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“Because They Are Me”: Dress and the Making of Gender

by Tamara Shefer & Kopano Ratele & Lindsay Clowes

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Young people in contemporary South Africa inhabit a multiplicity of diverse, often contradictory, economic and socio-cultural contexts. These contexts offer a range of possibilities and opportunities for the affirmation of certain identities and positionalities alongside the disavowal of others. Dress – clothes, accessories, and body styling – is one of the key components through which, within specific social conditions, people perform these identities. In making statements about themselves in terms of these multiple and intersecting group (or social) historical identities, the meanings soaked into people’s dress simultaneously speak to the present and their aspirations for the future. This article reports on a study that explored how a group of third-year students at a South African university use dress to negotiate the multiple and intersecting identities available to them in a context characterised by neoliberal democracy and market ideologies that continue to be mediated by the racialized legacies of apartheid.

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