actually very transient. Our identity as it's perceived by society is not who we are when we go to bed at night, it’s who we choose to be when we wake up in the morning and venture out into the world. In other words, identity does not refer to the unchanging characteristics of ourselves (our physical form), but rather, the ever changing persona (perceived identity) that we choose to present. With this said, aspects of our physical form can definitely come to constitute parts of our social identity (for example: "the fat man, "the short woman"), but this is not because we choose to present ourselves as such, its because we dont have the ability (or in some cases, the motivation) to change those aspects of our presentation. While the persona that I embody in one particular context might define my identity at that point in time, once I shift to a new context, that persona or perceived identity can be altered radically and dramatically. For example, if I was at a professional job interview, I'd present myself quite differently than if I was having a casual coffee with a friend, or if I was going out for a night of drinking. This not only refers to the way we present ourselves physically, but also in the language and mannerisms that we use to communicate. For example, casual swearing and over-emphasized hand gestures might be part of my identity when I'm with a friend, but in a job interview, I would edit my presentation and exclude these characteristics from my "identity".
Fashion is arguably the most useful tool we have to alter our identities to the world around us, it gives us the unmatched ability to edit every single aspect of our physical self and present whoever and whatever we choose. "Each area of the body, from the top of the head to the toes, can be a location for the articulation of styles and dress. At every location of the body, the individual has a choice regarding how to articulate with styles of adornment - whether to wear a hat or not, a necktie or not, a skirt or pants, and so on. These choices are regulated by the paradigmatic axis of the societies particular dress code," (Roland Barthes). Because we are given the freedom to make these endless choices (to a certain extent), a distinct and unchanging "identity" is one of the most impossible notions imaginable.
Going back to Winnie's quote, "Identity is a mirage that shifts in and out of context". A mirage is an illusion, and while we might give the illusion in one situation (context) that our identity is distinctly defined a certain way, once we shift to a different context, the perception of that identity can change monumentally. This is still true even if we don't change our physical presentation from context to context, because the way our persona relates to the persona of the people and things around us in each particular context also has an effect on how our "identity" is perceived. For example, someone who chooses to present themselves as a "Punk" could be identified as a "normal person" when they're in the context of a Punk music concert or in any situation with their Punk friends, but if that Punk walked into an office or into a funeral, situations that call for a more conformative presentation, their physical identity, though it remains unchanged, would be considered "abnormal".
The underlying point of this post is that nobody is ever completely and permanently defined as one thing, and that changing the way our identity is perceived by the world around us is one of the most natural, unremarkable and surprisingly subconscious aspects of being a human.