last week in my women’s studies class, we had a discussion about clothing and how the different ways that women dress can walk a fine line between confidence and desire for sexual attention. some students even went so far as to suggest, subtly, that women who dress provocatively are deserving of the stigma that surrounds the way they choose to dress themselves. i’ve been ruminating on this idea ever since, trying to make sense of what i believe are really reductive statements.
quick history lesson: in victorian england, everyone was enamored with the idea of physiognomy, or the notion that one could know a person’s inner morality just by observing their outward appearance. so if you were a pretty young woman, that meant that you were very moral and innocent; or if you had a large forehead, that meant that you were intelligent and passionate (or something equally ridiculous). then with the industrial revolution and the advent of cities, one had to be able to get a sense of the person walking next to them in the street in a split-second, because you didn’t have enough time to employ the “science” of physiognomy as you were passing them. so how did one get a sense of other people? by their clothing. if a man was dressed in the typical fashion of a middle-class gentleman, one could assume instantaneously that he was in fact a gentleman. this was how social mobility came to exist: by being able to look, and more specifically dress, the part of whoever you wanted to be.
i think this sentiment still exists today, especially for women. it’s so easy for women (and men, i suppose) to make value and character judgments on other women based on what they’re wearing. “her breasts are basically falling out of her top… she must be a slut. her skirt is so short that i have a detailed view of her reproductive organs… she just wants attention. she has a brand new fendi purse… she must be loaded.” these statements reduce women to a single dimension, to a caricature almost, and not based on anything other than the faux science of physiognomy. it’s a shame that women can’t dress to show off their bodies because they’re comfortable and happy with the way they look without being perceived as only trying to pique the male gaze and sexualize themselves; it’s a double-standard that men would never be forced to live by.
on a positive note, i think that clothing, and fashion in general, has that socially mobilizing effect today too. obviously, if you have something that’s expensive (or something that even just looks expensive) you will be perceived as a person of wealth. but even the variance of styles that one person can exhibit in the course of a week lends so much creativity and fluidity to embracing myriad aspects of oneself. that’s why i love VOGUE so much (and will defend it to the death against anyone who dares blaspheme its divinity): it’s not a trash magazine that focuses on celebrity gossip or diet fads or a wild sex life (coughCOSMOPOLITANcough), but a magazine that is truly dedicated to the art of fashion, to the movement and mobility of it, to the beauty of multi-dimensionality that can be expressed through clothing. have you ever seen a spread in VOGUE? the photography and production is gorgeous.
the same woman can be serious and sophisticated in an yves saint laurent blouse and briefs, and then be quirky and fun-loving in a rochas floral silk blouse and skirt. she can interact with two men without being objectified, and be beautiful and alluring whilst fully clothes. despite all of the ads that appear in VOGUE, i somehow never feel like a consumer; i never feel like i’m being sold the current standard of sexy or “beauty.” seeing images like these in VOGE makes me feel like i’m allowed to be all the things that i am, that i can move from one creative interpretive ensemble to the next and still maintain my essence and my beauty and my layers, as a woman and as an individual.
and sometimes i feel like VOGUE is a lone wolf in that respect, and that i’m a lone wolf in experiencing the response that i have to it.