Who are you wearing? How students express identity through clothing

UBC’s massive student population can make you feel like you’re always on display. This can be nerve-wracking, but is also a prime opportunity to make campus your runway. In a sea of people, standing out and making your mark through style is a large part of university culture.

Dr. Ilya Parkins researches the link between sexuality, community and personal style in the gender, women and sexuality studies department at UBCO.

University is a time to try on different communities and identities to see which fit, even if some patterns clash in the process. As Parkins said, “Fashion is always defined by this interesting tension between trying to fit yourself around that center and distinguish yourself. It’s marked by a tension between conformity and distinction.”

Fourth-year political science student Lucy Logan’s personal style is driven by social media platforms such as Twitter and Pinterest. She takes inspiration from the likes of models, namely Matilda Djerf and Ruby Lyn.

But her minimal yet refined streetwear was not always how she presented herself. In her private high school, uniforms were mandatory except for the rare ‘jeans day’ when students could choose their fits.

“I would pull up in skinny jeans, a hoodie and, you know, those fuzzy coats,” said Logan. “I wore that every single jeans day — that was my thing and it was so hideous.”

But in her first year of university, Logan gained a new fascination with style.

“I started going thrifting, and I feel like that’s when I started to pick fun clothes that I liked.”

WenHei Wong, a second-year sociology and film studies student, uses fashion to navigate an entirely new culture. Maintaining a specifically curated image is important to his identity as an international student, and culture plays a large part in influencing his closet — whether it be the one here in Vancouver, or back home in Shanghai.

“When I was in high school in Shanghai, [among] my friends and also the tourists in busy parts of Shanghai, there’s a lot of hype wear. There’s a lot of street fashion and emphasis on brands or labels.”

Coming to Vancouver was a huge culture shock for Wong. “I got introduced to thrifting here,” he said, “and I never knew anything about thrifting in China.”

Though he thought he would love to abandon an obsession with branding and flashy pieces that has been instilled in him since childhood, he said changing his mindset has proved to be difficult.

“I go to these thrift stores, but I’m still looking for brands. I’m still looking for labels that I know, and I think ‘Oh, these brands are better than those ones, and are worth more.’”

Taushifa Shaikh, a second-year political science student, mixes and matches timeless pieces of clothing. Her style emphasizes sustainability and creative interpretations of colour palettes and silhouettes influenced by her community in India.

For Shaikh, fashion is more important than just dressing up — it is a way for her to explore her gender identity.

She’s not alone. According to Parkins, there’s a long history of indicating gender or sexual orientation through fashion, stretching back into the late 19th century.

“For example, gay men [often] used particular kinds of things to signal their gayness to other gay men,” said Parkins. “And that is, for sure, about individuality … but it’s also about finding community.”

By making sure that her clothes are not designed for “one single body type, one single persona or the usual mainstream figures,” Shaikh has been able to transcend gender borders with her style.

“There are some days where I feel very masculine, and I put on baggier, straighter silhouettes. And there are days where I feel very feminine — I’ll pull out a skirt and nice lace and feathery tops and that’s how I get to explore myself as a person,” Shaikh said.

“[My style is] dependent on how my mood is that day, how I’m feeling, the people I’m meeting or anything new that I want to explore about myself.”

Regardless of what your personal tastes are, each day is an opportunity to choose which version of yourself you want to show the world. There are no wrong answers. That’s the beauty of fashion — it’s limitless.