Who do you think you are?

In a world where we’re all striving to stand out from the crowd, questions of identity: who we are and what defines us as individuals constantly occur. Conversely, we yearn to be accepted and part of social groupings. In our teenage years this causes an untold amount of angst. We play with our image, reinventing our look time and time again in order to find something that even gets close to representing the whirling, forming personality within. Paradoxically, at the same time we frantically scrabble to be accepted by the social group to which we aspire, wanting nothing more than to fit in. The aim is to be the same as the cool, innovative, different people. So we experiment with various styles, changing hair colour, make up and clothes until eventually we realise that playing with our look is rather a lot of fun. And as we become better acquainted with ourselves over the years, we find we have more leeway to toy with visual and emotional appearance, veiling and disclosing our true identity.

The concept of identity seems a simple one – it’s me! However it’s actually a fascinatingly complex concept that psychologists and philosophers have been tussling with for centuries. Psychologist Erik Erikson was one of the earliest academics to focus solely on the study of identity and is most famous for coining the phrase “identity crisis”. He put forward a framework in the 1970s which has become the foundation of identity studies today, that identity is composed of ego identity (the self), personal identity (the personal idiosyncrasies that make someone unique) and social identity (the collection of social roles that a person might play). Ego identity, also called self-image or self-concept refers to an individual’s perception of self in relation to characteristics such as gender roles and racial identity. Internally all healthy people have a single self-image, but externally we have many selves making up our social identity. Consider who one interacts with: family, sets of friends, first dates and shop assistants, you’d hardly want to come across exactly the same to each of them. Erikson aimed to investigate the process of identity formation across a lifespan.

One of the ways we project our selves is with appearance. It is said that first impressions are made in the initial seconds of meeting. Whether they tell the truth or not is another matter. Sunglasses can drape the wearer in an aura of effortless glamour, a handy tool to hide behind. Geek chic spectacles can give the impression of an intellectual mind, but who’s to tell? Sociologist Erving Goffman put forward the term “impression management” refering to our desire to manipulate others’ impressions of ourselves. When the UK magazine Stylist recently asked actress Diane Kruger how important she feels fashion is to her identity, she answered, “Well, we are what we wear, the reaction you want from someone is about how you present yourself. That may sound superficial but I think if you want a certain type of job, you dress a certain kind of way. And it’s the most obvious expression of who you are, on a day to day basis.”

In their work, fashion designers naturally consider ideas of identity including self-image projection, aspiration and cultural influences. In a recent exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, more than 30 international artists and designers showed pieces exploring clothing as a mechanism to communicate and reveal elements of identity. Called Art Fashion Identity, the exhibition included Grayson Perry’s Artist’s Robe (2004) a silk, quilted garment lavishly embroidered with so many eyes it calls to mind the mythological creature Argus. A conjoined twin jumper guiltily shocked visitors and 16 outfits by 16 designers all made from the Chinese flag kicked up questions of oppression and empowerment.

Clearly while your facade can project the ego identity and the personal identity - the inner ‘you’, it can also tell stories of influences and allegiances in your life. Music, nationality, social status, aspirations, style icons and eras, even profession can all play a part. Group identity is shown by markings as well as clothing. Communities can be seen as tribes with visual identities utilising tattoos and piercings as well as garments, from Aborigines through to Hell’s Angels. Social groups influenced by music take on group styles from 90s ravers to Lindy Hop lovers. Social identities can be used to express aspects of the self-image or to hide behind. Due to assumptions about a group’s members, a person’s self image can be vastly different to a viewer’s conception of them.

The advent of social media has given us the opportunity to express our identities instantly and without visual presence. Through platforms such as Facebook we filter ourselves, shaping our online identity using text, status updates, Likes and photos. Virtual realities such as Second Life have taken the idea of being to another level. Avatars provide entirely new identities to play with although it’s still you controlling the alter ego, making the decisions.

Projecting the ego and personal identities through visual appearance, social interaction and virtual and online realities is all very well, but what are they? Who is the you? Where does this inner person come from that really not even the individual themselves can fully fathom? The philosophers’ struggle with this question predates the psychologists’ and perhaps the first that touched on it was Rene Descartes who in 1637 wrote the famous “I think, therefore I am”. Attempting to prove existence is not the same as exploring the “I” however. Perhaps true identity is the soul. Nietzsche supposed that the soul was an interaction of forces, an ever-changing thing far from the immortal soul posited by both Descartes and the Christian tradition. John Locke, the English philosopher and physician claimed that the self “depends on consciousness, not on substance” meaning the body. He believed the consciousness was independent of the soul as well as the body.

Spanning psychology, philosophy and anthropology, inextricably linked to fashion and art, identity is far from simple. But it begins with us. Who are we and what are we projecting?

Artist Patrik Qvist wearing ED