Even though the fashion industry has made dress oppressive one should not discard it completely, or at least only an appropriate occasions. Do we really all want to walk around looking exactly alike in dull green pajamas and peak caps?
By Kay Cole
One day last winter on a typically slushy day, I walked to my doctor's office and observed the sign on her door: "Please remove rubbers before entering."
Dutifully, I removed my red-rimmed rubber boots, left them on the mat outside the door, and entered, self-consciously, in my stocking feet. Immediately I was confronted with four or five other women in the waiting room who were not in my humbled condition. They all had their boots on. But all their boots were leather, good leather, the kind with two-to-five inch heels. Even the receptionist was wearing high leather boots. Evidently the sign was meant to apply only to those who were either male or gauche enough to actually wear leak-proof rubber boots in slushy weather. The sign did not even say "Remove boots before entering." No, only the material rubber was specified as being necessary to remove.
However, my feelings of humility were somewhat put into perspective a couple of weeks later when a gigantic slush storm decended on the city, coupled with a great thaw which turned the sidewalks into streams and rivers and the streets into lakes. Slushing home from work I watched with pure enjoyment and pleasure as those unfortunates (men included) who were not wearing high rubber boots like me, leapt precariously from one relatively dry spot to another, or resignedly walked through deep puddles with misery etched on their faces.
This is certainly not the only time I have been struck by the sheer impracticality of people's apparel. Seeing a highly fashion-conscious woman bravely stalking forward on four-inch heels always fills me with a strange combination of admiration at her prowess, and contempt at the utter silliness of it.
Dress — the way people cover and decorate their bodies — is, as I see it, a form of self-expression. Fashion is the way each person conforms to the manner of dress of his/her society or segment of society. Some people, perhaps leftists in particular, have confused the two. We have tended to see any attempts — particularly on the part of women — to be elegant, or feminine, or simply attractive, as surrenders to the world of sexist, objectifying fashion. Any undue or apparent attention to one's apparel is looked on with suspicion, and thoughts of “bourgeoisification” are never far from people's minds.
Fashion is not a recent phenomenon or one unique to western society. Throughout the ages and in all or nearly all cultures people, especially women, have been expected to conform to the modes of dress prevalent at the time. Usually it is the women who are expected to decorate and disfigure their bodies. But sometimes, though more rarely, and usually less inconveniently, it is the man. That this is in large part a sexual action, like birds in plumage, designed to attract people to each other — or to signal that the wearer is not available — seems fairly evident.
It can also be a lot of fun.
Men and women both have always enjoyed dressing up. Changing one's appearance for special occasions or just for the fun of it has always been an indulgence for men and women both, except for those for whom poverty precludes any frivolous activity extraneous to the immediate struggle for survival.
Unfortunately, sexist attitudes and the manner of women's dress have been inextricably linked. Women tottering precariously on bound feet, or on platforms or high-heeled shoes, are made to seem vulnerable and the men thus strong and protective. A waist made tiny by organ-mutilating corsettes gives a woman that breathless but dainty quality which is physically incapacitating, and is also attractive to the sexist man of certain cultures.
Fashions in the western world today are a little less of a physical burden, but much more of an economic one. Since fashion has been made the business of those with a profit motive, what used to be a sometimes oppressive but often enjoyable indulgence, has reached near the heights of absurdity. The speed at which hemlines rise and fall, at which skirts flare or straighten, or shoes become fat or skinny has became so predictable that each woman who wants to be “in” now takes for granted that each year she will have to buy a complete new wardrobe. Advertising introduces new “needs” and reinforces the belief that everybody who is anybody is improving their appearance and their relationships by buying these new products, "carefully researched" by "people who care".
To some, this may seem doubtful. How many women really slavishly follow the dictates of fashion to such an extent as that? To find out, all one really has to do is take a stroll downtown in any large city at lunchtime and observe. Also observe the number of stores and boutiques catering exclusively to the office crowds and obviously doing a good business. Also if one has a job in one of these offices in the big cities, one quickly realizes that it is not the "bourgeoisie" who buys all these expensive clothes, but frequently those who can afford them least, the clerk and typists and receptionists. Immigrant women factory workers certainly have neither the time or the money to indulge in the latest fashion trends, but most of then I'm sure would like to and their children certainly do.
In a great many offices, especially those of the large finance companies, dressing in the latest fashions goes along with the job and it's hard to get away with dressing simply and cheaply. Indeed, I've often thought that a good union demand for some offices that are unionized would be a clothing allowance so one doesn't have to spend one's hard-earned wages on clothes to come to work in. At the very least they should be tax deductable.
Beyond a doubt, the fashion industry has made what should be a pleasant and interesting activity, i.e., the art of self decoration, into a chore and a drag. It's no accident of semantics that we now refer to this chore as the "dictates of fashion". Men and women both are afraid not to conform to what the media say "everyone is wearing". They may not like the new styles, or more often than not, they probably don't suit them, but not to wear then would mean being "old fashioned" and "out of date". Women, naturally get picked on far more than men because their role as objects gives the male (and female) designers in the fashion industry endless angles to exploit. And of course fashion is only one aspect of "keeping up with the Jones", for which consumerism prepares people from childhood. In suburban middle class society, having a well-dressed wife is analogous to having a new model car. It's a mark of success, of having "made it", and its often essential to advancing in one's career.
But even though the fashion industry has made dress oppressive one should not discard it completely, or at least only an appropriate occasions. Do we really all want to walk around looking exactly alike in dull green pajamas and peak caps? Do we never want to draw attention to ourselves? Perhaps we should all wear brick and cement camouflage in order to blend in with our city surroundings. Islamic women in this sense have the right idea. They don't want to draw attention to themselves so they cover up with long black robes with one eye peeking out. In their society it is permissible for men to attack any woman not so smothered. (Judges, lawyers and police in rape cases world probably support this fashion in our own society.)
Unfortunately, in our sexist society, women justifiably do not want to be too obvious in a crowd, but they do at the same time want to be attractive and so they try to blend in, in an attractive way. Thus the desire to conform in dress style.
For styles of dress to become matters of freedom and choice rather than matters of social dictate and camouflage, society will have to change fundamentally. Women will have to be free of the fear of being potentially harassed or attacked by any passing man, and fashions in dress have to be torn from the web of profit and commodity production. Until women can exist freely in a non-sexist society, it will naturally be impossible for women to be free about expressing themselves sexually or otherwise through dress.
But that does not mean that women must do what Islamic women do and hide from men altogether.
The seeds of change have already been planted. Same women and men are already stepping out of their uniforms into their own creations. But in this, as in other cultural activities, we have a long way to go.
Dress, television, dance, movies, bingo nights, music, decoration, are all elements of popular culture, most of which (music and movies are the exceptions) are ignored politically by those who advocate liberation and which tend to be put down in the social microcosm of the left because of the inevitable bourgeois elements. Some of us boast that we "never watch television" thereby proving that we are on a higher level of consciousness and have no need of such passive forms of entertainment. We prefer to sit passively in endless meetings instead. Dance is restricted to jumps and hops accompanied by ear-jarring music, while the often more interesting folk and square dancing are disdainfully left to our parents. Most of us are embarrassed to open our mouths to sing, preferring to leave one of the most enjoyable of group activities to the "experts" on our records.
Presently the left - at least in North America - considers a woman (or a man) who dresses up as bourgeois or at least as curiously aberrant, allowing themselves to be objectified. The left woman, coming home from work and changing out of her office or factory uniform before joining her "comrades" must carefully choose her clothing if she feels in a particularly dressy or creative mood. Make-up is definitely out, even though it can be a lot of fun. Fancy blouses are OK if they are not too new and are accompanied by the inevitable blue jeans. Flouncy peasant skirts are becoming more acceptable as long as they look hand-made, and especially if they are made out of cast-off clothing or scraps. Necklaces are generally OK but iffy, and other jewelery, such as bracelets and broaches are darn right risque.
Even though women have been the more exploited sex in the world of fashion, men have been much more restricted in the variety of their dress: witness the suit. Lapels and tie may have gotten fatter or skinnier, but that is about as much leeway as is allowed in men's fashions. That stiff collars and neck ties are now virtually extinct everywhere but the business world and the classier restaurants must be a great relief to many men, but it is not enough. That they should still be restricted essentially to shirt and trousers (jeans) in a subdued variety of colours and texturres, means that there is still much room for improvement. When men can wear skirts in hot weather, things will really have gotten somewhere.
Reaction against aspects of the western fashion industry is natural for those who consider themselves "liberated", but too many altogether deny that dress plays any role in their lives at all beyond staying warm, keeping off the sun and staying legal. But there is no question that even the most blase of people do pay attention to what they wear and are conscious of how they appear however they may try to suppress this consciousness. Recently, my housemate and I were preparing to go to a party, when to his horror he discovered that the holes in his only pair of blue jeans had become big enough to be indecent. The only other possibility was a pair of dress slacks reserved exclusively for family obligations such as weddings and certainly not to be worn in the presence of real friends. Nonetheless he had no choice and was forced to walk into a room full of blue jeans to a suitable chorus of admiring wisecracks.
Jeans are a good example of how the dictates of fashion - in this case, the extremely fashionable fashion of pretending not to care about fashion at all - can lead to impoverished creativity and the suppression of common sense. They are not always the most comfortable apparel, especially when new, and they can often restrict movements if they are worn too tightly as they very frequently are (worn too tightly in men, they can also inhibit the production of sperm cells.) They are very bad in snowy conditions since they are not at all water resistant. They often shrink, disintegrate into rags quickly and on top of it all are quite expensive. Yet the are by far the most popular apparel worn today, especially by the young, the left and the self-consciously unfashionable, so popular as to be almost a uniform. One redeeming feature is that they are somewhat sexy and to this I would attribute their rise and stay in popularity.
Ideally, dress should be free speech. It should articulate what that person is into, how that person sees herself, today or generally. What fashion does is restrict that freedom of speech, mold everyone into the same acceptable pattern of dress.
Dress is a statement that can mean different things in different contexts. If a friend of mine, accustomed to wearing jeans and sandals walked in wearing high-heeled shoes and lipstick, I would be surprised and would wonder what had happened to her. My boss at work would probably say she now wants to grow up and "be a lady". I would probably say that she has either sold out or is mixed up or has gone around the bend.
Attractiveness isn't an absolute. What society today might find attractive, an earlier or later or different society may find downright ugly. The important thing about such things as make-up is the context in which it is placed. It isn't inherently bad or objectifying to wear makeup, but to women who are trying to free themselves from the sexist, objectifying nature of today's society, make-up has become a symbol of false femininity, and a woman wearing makeup today is making strong statements about her attitudes and position in society, consciously or not.
There are really only a very limited number of considerations which should be given to the choice of clothing. Clothes should be comfortable and should not restrict movements. They should be easy to take care of (though this restriction could be sacrificed in favour of a particular effect.) They should be economical (could also be occasionally sacrificed.) They should be flattering to the wearer. They should provide the wearer with suitable protection from the elements. And they should (in this society anyway) cover up strategic parts of the body, although the way this is done can often make the body sexier than stark nakedness anyway.
But in a society where one's choice of clothing is wrapped up in so many other considerations and causes, we have to decide how best to cope with the restrictions imposed by them. Giving the matter some thought would be a good way to start making our choices free and more sensible.