Thursday, 18 December 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Undressing Fashion: What It Says About Gender, Sex, and Power

Sunday, 20 October 2013 00:00 By Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout | Interview

Clothing mannequin(Image: Clothing mannequin via Shutterstock)"Fashion is symbolic, expressive, creative and coercive," write feminist scholars Marjorie Jolles and Shira Tarrant in the introduction to their 2012 book Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style. (SUNY Press) "It is a powerful way to convey politics, personalities and preferences for whom and how we love. Fashion encourages profound rebellion and defiant self-definition. Yet fashion can simultaneously repress freedom by introducing and disciplining the body and by encouraging a problematic consumer culture."

Not surprisingly, most feminists have an ambivalent relationship with fashion, on one hand wanting to assert a personal style while on the other bristling at standards that limit what is considered attractive or beautiful. This push-pull, say Jolles and Tarrant, illustrates why it is imperative that we analyze and decode the messages that fashion projects. That said, both authors stress that the use of style to signal membership in a particular group - be it the business world, a biker gang, hipsterdom or sex work - should be of interest to everyone, male and female, cis and trans, of all ages, races and social classes. Indeed, as Tarrant laughingly told Truthout, "We all get dressed in the morning."

And, of course, we do. Whether we wear hijab and abaya, five-inch heels and spandex, or baggy sweats and T-shirts, our fashion choices present a shorthand clue about who we are, a way for neighbors, colleagues and folks on the street to size us up. Indeed, what we're wearing is likely one of the first things we notice when we meet one another, which is why, Jolles and Tarrant argue, it is so important to think about. What's more, as both "a tool of agency and source of constraint," fashion tells us something about group dynamics and the human need for creative expression and conformity.

Jolles, a professor of women's and gender studies at Chicago's Roosevelt University, and Tarrant, a professor in the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach (and the author of Men and Feminism and When Sex Became Gender, among other texts) spoke to Truthout by telephone earlier this month.

TRUTHOUT: Feminists active in the late 1960s and 1970s are widely portrayed as having no interest in fashion, as if they considered it a repressive tool of patriarchy, meant to limit their autonomy and freedom. Is this accurate? Furthermore, does increasing interest in clothing and accessories in any way mirror the LGBTQ community's push for marriage rights, as if to say, 'See, we're not so different from you.'

JOLLES: There is really nothing to tell about the casting off of fashion. Fashion never went away in any moment of feminist activism, and I don't think feminists ever stopped caring about it. I challenge the narrative that says that women stopped caring about how they dressed and then started to care again a few decades later. Gloria Steinem had a signature style. Style has always made political statements.

I recently did a reading at a Chicago bookstore called Woman & Children First. One of the things that came up was the question of what feminist parents should do when their children crave highly gendered styles of fashion. Does letting a girl wear sparkles mean anything definitive? Do sparkles have to mean that a girl is oppressed and not clued into her own oppression? Are girls always more liberated if they wear overalls? The conversation was rich and exciting because people were talking about style and identity in ways that refused to fall into the either/or of frilly or girly clothes, signaling victimization, and jeans or cut-offs, indicating rebelliousness and freedom. The conversation offered some important challenges to that dichotomy. The question ultimately moved into what it means for a woman to be really strong and still opt to wear floral prints.

TARRANT: Certainly, renewed feminist interest in fashion can be read as an effort to say, 'See, we've assimilated. We blend.' At the same time, a great deal of cultural analysis falls into, 'It's my choice, my free will to dress as I want,' or 'You've been duped by the patriarchy.' The reality is that fashion is actually both of these things. That's the point of Fashion Talks. Freedom and constraints can and do exist simultaneously. We leave it to the reader to decide if a miniskirt is subjugation or self-expression. It's the same thing with the abaya. Fashion can be both liberating and confining.

TO: People pass judgment all the time, assuming that how a woman dresses invites rape or abuse. It also assumes that if a man wears saggy pants and angles his cap a certain way that he is up to no good. How can we topple these ingrained, but baseless, ideas?

JOLLES: Slut Walks have taken this on but there are bitter debates in academia and in popular culture and feminist media over whether they actually achieve anything. Some think that refusing to be shamed for dressing in a way that is generally considered provocative or alluring is powerful social commentary. Others think that the Walks do nothing to change the public perception of women who wear skimpy or revealing clothing. They're asking what it means when someone is called a slut. What values are encoded in the term? Is it enough to claim, 'I'm proud to be a slut?'

While this issue has not, and may never be, resolved, we know that major stuff happens in the process of styling the self. Those of us who know what it is like to be either invisible or highly visible cannot deny the impact of fashion and style. We have not yet figured out what it means to wear makeup, different types of clothing, or sensible or stylish shoes, but we know that it can't be as simple as, 'You're playing into the patriarchy' if you enjoy feminine things. This is an un-rigorous read. It's also not okay to just say, 'I want to wear it so it has to be OK, no matter what.'  

TARRANT: We are immersed in a culture that encourages judgments about women and women's bodies whether we're feminists or not. Take Miley Cyrus. What she wears or doesn't wear gets framed as a moral issue. Feminism asks us to look at issues as political, but as long as we keep with a moral framework, there will be judgment. That's our challenge as feminists, to keep the lens focused on the political implications and meanings of our assumptions and thoughts.

Tiana Parker, the 7-year-old Oklahoma girl who was thrown out of school in September for wearing her hair in braids, is a case in point. She was told that her fashion choice was so wrong that she could not even sit in the classroom with the rest of the kids. Even though her expulsion was reversed, you have to wonder what it taught her about identity and presentation of self.

When we talk about women's bodies, self-confidence and fashion choices, there is always a serious political component to the discussion. Self-confidence is political. If you are applying for a job, or are asked to speak in class, if you've been told you're not pretty enough, have bad hair or are stupid, it impacts your ability to take up space and then talk.

Slut Walks have tried to undo some of the stigma and shame foisted onto women's bodies. A wide array of people attended the first one in Los Angeles, and they wore a wide variety of outfits. Some were in fishnets and short-shorts, and others were in sweatpants and flip-flops. The media, predictably, replayed it with a focus on clothing that exposed the most skin. But what the Walk really did was question the stereotype of who gets raped. One woman was holding a sign that said, 'I didn't know that what I was wearing could suggest rape. I didn't know a onesie was slutty.' I hope it shook people into looking at their beliefs about rape and helped them understand that sexual violation is never about what a person is wearing. We can't repeat that enough.

TO: Some feminists have labeled your focus on fashion and style frivolous, especially in light of the ongoing 'war on women.' How do you answer them?

JOLLES: One of the central places where people are instructed to express themselves is in how they decorate their homes and bodies. Everyone has to participate. The choice to opt out is not available. Actually, opting out is a style.

Some people argue that what we wear has nothing to do with politics, that they can be feminists and wear short skirts, for example. But we have to remember that a short skirt is never meaningless. The wearer may mean 'My body is my own,' or 'I will make you reckon with me as a feminist wearing a short skirt.'

There is also typically a link between spike heels and whore-hating, linking disdain for heels with disdain for sex workers. We have to interrogate that just as we have to interrogate why we get out of our clothes and shoes as soon as we get home from work. It all has meaning. Life is not separated into hard politics or frivolous entertainment.

TARRANT: Yes, fashion can be seen as a luxury. It can even be considered a luxury to talk about it. Likewise, style can be perceived as trivial, but neither is unimportant. Of course there are many serious issues facing us: racist legislation, cutbacks on access to reproductive choice, resurgent sexism, cuts to education, voting restrictions, poverty. But I see fashion as an equally important feminist issue. When we talk about style, we ask where we get our messages about what outfits to buy. As feminists, we need to have conversations about consumption and production. Who is making this stuff? How are they being treated? We need to have critical conversations about marketing, advertising and the objectification of women. We can look at whether a woman going to a bar in a low-cut top and push-up bra so that guys will buy her drinks can be a feminist. How do we feel knowing that she takes pleasure in being seen as sexy? Is she making a real choice? This conversation introduces the subject of power and addresses what real power is. When people don't have real power or authority, they often resort to manipulation. Can we stop blaming the woman and calling her a slut? Can we instead ask what her behavior has to say about politics, power and sexuality?

What you wear does not necessarily lead to political change but our weight, our hair and our clothes can be a way into assessing political realities. When the conversation veers into, 'Isn't she asking for it when she goes out dressed like that?' we have an opportunity to redirect the conversation and look at who is not being held responsible: men. Why do so many men see women as existing only for their sexual gratification? What have men been taught about women and girls to lead them to this conclusion? We're not supposed to talk about men's complicity in sexism, just like we're not supposed to talk about white privilege when we talk about racism, but we have to.

We need to have the big conversations about gender, race, beauty, age, sexuality and style. After all, we present ourselves every single day.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Eleanor J. Bader

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She writes for RHRealityCheck.org, The Brooklyn Rail, Theasy.com and other progressive and feminist blogs and magazines.

Related Stories

Women and the Woolwich attack
By Mohammed Ilyas, SpeakOut | Op-Ed
Feminism Marches On
By Ted Rall, Universal Uclick | Political Cartoon
Women Are Bearing the Brunt of Shutdown Fallout
By Andrea Flynn and Nataya Friedan, Next New Deal | Report

Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus
GET DAILY TRUTHOUT UPDATES

FOLLOW togtorsstottofb


Undressing Fashion: What It Says About Gender, Sex, and Power

Sunday, 20 October 2013 00:00 By Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout | Interview

Clothing mannequin(Image: Clothing mannequin via Shutterstock)"Fashion is symbolic, expressive, creative and coercive," write feminist scholars Marjorie Jolles and Shira Tarrant in the introduction to their 2012 book Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style. (SUNY Press) "It is a powerful way to convey politics, personalities and preferences for whom and how we love. Fashion encourages profound rebellion and defiant self-definition. Yet fashion can simultaneously repress freedom by introducing and disciplining the body and by encouraging a problematic consumer culture."

Not surprisingly, most feminists have an ambivalent relationship with fashion, on one hand wanting to assert a personal style while on the other bristling at standards that limit what is considered attractive or beautiful. This push-pull, say Jolles and Tarrant, illustrates why it is imperative that we analyze and decode the messages that fashion projects. That said, both authors stress that the use of style to signal membership in a particular group - be it the business world, a biker gang, hipsterdom or sex work - should be of interest to everyone, male and female, cis and trans, of all ages, races and social classes. Indeed, as Tarrant laughingly told Truthout, "We all get dressed in the morning."

And, of course, we do. Whether we wear hijab and abaya, five-inch heels and spandex, or baggy sweats and T-shirts, our fashion choices present a shorthand clue about who we are, a way for neighbors, colleagues and folks on the street to size us up. Indeed, what we're wearing is likely one of the first things we notice when we meet one another, which is why, Jolles and Tarrant argue, it is so important to think about. What's more, as both "a tool of agency and source of constraint," fashion tells us something about group dynamics and the human need for creative expression and conformity.

Jolles, a professor of women's and gender studies at Chicago's Roosevelt University, and Tarrant, a professor in the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach (and the author of Men and Feminism and When Sex Became Gender, among other texts) spoke to Truthout by telephone earlier this month.

TRUTHOUT: Feminists active in the late 1960s and 1970s are widely portrayed as having no interest in fashion, as if they considered it a repressive tool of patriarchy, meant to limit their autonomy and freedom. Is this accurate? Furthermore, does increasing interest in clothing and accessories in any way mirror the LGBTQ community's push for marriage rights, as if to say, 'See, we're not so different from you.'

JOLLES: There is really nothing to tell about the casting off of fashion. Fashion never went away in any moment of feminist activism, and I don't think feminists ever stopped caring about it. I challenge the narrative that says that women stopped caring about how they dressed and then started to care again a few decades later. Gloria Steinem had a signature style. Style has always made political statements.

I recently did a reading at a Chicago bookstore called Woman & Children First. One of the things that came up was the question of what feminist parents should do when their children crave highly gendered styles of fashion. Does letting a girl wear sparkles mean anything definitive? Do sparkles have to mean that a girl is oppressed and not clued into her own oppression? Are girls always more liberated if they wear overalls? The conversation was rich and exciting because people were talking about style and identity in ways that refused to fall into the either/or of frilly or girly clothes, signaling victimization, and jeans or cut-offs, indicating rebelliousness and freedom. The conversation offered some important challenges to that dichotomy. The question ultimately moved into what it means for a woman to be really strong and still opt to wear floral prints.

TARRANT: Certainly, renewed feminist interest in fashion can be read as an effort to say, 'See, we've assimilated. We blend.' At the same time, a great deal of cultural analysis falls into, 'It's my choice, my free will to dress as I want,' or 'You've been duped by the patriarchy.' The reality is that fashion is actually both of these things. That's the point of Fashion Talks. Freedom and constraints can and do exist simultaneously. We leave it to the reader to decide if a miniskirt is subjugation or self-expression. It's the same thing with the abaya. Fashion can be both liberating and confining.

TO: People pass judgment all the time, assuming that how a woman dresses invites rape or abuse. It also assumes that if a man wears saggy pants and angles his cap a certain way that he is up to no good. How can we topple these ingrained, but baseless, ideas?

JOLLES: Slut Walks have taken this on but there are bitter debates in academia and in popular culture and feminist media over whether they actually achieve anything. Some think that refusing to be shamed for dressing in a way that is generally considered provocative or alluring is powerful social commentary. Others think that the Walks do nothing to change the public perception of women who wear skimpy or revealing clothing. They're asking what it means when someone is called a slut. What values are encoded in the term? Is it enough to claim, 'I'm proud to be a slut?'

While this issue has not, and may never be, resolved, we know that major stuff happens in the process of styling the self. Those of us who know what it is like to be either invisible or highly visible cannot deny the impact of fashion and style. We have not yet figured out what it means to wear makeup, different types of clothing, or sensible or stylish shoes, but we know that it can't be as simple as, 'You're playing into the patriarchy' if you enjoy feminine things. This is an un-rigorous read. It's also not okay to just say, 'I want to wear it so it has to be OK, no matter what.'  

TARRANT: We are immersed in a culture that encourages judgments about women and women's bodies whether we're feminists or not. Take Miley Cyrus. What she wears or doesn't wear gets framed as a moral issue. Feminism asks us to look at issues as political, but as long as we keep with a moral framework, there will be judgment. That's our challenge as feminists, to keep the lens focused on the political implications and meanings of our assumptions and thoughts.

Tiana Parker, the 7-year-old Oklahoma girl who was thrown out of school in September for wearing her hair in braids, is a case in point. She was told that her fashion choice was so wrong that she could not even sit in the classroom with the rest of the kids. Even though her expulsion was reversed, you have to wonder what it taught her about identity and presentation of self.

When we talk about women's bodies, self-confidence and fashion choices, there is always a serious political component to the discussion. Self-confidence is political. If you are applying for a job, or are asked to speak in class, if you've been told you're not pretty enough, have bad hair or are stupid, it impacts your ability to take up space and then talk.

Slut Walks have tried to undo some of the stigma and shame foisted onto women's bodies. A wide array of people attended the first one in Los Angeles, and they wore a wide variety of outfits. Some were in fishnets and short-shorts, and others were in sweatpants and flip-flops. The media, predictably, replayed it with a focus on clothing that exposed the most skin. But what the Walk really did was question the stereotype of who gets raped. One woman was holding a sign that said, 'I didn't know that what I was wearing could suggest rape. I didn't know a onesie was slutty.' I hope it shook people into looking at their beliefs about rape and helped them understand that sexual violation is never about what a person is wearing. We can't repeat that enough.

TO: Some feminists have labeled your focus on fashion and style frivolous, especially in light of the ongoing 'war on women.' How do you answer them?

JOLLES: One of the central places where people are instructed to express themselves is in how they decorate their homes and bodies. Everyone has to participate. The choice to opt out is not available. Actually, opting out is a style.

Some people argue that what we wear has nothing to do with politics, that they can be feminists and wear short skirts, for example. But we have to remember that a short skirt is never meaningless. The wearer may mean 'My body is my own,' or 'I will make you reckon with me as a feminist wearing a short skirt.'

There is also typically a link between spike heels and whore-hating, linking disdain for heels with disdain for sex workers. We have to interrogate that just as we have to interrogate why we get out of our clothes and shoes as soon as we get home from work. It all has meaning. Life is not separated into hard politics or frivolous entertainment.

TARRANT: Yes, fashion can be seen as a luxury. It can even be considered a luxury to talk about it. Likewise, style can be perceived as trivial, but neither is unimportant. Of course there are many serious issues facing us: racist legislation, cutbacks on access to reproductive choice, resurgent sexism, cuts to education, voting restrictions, poverty. But I see fashion as an equally important feminist issue. When we talk about style, we ask where we get our messages about what outfits to buy. As feminists, we need to have conversations about consumption and production. Who is making this stuff? How are they being treated? We need to have critical conversations about marketing, advertising and the objectification of women. We can look at whether a woman going to a bar in a low-cut top and push-up bra so that guys will buy her drinks can be a feminist. How do we feel knowing that she takes pleasure in being seen as sexy? Is she making a real choice? This conversation introduces the subject of power and addresses what real power is. When people don't have real power or authority, they often resort to manipulation. Can we stop blaming the woman and calling her a slut? Can we instead ask what her behavior has to say about politics, power and sexuality?

What you wear does not necessarily lead to political change but our weight, our hair and our clothes can be a way into assessing political realities. When the conversation veers into, 'Isn't she asking for it when she goes out dressed like that?' we have an opportunity to redirect the conversation and look at who is not being held responsible: men. Why do so many men see women as existing only for their sexual gratification? What have men been taught about women and girls to lead them to this conclusion? We're not supposed to talk about men's complicity in sexism, just like we're not supposed to talk about white privilege when we talk about racism, but we have to.

We need to have the big conversations about gender, race, beauty, age, sexuality and style. After all, we present ourselves every single day.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Eleanor J. Bader

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She writes for RHRealityCheck.org, The Brooklyn Rail, Theasy.com and other progressive and feminist blogs and magazines.

Related Stories

Women and the Woolwich attack
By Mohammed Ilyas, SpeakOut | Op-Ed
Feminism Marches On
By Ted Rall, Universal Uclick | Political Cartoon
Women Are Bearing the Brunt of Shutdown Fallout
By Andrea Flynn and Nataya Friedan, Next New Deal | Report

Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus