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Migrating across cultures: Generation Z’s path to self-discovery through fashion

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Picture by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash.

Generation Z is known as the most photographed generation, and experts say that Gen Z is more self-conscious in terms of their fashion and its environmental impact than other generations. But how does migration impact young people's fashion? This article explores several case studies to showcase the fashion experiences of Filipino Gen Z who spent their childhood and adolescence in different parts of the world, such as the United States, Japan, and Bahrain.


Jo, who lived in Bahrain for 14 years before returning to the Philippines, stated that people definitely dress more revealingly here (in the Philippines), even boys and men. With Muslims constituting 73.7% of the total population of Bahrain, the relationship between the predominant religion in the country and one’s choice of clothing are likely to be interconnected with certain fashion expectations, especially for women. Because of this, in the case of Jo, the degree of what is considered ‘revealing’ in Bahrain may or may not be revealing at all in the eyes of locals living in other countries, such as the Philippines. For example, during her time in Bahrain, she noticed that men do not often wear shorts or camisole tops at malls, as opposed to the Philippines, where these items are the norm. But what are typical outfits in Bahrain?, I asked, and Jo replied that semi-formal attire like collared shirts and blouses were appropriate.

In contrast to Jo’s account, dressing in the United States when in public is very different as told by Francis, who spent his middle childhood years there. While people in Bahrain dress semi-formally, Francis stated that in the US, ‘even if you go to malls wearing pyjamas, it's okay, unlike here [in the Philippines] where people will look at you with judgmental eyes’. However, Francis also commented that he did not have a difficult time adjusting his style when he returned to his home country, since he observed that people do not judge the style of Filipino men as much as they do with women’s.

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Fashion Avenue, New York City. Picture by Robyn Hobson on Pixabay.

Jo’s and Francis’ stories are important in analysing how gender expectations or norms change between countries, and how the differences in fashion allow individuals to explore their sexuality or identity. A person who migrates from a conservative country to a less conservative country may experience culture shock, and someone who migrates from a liberal country to a conservative country may feel judged for the different ways they dress.


In the third case study, we examine Tilda, who spent his adolescence in Japan, which made him ‘extremely conscious’ of his clothing choices when he returned to the Philippines. We often see the freedom of Japanese people in dressing up on social media through their Lolita fashion, streetwear and costumes, and Tilda took style cues from Japanese people and Japanese publications like Popeye and Cluel Homme


Tilda mentioned a famous Japanese saying: ‘the nail that sticks out will be hammered’, and explained that ‘as a foreigner living there, I am already a nail sticking out, so in an effort to at least blend in, dressing the part helped’. Aligning his fashion sense to the Japanese context, when Tilda returned to the Philippines in 2017, he felt overdressed in outfits that would have been normal back in Tokyo.


Francis reported a similar reaction when he returned from the US to the Philippines. While in the US, Francis admits to following Western fashion trends like swagger, snapback, and hypebeast clothing because he thought it was cool. But what surprised him when he returned to his home country was that, while Filipinos follow the same trends, those outfits are typically criticised by the Filipino elites for not fitting in with Western streetwear standards, even though this had been Francis’ own experience in the US.


These reflections ultimately tell the story of trying to fit in another culture, which is common to migrant youth. According to Erving Goffman’s concept of impression management, people tend to manage their image and control others’ impressions towards them – migrant youth like Tilda, Francis, and Jo strive to do this through fashion, and encounter challenges when adapting to different cultures. Fashion is an explicit communication of the self and the culture they represent. Migrant youth may play the part and conform to the standard clothing of the majority in order not to feel excluded. Impression management, while it might censor migrants’ self-expression, can also be a way to protect and strengthen cultural traditions. Conversely, a country’s social and cultural norms may limit the discovery of one’s personal style. 


These case studies demonstrate that migration plays a crucial role in self-discovery through fashion because individuals may sustain, change, or incorporate various cultures in developing their own style. In Jo’s case, she is still in the process of discovering her style outside the realm of her conservative relatives and countries. For Francis, what sets him apart from his family is his openness to mix and match his fashion by intersecting US and Filipino fashion. Finally, Tilda observes how living in two different cultures cultivated his current fashion sense because, as he puts it, ‘I feel like I have a unique sense that mashes both cultures into one’. Whatever the case may be, fashion, like migration, is a shared process that is constantly evolving, with migrant youth around the world using fashion to contribute to the spread of their country’s culture.

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Shannen Liz S. Carreon

Shannen Carreon is currently taking her MA in Sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Her interest lies in the areas of Migration and Gender as well as Political Sociology, particularly Populism. Shannen can be contacted at

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