Lessons in Identity - The Role of Fashion

Susan Mc Ateer

Working in a small Peruvian town for a couple of months has impacted not only how I dress, but how I think about clothing. Central heating is not the norm here, and at an altitude of 3800m with the stunning surroundings of the Andes, you bet your llama socks it’s baltic. The summer dresses packed for when I hit Central America are sitting sadly in my rucksack while the down jacket I had to panic buy hangs ready to go at all times. For someone who L-O-V-E-S clothes, this has been a trying transition.

After getting over myself, but still harbouring disdain for constant closed-toe shoes, I started to take in how people around here dress. Layers. Oh my god, layers. Swathes of cardigans, blankets, jumpers, and of course, down jackets. Practicality trumps all, a devastating concept for me. Beyond the more contemporary way of dressing, the traditional emerges. Women in full circle skirts, embroidered bolero jackets, intricate jewellery, and hats perched atop braided hair. Variations of this type of dress punctuate the human landscape of the town, with vivid colours and patterns pushing through.

Image: Jenna DeLaurentis

Image: Jenna DeLaurentis

Coming from a place where the most common way to dress is whatever Topshop and H&M have siphoned from the runway, the proliferance of traditional dress is so striking. On my first day here in Chinchero, a small town outside Cusco, I visited a textile centre. For a relatively small community it’s surprising how many textile centres there are. The textile centres are operated by women and their families, providing a space for them to continue traditional weaving methods and sell their wares. The processes of hand-spinning, and dying llama and alpaca wool using natural pigments was fascinating, especially for this colour nerd. Using these materials, blankets, table runners, and shawls are made on looms in patterns rich in history and meaning. A Peruvian colleague described the patterns of the textiles as a passport, that the identity of the wearer and their heritage is woven into the fabrics they use and wear. It was a powerful concept - clothes as your identification.

Style and clothing communicating something about who you are is nothing new. As individuals we use our outward appearance to represent how we want others to perceive us. We dress a certain way for different social occasions to adhere to codes of conduct constructed by our society - but do our clothes actually mean anything anymore?

We like to think that our decisions are autonomous and that we express our individuality through our distinct choices, but with such proliferation of ideas being fed to us on social media (here’s looking at you instagram) are we making decisions for ourselves or are we being convinced that we can be that person we’re striving to be by copying an influencer’s spon-con outfit?

I am by no means immune to the insta-inspiration brigade, to be honest it’s actually the main way I shop. But it makes me think about individual style and what I’m actually saying. Certain women in this Peruvian village are saying that they are from this region through the pattern on their shawl and the shape and decoration of their hat. They are communicating a history they are part of. I don’t think that you need to communicate such blatant information about yourself, but when we buy into fast fashion and what the commercial fashion world decides we should all be sporting, I worry that we lose any sense of identity.

As I move on from Chinchero and Peru I’m dreaming of wearing my gingham dresses, sandals and silk scarves. But as I move through borders it will only be my passport indicating who I am and where I’m from, my outfit will communicate who I follow on instagram.

Images: Jenna DeLaurentis