Runway Recap: Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love

How do you make men look sexy?

This week’s Project Runway challenge: Make performance wear for the Thunder From Down Under male stripper group. It was a difficult challenge for a lot of reasons: making men’s wear is always hard on designers who mostly make women’s wear, what with the different body shapes and all. Add to that the fact that they had to make, not just men’s wear, but men’s wear that was both stretchy enough and durable enough for vigorous stage performance… while still having enough structure to not look like pajamas. Add to that the fact that the outfits weren’t just dance wear, but stripper wear, and they had to tear away easily and completely at a moment’s notice. Add to that the fact that the men they were making clothes for had giant muscled beefcake bodies, with huge chests and arms: bodies that were far from ordinary, and that are unusually hard to fit.

But then, in addition to all that, add this challenge:

How do you make men look sexy?

Specifically, how do you make men look sexy in a heterosexual context? (As far as I’m aware, Thunder From Down Under aim their performances primarily at women.)

In a sexual culture where women are assumed to be the objects of desire and men are assumed to be the subjects, where women are expected to be looked at and men are expected to do the looking, it’s very difficult to make men look blatantly sexy. In a heterosexual context, anyway. It’s one of the main reasons that men’s wear is so often such a snoozefest. The very act of trying to look sexy, the very act of trying to make one’s body and one’s self look sexually desirable, is seen as a feminine act. (Or a gay act. More on that in a sec.) It’s a weird double bind/ balancing act: straight men are supposed to look good, or not look like slobs anyway, but they’re not supposed to look like they’re trying, or like they care.

There are, as I said in my original piece on men’s wear, some exceptions to this: the historical costuming community, the kink community, some others. And gay men have largely untied this knot and re-woven it into a sexual culture where everyone gets to be both gazer and gazee, mutual objects and subjects, in turn or simultaneously. (A somewhat problematic sexual culture, if my gay male friends are to be believed, in which a high premium is often placed on fitting into one of a handful of ideals of male sexuality and attractiveness, many of which are hyper-masculine in their own way — but still, one in which men can openly express their sexuality and their desire to be desirable, without it being seen as undercutting their masculinity.)

But the very fact that gay male culture has embraced the conscious display of male sexuality and created a space for it makes it harder for men to do in a heterosexual context. Given the homophobia of our culture, anyway. Looking sexy and trying to make your body look sexually desirable is seen as something that either women do or that gay men do — and since our culture is both so sexist and so homophobic, straight men are strongly discouraged from doing anything that would make them seem gay, or feminine, or both. I find it very telling that the usual route for male strippers in a heterosexual context is to go hyper-masculine: super beefcakey, huge muscled chests, huge muscled biceps, often in costumes that represent iconically male roles, from construction workers to cowboys to suits and ties. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this hyper-masculinity is done to offset the automatic feminization that comes in our culture with sexual display. (Not consciously, I don’t think, but still.)

So of all the challenges this season, this should absolutely not have been a one-day challenge. The designers had to make clothing for unfamiliar bodies — unfamiliar because of gender, and unfamiliar because of huge muscled beefcake-ness. They had to make said clothing work as stretchy and durable stagewear. They had to make said clothing with a design spec that they almost certainly had never dealt with before — namely, making the clothes tear away in a second. And apart from all these technical challenges, they had to face a serious conceptual challenge: making men look conventionally sexy in a conventionally heterosexual context, displaying their sexuality without undercutting their masculinity, maintaining their masculinity without being a bore.

In this, of all challenges, the designers should have had an extra day. Nobody — not the judges, not the producers, nobody — should have been surprised that this week was such a universally miserable and laughable fail-fest.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 8 Daniel and Patricia
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Runway Recap: Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love

Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By "Prom Dress"?

There’s this basic problem with certain design challenges: on Project Runway, and in life.

The problem is when people don’t give you clear specifications for what they want — and then judge you for not having accomplished it.

This week’s PR challenge (okay, last week’s, I was on a speaking tour last week and only watched last week’s episode last night): Design a prom dress out of duct tape. This challenge wasn’t invented out of the fevered imaginations of the Project Runway producers: it’s riffing off of an existing phenomenon. Do a Google image search on “duct tape prom dress.” You’ll find zillions of them. This is a thing.

So okay. Make a prom dress out of duct tape. Straightforward enough. Except when you get to the question: What do you mean by “prom dress”?

If you do a Google Image search of “prom dress” — minus the “duct tape,” or indeed with it — you’ll find a ridiculous variety of styles. You’ll find dresses inspired (apparently) by storybook princesses, and movie stars on red carpets, and music video vixens, and beauty pageants, and saloon girls, and national costumes, and va-va-voom screen sirens, and science fiction/fantasy, and Elizabethan costume, and Victoria’s Secret. You’ll see huge billowing Cinderella ball gowns and slinky strappy things with leg slits up to here; fluffy little cocktail dresses and short tight shiny numbers that look like the Kardashians on a bad night. It varies by region, by class, by (I’m guessing) trends within a particular school, by the imagination or lack thereof of the girls wearing the dresses. Pretty much, the only common theme among them all is “fantasy life of teenage girls.”

So when you’re a designer, and the concept you’re given is “prom dress made out of duct tape,” you don’t actually have much to go on. All you really have is “festive, special-event dress for someone around age 18.”

So it’s kind of ridiculous for the PR judges to scold designers for creating a look that isn’t “prom.” Scold them for ugly; scold them for poorly-fitting; scold them for deranged; scold them for boring. But don’t scold them for not being prom. There is no template, no iconic ur-prom-dress. You have an idea in your head of what a prom dress should look like? Good for you. So do millions of teenage girls around the country. For once, you’re not the expert here. I don’t care if you’re a renowned high-fashion designer or fashion editor. You’re not the expert.

So. On to the designs.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Amanda and Michelle 1
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Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By "Prom Dress"?

Runway Recap: Aging Out

So since last week’s Runway Recap was all about one of my most loaded, most complicated, most compelling fashion topics — namely, fashion and size — I suppose it’s only fair that this week’s should hit one of my other gigantic hot buttons:

Fashion and age.

For this season’s “real woman” challenge (serious air-quotes, I hate hate hate that phrase), Project Runway did something they’ve never done, and it’s about high fucking time they did: They asked the designers to design for old women. Each client had a different design request — one wanted something comfortable, one wanted something festive and celebratory, one wanted something dressy she could wear on cruises, etc. But for all of the designers, the basic challenge was the same: Make something for your client that’s beautiful and exciting and fashion-forward… and also age-appropriate.

Which is really fucking hard.

I’ve written before about how hard it is to say “sexy older woman” in the metaphorical language of fashion… not because the words and grammar aren’t there, but because our culture considers the very concept of “sexy woman over fifty” to be nonsense. I’ve written before about the whole question of what it even means to be “age appropriate” in the first place, and whether the very notion is ageist and oppressive, or whether it’s a way to express love and respect for your age, or whether it’s some of both. And as a fifty-one year old woman who cares deeply about fashion and sex and feminism and ageism… this is not an abstract point for me. This is a paradox I live every day of my life in. It sometimes drives me up a tree that I started getting seriously interested in fashion in my late forties, right when fashion was losing interest in me. (Of course, as someone who was fat for much of her adult life, fashion has never been all that interested in me… so there’s that.)

And since “age and fashion” is so loaded, not just because of how fashion is designed, but because of how fashion is criticized, I want to spend more time than usual this week talking, not just about the designs, but about the judging.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 6 Stanley
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Runway Recap: Aging Out

Runway Recap: Sizing It Up

If you’re going to design clothes for a bigger woman, you need to use a bigger dress form. And you need to showcase them on bigger models. Period.

I mostly liked this episode. I think the “teams” concept is working out well, way the hell better than I’d expected. I was worried that when the designers got split into two-person teams, the co-operative love-fest would wither on the vine; but they mostly seem to be getting along and working well together, and it’s paying off — both in the quality of their designs, and in how much fun the show is to watch. The “performance outfit + red carpet look for Miranda Lambert” challenge was a bit limited in terms of creativity — any time you’re designing clothes for one particular person, you’re working in a pretty narrow window, especially when that one person’s aesthetic isn’t all that creative or interesting — but it is the kind of challenge that designers have to face in the real world, and it’s always interesting to see how the PR contestants work their personal visions into someone else’s style. (Or laughably fail to do so.)

So I was trying to put my finger on what it was that was bugging me about this episode… when I read this comment from Qitkat, one of Tom and Lorenzo’s Bitter Kittens commentariat, in a discussion of how the challenge would have worked better if Lambert had done an in-the-workroom consult during the design process:

A consult, absolutely. When a challenge has been *make a dress for Heidi or Nina*, they have always come into the workroom. SJP came to the workroom for a consult for her line; I’m positive there have been other consults. At the least, a video conference.

Along with models who more resembled Miranda’s size.

Emphasis mine.

Along with models who more resembled Miranda’s size.

miranda lambert project runway
Miranda Lambert is a pretty average-sized woman, from what I can tell. Probably smaller than average. But she’s not an average-sized celebrity woman. She’s bigger and curvier than most high-profile actresses/ singers/ models/ celebutantes. And when the designers were given this challenge, they were specifically told that Lambert loves her curves, and embraces them. (The look she had on the PR judging panel was doing her no favors, IMO: but in general, she’s a nice-looking woman who seems to love her body as it is, and seems to have fun with it.)

So why the hell were the designers designing for the same damn rail-thin model size they always do?

Speaking as someone who has been many different sizes over the course of her life — hell, someone who’s been many different sizes in the last few years: You cannot — repeat, CANNOT — just design an outfit for a Size 0, and expect it to work on a bigger woman simply by expanding it in all directions. Different cuts and styles look good on different-sized bodies. What looks good on a size 18 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 12; what looks good on a size 12 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 6; what looks good on a size 6 isn’t generally what looks good on a size 0. And you can’t always tell which is which just by picking up a dress and looking at it. At various sizes in my life, there’s been many a time when I’ve picked something off the rack that I thought would be a disaster but that caught my eye as being worth a shot; tried it on; and fell head over heels in love. And of course, the opposite is true: there’s been many a time when I’ve picked something off the rack that I was sure would be hot shit, tried it on, and couldn’t shudder out of it fast enough.

(This principle doesn’t just apply to weight, by the way. Different clothes look good on people of different heights, different body structures, different skin colors, different hair colors, different ages, etc.)

So if you’re designing an outfit for Miranda Lambert, you really need to think about questions like, “What would look good on Miranda Lambert?” Not just, “What is Miranda Lambert’s general sense of style?”: that should be your starting point, of course, but you also need to ask, “What will make Miranda Lambert’s curves look popping and voluptuous and hot, and what will make them look boxy, or cheap, or just out of proportion?” And you bloody well need to showcase it on a model who looks at least vaguely like Miranda Lambert.

So given that we had to look at outfits made for a curvy, voluptuous woman, showcased on standard rail-thin models… how did the designers do with this concept?

Project Runway Episode 11 Season 5 Richard 1

Project Runway Episode 11 Season 5 Richard 2
Continue reading “Runway Recap: Sizing It Up”

Runway Recap: Sizing It Up

Runway Recap: What a Difference a Day Makes

Damn. Day-um. This season of Project Runway is like a rollercoaster. Last week’s episode had me kvetching about how it was a perfect example of everything that’s gone wrong with the show. This week’s episode was a perfect example of everything I love about the show: what makes it fun, what makes it compelling, what keeps me coming back week after week, hoping for its glory days to return. I’d thought that the “unconventional materials” challenges were a bit played out at this point… but the looks this week were fun, imaginative, well-crafted, exuberant, and in many cases surprisingly elegant considering they were made from flowers and hardware. There were a few mis-steps, but on the whole, I am totally with the judges on this one: This was the best overall runway show they’ve had in a long time. And that includes finales/ final collections.

What made the difference?

The extra day.

The designers had two days to complete their looks, not just one. They had time to fix problems; to re-think ideas; to start over if their first ideas didn’t pan out; to sleep on it and come back fresh; to lend each other a hand. Since this was a team challenge, they had time to consult on a coherent concept for their collections, which helped all the designs look stronger. (For the team that actually came up with a coherent concept, anyway, as opposed to the team that faked one after the fact.) And very importantly, they had time to execute more ambitious visions. With a one-day challenge, pretty much all you have time for is a pretty sheath dress or a pretty gown. With two days, you have time to go big — and to fix it, or start again, if your big idea doesn’t pan out.

So memo to PR producers: More two-day challenges, please! Your core audience is not that interested in hysterical drama. Your core audience is bored to pieces with slight variations on sheath dresses. Your core audience wants to see beautiful innovative fashion, and wants to watch the process that goes into creating it. More, please. kthxbye

Now, to the designs!

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 4 Samantha
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Runway Recap: What a Difference a Day Makes

Runway Recap: Pretty Dresses for Heidi, and the Cash Machine

“Make a pretty dress for Heidi that she’ll use to plug her latest project.”

The main reason I didn’t do this Runway Recap until now is that I’ve been on a fairly intense and exhausting speaking tour, and just got back last night. But the other reason I didn’t do this Runway Recap until now is that this last episode (a) was so fucking boring I wanted to pull my hair out, one hair at a time, just to keep myself awake, and (b) was a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with the show.

It’s not like the first few seasons of Project Runway were a shining example of incorruptible artistic integrity. Of course it was a commercial enterprise. It was a reality competition program on cable TV: like, duh. Being disappointed and disillusioned that the producers were in it to make money would have been like being disappointed and disillusioned that Goldman Sachs were in it to make money.

But since the show jumped from Bravo to Lifetime, the balance between “commercial enterprise” and “smart and imaginative exploration of the world of fashion design, from people who genuinely care about it” has tilted way, way over. The rapid-fire rate at which the show gets cranked out, so designers never have time to fix problems or try new ideas or put genuine craft into their work. The heavy-handed product placement (there’s always been product placement on the show, but it’s gone from background noise to a relentless shriek in your ear). The transparent shilling for whatever money-making enterprise Heidi is involved with this month (in this case, a perfume line). This show has essentially become a cash machine for Heidi Klum, and for everyone else along for the ride.

I haz a sad.

Project Runway, to a great extent, was my gateway drug into fashion and style. I’ve always been interested in clothes; I’ve always paid attention to what I was wearing and how it made me feel; I’ve never been someone who just threw on jeans and a T-shirt and called it a day. But Project Runway, to a great extent, was what got me thinking about fashion and style more consciously. It got me thinking a lot more carefully about fashion and style as a metaphorical language; about the history of fashion and the context it provides for the current fashion world; about how I wanted to use clothing to express myself and my relationship to the world. It opened the door into a world that I’m having a blast with. And I haz a sad that, for people who are just now tuning into the show, that door is closing. Or rather, that door is opening into the side of the fashion world that’s a crass, fawning cash machine for self-appointed celebrity royalty.

“Make a pretty dress for Heidi that she’ll use to plug her latest project. Because we haven’t already done that challenge eleventy billion times, and Heidi Klum isn’t rich enough.”

Oh, well. There’s always What Not to Wear.

So here are this week’s winners and losers. (More pics of more looks at Tom and Lorenzo.)

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 3 Layana and Katelyn

A pretty gown for Heidi!

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 3 Daniel

Another pretty gown for Heidi!

It’s kind of entertaining how they shifted the goalposts on this one. The teams were supposed to come up with one fantasy gown-y thing for Heidi’s perfume ads, and one marginally more practical look for publicity appearances. But nobody on the winning team came up with a presentable “publicity appearance” look… so they said, “Sure, what the hell, this looks like every other pretty gown in every other perfume commercial ever made, let’s call this a ‘press tour’ dress and move the hell on.”

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 3 Patricia

Somewhat baffled at why the judges were pissing themselves all over this. Am I the only one who saw this outfit and thought, “Crafts project”? No, that’s not fair. Patricia has chops. There was a good idea in here somewhere. She just didn’t have time in YET ANOTHER FUCKING ONE-DAY CHALLENGE to execute it. As a result, it looks like a flimsy dress with bits of fabric cut out and sewn onto it. Because that’s what it is.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 3 Benjamin

An ugly gown for Heidi. An ugly, shabby, half-assed gown that looks like he wrapped a shower curtain around his model and then bound it her into it with some sort of construction material.

A case could be made that Benjamin should have gone home on this one. But at least he had a glimmer of an idea here somewhere. If he’d been able to execute the “drapey flowy gown with gold ribbon trailing around it like it landed there in a breeze” look he was going for — which he might have been able to do if this hadn’t been YET ANOTHER FUCKING ONE-DAY CHALLENGE — it might have really worked. And I’ll never fault the judges for rewarding “interesting and risk-taking but poorly executed” over “competent but boring and safe.”

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 3 Cindy

Not that this was competent or safe. Bad idea, poorly executed. Trashy and tawdry, without even the charm of being sensual and shamelessly fun. Cindy was in way over her head. I can’t really argue with this Auf.

Runway Recap: Pretty Dresses for Heidi, and the Cash Machine

Runway Recap: The Great Kilt Freakout, Or, Gender Normativity is Boring and Stupid (UPDATED)

So… kilts? Really, Project Runway judges? You’re going to twist your knickers and wring your hands and fall about like fainting goats… over kilts?

Okay. First things first. Basic assessment of this episode: Not bad. This episode focused a lot more on the actual design process than the show has for many a season, and it was the better for it. And so far, the “team” concept seems to be working: there was a lot of collaboration in the workroom this week, and both the designs and the entertainment value were better for it. I basically agree with Tom and Lorenzo: the show this week was a little dull in spots, but that wasn’t because of the team structure. It was mostly because the challenge itself was a little dull. “Make waitstaff uniforms for a ping-pong nightclub, in a standard, sporty, casual-wear style.” Yawn. True, in the real world, this is what design is often like — you often have to execute for a particular client within fairly narrow restrictions, and sometimes those restrictions are very narrow indeed and you can’t get very creative. But I hope the designers get some more interesting challenges soon. There really wasn’t much they could do with this one. (Pics of all the looks at Tom and Lorenzo.)

So. Okay. Now to what I really want to get into today:

What the fuck was up with the judges getting nearly hysterical over the concept of men in kilts?

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 2 Kilt 1

First of all: This is not a new thing. Kilts for men date back many centuries. Modern Utilikilts for men date back over a decade. They are not, in fact, skirts, despite what the judges kept saying through their giggles and gasps. They are an old form of menswear, and in the modern international-city fashion landscape, they’re just not that freaky. Unusual, sure, but hardly unheard of.*

But second, and more to the point: So what? Yes, in our rigidly gendered culture, kilts will be read by some uninformed people as skirts, and will therefore be somewhat surprising when men wear them. So fucking what?

Fashion designers for women have been playing with androgyny for decades. Centuries, actually. In the world of high fashion, androgyny is a very common way for a woman to cut out a space for herself: whether it’s wearing suits on the red carpet, or cropping her hair short (remember the buzz it generated when Emma Watson cut her hair?). And in the non-high-fashion world of ordinary women’s wear, adapting masculine elements is pervasive: from the recent trendiness of the military look, to the ubiquity of blue jeans and the women’s suit. In the fashion world, androgyny for women is so commonplace, it’s not even particularly shocking any more.

So why is it that creating a more androgynous look for men — a look that’s basically male and masculine, but with feminine elements or elements that will be read by many as feminine — is enough to get seasoned fashion professionals fanning themselves like they’d just seen the 2 a.m. stage show at a Berlin sex club? (Including Susan “Rocky Horror Picture Show” Sarandon, who should know better?)

Yes, I know why. It’s because maleness is considered more valuable than femaleness. It’s considered natural — if somewhat outré and daring — for women to want to look more like men. Of course women would want to aspire to look more like men! Who wouldn’t want to be more masculine, more like a man? Men are awesome! Men are how people should be! [/sarcasm] But when men aspire to look more like women, it undercuts gender normativity far more than women looking more like men. Androgyny for men breaks out of standard gender roles, in basically the same way that androgyny for women does… but it also shatters the notion that maleness is always more desirable than femaleness.

Well, good. The notion that maleness is always more desirable than femaleness is fucked up for everybody. And gender normativity is boring and stupid. Dressing in a way that goes along with the standard expectations for your gender is entirely your business, just as dressing in a way that doesn’t go along with the standard expectations for your gender is entirely your business. But gender normativity, the idea that all men should look and act a certain way and all women should look and act a certain way, and the idea that it’s reasonable and even good to put pressure on people of all genders to conform to these roles… it’s boring, and it’s stupid.

If the judges thought the male waitstaff at the nightclub would rebel… fine. Give them the option of kilts or pants, like they might give the female waitstaff a choice between skirts or pants. But insisting that male waitstaff could never be asked to wear uniforms so “outrageous”? Hating on the kilt so hard, they put it in the bottom?

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 2 Kilt 2

I liked the kilt. It was well-constructed, and fit the model beautifully. Making it out of denim was clever: by referencing jeans, it made the kilt both more modern and more familiar. And the moderately androgynous aspect was hot. Since the rest of the look was pretty classically masculine, it actually read as, “I’m confident enough in my masculinity to not feel like it’s threatened by wearing something that some people will read as a skirt. Besides, my legs are muscular and awesome.” I did think putting the “Balls Are Our Business” logo right in the center of the waistband — i.e., right over the model’s anatomical balls — was a bit crass. But that’s an easy fix.

And more to the point: I thought the kilt was, by far, the most interesting, inventive look on the runway this week. Every single other designer took the challenge of “Make waitstaff uniforms for a ping-pong nightclub, in a standard, sporty, casual-wear style,” and made… well, standard sporty casual wear, either more successfully or less so, none of it particularly interesting. Matthew’s kilt was the one piece on the runway that took the concept of “standard sporty casual-wear,” and brought something unexpected to the table. I could see not giving it the win — if the client doesn’t think it’s right, then the client doesn’t think it’s right, and you haven’t won. But sticking it in the bottom — with an extensive session of adolescent giggles and gasps about how it was so “provocative” — was ridiculous. It showed a rigidity about gender that I find disappointing in anyone, and that seasoned fashion professionals should be way, way past.


*UPDATE: In a comment, Giliell, professional cynic says this:

OK, I love kilts.
Kilts are freaking awesome.
Kilts are sexy.
They are, in fact, skirts.
Please give me one argument why a kilt is fundamentally different from a skirt that does not go back to “but skirts are for women and men don’t wear skirts”.
I think the firm denial that a kilt or indeed any kind of male garment that is constructed much like a typical female garment is indeed like said female garment is a sign of gendernormatism where women may aspire to wear male stuff (like trousers, oh the abomination), but men are never ever lowered to wear femal stuff (like skirts. It’s a kilt!)

I think this is a really good point. Most of what I’ve read/ heard from kilt-wearers (who’ve said anything about it at all) is that kilts aren’t skirts, so I was passing that along. But now that Giliell mentions it, I can’t offhand think of a good answer. (A couple of people here have suggested that the difference between a kilt and a skirt is the sporran, but I don’t think so: Utilikilts don’t have sporrans [although they do have a stylized closure in front outlined in snaps to represent it], and they’re still clearly identified as kilts.) Thoughts, anyone?

Runway Recap: The Great Kilt Freakout, Or, Gender Normativity is Boring and Stupid (UPDATED)

Fashion Friday: High Heels and Feminism

Can you be a feminist and still like high heels?

Well, obviously you can. Plenty of feminists like high heels. A better question would be: Is liking high heels consistent with being a feminist?

high heels xray
The most standard feminist reaction to high-heeled shoes is that they’re oppressive and sexist. High heels hurt. They’re terrible for your feet: they can do real injury, both short-term and long-term. They restrict your movement. They’re hard to walk in. They’re hard to run in, making women more vulnerable to attack. And the cultural equation of painful, disabling, restrictive footwear with beauty and femininity is oppressive and sexist.

I won’t argue with any of that.

blue suede high heels
On the other hand… I like them. I don’t like wearing them all the time; but I like wearing them sometimes. I think they’re beautiful. I think they’re sexy. I think some of them walk an interesting line between fashion and fetish… a line that I find intriguing and compelling. I think some of them are works of sheer art. I think some outfits just don’t look right without them. I don’t want to wear them every day, or even every week… but for some special occasions, they make me really happy.

And as a feminist, my basic position on shoes is pretty much the same as my position on fashion in general, the same as my position on abortion and birth control and porn and sex work and weight management: My body. My right to decide.

So I read something recently that shed an interesting light on this whole question. It’s a piece about high heels in the Bitchslap column in McSweeney’s, by self-defense instructor and karate black belt Susan Schorn. Most of the piece is critical of high heels: specifically, it’s critical of how wearing high heels makes you look at the ground more, which makes you look (and possibly feel) weaker and less confident and more vulnerable. But she also says this:

Wearing high heels also shortens the calf muscle and Achilles tendon and stresses the toes. High heels contort your spine. They are bad for your body, especially for your feet. Of course, karate can be bad for your feet too. It has certainly taken a toll on mine. I’m currently re-growing the big toenail on my right foot for either the third or fourth time. I’ve lost count. I blew out the big toenail on the other foot once or twice as well. I’ve had a stress fracture in my right arch, and I’m pretty sure I broke a toe in my left foot at some point but I never got it X-rayed. I just know it hurts when the weather changes. Karate and high heels are probably equal offenders in terms of their impact on feet.

I wonder: How many anti-high-heel feminists would tell Ms. Schorn not to do karate because of how terrible it is for your feet?

So here’s what it is for me.

I don’t have an objection to high heels.

I have an objection to women being pressured into wearing high heels. I have an objection to the idea that you have to wear high heels to be beautiful or sexy or feminine. I have an objection to the fashion trends that make it almost impossible for a woman to be really dressy without high heels. I have a powerful objection to any expectation or demand whatsoever that women wear high heels in the workplace. I have a powerful objection to any social or economic pressures that make wearing high heels necessary for women to advance in their careers, or that give women who do wear high heels a career advantage over women who don’t. (As is the same case in some careers. And not just fashion.)

The reality is that, in a sexist culture, there is no way for women to win. It’s wrong if we dress too slutty; it’s wrong if we dress too prudishly. It’s wrong if we’re too feminine; it’s wrong if we’re too masculine. It’s wrong if we’re too pretty, we’ll get seen as trivial bimbos; it’s wrong if we’re too ugly, we’ll get dismissed on the spot. Navigating these impossible shoals, trying to express or even find your true self among all this noise, is baffling and exhausting.

So unless we’re doing something that actually and seriously hurts other people, then as much as possible, I want women to respect the directions that other women are taking when they navigate these shoals. If women say they love wearing high heels all the time, if they say it makes them feel powerful and commanding and generally awesome, I feel that I ought to take them at their word. After all, when I say that I love kinky sex, that I love watching porn, that I loved working as a stripper, I want other women to take me at my word. So it’s only right for me to return the favor.

I have no problem whatsoever with women choosing to wear shoes that hurt and damage their feet. Any more than I have a problem with women choosing to take up martial arts that hurt and damage their feet.

I just want a world where that’s really a free choice.

(Somewhat tangential side note, although it’s not really tangential: High heels weren’t always a marker of femininity, and weren’t always associated with women. They were originally created for men — specifically for soldiers to wear on horseback, as they kept feet more securely in stirrups. They then filtered into the aristocracy, where for a century they were worn by both men and women. A fascinating history, with lots of weird twists and turns.)

Fashion Friday: High Heels and Feminism

Runway Recap: Team Players

To my great surprise, I’m willing to give this Project Runway “Teams” thing a chance.

Project Runway Season 4 DVD
When I first started watching Project Runway a few years back, I evangelized about it to anyone who would listen. “No, really!” I’d say. “I know, it’s a reality competition show… but it’s one of the best things on television! Sure, it has its cheesy side… but at its heart, it’s a freakishly smart and thoughtful exploration of the creative process! No, I’m not high! Critics are raving about it! Really!”

But for the last couple of years, my enthusiasm has been fading. I was still watching it regularly, I still wasn’t missing an episode… but instead of telling friends, “OMLOG, you absolutely have to watch this!”, I was telling them, “Rent Season 4. That’s the best. If Season 4 makes you fall in love, rent Seasons 1 through 5. After that, don’t bother unless you feel a need to be completist.” Ever since the show jumped from Bravo to Lifetime, the focus has shifted dramatically: away from the creative process, and towards stupid interpersonal drama. And blatantly manufactured interpersonal drama at that. As recent seasons have churned on, this trend has become more and more pronounced… as less screen time is given to designers talking about their design process, and as the increasingly limited work time gives designers less chance to do genuinely interesting work, and as the camera gives crappier views of the actual clothes on the runway, and as casting decisions become less focused on talent and more focused on a capacity for kookiness or junior-high drama. (Also, as it become increasingly obvious that, when it comes to the final outcomes/ winners, the fix is in.)

Project Runway Season 11 Teams
So I was expecting to loathe, loathe, loathe the new “Project Runway: Teams” season. I was prepared to have this be my “This is your last chance, if this sucks I’m giving up” season. In past seasons, team challenges have been notorious for producing crappy clothes and boring hissy-fits. (Season 4 being the exception.) I was expecting to despise it, to watch it play out as a shabby excuse for pointless, manufactured, scenery-chewing, “Real Housewives of Parsons New School” drama.

But it seems that maybe, just maybe, it’s the opposite.

Maybe, just maybe, the point of the “Teams” setup is to give the designers an incentive to help each other out — and a disincentive to indulge in petty backstabbing.

I don’t actually mind that the “Teams” concept is being interpreted in a more game theory/ Spanish Prisoner way (the week’s winner has to come from the winning team, and the week’s loser has to come from the losing team, so you can’t win if your team is the one with the least points), and not in a “design a cohesive collection” way. If every episode was “design a cohesive team collection,” we wouldn’t get to see enough of the individual designers’ visions. (Some of which are freaking hilarious.) And more to the point: The game theory/ Spanish Prisoner setup of this “Teams” season seems to be designed to minimize the bitch-fest, “I’m not here to make friends” factor (a myopically stupid strategy anyway — rant for another time), and to give designers a powerful, practical incentive to help each other out. The high helping each other out/ petty backstabbing ratio is one of the things I miss most from previous seasons of PR. If this “Teams” gimmick can crank it back up again — if we’re going to get genuine collaboration, or at least genuine camaraderie — I’m not going to argue.

We’ll see. As Tom and Lorenzo point out, PR first episodes are often pretty decent, and the crap factor doesn’t crank into high gear until later. But based just on this first episode, I am cautiously allowing my hopes to get up. Or at least, to not dwindle away just yet.

And now, to some actual designs! Continue reading “Runway Recap: Team Players”

Runway Recap: Team Players

Fashion Friday: Workout Clothes

Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter what I wear to the gym?

I was buying gym pants at Ross the other day, and I started pondering this question.

Greta in workout clothes
To a great extent, I don’t care all that much what I wear to the gym. I have a very small wardrobe of workout clothes, and when I get dressed for the gym, I spend about fifteen seconds picking an outfit. And yet, when I was looking for gym pants at Ross, I wasn’t just grabbing the first three pairs off the rack and calling it a day. I wasn’t even grabbing the first three pairs in a fabric I liked (breathable stretch cotton, please, no Spandex!). I wasn’t being anywhere near as finicky as I usually am when I shop for clothes… but I was flipping through their entire selection in my size, and picking out maybe one out of every ten or fifteen. I was paying attention to color, and shape, and fit. I was trying them on, not just grabbing them off the rack and heading to the register. And I was keeping some while rejecting others, at least partly, because of how they looked on me.

And I started thinking: Why is that? Why do I care?

If you don’t have a blue-collar job, workout clothes are about the most utilitarian clothes there are. They exist to maintain basic standards of modesty, to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and to be comfortable and durable during vigorous exercise. If you’re hard-core you might care about things like fabrics that wick sweat away, and obviously some sports and forms of exercise have specific sartorial demands (bicycling shorts, running shoes, football helmets). And if you’re someone who cruises at the gym (as many gay men do, for instance), that’s obviously a consideration. But if you’re just doing weights and jogging on a treadmill, and you’re not looking to flirt or hook up… why should you care how your workout clothes look?

And yet, I do care, at least somewhat, about how my workout clothes look. I am somewhat selective about them. And I started wondering: Why?

I tend to wear workout clothes that are fairly body-hugging: not revealing, exactly, but ones that let me see the shape of my body. I don’t wear T-shirts, or loose sweatpants. I wear ribbed racerback tank tops, and snug leggings or bike-style shorts. And I don’t want a lot of distractions. I don’t want bright colors, or even a stripe down the side of my legs. My leggings and bike shorts are plain black or grey; my ribbed racerback tanks are black, with nothing more than a red Rosin Coven logo, or a Longboard Winery surfboard slicing down between my breasts, or the words “San Francisco Dyke March” with “DYKE” in hot pink capital letters stamped on my chest.

Part of this is just so I can clearly see my form, make sure I have the correct angles when I’m doing my weight training. But most of it, honestly, is so I can enjoy the sight of myself, and my body, when I work out.

Here’s the thing. If the experience of looking at myself in the mirror when I work out is enjoyable… that reinforces my desire to go to the gym in the first place. It adds to the pleasure of the experience, makes it more appealing — which makes me more likely to go back, and to keep going back. And gym clothes that let me clearly see my body, and let me see it in a flattering way, add to that pleasure.

Greta in workout clothes making a muscle
I like looking at my body when it’s getting strong, and staying strong. I like reinforcing in myself the idea that beauty is strength, and strength, beauty. If I’ve been hitting the gym regularly, I enjoy seeing how ripped and powerful I look. If I’ve had to take a break (like I did when I had surgery), I enjoy watching my definition gradually returning, watching my muscles start to pop back out through the softness.

And I want to be able to see my body clearly — and see it framed by clothes that look good, or at least that don’t look like crap — when I do.

Ingrid once said that she loves seeing me at the gym, because I stride into the weight room like I own it. I think part of why I stride into the weight room like I own it, why I feel entirely comfortable and joyful and at home in the weight room, why I feel with no question like I belong there even though often I’m one of only a couple of women in it, is that I look like I belong there. I stride into the weight room, and I pick out my weights, and I start my set… and I see my image in the mirror, reflecting the message back to me, “This is you. You are a fucking powerhouse. Look at your biceps, your shoulders, your thighs, your calves. You are strong, and getting stronger. You treasure your health, and your body. You value your body’s ability to give you pleasure. You love yourself.”

And the sharper and more pleasurable that image is, the more clearly that message gets through.

I love my body. I especially love my body when I’m at the gym. Going to the gym is an act of loving my body. And wearing gym clothes that let me appreciate my body is a sign of that love… and helps that love to flourish.

You may also enjoy:
The Eroticism of Exercise
A Hedonistic View of Physical Health

Fashion Friday: Workout Clothes