Philobiblon: Is fashion sex, or is sex fashion?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Is fashion sex, or is sex fashion?

I read a comment this morning from someone who's been reading the new Women's Review of Books, about the "raunch culture", on the "sexualisation of fashion". And in one of those epiphanies you sometimes get when half-asleep and caffeine-deprived, I thought: "But fashion has always been sexualised!"

Now I'm a little more awake, and with some tea inside me, I still think that's the case. (Not always what happens with such flash thoughts.) The examples are far too multiple to quote, but think of everything from Tudor codpieces on men, to Victorian bustles, designed, off course, to accentuate women's buttocks.

I find a lot of the feminist criticisim of so-called "raunch" culture offensive, because it reeks of the environment in which I grew up, in which women felt they could and should "police" the behaviour of other women to fit within very narrow confines of what was "respectable". "Tut, tut, mutton dressed up as lamb," was one of the favourite ones, for any woman judged to be wearing clothing "too young" for her.

And many woman lived - and some do still live - in fear of breaking these rules. I recall once being in a hairdresser's in Walthamstow (east London) when a classic blue rinse set lady came in in a flap. She gone out without an umbrella and it had started raining. Her "set", the armour-plated fixing of her hair into a helmet, which she paid for once a week as a sign of respectability, was in danger of being ruined. She wanted a rain hat. No one had one, but the hairdresser offered her a shower cap instead. A look of pure horror crossed the woman's face. "I couldn't go out in THAT. It is not the proper thing."

She was really, genuinely panicking about not looking "right", "respectable".

Whereas I frequently, should I need to go out in the morning, to say walk a dog, stagger out in whatever odd collection of clothing happens to be piled at the end of the bed, with no more attention to my hair than my fingers run through it, and if anyone doesn't like it, tough.

And I mostly wear hipster jeans, because ones with higher waists never fit my shape. (One woman at a bus-stop in central London once told me: "You should be ashamed of yourself at your age with those jeans," and I laughed - genuinely laughed. Because I've been empowered to do so.)

Of course some women, particularly young women, are stressed by pressures to show off their bodies when they are uncomfortable with them, and they need to be told and retold "wear what you want". But attacking other young women for wearing what they want, if that happens to be T-shirts with sexy slogans or midriff-baring tops, is only playing into the hands of the puritan rightwingers, those who are training their girls in ways like this, turning them into "young ladies" of VIctorian form - and with narrowed, restricted Victorian brains to match.

Wear what you like, and tell other women to do the same! And then tell them they look good!


Blogger Unknown said...

Please tell me that 'fearlessly feminine' link is a parody.

When I was a teenager, fashionably sexy meant babydoll dresses and long socks - they were childlike and impractical, and (to me) far more offensive than today's crop tops and jewelled underwear. What's stayed the same is that a young woman must dress to express "this season's sexuality" and not her own.

That's my problem with sexualised fashion - which, as you rightly say, means all fashion.

3/29/2006 03:35:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny how things sometimes come together -- I was just leafing through a book called Feminism After Bourdieu in a bookshop, and a chapter on fashion policing, gender, clas, and the role of the media caught my eye -- it was an analysis of BBC's What Not to Wear and other TV series based on the "complete make-over" concept, using Bourdieu's concept of habitus. The chapter is called "Notes on What Not to Wear and Post-Symbolic Violence," by Angela McRobbie -- I also found it online in the Sociological Review 52 (2005), via Ingenta (login required).

3/29/2006 04:22:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Who exploits who? Perhaps it boils down to the individual, and to individual perspective.

It would be harsh to condemn the Walthamstow OAP, as people are locked in to the mores of their generation. In her's, society wore stricter uniforms, and even a slight deviation was a fixed and well recognised marker for specific cultural status. This is not new, as renaissance art historians are well aware.

In this post-modern age, anyone can be a goth for the evening.

To wander off topic, within what age range do blogsters feel they were most culturally formed? For Clanger it would be aged 8-18 from the long hot summer of 1976 defining childhood in a baked mass of dead tadpoles and stand-pipes, happily curled up on a cool sofa with a bag of softening banana toffees and a Stephen King novel, through to the Hand of God in 1986, ending the innocence of youth in a single, tawdry blow upon the field of dreams.

Are we all predestined to be culturally formed in this age range?

There is a lively debate on hipster jeans conducted in pure Youf here:


3/29/2006 05:03:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I'd love to think "fearlessly feminine" is a parody, but I very much fear it isn't.

It is hard to imagine a society in which "wear what you want" really exists, but it should be possible. Thinking in Bourdeiu-like terms - can you take fashion "out of the game"? Probably not - of course there are all sorts of class issues in here as well - it is usually middle-class women complaining about the "raunch" clothing of working class women.

I'n not condemning the OAP in Walthamstow - just the society from which such fear springs.

3/29/2006 06:23:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I decided to put your interesting question in a separate comment Clanger. Perhaps most people are formed - roughly - in their teens, but I'm certainly an exception. (Although admittedly I did have a very odd childhood and teen years.)

Somewhere about the age of 19 I decided I really didn't like anything about the creature I'd been formed to be by my upbringing, and over the next decade or so set out, with many mis-steps along the way - to refashion myself into something like the image of what I wanted to be.

I'd like to think there is very little of that 19-year-old left.

3/29/2006 06:26:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Blimey. That must have taken considerable strength of character.

3/29/2006 07:23:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Perhaps - the terms "bloody-minded" and "stubborn" have been used about me before today...

And having got into the habit, I tend to keep refashioning myself at regular intervals. I do like change - things staying the same I'm not good at.

3/29/2006 10:23:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Clanger was hideous when small-it came with the neurology-and he paid the price.

After much unpleasantness, grief, aggro, and general grimness, Clanger finally determined that life may be less harsh if he were to recognise and accept himself for who he was, good bits and bad bits, and work with it in the rough direction of the person he would have wanted to be.

And let life do its worst (annoyingly, it tends to).

If, dear blogster, you feel you are not as noble, generous, or successful as you hoped you might have been, don't fret. Nobody else is either.

Give it your best shot, for all the right reasons, and then even if you fall on your bum, you don't have to take any crap from anyone, because your heart was in the right place, and you were doing your best.

Make of life the best you can, because it is so very, very short.

Are you refashioning yourself to find a you that you would be happy to stick with, or for the adventure of being current as the rest of us stick in our grooves?

[Highly personal, so no requirement to answer.]

You must have considerable 'get up and go'. Clanger's 'get up and go', got up and left in his mid-thirties, and never came back.

3/30/2006 12:10:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

You do have a knack for interesting questions Clanger. Partly I suppose I know what I'm aiming for in a general sense - an intellectually challenging life, but it has taken me a long time to work out how to get there, and I still haven't got it entirely worked out.

But also I have a curiosity - it is a bit like mountaineers. They want to climb a mountain because it is there. I want to try out new roles and lifestyles to see what they are like, and to see if I can navigate them. Otherwise you might say I have a short attention span...

3/30/2006 11:06:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Clanger regards 'interesting', 'curious', and 'intellectually challenging' highly too, learning something new every day from his explorations in the realm of things bookish.

But also takes his pleasures seriously. There is always room in a life less ordinary for the joy of seeing a seed sprout, a flower bloom, and a family of baby birds.

Todays surprise discovery, in ms., in an early hand, at the rear of a 1606 funeral sermon:

"To make the Black French Balls.

Take 2 Ounces of Virgins Wax.
and half an Ounce of Gold Literage
and half an Ounce of Ivory-Black-
Beat ye Litterage & Ivory black very

OK, so 'Gold Literage' may be litharge, a yellow lead oxide. 'Virgin wax' is type of beeswax. Not sure what 'Black French Balls' are, but I hope the writer didn't eat too many of them.

3/30/2006 12:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this link, Natalie, which you might find interesting:
Kristine, if you found the Bourdieu excerpt interesting, I am interviewing Professor Beverly Skeggs (whose other work on social class and feminism I wholeheartedly recommend) in a couple of weeks and the article will appear in my blog towards the end of April.
On raunch, again, with the depressing limited time at my disposal, all I can contribute is that I have read some of the literature and intend to include it as a sub-topic in a long piece about the recent moral panic over binge-drinking - however, as I am in the throes of an 800 page translation from Hungarian that is to be published later in the year and which gobbles up most of my spare time, it may be summer before the piece is ready, sigh!

3/31/2006 07:14:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Good on you Clanger, for enjoying the small pleasures. I'll freely admit I'm very bad at that. I enjoy the struggle, the challenge, but should I succeed I'm not good at taking pleasure in that. I'm already looking around for the next challenge.

That might sound pathetic, but hey, it is better than one of the alternatives, which is a life spent taking pleasure only in failures and disasters which confirm your view that the world is against you (and that you are at the centre of the world, which was one of my early shaping forces.

And thanks Chamoleon - the parallel with the binge drinking panic is a good one. Women being free with their bodies and having fun - can't have that!

3/31/2006 10:33:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

By the way Clanger, perhaps your recipe is for fancy, gold-coloured sealing wax? Instead of the red stuff you usually seem to see. Just a thought...

4/01/2006 10:19:00 pm  
Blogger landismom said...

Interesting post. I swing back and forth between thinking that it's great that women have so many options in 'what to wear' these days, to wondering how I'm going to feel about it when my daughter (now 6.5) is a teenager, and kids are wearing tape wrapped around a thong, or something like that.

There are days when my daughter leaves the house in a horrid mash of clashing stripes and polka dots, when I want to say something to her about how she's dressed, where I restrain myself only with the thought that she has her whole life ahead of her with people making her feel bad about what she wears, why should I feed into that. Why shouldn't she wear six different items of striped clothing, if that's what she likes?

I love that "mutton dressed as lamb" line.

4/05/2006 03:02:00 pm  

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