Monday, July 2, 2007

The Fashion Tightrope

People who know me are well aware of my obsession with fashion. Although I believe I can appreciate every piece of clothing’s special artistry, from graphic tee-shirts to cocktail dresses, I read Vogue magazine with special interest, hoping as I flip the pages of couture that I will be afford to purchase one of those amazing pieces. I’m not an indiscriminate follower of fashion—I of course find certain trends ridiculous and for example, have never been comfortable with low-slung pants or the need to show one’s thong to others. But I try to keep with the times and think I manage to blend the best of my taste with the current.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing more to note about this interest of mine. So many women share it that it’s hardly remarkable. But a conversation that comes up repeatedly between a friend of mine and me deserves analysis. We’ve titled it the Tension of Fashion. It’s the strain between what we should wear in any given situation and what we really want to wear as individuals. This question has nothing to do with sexuality. We’re both fairly conservative in terms of dress; add to that the fact that we’re both thin and you see that sex appeal is something that’s in the eye of the beholder. The conversation has more to do with what appears appropriate to everyday folk and what appeals to our so-called heightened sensibilities.

I have a black spaghetti-strap dress in a post-modern shape—it curves out on both sides like a tulip and finishes with a series of pleats that fan out from the chest. When I purchased it, I imagined finding a decorated headband (the kind that goes across the forehead) and adding elbow-length gloves to finish the look. It is not a sexy dress. It is a fashion dress out of synch with regular life—even at a party. My mother thought it dreadful, and my brother took one look at it and asked what I had been thinking when I bought it. It garners no attention from men. But I like it tremendously. So does my friend who keeps up with fashion.

I also have a black halter dress, low cut with an open back, which I wore to an important fund-raising dinner. It’s a sexy dress; though nobody besides me noticed, my black bra showed through its open neckline. It’s not unusual in any sense. Of course I like it, but I know its function. And so when I wear it, I bring nothing to the table except a pair of modest heels and a little red lipstick. Anything else would look out of place. But at this dinner, I got ample compliments on the dress by both men and women. The speaker of the event even made a very subtle pass at me (so subtle that I didn't catch it until someone else pointed it out).

Clothing and fashion, whether “high” or “low,” plays an important role in our lives for better or worse. It sets a first impression. It affects how others judge us. A well-put together person is associated with a well-put together life. So it is inevitable that clothing also gives people an unfair first impression. A girl’s outfit is still blamed by society as an invitation for sex—indeed, who hasn’t heard of the “too sexy” outfit’s responsibility in violence against women? One rape survivor I knew could not wear spaghetti straps for years after the incident.

This is an extreme example, of course. The conundrum I speak of is not determining the rules of modesty, but of balancing individuality and accepted social norms. Every day, women (and men, too, of course) make choices about the clothes they wear. Do women feel compelled to dress a certain way at work because they feel they must to be taken seriously? More often than not, the decisions made are based on others’ perceptions of what is appropriate. Patients prefer physicians not to wear high heels or long earrings. So how would it look, for example, if a physician wore an up-to-the-minute knee-length bubble skirt to work? How appropriate is it for an attorney to wear skinny trousers and a long tailored jacket in the office? Are high-waisted slacks worn with suspenders appropriate in a boardroom? If modesty is the only relevant issue, and this base is covered, than why is it that following fashion continues to be considered a frivolous interest, though it plays such an enormous role in our day-to-day lives? Is it because of the emphasis on women in the industry?

Virginia Woolf once remarked that when a novel addresses war themes, for example, it is immediately deemed an important book. But if a book is to center on topics of interest to women, and here she mentions fashion as an example, it is disregarded and passed over for longevity. Come forward about a hundred years and things haven’t really changed.
No one has actually made a connection between the quality of service administered and the fashion consciousness of a particular professional. That said, to judge someone’s commitment to their work or their intelligence simply based on the fact that they like interesting clothing is unfair and reeks a bit of misogyny. Great clothes—and I don’t just mean designer-made pieces, but anything that is well designed and original—require us to bring more of ourselves to the table creatively. They ask us to think outside the typical boundaries of life and break with routine—all those things that business consultants are constantly asking for in the corporate setting. This is no different. So walking the fashion tightrope is just another expression of one’s self and asks for the best from us daily. And anything that asks us for our best is a worthwhile endeavor.


YiQi C. said...

Tension of Fashion. It’s the strain between what we should wear in any given situation and what we really want to wear as individuals.

than why is it that following fashion continues to be considered a frivolous interest, though it plays such an enormous role in our day-to-day lives?

Fashion as something other than "clothes," that which human beings of certain cultures must wear in order to abide by social norms, is all about money. Beyond the issue of what is appropriate for a situation (wedding, funeral, high school, fancy restaurant, a bowling alley), some individuals find themselves dependent upon the publishing and film industry to tell them what they should wear to look cool.

For other folks, clothes is an means of self-expression. A person's self-presentation consists primarily of clothes. Though it's better not to assume the person under the clothes subscribes to the beliefs and "lifestyle" associated with what they've got on, it frequently can't be helped. Hence, the rapist that will blame the victim for dressing like a whore or too provocatively.

On a somewhat related note, I think I've got an explanation for why men can re-shape their bodies so quickly, in other words, why they lose weight more easily than women. If it's the male of the species in the animal kingdom that has the bright colors for feathers or scales and the big manes, it's because they have to attract the females (based on looks and perhaps nest-building abilities). Thus, human males would naturally be the ones to have the physiological advantage of re-designing their bodies in order to be more desirable. What complicates it, though, is that different people like different kinds of body shapes and sizes.

Of course (heterosexual) women (and perhaps homosexual men) probably spend more money on keeping up appearances than heterosexual men, but within the last thirty years, men have slowly but surely become conscious of their looks to the point of buying creams and virtually developing anorexia athletica.

Ishtar said...

I love how you ended the post. I agree completely, of course : )

Sometimes, the tension is good-- b/c it prevents me from wearing such atrocities as the synthetic kimono dress.

Ensembling is also important. A dress or pair of pants that may look iffy on their own look good when paired with the right blouses & accessories.

From my experience, adapting trends established and well respected-- emulating Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, the mod era-- are a good place to start.

YiQi C. said...

Emulating classic Hollywood actresses and the mod look are good--when none of the department stores and chain retail shops are shoving the look down ya throat.

I've found shopping for clothes in the the last three years to be very tedious. Most of the patterns turn me off and the fabrics even more so. My default stores are uninspired or can't quite convince me to invest. But i have purchased a few pairs of pants & many tops in the last three years--all by chance and serve practical purposes.

Eg. chinos.