Fashioning the Feminine

mcqueen_snarlFashion is not necessarily a matter of expressing one’s “identity,” nor is it merely about trends or a matter of business, products, branding and economics, although there are many instances when these issues are very much in evidence. To my mind, fashion is a supreme articulation of the feminine on the surface of the body itself.

It was Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) that first distinguished the association between fashion and the feminine, and that tied this relationship to modern culture. Baudelaire identifies a shift in fashion, from its role in revealing social distinctions predicated on class, to distinctions predicated on gender instead.  He sees fashion as synonymous with the feminine:

When he describes the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman, what poet would dare to distinguish between her and her apparel? Show me a man who […] has not enjoyed, in a wholly detached way, the sight of a beautifully composed attire, and has not carried away with him an image inseparable from the woman wearing it, thus making of the two, the woman and the dress, an indivisible whole.

In ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ Baudelaire uses the words fashion (mode) costume (costume) and dress (robe) to talk about a particular mode of dress that he describes as the historically specific aspect of beauty, and that renders beauty of a particular type, and in doing so makes it all together more human than it might otherwise be. He sees beauty, femininity and fashion as bound together, contingent upon one another, and at once a product of its time and a-historically classic. This association remains even today. Men’s fashion is a subset of fashion, with scarcely any of the significance and resonances of fashion itself, which is associated almost exclusively with women. Fashion is unique in this. Usually, where cultural forms (literature, art, film, music) are gendered, they tend to default to the masculine, with the feminine as a sub-set within the form; there is literature, and there is women’s writing, for instance. There are artists, and there are women artists. Fashion alone defaults to the feminine.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century fashionable dress was used as a marker of rank, with gender as only a subset within that. In particular, the Sumptuary Laws, vestimentary codes that were common across Europe until the Renaissance, dictated who could wear what fabrics, colours, and so on, so that social rank was clearly visually discernible. Besides being the period when Baudelaire wrote ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ this is also the point in history when what the psychoanalyst J.C. Flügel calls “the Great Masculine Renunciation” occurs, when rational men renounced their right to adornment and chose useful work as an alternative means of gaining and maintaining status. The social scientist Thorstein Veblen tells us too that the need of the new middle class to differentiate themselves from other social classes of the time led to the positioning of women as a vehicle for the vicarious display of her husband’s wealth, a display that was conducted through the physically restrictive and heavily ornamented fashion worn by women at the time. A shift occurred, then, when fashion became distinct from mere clothing in the mid-1800s, and this led to the association of fashion with the feminine. It is no coincidence either that haute couture as we understand it today has its roots in the work of the fashion designer, Charles Worth, who opened the first ever fashion house in 1858.

The feminine, of course, is associated with the body (and not the mind), the domestic (and not the public or professional), the superficial (and not the depth model) and so on and so forth. Despite the best efforts of feminism, women still, still, do not enjoy equality and even respect for difference is very often not on the table. Thus, if fashion is associated with the feminine, it is hardly surprising that it has historically been denigrated by politicians, church leaders, and others (usually men) in positions of influence and responsibility – the outcry that greeted Dior’s New Look in 1947 is just one example of many. One of fashion’s strengths, though, is that it offers femininity the opportunity to answer back. In her autobiographical account of her working class upbringing, ‘Landscape for a Good Woman,’ Carolyn Steadman talks about her mother dreaming wistfully, not of a New Look gown, but of the “full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth” that seemed to offer the possibility of a life away from the drudgery of women’s lives in the 1940s. The emancipatory power of “bifurcated garments” (trousers, in common parlance) has inspired the slyly derogatory euphemism “she wears the trousers,” that undermines the femininity of women who wear such garments at the same time as it acknowledges that clothing is never neutral. And while John Galliano is on record as saying he wants men to look at women wearing his creations and think “I have to fuck her,” Alexander McQueen, by contrast, set out to design garments that made men look at women and think “I wouldn’t dare.”

Fashion is not going to change the world. It is, however, inherently seditious, and can and does “subvert from within,” offering profound challenges to existing structures in the terms that are available to it. The point where fashion manifests most clearly the notion of the feminine, in all its forms, is also the point where fashion is at its most innovative, provocative, challenging, the moments that demonstrate its disruptive potential. Fashion, I believe, is a creative form, realised on the body, that articulates the feminine in innovative and unsettling ways, and this is why it has struggled to be taken seriously in a way that art, literature and film have not.


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