How clothing helps define identity

Clothing and identity

This project worked with a group of women in their forties and fifties to look at how their body image concerns impacted on their attitudes to fashion. It is known that clothes can be crucial in addressing issues of identity, which can be important as women face the social, emotional and physical changes that come with middle age.

Dr Anne Boultwood

School of Fashion and Textiles


Clothes do more than clothe the body: by engaging with the body, and in particular, body image, they address issues of identity. For women, body image is integral to self-awareness. When it is measured against an unrealistic ideal, the body – and by implication the self – is found wanting. By examining women’s attitudes to clothing and the body, we gain a greater understanding of the relationship of body to self-awareness and the role of clothing in the relationship.

Aims of research

This research aimed to explore the body concerns of women in their forties and fifties, and how this impacted on their attitude to fashion. The experience of women moving towards middle age, with the social, emotional and physical changes that accompany such a time of transition, highlights the nature of the relationship and provides insights into the underlying processes.

Method of research

Research involved semi-structured, in-depth interviews with nineteen women, aged 40-59, as well as clothing diaries kept over a period of six weeks. It considered the deeper meanings these issues held for the women, and how they were manifested in their discussions. These ranged from their experience of fashion and the social and personal significance of clothing, to their attitudes towards their bodies and the part played by their body image.


The most striking finding from these discussions was the apparent lack of weight accorded to both fashion and any perceived shortcomings in their bodies. Though interested in fashion, they were less likely to take risks and looked to others to validate their clothing choices. The research highlighted ways in which women develop strategies to address their body and self-concerns and, by focusing on this age group, contributes to our understanding of how this process comes about.