As children grow from helpless infants to capable adults, they undergo many transformations. Clothing acts as reflection of those changes for many children. Children, who often lack adult freedoms of expression, may choose clothing that reflects their identities and makes a personal statement. They dress to impress their peer groups while distancing themselves from family in initial stabs at autonomy. A child’s or adolescent’s clothing speaks volumes.
Children and adolescents’ own bodies act as canvasses used for identity formation. Researchers Louise Crewe and Phillip Collins refer to children’s clothing choices as “the outermost layer of their personal identity.” Adolescents frequently seek to define self-identity through their apparel and display their newly developing self-concepts. They can explore creativity through color and shape, while seeking to discover their uniqueness and place in the world. Clothing can be a form of identification with a sports team, school or other organization. Many children wear apparel with a favorite sports team to show loyalty and belonging.
Clothing choices can signal independence at several stages of child development. Young toddlers and preschool-aged children begin choosing their clothes in earnest. Their choices, while not always aesthetically pleasing, mark the first tentative steps toward independence. Adolescents may defy school dress codes, parents’ preferences and social mores to assert independence from family and authority. Clothing is an early move toward autonomy for children. They are showing their separateness from family and sometimes society as well. Teenage boys may wear T-shirts with offensive language while girls sport short skirts. Many schools have banned clothing that adolescents use to display their cultural or religious identities to encourage school unity.
Children become acquainted with the concept of gender between 3 and 4 years of age. By their clothing choices they are expressing their ideas of gender identity. The little girl who will only wear pink princess dresses and the boy who dresses as a firefighter are showing identification with their own genders. Because children do not realize that sex is permanent until they are about 6 years old, they may experiment with stereotypically “girl” or “boy” clothing, trying on different gender identifications with their shirts. Later in adolescence, children may display their gender identity confusion in their clothing as well.
Peer Group Identification
Children, especially adolescents, use fashion to show identification with peer groups. They often display the intense struggle to find belonging in their clothing choices. Because children show their connection to social groups through apparel they may frequently change clothing styles as membership to a peer group demands. Some teenagers may signal their antisocial feelings through purposely odd or socially unacceptable clothing.