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.


Anonymous said...

W-e-l-l ... NO ONE seems to want to comment. But I'll jump in, fool that I am.

I think that on at least one primary level, fashion is (in essence) about women attracting men--a kind of visual courtship, if you will.

Soooo, yes, I agree with you--it's about revelation or revealing, but ... more to the point, it's about seduction, enticement, appeal, attraction, and it's based in BIOLOGY, I think.

Mother Nature works in very mysterious ways. And Mother Nature (call it what you will) ENSURES that the species goes on. Does that make sense? It may seem like a stretch to some, but ... not to me: revealing = flirtation = enticement = choice = well, a mate (no matter how temporal).

There's just something primeval at the center of our beings. If there wasn't, I wouldn't be sitting here writing. It's. That. Simple.

Soooooo, if it's being bathed in mud, wearing nose rings, dancing, winking, walking seductively, or dressing in high heels, there's at least one common denominator: the malefemaleconnection, Mother Nature at her finest, the endless cycle of birth/life/death writ O so large--in ... prints, patterns, frills, glitter, hip-hugging jeans, or even beads woven into one's hair.

That almost HAS to be a part of the equation, right? If NO ONE cared AT ALL about how they looked, then seduction would take a serious stumble and the species would sputter and die.

That's my take, anyway.

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon. You're certainly right to point the role of attraction in fashion. However, the question remains: why is fashion focused on making women attractive?
Surely men have to be attractive to in order to make the connection work.

When we look at animal species, we mostly find that it's the male that has all the colours, bells, and whistles. Of course, humans are far more complex, but there are certain cultures (I'm thinking of a particular African tribe whose name escapes me at the moment) in which the men dress up and make the effort to prove themselves worthy of female attention.

Historically speaking, men's fashion used to be far more elaborate. If you look at fashion prior to the mid-19th century, men's clothes were full of patterns, ornaments, and details, all embedded in rather sophisticated tailoring. All that gradually dulled down.

So I agree with you that fashion is, at least in part, about seduction. I just wonder why it seems to be so one-sided.

Anonymous said...

Well, in the U.S., I'd say that men control the economy--or DID. Soooo, women, in order to secure a piece of the pie, say, have to attract men--hopefully, the right man. Hence, we see many women marrying NOT for love or passion, but for money.

In PERU, where I currently live, they even have a word for women trying to marry "up," that is, to marry a gringo--because they assume we all have money. I forget the word, unfortunately, but it relates to the concept of a bridge--a bridge to a better life. Soooooo, you see Peruvian women dating much older "white" males--all in a hope to escape their circumstances.

Sooo, I think that's the basis. Traditionally speaking, men make money. Women make babies. So there's a natural or even instinctual desire to "latch on" (poor choice of words, but you get the idea).

The way you do that is through fashion, seduction, etc.--clothes, hair, nails, makeup, what have you. Flirting, etc.

Men don't have to do that. They already have the money--which I think translates to security, food, shelter, etc.

Soooooo, maybe in light of shifting roles in the workplace, and women flying more planes, getting higher degrees, and being on the verge of becoming president, maybe what we will see or are seeing is a shift: women who don't need men, per se. And who exercise a ... new fashion esthetic in light of that fact.

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. You make a good point about economic factors. In societies where men have the money and women don't, the social pressure may very well be on women to attract a man, and the fashion industry thus orients itself to profit from that.

However, I have a few reservations. First, while men may not need to worry about how they look or dress because they have the money and power needed to guarantee stability and luxurious living, it strikes me as odd that they would spend money on cars, houses, and all that without indulging their own personal vanity. Surely these rich men wear fancy clothes and ca afford to purchase whatever designers make, or simply have clothes custom made?

Second, I can't speak for Peru but here in North America I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that men "control" the economy. While sexism is certainly still an influence, and women are still struggling with a legacy of relative social exclusion and modern efforts to reach parity with men, this influence is not the overt discrimination it once was. There are plenty of powerful women entrepreneurs and politicians, women with jobs and education, wealthy women, and so on; in many respects, women have the ability to achieve the same level of success as men. So I'm not sure to what extent we could generalize money as a root motivation for marriage, which leaves us with cultural rather than economic reasons for expectations in regards to fashion.

Still, as a general influence, I think you're right to look to economic factors as well as cultural ones. There's certainly a lot to explore in, as you point out, changing fashion aesthetics in light of redefined social roles.

Thanks again for your insight! Cheers!

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