Friday, June 24, 2011

a few thoughts on the nature of fashion (part 3)

by frédérik sisa

If women’s fashion reveals while men’s fashion conceals, what we are left with is this: the female body as society’s standard of beauty. Fashion then becomes both the creator and enforcer of the standard, with all the freedom and restrictions that comes with expressive freedom and normative tendencies. The standard has become so strong that we see it manifested in many way, such as this cliché in the media: the ugly guy with the gorgeous wife. (See TV Tropes’ website for more on this.) As long as a woman looks great, it doesn’t matter what men look like because the female body is the standard by which we judge beauty – and today’s masculine ego is incapable of being measured against it without imploding into a messy pool of insecurity.

It would seem empowering for men to receive the social message that whatever their physique, they too can get the hot chick. But let’s consider what it means to say that it doesn’t matter what a man’s physique looks like. It means that the male body is ignored, hidden from view, relegated only to the province of gay men or, on the hypermasculine fringes, to bodybuilding. This hasn’t always been the case; look at ancient Greece, for example. The Olympics in those days were, after all, carried out in the nude. Yet what about the beach? After all, don't men's bathing suits entail topless men, while even the skimpiest bikini partly conceals a woman's breasts? The difference, of course, is that women's breast have been sexualized while men's chests haven't.

What we have is the proverbial double-edged sword. On one edge, there’s the supposed freedom for men not to worry about what they look like – especially since fashion will helpfully provide baggy clothes to hide it, or society simply doesn't sexualize their bodies on the public stage. On the other edge is the notion that men’s bodies are irrelevant. A risky interpretation of this double-edged sword – and go ahead, draw any Freudian inference you want – would be to view this is as a problem whose solution is the greater socialization of self-esteem. As we see with women and the challenges they face given the media, however, calling for anyone to subject themselves to the aesthetic preferences and judgment of other people is simply a bad idea. Yet surely there is something destructive to this

Fashion needs a revolution - or maybe evolution would be enough. As it is, fashion is a navel-gazing enterprise, cannibalizing its own history in order to drive a cycle of trends. But what if fashion divorced itself from gender constructs and socialized self-esteem, and instead adopted a new set of design criteria? Instead of looking towards revelation and concealment as design principles, fashion could learn from substantial design disciplines, like architecture or graphic design, in which the goal is, in part, to solve problems – functional, communicative, aesthetic, and expressive.

My question to you, then, is this: what should these design criteria be? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

And on that note, that's the last of these little indulgent musings. Next week, it's back to posts with pictures.

Friday, June 17, 2011

no blog post this week...sorry!

Sorry, dear readers, but I don't have a post for you this week. I should be back on my regular schedule next week.

: f :

Friday, June 10, 2011

a few thoughts on the nature of fashion (part 2)

To continue from last week’s post

The common denominator to fashion is, in my view, the following. Women’s fashion is based on the concept of revelation, while men’s fashion is based on the concept of concealment. And what is being revealed or concealed? The body, of course. If you look at women’s clothing, designs emphasize the female form, whether directly by showing skin or body parts like legs, back, feet, or cleavage, or indirectly through form-fitting fabrics (e.g. leggings). By contrast, men’s wear tends to conceal the form of a man’s body. Clothes, even when tailored to fit, tend to be loose on the frame and generally don’t expose very much. Just look at how people dress at award shows and formal occasions – times when people put on the expensive designer clothes – and notice how women show off their legs and curves while men are encased in suits.

We already know the results of designers’ focus on women’s bodies; this has been thoroughly discussed by now. Complex body-image issues arise for women that can lead to anything from insecurity to eating disorders, all because of media-disseminated social standards of beauty. Concurrently, however, designers celebrate the female form by offering women a dizzying selection of clothes and accessories. Whether aligned with trends or choosing an iconoclastic route, women have tremendous freedom in using fashion to express themselves. Like anything else, fashion’s ability to be oppressive or liberating depends on how it’s used and who uses it. Of course, all this manifests itself, intentionally or not, within men’s attraction to women.
So what about men? On the surface, it would seem that men have it easy. Without that great fashion freedom there are no higher standards of appearance to adhere to. While women fuss with beauty salons and colour-coordinated accessories, it seems that men just need to put on a reasonably well-tailored suit, shave, and comb their hair to look good. But a question arises on the nature of women’s attraction to men: don’t women like to look at men’s bodies?

When you consider the number of strips clubs and overwhelming fashion focus on women, there’s no doubt that men love to look at women’s bodies. The reverse, however, is quite isn’t true in the same way. Despite the odd fireman’s calendar or Chippendale review (are those guys even still around?), women just don’t seem to get excited about men’s bodies. I realize, of course, that this is almost hopelessly generalized and not the most precise reasoning, but as a straight female friend pointed out, even she would prefer to see a naked woman running up a flight of stairs than a naked man. If there’s any merit to this, at least on a stereotypical level, it lies in the fact that beauty and fashion are often means of bonding among women; spa days, trips to the nail salon, etc. For (heterosexual) men, not so much. So how does this tie in to my little theory of fashion design?

Time to cut this short for the sake of manageable reading, but next week I’ll wrap things up with the point of all this blah-blah. After that, it’s back to the (un)usual assortment of fashion finds. Promise.

Friday, June 3, 2011

a few thoughts on the nature of fashion (part 1)

by frédérik sisa

The Fashionoclast’s motto is “Wear what you want,” which is both a call to formally subvert the conventional expectations of fashion and encouragement to find freedom in sartorial experimentation. It’s the recognition that whatever meaning fashion has is something that we ourselves impose on it, whether through culture, politics, religion, philosophy, or other means. At the least, it’s a call to let go of all the dressier-than-thou judgments from website’s like Yahoo’s OMG and so-called style experts ready to tell us what we should and shouldn’t wear. By rejecting trends, we reject their perpetuation of consumerism and put forth fashion as a means of individual self-expression. How we approach the blank canvas of fashion varies, of course, from the sensible utilitarian who picks clothes for comfort and general appeal to the fashionista who aspires to the coherent aesthetics and design intellect of style. That’s a not a judgment, by the way, merely a recognition of the fact that some people enjoy thinking about fashion – it’s design, manufacture, and wear – and others just want to find something nice to put on and not worry about it. The freedom to “wear what you want” includes the freedom to reject or otherwise ignore the highfalutin blah-blah.

In the spirit of one who enjoys a bit of highfalutin blah-blah now and again, and who certainly enjoys fashion as a design discipline, I’ve been thinking about the assumptions underlying Western fashion – those conventional expectations – particularly here in North America. What are the organizing principles in fashion that…

…result in so much attention paid to women and so little given to men?

…offer women nearly limitless options of colour, pattern, and form while men are generally confined to variations on the same forms and colour palettes?

Before getting to the answer, and with the awareness that I'm generalizing, it helps to survey the question and establish a pattern:

Shoes – The sheer number of shoes and sandals that make up women’s footwear is made all the more staggering by the amount of decorative variety, all designed to draw attention to women’s feet. By contrast, men’s footwear consist mostly of shoes, sneakers, loafers, and boots, with the very practical flip-flop, slide and fisherman’s sandals thrown in for warm weather.

Dresses – Varying hem lengths, cut-outs, slits, folds…only a very few designers, like Utilikilts, offer unbifurcated garments to men.

Pants – Varying lengths, fit, and cuts for both men and women, but women have more variety as a visit to any jean retailer will show.

Formalwear – Look at any awards ceremony, wedding, or other formal occasion and you’ll find men wearing suits and dress shoes. Women will wear anything from ball gowns to little black dresses that show off some leg, or a lot of leg, whichever the case may be.

If you go to, or step into any store, and compare the offerings for men and women, you’ll see what I mean. Lindsey’s regular Guy Day Friday feature over at Every Clog Has Its Day also thoughtfully illuminates fashion’s gender disparity, particularly in wooden-soled footwear.

So again, what is the common denominator, the organizing principle, underlying how fashion operates in our culture? What is the pattern beyond the obvious that fashion is geared towards women more than men? What are the critical assumptions at work? Tune in again next week for a look at a possible answer! (I’m trying to keep your reading short and manageable.) In the meantime, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below.