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 HauteLook.com, 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.

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