Monday, October 12, 2009

dressing like a girl: no such thing

How’s this for a headline:

Cobb Teen Told He Can't Dress Like A Female At School

As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the teen in question is Jonathan Escobar, a sixteen-year-old whose preferred attire includes skinny jeans, wigs, makeup, and heels. After being told by an assistant principal that the way he dresses is disruptive – a fight apparently broke out because of it – and he should dress more “manly” or be home-schooled, Escobar took himself out of school. He had only been at North Cobb High School for three days. You can read more about the story here and watch a video report here.

Of course, it seems rather unjust to force Escobar to dress in some particular way in the absence of an official, precisely defined school uniform. After all, what harm is he doing? The most revealing aspect of the story, however, is the one left unspoken. There is a hidden assumption in both the school’s reaction and the way in which the story was reported.

"I don't consider myself a cross-dresser," he said. "This is just who I am."

If you look at the article’s headline, the assumption is right there, in these words: “Dress Like a Female.” But what, exactly, does it mean to dress like a female…or a male? When a baby is born, we obviously don’t wait until it puts on clothes to figure out whether it’s male or female. We know a baby’s sex from biology, and even then biology is sometimes ambiguous. It’s only once we have the biology settled that we start we get a line of reasoning that goes as follow:

If sex M, then fashion FM
If sex F, then fashion FF.

The trouble is that there is no correlation between clothes and sex through biology, and world history and culture is filled with a colourful variety of clothes for both sexes that, today, would not be fashionably acceptable. So far, this isn’t anything new, and neither is the inverse:

If fashion FM, then sex M.
If fashion FF, then sex F.

The mediating factor is, of course, culture. Looking at Escobar, the media assumes that because he is “dressing like a girl” – that is, according to the symbols of a female gender – he sees himself as a girl. But since he is obviously a boy, then there is gender confusion – cross-dressing. Of course, the very notion of cross-dressing is only possible when you assume that men dress like FM and women dress like FF. What happens, however, if we abolish this assumption? If we consider gender as a social construct built around anatomy then fashion, as a manifestation of gender ideals reinforced by Big Fashion, is by definition also a construct that arises from tradition, social expectations, ritual, and so on. But before I veer too far off into pretentious pontification, let me dial it back a bit. The question is to what extent the clothes we wear have a deeper meaning other than function (to protect from the weather) or aesthetic (to look fabulous). Does a business suit really give us an indication as to job skill? Does an apron tell us about a chef’s culinary ability? Is it possible that maybe we care too much what other people do or do not wear?

Perhaps fashion shouldn’t serve a communicative, pop-psychology function…because ultimately it can’t. The persistent belief that it does results in situations like the one Jonathan Escobar faces. (And he’s lucky that’s he not in a place where people get stoned or beaten for defying gender expectations.)

What do you think? Do clothes really say something about a person or are they just practical ornaments?


Quirkate said...

Fashion is a means for expressing ourselves. Without our clothes, we all look pretty much the same. Fashion allows us to put what's on "the inside" on the outside. Some people really embrace this, and others don't really care.

In a place like Japan, where uniforms are very much the norm for school and also often for work, you'll see a lot more variety and risk-taking in the clothes people wear in their free time.

So in short, I think what we wear can say something about us -- if we want it to -- but of course it never tells the whole story.

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks for your comment, Quirkate. Although I'm a nihilist about such things I do agree with you. Unfortunately, fashion isn't always a means of individual expression but a symbol of one's place in society. Perhaps the ideal is that anyone should wear whatever they want when they want?

morbidmiss said...

Clothing is a major identifier and can be very telling about a person. You can tell if someone is consciously choosing their look or don't care. I mean, think of a site such as There are tons of people wear skimpy clothing because they are confident they can (although they really shouldn't) or they just don't care.

Personally, I find a lot of people go for comfort and want function over fashion. Apparently dressing this way is what makes this kid comfortable, at an age where kids are still trying to figure it all out.

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