Wednesday, November 4, 2009

more fashion news from the trenches of identity politics

by frédérik sisa

Grab yourself a cuppa joe or a martini, this one’s a gabfest…

A few items in the news caught my attention in light of my post on Jonathan Escobar. Before getting to them, however, I’d like to thank Quirkate and Morbidmiss for sharing their thoughts. And morbidmiss? I apologize for not directly responding to you; I was keeping an answer for, well, this post.

As you may recall, the issue was Escobar’s removal from school because the way he “dressed like a girl” was allegedly disruptive. Feedback strongly leaned towards the idea that fashion is, indeed, a means of self-expression and not simply practical ornamentation. Of course, that brings up the whole idea about why one chooses a particular set of clothes: comfort, style, or both. Since I never really answered my own question, other than to object to anyone telling Escobar how he should dress, here it is. As pointed out by many of you, fashion (interpreted broadly to refer to choice of clothing) is, indeed, a means of self-expression as well as an identifier. No surprise there. We see examples of this everywhere: uniforms, for example, identify a function like police officer, doctor, cleric, and so on. People will use their clothes to reveal their inner selves. I’m thinking bright colourful socks for bright colourful people. But the problem is that really no guarantee that any piece of fashion will mean what we want it to mean. There may even be limits to just how communicative fashion can be since it is not a language on par with language. If one person wears stripes and another wears solid, could you really gain insight into these people? Would it be possible to assign a meaning to the choice? The problem is that sometimes people don’t wear anything because it means anything; they just wear it because they like it.

Then we have to consider cultural context and the influence of value judgments, which leads to the notion that as individuals we have no real control over how people interpret what we wear. Consider goths, for example. Within the community, the black clothes and funerary ornaments hold a particular set of meanings. To the mainstream, however, goth fashion can hold negative and derogatory meanings like “freak,” “depressed,” “Columbine massacre,” and so on. Where the goth may be asserting his or her individuality, others may see a morbid obsession. And what about culture? To cultures not steeped in Western funerary customs, the significance of the colour black and other gothic accoutrements may simply not register. Unfortunately, and this is the crux of the issue, the clothes themselves don’t decisively settle things one way or another. Meaning can’t be fixed and reliable. This is why I don’t think it means anything to say “dress like a girl;” there is no objective foundation by which he can create a link between gender and clothing. It’s all relative, in other words. Which doesn’t diminish the capacity for fashion to be self-expressive. It just means that fashion is self-expressive in a constantly changing environment of signs, meanings, and interpretations.

But there I go veering off into pompous pontificating again. So let me take this whole discussion up a notch with this little bit of news from America’s Next Top Model. During cycle 13, Tyra Banks had the models undergo cosmetic changes to become…another race? From Access Hollywood/Yahoo:
Tyra told bleach blonde Erin Wagner she was going to be "Tibetan, like the Dali Lama, and Egyptian"; Southern belle Laura Kirkpatrick was put into makeup to look "Mexican and Greek"; Jennifer An, who is Korean, was told she was going to be "Botswanan and Polynesian"; African-American Sundai Love was made to look "Moroccan and Russian"; redheaded Nicole Fox was "Malagasy and Japanese," while blonde Brittany Markert was put into makeup to look "Native American and East Indian." (Click here for image source and article.)
And if that isn’t enough, how about that flap over at the French edition of Vogue, in which Dutch model Lara Stone posed in blackface?

(Racist? Artistic? You tell me. Image borrowed from Laetitia at TFS. Click to enlarge.)

Reactions, of course, span the gamut from outrage at perceived racism and equally spirit of experimentation. In the collision between the political and aesthetic, however, the question isn’t so much whether the photos are racist – context is key – but whether the body itself can be just as much an anarchic medium of self-expression as clothing. Answer: what about the efforts we put into changing our bodies – from body piercings and tattoos to darkening one’s skin through tanning? It seems to be that a key factor is individuality versus conformity. To what extent should the individual conform to societal expressions of personal identity, even in matters associated with the body?

Whatever your opinion – and I hope you’ll share it below – one has to give props to Tyra Banks and Vogue for stimulating discussion. Sometimes there is more to the fashion industry than we give it credit for. Sometimes.

And that’s it for the heavy stuff. Next week we break out from the holding pattern with more dispatches from the Great Shirt Quest of ’09. There will be thrills, chills, and…pockets? Oh yes. There will be pockets.

1 comment:

Aqua said...

Tanning does not work unfortunately. But what difference does it make if a gorgeous model is happy to darken her skin to showcase great design. Its an honor for the designer and for black women! We have this one life to live and to play, I say if you don't like it, look away! Should students be distracted by the attire of others? I don't think so, but I was schooled in uniform. But I share restrooms with crossdressers all the time and barely think of it except to trade makeup tips. If Michael Jackson can go white and reduce the size of his nose by 75%, Chastity Bono can undergo gender re-assignment, anyone can change their name, anyone can diet, anyone can exercise, finances allowing - anyone can have cosmetic surgery, anyone can wear sneakers today and jewelry tonight, we should expect more and more children to do their thing too!

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