Essay – The Commodification of Identity in Teens

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and self-realization as youth are faced with judgements, critique, and ridicule as they struggle to find themselves within society. In order to construct their identity, youth cultures can turn to fashion for answers. Through the clothes they wear, they create and perform an identity to the society around them. This construction is based on the notion of the semiotics of fashion. This notion suggests that fashion is a system of signs and signifiers that portray and present meaning. Therefore, teenagers turn to fashion and clothing in order to construct an identity of how they want society to perceive them. This need to fit in, or to be seen as ‘cool’ comes from their emerging understanding of cultural capital. Cultural capital is the social assets of an individual that promote social capital. In terms of fashion and teenagers, cultural capital is found in taste, brands, and clothing that promote popularity (social capital). Social capital can be seen through social media in the number of followers, likes, and comments one receives. However, this constructed identity may not be fully representative of the person underneath. Modern day fashion allows for interpretation and choice. In pre-nineteenth century fashion, fashion was a tool of distinction for things like class or gender. Today, due to innovations such as fast-fashion and the influence of skate culture or ‘street style’, class and gender are harder to distinguish through fashion.

Modern fashion is arguably limitless. Consumers are able to choose from an endless selection of pieces in order to construct an image that they want to present to the rest of society. As each clothing piece signifies an ideology that the consumer can compile with other pieces to construct (or perform) a certain identity to society. In the modern-day fashion industry there are hundreds, if not thousands,  of brands that each carry their own sign systems. Their marketing strategies aim to sell this ‘identity’ to consumers by fetishizing and commodifying this identity through their clothing. The easiest target is those who are desperate to find their identity, youth cultures. Specifically, those who are active on social media. Through the images, advertisements, and posts these brands make, they attempt to sell a certain identity to the vulnerable, attentive, and social climbing youth. Due to the large influence of major brands and the mass media, identity has become a commodity, one that is being sold through the means of ‘fashion’ towards youth cultures.

Youth culture is a term introduced by Talcott Parsons in the early 1940s to distinguish between adulthood and childhood based on social, economic, and cultural factors. Youth culture stems from the emergence of the ‘teenager’. The term teenager was introduced to distinguish a marketing category that emerged in the 1940s that consisted of “a new breed of affluent, young consumers who prioritized fun, leisure and the fulfillment of personal desires” (Osgerby, 2010, p. 20). As adolescents attempt to derive social capital from cultural capital, the result is a reliance on fashion and clothing in order to feel situated within society. Scholar Tara Chittenden comments on the relationship of cultural and social capital within teenagers stating; “For example, as children enter the field of teen identity formation, they understand the value of cultural capital for making them look ‘cool’, thus increasing their social capital” (Chittenden, 2010, p.509). The use of dress and fashion is a tool for youth, especially teenage girls, to situate themselves within society. While self-expression and self-realization are important to youth, the power of a social hierarchy is greater. As fashion is an excellent tool for self-expression, it also is a powerful tool for youth to develop their social capital. As Chittenden states; “The body serves as a critical site of identity performance, and having access to designer clothing affords some teen girls a ‘popularity’ which gives them social power and leverage over others in their school or neighborhood” (Chittenden, 2010, p.507).

As adolescence is a time of vulnerability and confusion, teens search to find out who they are, or who they want to be. Fashion is the easiest way to achieve some form of identity, as we see many teenagers experimenting with fashion or going through ‘phases’ during this time. This can be seen in the stereotypes or terms used to define teen fashion. This includes terms such as, preppy, jock, goth, artsy, and nerd. While these terms may be used to define a personality type, one can certainly picture what these types would be dressed like immediately.  Since fashion is filled with semiotics, every piece, colour, and fabric carries ideological meaning with it. The goth girl may be wearing black clothing and combat boots. The preppy girl could be wearing bright colours or a blazer. These pre-determined ideologies of style are a part of societies shared meaning reflected through fashion. Thus, teenagers learn to understand these ideologies and draw from them in order to construct their visual identities. As Chittenden states; “Fashion provides a key source of empowerment for teens, offering a range of material and symbolic resources from which they can create identities” (Chittenden, 2010, p.512).a The multitude of choices allows for teens to assemble a complex identity that will benefit their social capital as fashion plays an important role in the construction of identity for teenagers.

This notion of what is socially acceptable or ‘cool’ amongst teenagers, is widely based off of  popular culture. Through the films, television shows, music, and art teens consume, they are faced with constant representation and ideologies of what is considered ‘cool’. As Chittenden states, “The impact of American popular culture on teens, fashion and visual identity is considerable and in the last decade American teenagers have had one of the greatest disposable incomes of teenagers in history, to spend on ‘branding’ themselves” (Chittenden, 2010, p.509). Therefore, teens can mass amounts time and money attempting to mimic and embody the shared ideologies of ‘cool’ portrayed in popular culture. As through social media, teens are now more than ever subjected to the gaze of society, therefore they turn to popular culture in order to help create the perfect self-presentation. As Josselson states “the adolescent on the brink of identity, looks to others to provide models for how and what to be” (Josselson, 1994, p. 96). However, this influence of popular culture, is more increasingly the influence of major corporations. As the youth consumer is the most vulnerable and complicated consumer, brands attempt to commodify identity towards teenagers through the means of fashion.

            The youth consumer is perceptive, vulnerable, and willing to spend. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the youth market has been a target market for many corporations. The youth consumer at this time was seen to have more dollars to spend on leisure than ever before. Teenagers are able to spend their money on the construction of their identity through the purchase of clothing and accessories. In this competitive market, brands must distinguish themselves from others and appeal to the youth consumer. This is achieved by selling meaning. Fashion brands commodify identity to youth consumers by selling the ideologies surrounding the clothes. This meaning is created by establishing a corporate identity. Corporate identity is defined as “the set of meanings by which an object allows itself to be known and through which it allows people to describe, remember and relate to it” (Cheng & Hines & Grime, 2008, p.682). Companies create marketing campaigns that ‘promise’ that the purchase of their products, specifically clothing, will ensure them the desired meaning. Therefore, the commodity which these brands are selling is actually identity rather than clothing. The clothing is merely a reflection of the identity the brands embody, and consumers adopt. Thus, brands that are extremely popular with today’s youth, such as Nike, Champion, and Adidas, are successful because of the identity they commodify. These brands represent ideologies such as individuality, coolness, uniqueness and freedom. In addition, the use of celebrities or influencers within the company’s marketing campaigns add to this meaning by pulling from the already established meaning behind the celebrity. For example, Nike’s recent advertisement campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick, using the company’s slogan “Just do it” represented strength, and ambition. The advertisement was drawing from the recent controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem at an NFL game. The brand creates an identity of strength, coolness, and bravery one that can only be achieved through the purchase of Nike’s products. Another example is Adidas. Adidas constantly uses celebrities as brand ambassadors in their campaigns in order to attract youth markets, such as Pharrell Williams and Kylie Jenner. Thus, by using celebrities in the campaigns, youth consumers can associate the brands products with the ideologies surrounding the celebrity presented. Therefore, through the purchase of the commodities, youth consumers can compile their own identity by deriving from the identity of the celebrity.

            However, not all youth consumers are able to afford brands like Adidas and Nike. Therefore, as a result, these youth consumers turn to the fast-fashion industry. The fast-fashion industry is described by Cahon and Swinney who state that “A fast fashion system combines quick response production capabilities with enhanced product design capabilities to both design “hot” products that capture the latest consumer trends and exploit minimal production lead times to match supply with uncertain demand.” (Cahon & Swinney, 2011, p.778). The fast-fashion industry allows for consumers to purchase on trend items at an affordable price. As Kim, Park, and Glovinsky state, “Fast-fashion retailers’ success largely depends on speedy reflection of ever-changing customers’ taste for fashion and bringing the latest styles that meet their needs and wants” (Kim & Park & Glovinsky, 2018, p. 301). Fast-fashion brands like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 are extremely popular with youth as they commodify the ‘trendy’ ideologies for a low price. These companies capitalize on the youth consumers constantly changing opinions of what is considered ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’. By copying styles from runway or high end brands, the fast-fashion brands imitate luxury commodities. This imitation or ‘copying’ of high-end fashion brands, allows for youth consumers to adopt the ideologies associated with those luxury brands. These companies get away with ripping off major designers as they alter the design slightly. One example of this was Zara’s rip off of Yeezy Sneakers. However, this is perfectly legal as “Brands are able to keep copying one another because of outdated legal doctrines. Unlike music, drama, literature, and art, fashion is not — and never has been — adequately protected under American copyright law, meaning clothing designs can be duplicated without permission” (Lieber, 2018, para. 14). Thus, fast-fashion brands are able to copy high fashion pieces and borrow from those brands established corporate meaning. As, being associated with a luxury brand is an extremely high marker of social capital for a youth consumer. Fast-fashion allows for youth consumers to stay ‘current’ and ‘cool’ without actually having to spend high amounts of money. This accessibility to fashion is one of the reasons why class distinction in fashion is increasingly difficult.

Fashion brands do not create trends. They draw inspiration from youth subcultures  and commodify aspects of that culture through clothing. For some youth subcultures, this obvious commodification for consumerism would drive them away. However, the majority are used to this “in your face branding” and actually enjoy it as they respond best to “cool”. This is seen in Klein’s article as she cites reporter Jeff Jensen stating, “Selling out is not only accepted, it’s considered hip” (Jensen as qtd. in Klein, 200, p. 65). Today’s youth consumers are controlled by brands as labels such as Adidas, Nike, and Champion carry so much social capital within youth subcultures. Therefore, teenagers are willing to spend the money they have in order to cover themselves in these commodities. This is evident as in a study on the teen market conducted in 1992 researchers found that the primary product teens were shopping for was clothing and accessories. “As is evident, the primary product category was clothing and accessories, since 73.3 percent of the respondents indicated they spent more than $25 per month for these” (Tootelian & Gaedeke, 1992, p. 40). One can assume that these numbers have vastly increased since 1992 due to innovations like Tap cards, and Apple Pay. In order to tap into this large consumer market, brands had to conduct “cool hunting” Cool hunting is a term introduced by Malcom Gladwel in the 1990s. Coolhunter “is a term used to describe the emerging marketing professionals whose sole purpose is to identify trends in order to market themselves back to the masses” (Pham, 2009, p.88). Therefore, this practice was used to appropriate youth subcultures and turn it into corporate identity to be commodified to youth subcultures. This was done by ‘thinking young’. Thinking young is about getting into the mindset of youth by embodying fun, freedom, and fulfillment.This practice resulted in the high commodification of skate culture. Skate culture fashion consists of pieces like beanies, trainers, graphic tees, and an overall baggy fit. Skate culture has come to embody what today’s youth consider ‘cool’ as skate culture represents rebellion, freedom, and swagger. Today’s skate culture is covered in branding. Brands such as Stussy, Champion, Supreme, and Vans have all highly commodified skate culture through their clothing. These trends can be seen all over social media as teenagers who do not even own a skateboard adopt the ‘skater’ look in order to wear the identity that is woven into the seams.

Through the adoption of youth subcultures, brands are able to understand what youth consumers consider ‘cool’ and desirable. However, this is more than just investigating whether or not they like a certain pattern. This is about investigating how youth consumers want to be perceived by society. Thus, with the example of skate culture, brands are capitalizing on the idea that teenagers want to be considered rebellious, unique, and cool. Therefore, by commodifying the clothes associated with this lifestyle, the brands are commodifying this identity to youth consumers.  In addition, the emergence of ‘street-style’ or ‘street-fashion’ in the last decade has created ideologies about the ‘cool’ factor of informal clothing. Street-style was originally supposed to represent the freedom and expressiveness of fashion. However, street-style quickly became branded. As Klein states,

“so-called street fashions – many of them planted by brandmasters like Nike and Hilfiger from day one – reach the ballooning industry of glossy youth-culture magazines and video stations without a heartbeat’s delay. And if there is one thing virtually every young person now knows, it’s that street style and youth culture are infinitely marketable commodities” (Klein, 2000, p. 81).

The quote above shows an excellent example of how brands insert their corporate identity into popular culture to be consumed by youth cultures. Then as a result, youth cultures turn back to those same brands in order to imitate the popular culture through clothing. As stated by Chittenden “this discursive space is critical to the activity of trading cultural and social capital and, importantly, shaping expressions of emerging teen identity” (Chittenden, 2010, p. 507). As teenagers compile a wardrobe full of brand names, labels, and pieces, they construct an identity. However, this identity is the result of corporate identity being embedded within those items as created by popular cultures influence.

The youth consumer is selective, particular, but also vulnerable. Brands cannot influence youth consumers without the ‘cool’ factor. This is found through the practice of ‘cool hunting’. Through this corporations are able to uncover what is considered cool amongst today’s youth. What is cool is widely influenced by popular culture and appropriated by fashion brands. The clothes are designed to reflect the subcultures that embody cool such as skate culture or the punk movement. This compilation of subculture identities allows for corporations build a corporate identity. From this, consumers are able to purchase the pieces created by corporations in order to adopt the meaning for themselves. This is important in adolescence as at this age, teenagers are seeking for an identity of their own. Fashion brands take advantage of this and attempt to commodify identity to youth consumers through the means of fashion.

References

Cahon. G, Swinny. R. (2011). The Value of Fast Fashion: Quick Response, Enhanced Design, and Strategic Consumer. Management Science, Vol. 57, No. 4.

Cheng, R., Hines, T., Grime, I., (2008). Desired and perceived identities of fashion retailers. European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 42 Issue: 5/6, pp.682-701.

Chittenden, T. (2010). Digital dressing up: modelling female teen identity in the discursive spaces of the fashion blogosphere. Journal of Youth Studies, 13:4, 505-520, DOI: 10.1080/13676260903520902

Josselson, R. (1994). Identity and relatedness in the life cycle. In H. A. Bosma, T. L. G. Graafsma, H. D. Grotevant, & D. J. de Levita (Eds.), Sage focus editions, Vol. 172. Identity and development: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 81-102). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Klein, N. (2000). Alt.Everything: The Youth Marketplace and the Marketing of CoolNo Logo. (pp. New York: Picador, 2000.

Lieber, C. (2018, April 27). Fashion brands steal design ideas all the time. And it’s completely legal. Retrieved November 25, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/2018/4/27/17281022/fashion-brands-knockoffs-copyright-stolen-designs-old-navy-zara-h-and-m

Pham, Lieu Thi. (2009). Teaching Media: One Step Ahead: The ‘Coolhunting’ Phenomenon. Screen education, Vol 54.

Tootelian, D. H., & Gaedeke, R. M. (1992). The teen market: An exploratory analysis of income, spending, and shopping patterns. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 9(4), 35.

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