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Fashion: Feminist Friend or Foe?

January 19th, 2011

Who has fashion?  Well, women for one.  The word “fashion” itself almost automatically links to females.  The common association conjures up images of excessive adornment and vapid frivolity: sky-high heels, clownish cosmetics and frilly dresses.  Women face bullying for failing to don feminine attire and weather insults when they focus on clothing with inordinate enthusiasm.  Yet, as Elizabeth Wilson reminds her readers in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, “until the seventeenth or the eighteenth century, sexual difference in dress was not strongly marked” (117) for children or adults.  Women and men carried purses and daggers and wore identical sporting clothes.  Both genders shared an affinity for jeweled bodices, earrings and curled hairstyles among other communal “bisexual styles” (Wilson 118).  But, as the eighteenth century approached the bourgeoisie, which advocated modesty and good taste, expanded in power and designed a stricter gender dichotomy (Wilson 118), one that eventually favored supposed masculine power over feminine frailty.

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, in his Theory of the Leisure Class, labels the Victorian woman as the ultimate luxury commodity through “conspicuous performance of vicarious leisure” (Veblen).  In this system, women are not only subservient to men, but also act as a mirror to his social status.  Veblen asserts that the ideal wife “is useless and expensive, and she is consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength” (Veblen)of her husband.  Thus, a wife becomes an ornament, and her husband’s ability to maintain her lavish decoration communicates his own self-worth, hence the perceived value of debilitating items like the corset and the practice of foot-binding.  Obviously then, patriarchal society encourages behavior that renders a woman impotent.  She is invaluable in her physical (and even mental) worthlessness.

Consequently, feminist thought urges for the shedding of such a rigid portrayal of gender.   After all, gender is a social construct of biological sex.  Sex differences are natural whereas gender differences are artificial.  Alison Lurie discusses in The Language of Clothes how sartorial sex-typing starts from birth (214).  Although male and female clothing for children use nearly identical shapes and materials, distinctions arise from application of color (never pink for boys nor blue for girls, though the reverse was once true) along with decorative elements that convey mobility and vigor for males and gentility and nurturing for females (Lurie 214).  These gendered structures persist throughout life.  Moreover, as fashion gradually fluxes between styles, periods of marked cultural insecurity often reinstate conservative silhouettes, as seen with Dior’s New Look, which championed the maternal image as troops returned from war and sought to settle down with their spouses.  His wasp-waisted ideal “resurrected the overt femininity” of couture “which relied upon women seeing themselves as decorative objects” (Arnold 102) waiting for proper embellishment.

For that reason, the feminist perspective views fashion as a reinforcement of “traditionally sanctioned roles as sexual object, wife, mother, and homemaker” (Davis 175) as created through a lens of male dominance. Therefore, some feminists support the adoption of men’s dress to close the masculine/feminine gap (Davis 176). However, eradicating gender entirely seems problematic.  By dressing like men, women would in essence deny and discredit the legitimacy of the feminine while ironically validating patriarchy.  True, men have molded our model of femininity, but   if we covet feminine dresses should we wear them anyway?  If so, why should that be wrong, unless our desires are socially conditioned?  Then again, it’s difficult to find a craving that isn’t learned.  Additionally, fashion, for all its perceived frippery, does function practically.  Lurie explains how the adorned body appears “like a half-opened gift” (212) and entices through its concealment while the unadorned body feels dull and ordinary, especially after any long period of exposure.  So fashion clearly delineates the sexes through gendered apparel and aids in attraction, and eventual reproduction.  The eroticism of fashion assists human survival.  During times of heavily gendered appearances birth rates increase, and with more indistinct appearances birth rates decline.

Modernity hears the constant “cries of gender confusion” (Arnold 101).  Men face nearly analogous but inverted concerns as women.  Those who articulate too much interest in appearance or wear effeminate clothing risk a shameful connection to the feminine.  Contemporary fashion toys with conventional gender by blurring and reinventing styles that betray the instability between male and female.  But the issue lies in extremity.  Such balance requires the acceptance and integration of both the feminine and the masculine.  A gender mutable civilization would outfit women in suits and men in pink and vice versa without hesitation.  Fluidity voiced through the – unlikely – freedom of choice.  However, the unisex and androgynous “utopian dream” (Arnold 118) that appeals to individuals revolted by ostentatious consumerism reaches an impossible homogeneity.  Unisex fashions typically splinter off into more traditional gendered silhouettes.  Once an item acquires a specific designation, the other gender tends to shy away from it.  Androgyny, seeks to blend male and female traits into a single hermaphroditic unit, but the original androgynous body links the Grecian athletic youth, depicted with “male genitalia, and the flat, waistless figure of the masculine adolescent” (Arnold 123).  Even today, women more frequently masquerade as boys down the catwalk rather than the other way around.  The “fantasy of ‘wholeness’” (Arnold 122) venerates a singular body.  Our biological differences divide us, and fashion complicates them, if not makes them more compelling.

Sources:

Arnold, Rebecca.  Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2000.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. University of Virginia. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/VEBLEN/veb_toc.html>

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Image Credits:

“Life & Style: Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.” Photo. 4 March 2010. 10 February 2011. http://teenymanolo.com/2010/03/04/leave-shiloh-alone-jebus/

“Sofia Coppola Le Smoking.” Photo. 19 March 2009. 10 February 2011. http://sistersinblackfrocks.blogspot.com/2009/03/le-smoking-sofia.html

Kipar, Nicole. “French Noble Lady and Gentleman: 1693.” Engraving. 10 February 2011. http://www.kipar.org/period-galleries/galleries_1690e.html

Tang, Xiyin. “Men in Pink.” Photo. 28 January 2009. 10 February 2011. http://www.refinery29.com/menswear-gets-cheek.php

TMZ. “Adam Lambert and Kimberly Caldwell.” Photo. 19 March 2009. 10 February 2011. http://www.tmz.com/2009/03/19/adam-lambert-david-cooks-ex/2/

Whitson, Stephanie Grace and Nancy Moser. “Victorian Bustles.” Drawing. 4 November 2010. 10 February 2011. http://footnotesfromhistory.blogspot.com/2010/11/displaying-women.html

One Response to “Fashion: Feminist Friend or Foe?”

  1. idianaroberts says:

    Wow! I never would have thought to investigate a correlation between periods of gender-specific fashions and birth rates. As a woman I find this frustrating, but sociologically it does make sense.
    This post reminded me of an essay I read by William Henry Flower. The editors of the book summarize his theory by explaining how Flower, “contends that any body modification as result of dress, such as wearing tight corsets or fashionable shoes, deforms the natural body and as a result is an immoral act” (13). It’s interesting that something like a corset, which is such a feminine, ‘genderized’ staple in fashion history, could be accused as immoral when it created a shape many believe to be womanly. Flower presents an interesting argument, is gender-appropriate fashion always moral?

    cited: Johnson, Kim K. P., Susan J. Torntore, and Joanne Bubolz. Eicher. Fashion Foundations: Early Writings on Fashion and Dress. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.

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