Grovelling apologies for the hiatus in posting, but I’ve been busy engaging in Extreme Awesomeness* (there’s a campaign to make it an Olympic sport by 2012). Today’s post is brought to you from the depths of my wardrobe, where I have been searching for Narnia and something to wear tonight down t’pub. The resultant tantrum – of the I WANT TO BURN ALL MY CLOTHES variety – got me thinking about the importance of clothing and dress in our self-presentation. Why do we wear what we wear, and, from a feminist/intellectual perspective, is it possible to justify a love of clothes, make-up and ‘dressing up’?
The observation that dress is a key component of our projected identity is hardly a new one. But before you call me Captain Obvious, what I’m thinking about in this post is not the general social implications of ‘clothing’ – the adoption of ritual costume, or uniform, or any other sartorial markers of distinct cultural identity. Instead, I’ve been considering the thought processes that I undergo while choosing clothes in an everyday context, and how this fits into notions of psychological, gendered and class-based identity. (Yeah, deep, huh? This is how I justify reading Elle instead of The Economist on the bus).
When I open the wardrobe door, I’m essentially selecting clothes based on a multitude of competing criteria. There are the overt ones – cleanliness, weather suitability, co-ordination, fit, etc. – but, beneath that, there are layers of subtle demands, some of which I place upon myself and some of which are socially imposed. A lot of these demands can be explained in terms of ‘fashion’, which inflicts upon women the paradoxical requirements to look ‘on trend’ and simultaneously ‘unique’. I had hoped to nail this by wearing a Prada shift embroidered with a representation of my own DNA, but apparently Lady Gaga is wearing that to Tesco next week. So, if you do choose to engage in the visual minefield that is ‘fashion’, you have to accept that to a certain extent, you are allowing your visual identity to be dictated to you. I’m certainly not a slavish follower of trends – I have, for example, been known to sport leggings after 2008 – but I do embrace an awareness of what is ‘in’ and ‘out’, and that has some impact on the way I dress. Incidentally, this leads to some interesting shenanigans in academia, normally a hotbed of corduroy and breakfast-stained cardigans. At a history conference in January, the fact that I wore a woollen tweed cape and a pair of plain black riding boots was enough to attract murmurs of ‘awesome outfit’ from other delegates (embarrassed murmurs, as many Serious Female Academics are loath to admit an interest in clothes for fear of not being taken seriously).
The acceptance of ‘fashion’ as a dominant discourse in moulding self-identity leads us (wimmin) into a kind of insidious competition with one another. Not, as you might assume, a competition to be ‘the most sexually attractive’ or even ‘most expensively dressed’, but rather a competition to see who can demonstrate the most insight into the complex web of allusion and ‘taste’ that mediates between fashion-discourse and the development of individual style. By allusion, I mean the series of coded visual references to other instances of dress. These range from the slightly crass, such as ‘ethnic’ beading and ‘tribal’ prints, denoting some kind of exotic life without actually stepping over the cultural boundary into other-ness; to the wilfully and smugly obscure (like the brief period c. 2006 in which my fashion inspiration was Admiral Nelson at a Discotheque). By taste, which is linked to allusion, I am referring to the kind of cultural hierarchies theorised by Pierre Bourdieu, in which (for example) silk is superior to viscose and Whistles is superior to Topshop, which is itself superior to New Look. Engaging with these hierarchies is an unconscious social game (another Bourdieu-ism), and games exist to be won.
If I go out in a wide-necked, blue/white striped cotton t-shirt, I am theoretically referencing ‘classic’ French style, 1960s nouvelle vague, Audrey Hepburn, and so on; linking myself to a series of icons and iconic themes that act as visual shorthand for a particular type of style and associated intellectual outlook. If I go out in a similar striped t-shirt, but tight-fitting, low-necked and made of polyester, I am undermining the power of those references with the enhanced sexuality of the garment, the relative ‘cheapness’ of the fabric, and so on. Granted, this is over-conceptualising, and I’m not saying that these thoughts pass through the mind of everyone who sees and notes what I’m wearing – I’m not that vain. I do think, however, that for many women (and, indeed, men), the way in which we select our clothes is strongly influenced by the unspoken rules of the game.
Is this shallow? In a sense, of course it is. Kingdoms will not stand or fall based upon the precise shade of pink shirt I team with my black jeans, and my recent acquisition of a kimono jacket has not, to date, solved world hunger. But, accepting that I live in a developed and prosperous society, where I have the leisure, the means and the opportunity to engage in the game of dressing, I’d like to make the case that the way we clothe ourselves carries significant cultural worth. For me, at least, getting dressed is a semiotic practice.
Is is unfeminist? That’s rather more difficult. The culture of sexualised display that is inherent in traditional notions of femininity certainly has a lot to answer for, from five-inch heels to Wonderbras (which, incidentally, I always like to pronounce Teutonically – VUNDERBRAH!). I don’t feel that I can get into a discussion of the relationship between clothing and heteronormative sexual attraction without sounding like a judgemental slut-shamer (which, I promise, I am not). Speaking from a personal perspective, I can say that the notion of attractiveness is one of the discourses shaping my own personal dressing, but it is by no means the only, or even the dominant one. And with that thought, I must leave you, in order to get dressed.
*Legal Disclaimer: this is a lie. I was visiting my mum. Though she is pretty awesome.