Hats, Fashion and Identity

In a new blog post on the CommsWomen platform, Jamie Ryan, a student at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, analyses an article on fashion and history by Svenja Bethke and Nathalie Keigel, published by the International Journal of Fashion Studies

In 1989, my twelve-year-old self decided on hats.

A sequined newsboy, a few embroidered berets, and enough of my grandfather’s mid-century bowlers and fedoras to fill my bedroom wall became an essential part of my sixth-grade identity. I was a Southern transplant in a sea of Ohio soybeans that had been tended for generations by the families of my new peers. My female classmates dressed in identical clothing brands but pruned and raked their hair for hours in school bathrooms, at sleepovers, and even during after-school church activities; hair was teased, dyed, crimped, and curled to perfection before and during any social event. My hats allowed me to politely excuse myself from the utter destruction of my stick-straight hair but also made me stand out. I was easy to spot in the school bleachers, for sure, but I also was able to politely defer while encouraging my new friends to, yes, add another layer of hairspray to whatever design had just been produced with their coveted heat tools. I could have been impressed with the latest style of Guess jeans or a pair of K-Swiss sneakers in a different colorway, but my parents made it clear those items weren’t in the household budget. Hats it was.

Svenja Bethke and Nathalie Keigel encapsulate this intersection of individual and community in their 2019 article, “Fashion and history: There is no doubt that clothes matter.” How does one fit in and simultaneously express individuality? “Dress is located at the intersection of the individual and the community,” the authors argue:

“While the individual is choosing and wearing the clothes, the individual’s appearance is always perceived and interpreted by others. The forms these processes take on, the intentions of the wearer, prevailing ideas within a community and the way they are communicated and enforced always depend on the social, political, cultural and economic context.”

The authors further ask us to consider “how actors in different historical contexts communicated and anchored clothing ideals and related discourses.” An example of Mizrahi men in 1970s Israel dressing in a modern, western style as a cultural and political challenge to more traditional Ashkenazi Jews is used as an example of sartorial expression of political and cultural standing that also served as a group identifier. While this is certainly a more worldly historical example of the intersection of belonging and individual expression, in a microcosm, my 1980s American middle school experience also applies. My hats served as a challenge to the Midwestern status quo but were unoffensive enough to afford me entry into a social group while still allowing me to express my personal style.

The authors’ arguments, five years after publication, have particular application to expressions of gender today. The authors seemed concerned with the dearth of academic literature regarding fashion and masculinity, specifically. While this argument is important, I think it would be more helpful now to expand academic research into fashion and gender more broadly, particularly since the spectrum of gender identities, and mainstream acceptance of the same, has expanded since the publication date of Bethke and Keigel’s article.

The full article can be read here.


Bethke, S., & Keigel, N. (2019). Fashion and history: There is no doubt that clothes matter. International Journal of Fashion Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 2, pp. 183–191. Intellect.

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