Constructing Immigrant Identities in Consumption: Appearance Among the Turko-Danes

ABSTRACT - Understanding the behavior of immigrant consumers is becoming central to an understanding of increasingly pluralistic global consumption patterns and dynamics. Based on that premise, we explore the consumption of clothes as it shapes and is shaped by identity among Turko-Danish students. We investigate how these second-generation immigrants in Denmark construct and negotiate their identity in their consumption of clothes and how different cultural and subcultural forces are felt and reflected in dress. The research reported examines consumer experiences and meanings of clothes based on the analysis of interviews, photo albums, and participant observation. Findings about the patterns, strategies, and processes of picking and mixing of appearances offer insights into consumption among subcultures. Consumption of clothes reflect the negotiation of the contradictions shaped by diverse cultural forces and, especially for females, by the ambiguity and fluidity of contextual appropriateness in divergent private and public contexts.


Gnliz Ger and Per +stergaard (1998) ,"Constructing Immigrant Identities in Consumption: Appearance Among the Turko-Danes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 48-52.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 48-52


Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University

Per +stergaard, Odense University


Understanding the behavior of immigrant consumers is becoming central to an understanding of increasingly pluralistic global consumption patterns and dynamics. Based on that premise, we explore the consumption of clothes as it shapes and is shaped by identity among Turko-Danish students. We investigate how these second-generation immigrants in Denmark construct and negotiate their identity in their consumption of clothes and how different cultural and subcultural forces are felt and reflected in dress. The research reported examines consumer experiences and meanings of clothes based on the analysis of interviews, photo albums, and participant observation. Findings about the patterns, strategies, and processes of picking and mixing of appearances offer insights into consumption among subcultures. Consumption of clothes reflect the negotiation of the contradictions shaped by diverse cultural forces and, especially for females, by the ambiguity and fluidity of contextual appropriateness in divergent private and public contexts.

We live in an era in which boundaries across national cultures are dissolving and consumers are increasingly seeking and expressing subcultural, ethnic, and personal identity in consumption. In the multicultural world, with global flows of people, money, technol-ogy and information, media images, and ideologies (see Appadurai 1990), cultures encounter more of each oter, in person and in the form of each others’ products and images. All over the world, Mexican restaurants, Indian clothes, African jewelry, world music, and Go expose consumers to the "other" and provide opportunities to cross boundaries through the consumption of the objects of the "other." As people of the globe encounter more of each other, identity, a dynamic challenge of sameness and difference, becomes more of an issue (see e.g., Friedman 1994). A major encounter with the "other" is provided by the increasing global flows of people, such as immigrants, across borders. This study is an attempt to understand consumption among immigrants in the globalizing multicultural world.

Wanted or not, immigrants are crossing borders in increasing numbers and intensifying the global flows of people. They carry cultures, bidirectionally, across borders and foster diversity and hybridization of global consumer cultures. They are caught in-between and move in-between two cultures: old and new homes. In that in-between state, maintenance, expression, and visibility of one’s immigrant identity may or may not be desirable. Consumption of a particular set of goods in a particular pattern personalizes the cultural forces and dynamics. Consumption is at once a personal and a social processCit relates to expressing identity, belonging, and differentiation (see e.g., Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Lunt and Livingstone 1992).

However, there has been little research on consumption and identity negotiation among the people who move across borders in this increasingly mobile world. Although there are a few studies of consumer behavior of immigrants and ethnic groups (e.g., Costa and Bamossy 1995; Mehta and Belk 1991; Pe±aloza 1994), the understanding of consumption when people cross borders is far from satisfactory. We explore how immigrants establish and reinforce their selfhood through consumption, in their own unique context and in dealing with the necessary contradictions, changes, and uncertainties of their lives. We address issues such as how immigrants adapt and acculturate, mask or revive their roots, struggle and resist, reconfigure meanings of goods, and, maybe more often, negotiate ambivalence and contradictions by creolization (for creolization in global consumption see Ger and Belk 1996a).

We explore the consumption of clothes as it shapes and is shaped by identity among Turko-Danish students. We focus on how the acts and meanings of clothing are experienced and used in identity negotiation while encountering numerous, sometimes contradictory, cultural forces that shape unique clothing meanings and experiences. We examine how consumption of clothing serves the construction, reconstruction, maintenance, negotiation, expression, and making visible or masking of social and personal identity for second-generation Turkish immigrants in Denmark. As offsprings of working-class and old-country parents, Turko-Danish youth face multiple sociocultural forces in family, community, and peer relations, as many immigrants do. We explore these forces experienced and reflected in appearance in the process of constructing lives as young and modern TurkoDane males and females, members of small Turkish community with roots in a particular rural locale in Turkey and with varied ethnicities, and students or employees in Danish institutions. Based on qualitative data, we discuss how the forces of peripheric immigrant culture mingle with the "center" in the consumption of clothes when a young immigrant faces multiple centers (Western, European, Danish, urban Turkish) and peripheries (Danish immigrant, European immigrant, rural Turkish).

We focus on clothes, which are among the most commonly desired, the most frequently purchased and used consumer goods (Ger and Belk 1996b; Lunt and Livingstone 1992). Dressing is a daily ritual involving the body, which is integral to identity. Clothes are expressive props. They are costumes we put on to feel the part. We may change identities as we change clothes. Clothes, costumes changed quickly and close to the body, provide a richground for the study of how consumption shapes and is shaped by identity and how elements of several cultures are used to interpret functions and meanings of goods, such as comfort, modesty, and display in the case of clothes (see Berger 1992; Craik 1994; Davis 1992; Eicher 1995; Lurie 1981; Solomon 1985; Morris 1978; Thompson and Haytko 1997). Therefore, clothes, so close to the body, so quickly changed, provide a rich base for the study of how consumption is used in self-construction and reconstruction or in identity negotiation in everyday life.

Consumption experiences of those who move and live across borders, in a world of fluid boundaries, provide a fertile ground to understand increasingly pluralistic global consumption patterns and dynamics. By examining how immigrants, as culture carriers, construct their identity through consumption of clothes we aim to enhance the understanding of the nexus of influences on consumption in the multicultural world and of globalization of consumer cultures. Findings about the patterns, strategies, and processes of picking and mixing of appearances will offer insights into consumption among subcultures and into the cultural processes that affect global consumption. We consider the implications of our interpretations for conceptualizations of identity and global consumer cultures.


The informants live in Odense, third largest city (approximately 200,000 inhabitants) in Denmark. Their parents came to Denmark in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Most of the informants were born in Denmark or were two or three years old when their families migrated to Denmark. Their parents came from rural areas in Turkey, mostly from ¦orum, Konya, and Sivas in Central Anatolia and Afyon in Western Anatolia, and are Sunni or Alevi Turks or Kurds. They came as uneducated and unskilled guest workers to do all the "dirty" jobs which the Danes did not want to do at that time with full employement. Most live in the suburb called Vollsmose, inhabited by different ethnic groups from Middle East, Asia, and Africa and low class Danes on social welfare. Vollsmose is one of the main high crime areas in Denmark.

Ethnic and regional origins in Turkey and level of education are the major differences felt among the young TurkoDanes. Interestingly, females are more educated than the males: whereas males usually quit school after nine years of compulsory education, females continue their education. The self-reported reason is that boys are raised in a way that they are free to do whatever they want and go outside the home as they please. Both the lack of opportunities and discrimination and the temptation of leisure lead them to pursue an existence based on social welfare. Some turn to crimes. Females, on the other hand, are either in school or expected to stay in the home and not allowed to go and play. Being a student provides a means to be out of the home and have more control over daily life. This means that females improve their social status whereas males do not. One consequence is that the females do not see these noneducated males to be respectable and are looking for eligible husbands from Turkey, since they expect to marry other Turks if not TurkoDanes.

Celebratory occasions, such as weddings and circumcision ceremonies, are traditionally very important: they provide the major occasions for social interaction and meeting a potential spouse. They are a major source of fun and entertainment, especially for females. This is one of the few times when females are in public rather than in the privacy of the home (if not in school or at work).


The research reported is an ongoing study. What is presented here is the first round of our field work. The data include interviews, photo albums, comments on clothes in fashion magazines, and observations in daily life and in a major social occasionCa circumcision ceremony. Sixteen interviews were conducted in Turkish (and translated to Danish) in the informants’ homes, restaurants, and at the meeting rooms at the Odense University. Daily fieldnotes, transcriptions of taped interviews, photos, and the video of the ceremony constitute the systematic observation records in the study. The use of multiple methods aids thick description and interpretation. The authors are a female Turk who spent four months in Denmark over two years and a male Dane who lives in Denmark. The use of a bicultural bigender research team helps provide both Turkish and Danish-insider’s and outsider’s, and female and male perspectives.

There were interesting challenges in the process of interviewing. The informants were sensitive to their status as immigrants and wanted to impress an older Turkish professor as bona fide Turks who are at the same time modern and well-adjusted TurkoDanes. They also wanted to be gracious hosts to the "foreign" Turkish professor, as their Turkish hospitality would require.


Everyday life worlds of the informants are described below followed by the clothing practices of a female informant and the findings about appearance and identity.

Homes and Activities

Most informants live with their parents, in flats, many of which are very similarly furnished. Some families brought the curtains from Turkey, thinking that the curtains in Odense were too simple. Their furniture reminded the Turkish author of the 1960’s urban middle class furnishings in Turkey: chandeliers, then a symbol of wealth, a prominent buffet, and "Turkish" crochTed covers hanging from the shelves. They displayed many knick-knacksCsmall decorative souvenirs, currently sold for tourists in Turkey. They also had "Danish" style floor lamps, tables, and sofas. Several homes had Turkish flags. One male informant, who displayed such a flag, in addition to posters of the Turkish national anthem and Istanbul, rosary beads, a Turkish soccer team key chain, and a Koran, and who was wearing a small flag pin on his sweater, explained that the Danes always have flags in their houses. Unlike "some who try to hide the fact that they are Turks," he wants to let everyone know that he is Turkish. His e-mail messages end with "We Love Turkey." As with Mehta and Belk (1991), we find that these immigrants have more "Turkish" possessions than Turks in Turkey do, to symbolize what they left behind and to reaffirm their Turkishness.

Many parents have been to Mecca, more than one would find in a similar community in Turkey. Some parents think that the Danish culture is bozuk (rotten, stalled)Ce.g., drinking, night life, bars, discos and how they dance and behave in those places. Many females said that their fathers are more lenient than others’. For example, Sezin (below) said she can be out in the evenings until 10pm whereas most other girls have to be home by 6pm.

The informants watch Turkish, Danish, and German television channels. There is a great variety in the types of music they like, from only Western pop or only Turkish pop to a greater range of various types. Some informants indicate that they listen to more Turkish music and Turkish pop music then they used to. Turkish pop became extensively popular in Turkey in the recent years and Turkish television is also fairly recent in Odense. Related to dress, they read Danish and European fashion magazines and receive brochures of Esprit, Noa Noa, Stil, Matinique, etc., - Danish and worl fashions. Other leisure activities involve more outside activities, such as sports and going out, for males and more inside activities, such as birthday parties, weddings, and Turkish students association meetings, for females.

They cook mostly Turkish and make Danish desserts, such as rice pudding with cherries. Several informants said that the Danes eat this dessert for Christmas, but they like it very much and eat it all the time. Many informants voiced that "There is not much to Danish cooking anyway, they don’t have muchCjust meat with sauce and potatoes." They said that the Danes like Turkish food very much, except the desserts, and that their friends come for dinner to have a Turkish meal.

Clothes, in the Words of a Female Informant

Sezin is twenty years old. Some of her comments and responses are as follows:

I wear pants most of the time, jeans. I don’t like wearing skirts. I feel more comfortable with pants. I have four pairs of jeans, blue, Levis. I have two more pairs: one black fabric and one black "bell bottoms." But bell bottoms are beginning to be outdated, I don’t think I’ll wear them any longer. I wear skirts only for weddings, not otherwise. Long skirts. I like long loose black skirts. Not tight skirts.

I wear shorts only in Turkey, not here. In summer in Turkey it is too hot for jeans. You have to adjust to where you are. When we first got there (Kusadas, a seaside resort town in Turkey) we had jeans and t-shirts on. We saw that everyone wore shorts, we decided to wear shorts too. ...

(Commenting on the dress of females in their village in Turkey): they wear long and patterned skirts. Multiple colorful patterns. Exaggerated colors, too colorful. On top, a white, lavender, or red shirt. That is, they wear colors that do not match. And others wear salvar, some have headscarfs.

(Commenting on the dress of females in cities in Turkey): their clothes are more like ours. More and more becoming similar to Western clothes. There is a great amount of affectation. They think that since Westerners wear those types of clothes, they’ll too. [But] they dress differently. They wear very tight jeans. This does not fit our style at all, we wear more normal and more loose and comfortable jeans.

(Commenting on Danish dress): they dress just like us. They don’t wear tight pants that squeeze the legs. I wear the same. I wear things that match their way of dress. (Commenting on the colors): they wear grey, black, dark brown. I like those colors too. But really, red is very becoming with black hair (she has black hair), but I feel red is too exaggerated.

(Commenting on a photo of young people on a boat trip in Istanbul): Clothes of people who come from Germany (second or third generation German Turks) versus Denmark are very different. The clothes of those from Germany are two steps ahead of us. They wear more liberal, atk (revealing, uncovered, free, open) clothes. They can be more free and comfortable (than me) even though they wear atk clothes. I would not have felt comfortable had I worn something like that (pointing to a top that reveals the belly). Must be a good feeling. (Pointing to a long, tight skirt with a slit with a white sleeveless top): I could wear that, beautiful and simple. But I would not because the Danes would not. Except I could wear it for a wedding.

Meaning and Experience of Clothes and Identity

Sezin’s and others’ comments, clothes, and photos indicate that there is no one way of dress among the TurkoDanish youth. There are varying degrees of "Danishness" and "Turkishness" and each individual dresses differently depending on the occasion and his or her specific referents. Wearing jeans, simple, comfortable, and casual clothes, silver jewelry, white socks, and not too colorful things are interpreted to be anish. Fabric trousers, colorful things, putting together nonmatching and mixed colors, patterns, and items, gold jewelry, nice and chique clothes or exaggerated, elaborate, and dressy clothes, and the tendency to pay attention to how one dresses are interpreted to be Turkish. Most informants believe that Danes cannot tell that they are Turkish from their dress, especially from their daily clothes, and say that they shop in Danish stores anyway. But the color and assemblage codes were read differently by the Danish author who thinks any Dane can tell they are not Danish. The TurkoDanish choice and reading of clothes are shaped by multiple sociocultural forces and the concerns, ambiguities, and conflicts molded by these forces.

Forces that Influence Dress and Appearance: Influential referents include other TurkoDane university students, parents and Odense TurkoDane community, Danish friends, relatives and friends in Turkey, and relatives and friends in other European countries such as Germany and Belgium. A change of clothing style usually accompanies being a university student. This is due partially to having more Danish friends and partially to parents being more lenient when females are educated. Education accords females a degree of autonomy and protects them from criticism. It is a license to freer and more daring or modern styles. Educated females gain respectability and honor through education rather then through modest dress. Furthermore, even the field of study makes a self-reported difference in clothing style. Clothing styles are also as much a reflection of the home culture of origin (particular rural region, ethnicity, religious sect) and the new "home" culture of urban Turkey as of Danish and European cultures and of youth subcultures in each of these geographies. For example, Alevis and Kurds are seen to adopt more to the Danish ways of life and clothing. How frequently and where (village or resorts or big cities) they go to in Turkey also influence their styles and notions of appropriate dress. Agents that influence dress include Turkish, Danish, and German television they see in Odense, advertising, magazines, and shops in Odense and Turkey. The informants said that fashion reaches Odense a year later than Turkey. They shop in Turkey as well as in Odense and feel flattered when their Danish friends like, borrow, and wear clothes and shoes bought in Turkey. One female informant sums up how she reconciles different forces: "I shop considering both Turkish and Danish cultures. If I think the Turkish community will react, I prefer to buy something else."

Concerns and Contradictions of the Private Versus the Public: These diverse sources of influence or forces complicate various concerns with clothing. Major concerns include age appropriateness, wearing simple (unadorned, neat, matching, harmonious colors and assemblage) yet interesting and nonboring clothes, and appropriateness of dress for different contexts and occasions.

Contextual appropriateness is the most ambiguous, conflicting, and fluid issue and that is the one we will elaborate on here. This choice leads to a focus on gender since contextuality of clothing is more of an issue for female informants (and for males’ views regarding appropriate dress for females) than for males. All informants seem to be relatively more DanishCcasual and sportyCin their daytime clothing, but more TurkishCmore unusual, chique, and dressyCin their clothing for the evening outings. Furthermore, there is a very clear separation between daily life and celebratory occasions such as weddings, and dress styles vary accordingly. However, the importance of occasions and situations is overarching for females who are much more conscious of what to wear, where, and with what kinds of people. This is at least partially due to the notion of female respectability, which is one of the main criteria by which TurkoDanes distinguish themselves from the Danes. This overarching concern with contextual appropriateness is intertwined with the private-public dichotomy.

Sezin’s and other female informants’ discourse indicates critical contradictions they have to negotiate in private and various public contexts. Females are caught in a series of contradictions: good versus bad, modesty and respectability versus atk (free and open, with negative undertones), attractive and modern versus atk. The word atk has multiple meanings. One is "open" as opposed to "closed" or "covered" as in Islamic dress. The informants say that they do not wear or like atk clothes but prefer what they call "comfortable" and simple clothes. "Beautiful" clothes are seen to be interesting, nonboring, and attractive without being attention-getting. Modesty and respectability are voiced in terms of comfort and not attracting too much attention. Yet, atk is also modern. Some of Sezin’s comments about atk clothes indicate a longing for such clothes.

In addition to atk, another term frequently used to describe clothes was "tight." Many said they did not like things that were too tight. They would wear a tight top or a "body" but with a vest to cover it. Four sisters, talking about tight tops, miniskirts, and low cuts, showed pictures of their mother in late 1960s and early 1970s with mini skirts and said that she used to wear minis when still in Turkey and also in Odense. They said even if they could and wanted to wear such clothes they really would not because they would not feel comfortable. These and other informants, as well as their parents, realized that their lives are "behind the times" or more "backwards" compared to Turkey and that females in Turkey behave, dress, and live more freely and openly. Their concern is that in Odense, the TurkoDane community will gossip if they are seen in a bathing suit, shorts, mini skirts, or tight and low cut tops. In one informant’s words, "it would be the same as being on the cover of a magazine." The notion is also that they can behave more freely in Turkey because all females in Turkey behave freely. But in Odense, they do not want to be bad-mouthed by the community.

In the relatively private Turkish spaces, with other TurkoDanes (for example, when there are relatives visiting at home, with TurkoDane friends and relatives at a picnic in Denmark, at weddings and other ceremonial occasions) they intentionally dress more like a "Turk", that is, what they see as a Turk. At celebratory occasions, they can be playfully colorful and sexual and wear skirts and dresses that they would otherwise not wear anywhere in Denmark. But they still have to negotiate their limits. At the circumcision ceremony, there were only three females who had "overly sexy and attention getting" clothes and who thus seemed to dare to rebel against the community norms of modesty and respectability. They became the talk of the town, among both the older and the younger generation. These three females, who were regarded to tend to keep away from the TurkoDanes, refused to be interviewed. A similar negotiation has also been observed in Turkish Cypriot weddings in London where females "have to compromise between dressing attractively enough to bring themselves to the attention of young men, and remaining sufficiently modest to avoid being thought fast or "open" [atk]" (Bridgwood 1995, 45).

In the public domain of Danish spaces, as in the institutional contexts such as the workplace or the university, when going out with Danes, and on the streets, the informants want to be, and think that they are, like the Danes. When they say "I’m just like a Dane and dress like a Dane" or "Danes cannot tell I am not a Dane from my clothing" they are referring more to that public domain. That is a domain where female respectability cannot be damaged: they do not mind being seen by the Danes at all and many parents said "no harm will come from the Danes."

Thus, norms seem to be context-specific. There is a notion of "one shold behave just like the others." As "others" (for example, friends in Turkey in the summer, village in Turkey in the summer, Danes in Odense) change expected behavior changes as well. Different behaviors are acceptable and legitimate in different public and private spaces, depending on who will see the females.


Construction of Turkishness by the informants is reminiscent of that of rural Turks thirty years ago, and clearly not like their cousins in the Turkish cities today. And although they think that they are modern TurkoDanes and dress just like the Danes, Danes can tell they are not Danish. The informants seem to try to mask their Turkishness, try to mingle in, and avoid being noticed in public, while maintaining and promoting Turkishness in private-when away from the Danish eyes. Contradictions in clothing experience and meanings mirror wider contradictions experienced by TurkoDanes in attempting to retain a distinctive identity appropriate to Odense in late 1990s. And females explore different interpretations of respectable femininity when parameters of respectability are gradually changing. Being caught among multiple currents, TurkoDanish youth have multiple identities, constructed and expressed painfully as well as playfully.

These interpretations suggest a conceptualization of identity as the junction of multiple and diverse cultural and subcultural forces, groups, and same-different tensions. This is a moving junction point: it moves in different contexts and times. Our exploration of the different junctions as manifested in clothing indicates that immigrants’ consumption patterns cannot be understood with an essentialist interpretation. There are many subcultures among the young TurkoDanes depending on their numerous referents. These consumers neither behave alike nor do they simply adapt or resist. They negotiate and mix different styles of clothing depending on the situation and the people around them. Degrees of assimilation/adaptation, resistance/persistence, and hybridization/synthesis vary within one person depending on the context. Consumption of clothes indicate hybridization and negotiation among conflicting forces. What is most interesting is the context-specificity of dress in various public and private contexts. Future studies need a nonessentialist and a contextual approach to the consumption patterns of ethnic subcultures and other subcultures of the globe.


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Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University
Per +stergaard, Odense University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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