fashion runway

Credit: Michael Mandiberg/mandiberg on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

 (WOMENSENEWS)–Fashion. We love it. We hate it. We debate it.

But why does fashion matter?

Beyond the clothes that line our closets or the photo layouts we flip past in glossy magazines, fashion is also the site of specific philosophical tensions. Fashion is symbolic, expressive, creative and coercive. It is a powerful way to convey politics, personalities, and preferences for whom and how we love. Fashion encourages profound rebellion and defiant self-definition. Yet fashion can simultaneously repress freedom by controlling or disciplining the body and by encouraging a problematic consumer culture.

Fashion creates collective identity, but also restricts individual voice. Fashion provides ways to resist hegemony and communicate identity in the face of cultural and political pressure. At the same time, though, fashion is an integral part of this very conformist culture itself. In other words, fashion contains the potential for pleasure and subjugation, expression and convention.

Taking up this tension from a feminist perspective reveals how fashion–like power–is neither inherently good nor bad. What matters is how it is used. Consider sociologist Fred Davis’s point that black lace at a funeral means something quite different than black lace on a negligee. Or that wearing a pair of overalls in Manhattan evokes quite a different response than wearing overalls on a farm. What fashion means depends on context, but also on whose interests it serves, what its audiences and practitioners bring to their engagement with it and how it protects and transforms social divisions.

Bad Fashion Rap

Feminism–and feminists–have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless and inexcusably hirsute. Contemporary feminists who reject this characterization and attempt to bring sexy back sustain charges of being duped by the patriarchy into wearing provocative, self-objectifying outfits and mistaking this for empowerment. (Note both the Catch-22 and the assumption that feminists are women.)

Feminists’ own ambivalent relationship to fashion and attempts to transcend the politically loaded project of creating personal style prompted philosopher Cressida Heyes to point out that “refusal on the part of the feminist subject to style herself in any way–to be uninvolved, neutral or natural–is impossible.”

More to the point, fashion has a long history as a source and resource for feminist discourse. Think, in no particular order, of Amelia Bloomer, leather chaps, myths about bra burning, politics of the afro and women’s fight to wear pants at work. There are Hooters uniforms, rainbow flags, beauty pageants, shaved heads, bondage gear, boi styles and high femme frills. Think sweatshops, Wal-Mart, outlet malls. Consider designer knock-offs and the workers who make them. As a vast commercial enterprise and the realm where imagination intersects ideology, fashion is never far from politics–no matter how hard fashion discourse tries to distance itself from the political by invoking its familiar keywords: fantasy and escape.

In Judith Butler’s famous formulation of gender as a series of performative acts, she puts special emphasis on style as the very “language . . . for understanding gender,” cautioning that to be styled is not the same as being “self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities.” Style functions not as a celebration of the self overcoming the social, but rather as proof of the self’s fundamental sociality. Style includes the habits, practices, mannerisms, tastes, codes and stances, all informed by implicit values, that make up the “lifelong project of giving shape to human existence,” as author Ladelle McWhorter puts it.

Decoding Fashion

Feminism is a powerful tool for decoding fashion’s political meaning and for acknowledging one’s embeddedness in these systems of meaning.

So we are suspicious about arguments that naturalize stereotypes about gender by marking femininity as artifice and masculinity as substance. “Fashion Talks” rejects conflating fashion with femininity. Furthermore, we find it curious that a multibillion dollar global industry can be a driving economic powerhouse and simultaneously dismissed as a silly cultural accessory–as “just” fashion.

Just witness the connection talk-show host Don Imus made between black hair and sexual promiscuity when he referred in 2007 to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Journalist Jenee Desmond-Harris explains in Time magazine, “Just as blond has implicit associations with sex appeal and smarts (or lack thereof), black-hair descriptors convey thick layers of meaning but are even more loaded. From long and straight to short and kinky–and, of course, good and bad–these terms become shorthand for desirability, worthiness and even worldview.”

In 2009, comic Chris Rock picks up these issues in his film, “Good Hair,” a positive sign that critical analyses of beauty, race, identity, fashion and style are now flung onto the mainstream agenda. Clearly, fashion evokes the politics of beauty and along with it brings the complicated politics of sexuality.

We have a long history of trying to manage and organize our sexual fears and desires, and one of the ways in which this is done is through the vehicle of fashion as expression and through fashion as a tool for social control. Feminism is committed to understanding these efforts at management and organization.

Excerpted from “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style,” edited by Shira Tarrant and Marjorie Jolles, pp. 1-4. Reprinted by permission of State University of New York Press. Copyright 2012 State University of New York. All Rights Reserved.

Shira Tarrant is associate professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. She is the author of “Men and Feminism” and “When Sex Became Gender” and the editor of “Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power.” Marjorie Jolles is assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Roosevelt University.

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