And of all the comment debates and conversations that this blog has generated since it switched over to Freethought Blogs, this is the one I feel most inspired to respond to. Which I also think is hilarious.
A lot of people made a lot of points in this conversation. Some of which I take issue with, some of which I think are valid. I want to get into a few of these… and I want to start with one of the most valid ones.
Namely, the distinction between fashion and style.
I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.
In my original piece, I used the word “fashion” instead of “style” somewhat deliberately. I wasn’t just talking about one person’s individual expression — I was talking about the cultural vocabulary, the global conversation that goes on through clothing and hair and makeup and jewelry and shoes and other forms of personal adornment. I was using the metaphor of language to talk about clothing and personal adornment as a shared vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate. And “fashion” seemed like a better word for that than “style.” (I also couldn’t resist the title “Fashion is a Feminist Issue,” with its echo of the famous book “Fat is a Feminist Issue.”)
But yes. What I was trying to get at is probably closer to what many people think of as “style” rather than “fashion.” (Especially since the word “fashion” seems to rub so many people the wrong way.)
And in fact, this discussion has given me a new way of looking at the distinction between fashion and style, and a new way of looking at the entire issue of using language as a metaphor for fashion and style. This is a new idea for me, one of my “thinking out loud” ideas, and I want to run it by y’all.
Here’s the idea:
Fashion is a language.
Style is what we choose to say in it.
Fashion is the vocabulary, and the grammar. We don’t have control over it — it’s shaped by the culture we live in. Just like regular language, we don’t get to control it, and we all have to more or less accept what the language means in order to be able to express ourselves in it. If we don’t all more or less accept what the word “fish” means, we can’t talk about what to have for dinner. And if we don’t all more or less accept what “skirt-suit” means, we can’t decide what to wear to the interview at IBM to convey that we take the job seriously. There needs to be a common vocabulary in order for there to be personal expression within it.
But as participants in the language, we can and do shape it. Regular language changes with time — and it changes because of how people use it. And the metaphorical language of fashion also changes with time… because of how people use it. (More on that in a tic.)
And, of course, we can choose what to say in it. When we show up at that interview, for instance, we can decide that we want to say, “I take this job seriously”… or “Take this job and shove it.”
That’s where style comes in.
Fashion is the language. Style is what we choose to say in it.
I don’t agree at all with MarinaS, who argued that the range of things that can be said in fashion is limited to about half a dozen basic concepts. I do certainly agree that we can’t say as much in fashion as we can in actual, literal language. (What with it not being actual, literal language and all.) But we can say a lot more than MarinaS thinks we can. Here is just a small sample of the things that can be said in fashion: Playful. Classy. Functional. Elegant. Conventional. Creative. Sexy. Tough. Retro. Athletic. Outdoorsy. Mature. Youthful. Authoritative. Ambitious. Rebellious. Sophisticated. Prim. Exuberant. Edgy. Conformist. Self-possessed. Free-spirited. Extroverted. Attention- seeking. Urbane. Down-home. Studious. Relaxed. Serious. Shy. Frivolous. Wild. Feminine. Masculine. Androgynous. Creative with gender roles. Defiant of gender roles.
Now. Are there things about the language of fashion that are objectionable? Specifically, are there forms in the language of fashion that are sexist?
Just like there are forms in actual language that are sexist — or racist, or classist, or ableist, or otherwise objectionable.
And we can protest against those forms.
Just like we can object to using the word “fireman” to mean “person who puts out fires” — by pointing out how sexist it is, by advocating for a change in the language, and by using the word “firefighter” ourselves instead.
We can’t single-handedly control the language. It’s bigger than we are; it’s shaped by everyone in the culture; and people in positions of power shape it more than most of us. But we can have an effect on it. We don’t, for instance, wear corsets anymore (unless we’re fetishists or historical costumers)… because about a century ago, women started saying, “Fuck that noise.”
And if you’re a woman who wants to express respectability and seriousness, but you resent the idea that in order to do that you have to wear shoes that impair your mobility and will ultimately cripple you if you wear them for too many years… then I heartily encourage you to resist this form of language. In fact, I’ll join you. I’m a feminist who sometimes wears heels and loves them to bits, and I’m far from the only one… but I object passionately to the idea of them being socially mandatory for women who want to be taken seriously. In my opinion, a woman who generally dresses in a way that expresses respectability and seriousness — but who declines to wear heels, and instead wears boots, or men’s shoes, or men’s-styled women’s shoes, or elegant and interesting flats — is making a valuable and powerful statement. On her own behalf, and on behalf of other women. By all means, say it loud and proud: Fuck that noise.
But that doesn’t mean that fashion and style aren’t a form of self-expression. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t a metaphorical language with which we communicate who we are and what our place is in the world. And it doesn’t contradict my original thesis… which is that trivializing fashion is sexist.
Yes, there are many things about the language of fashion that are sexist. I said so in my original piece. I even pointed to some examples. But I still stand by my thesis: Fashion is primarily a female art form, one of the very few forms of expression in which women generally have more freedom than men. And it is sexist to dismiss it as inherently shallow, trivial, and vain.
As for other problems in the fashion and garment industry… yes. Of course. There are labor abuses, economic abuses, corporate homogenization, etc.
And if these things concern you, there are things you can do about it. Politically, and personally. You can buy clothes from local designers and manufacturers. You can shop at thrift stores and vintage stores. You can hire a tailor to make your clothes. You can make your own clothes. You can barter your skills with someone who’s good at sewing. You can form a sewing collective. And, of course, you can speak out against these abuses, and do political and social change work to address them.
You can do all of that… and still see fashion and style as a language, a rich and complex form of expression and communication that deserves to be taken seriously.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t care about what we eat? Does that mean we shouldn’t see food and cooking as a rich and valuable form of communication and community, personal expression and artistry? Does that mean we shouldn’t experience food and cooking with pleasure and exuberance and joy? Does that mean we should eat brown rice and beans every day until the day we die?
And if you don’t see food that way, despite the myriad abuses in the food industry… why should you see fashion and style that way?
Yes, fashion and style can be a troubling language. Food can be a troubling language. Art can be a troubling language. Music, dance, architecture, film… all of these can be troubling languages. Hell, language can be a troubling language.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a language.
And yes, I understand that fashion isn’t literally a language. I said so myself, in the original piece. My point is that there are many similarities between fashion and language, and that using language as a metaphor for fashion can help illuminate how it works. Like all metaphors, it isn’t perfect. In fact, like all metaphors, the differences can be as illuminating as the similarities. Please do feel free to point out the differences. But if people keep saying, “It’s not literally a language!” as if that contradicts my point, I’m going to get cranky.
My point is this:
Subpoint A: Like it or not, you are communicating something with what you wear. Even if you don’t put a lot of thought into what you wear, you’re still communicating. (If nothing else, you’re communicating, “I didn’t put a lot of thought into what I wore.” Which in some situations — job interviews, first dates, court appearances — may not be the message you want to convey.) You can choose to do this unconsciously rather than consciously; you can choose to pay little or no attention to it. But if you do that, you should be aware that you may be communicating things that you don’t want or intend to communicate.
Subpoint B: Fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. They are one of the few forms of expression and communication in which women have more freedom than men. There are exceptions to this, and the reasons behind this are largely sexist, and some of the specific ways this plays out are sexist… but it is still primarily a women’s art form, in which women generally have more freedom than men. And I don’t think it’s an accident that this art form gets treated as shallow, trivial, and vain. I think it gets treated as shallow, trivial, and vain because women get treated as shallow, trivial, and vain.
I think this is sexist. I think it’s sexist that women are valued largely for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental… and are then derided as shallow and trivial for doing so. I think it’s sexist that women get put in a double bind: if we ignore our looks, we get dismissed as unfeminine and ugly, and if we pay attention to our looks, we get dismissed as superficial and vain. I think it’s sexist that men who care about fashion and style are seen as suspect, because of their unsavory association with things that are typically feminine. And I think there is an inherent and obvious sexism behind the very fact that women’s art forms get treated as if they don’t matter.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to cull my stockings drawer.
89 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Fashion and Style”
In your prior article, you seemed to be saying that people who dress in a way that others perceive as “not putting a lot of thought into it” should just accept that that is the case and deal with it, especially if they want a job. But when people dress in a way that others perceive as “vain and shallow” that is the perceivers who are wrong and who should change.
I see them as exactly the same. I do happen to put a lot of thought into my dress – I dress 100% for comfort and spend time and thought finding the most comfortable clothing and yet this will be perceived by many others as “not putting a lot of thought into it”. That I am punished by others (by not getting the job, but not having people want to talk to me at a party, etc) is just as harmful (and equally sexist, since it applies more to women) as the communication received by some people that women ‘into fashion’ are vain and shallow. If casual dressers should just suck it up, shouldn’t fashion mavens just accept that that is what their clothing communicates and deal with it?
I think your article would have been stronger without the lecture to casual dressers that we have to be aware that our choices communicate. When this implies we have to accept it without protest — I disagree. The results of that ‘communication’ is sexist and wrong and worthwhile to protest. We are well aware we continually punished (and exceptionally harshly) for these choices, so no need to remind us that we should be aware of this communication (and because we are so acutely aware of being judged so harshly, it it hard not to assume you mean to imply we should accept the situation without a peep of protest).
Great posts, Greta. I don’t disagree with anything you said. However, I can’t stop wondering *why* is that fashion is majorly a feminine language, i.e. why women have had more freedom to express themselves through fashion and style. I missed your comments on this particular matter, and I think it could shed some light on the extant conflicts that you describe in your second post. In any case, thanks for the great articles, and please keep up the very inspirational writing!
For what it’s worth, I barely know anything about fashion, and I think I understood what you were on about pretty well.
That might actually be part of the problem. For me fashion is something that happens to other people. So I have no preconceptions getting in the way of what you’re saying.
The use of ‘language’ is obviously a metaphor.
But you could say that fashion and language are both ethos. That gets the point across and it isn’t a metaphor that can break down later.
Unless of course I’m out of touch with what other people know again. Is ‘ethos’ the kind of word people here know about? Other than as a way to make potential sexual partners think you’re really, really boring when you drop the term at social functions, of course. ^_^
On food, because I have to ask:
Does this actually happen? The personal expression and artistry part, that is? Or even the communication? I get community, the whole sitting down to dinner and conversing. Don’t get the rest. I had a home ec. teacher knock me down a grade in high school because I couldn’t figure out that everything on the plate was white, and that was bad, for some reason. It was bad presentation, she said. Didn’t get it then, don’t get it now. It’s just . . . food. You eat, it tastes good, you get back to your life.
As regards your actual point though (rather than the analogy that will probably make sense to everyone but me), do people really see fashion/style as being capable of communicating all the various examples you gave? I can accept that it communicates some things, but there was a lot of nuance in some of those. For example, what outfit could possibly communicate
Neither seems possible to convey with clothing alone.
A low cut shirt with the print “sex-positive feminist” 😉
Somebody who wears the usually exceped buiseness clothing but mixes them with something unusual, let’s say a funny necktie with Homer Simpson on it, or the usual skirt-jacket combination for a woman in denim jeans?
I’m just voicing my ideas. I’m not much into everyday-fashion myself. I guess mine communicates “I’m washed, so are my clothes, couldn’t be bothered for anything else”.
Although I often “pimp” ordinary stuff to make it unique and have a whole wardrobe full of fancy stuff for costume fairs.
BTW, the book “Fashion” is a gem.
Do you have that Taschen book on the Kyoto Fashion Institute? (It’s the one in the photos at the top of the page.) That book will convince anyone that fashion is undeniably, unquestionably art. The pieces in it are amazing.
I’m a professional corsetmaker. Most of my clients are brides who want the corset for outerwear, though I’ve had some who want it as underwear. One of my favorite things is putting a real corset on someone who’s never worn one before, or has only tried cheap, ill-made ones with plastic bones. A proper corset that fits feels good. It feels snug and supportive and comfortable. It’s fun lacing someone up and seeing their reaction – their eyes get big, and they can’t stop smiling and looking in the mirror.
Anyway, yeah. I’m glad I don’t have to wear a corset every day (I like being able to bend at the waist, thank you. Remember: shoes first, then corset.), but I sure do love being able to have a night out in one.
Do people not get those fancy cooking shows like My Kitchen Rules? Or is that an Aussie/Kiwi obsession?
Anyway: It does happen.
I recently went to Malaysia to meet my girlfriend’s family. It was during Ede – the festival just after Ramadan. We visited half of Malaysia, and every friend or relative we visited involved a sit-down and a meal.
Every area within Malaysia has its own background dish. Merissa’s father’s background is a fish-based laksa on spaghetti with specific condiments. But each family that served that particular dish did it a bit differently, with different sides based on other family ties and from other areas. Most of it went completely over my head, but there as meaning behind nearly everything… With the exception of beef rendang. That was everywhere. Really yummy at first, but after a while it started to feel like I’d had enough enough beef rendang to last a lifetime.
So yes – it does happen.
Further: Consider the differences in style, context, feel, texture, taste, and flavors between French and Italian cooking. What about mixing things up – imagine getting takeaway Chinese food and mixing it up with yorkshire pudding. Or green-tea icecream. And so on.
Ha! This is going to be risky as hell and I could get into trouble – but here’s my attempt.
Calf-high matte black boots with a pointed toe and a squared heel – shiny black buckle (nonfucntional) on the outer side of each boot (hidden zipper over elastic hinge does the actual work of holding the boot on.
Dark brown stockings with a subtle weave – nothing too over the top, just a hint of pattern.
Short dress – cutting in just a little bit above the knee. Dress is a dark color, but not black. I’m thinking deep purple or maybe green – whatever works well with the woman’s coloring.
Dress has a little bit of fabric to flounce, but not heaps. Dress is cinched in at the waist with a belt, causing it to flare out a touch over the hips and hugging the overall sillhouette in to an hourglass shape. Buckle on the belt matches the boots.
Dress comes up over the breast – low cut with a hint of cleavage but not plunging – titilatting without overt exposure. Dress comes up wide with half-sleeves that barely cover the shoulders. Understated white-gold necklace with a semiprecious stone necklace – color should complement the dress (I’m bad at complimenting colors, so someone else would have to correct me on the color of the stone).
Left wrist has some kind of bold statement jewelery. A set of eclectic and clashing bracelets seems like the obvious choice, although I’m sure people here could come up with a better idea.
Right hand is holding a tiny, long, and very shiny leather clutch-purse. Only adornment on the purse is the clasp and the brand logo. As I don’t know what brands are worth owning, I’ll leave that up to the discretion of others more learned than I.
Hair is up at the back, but with some carefully-managed spikiness involved in the styling – I can picture this in my head but don’t know how to explain it.
Drop earrings that match the necklace.
Makeup is mild foundation with some very slight bronzing over the cheeks. Strong lipstick that matches the dress, and barely-detectable eyeshadow in a lighter shade of the same color. Subtle eyeliner and eyelash volume-izer-whatsit.
Calf-length half-trenchcoat in a wool/polyester blend. Well fitted to the overall silhouette. Worn open to show of the rest of the outfit (of course).
Finish with a glass of white wine in the left hand and an aloof, almost scowl-ey facial expression. You’re boring me, little boy. Try harder.
Now – as I stated earlier, as far as I can tell fashion is something that happens to other people. So perhaps my ideas here are wildly off or particularly tasteless. But as a mix of tittilatingly-available married to hoity-toity aloofness I think something like that could be a winner.
Of course, it would also depend a lot on the woman in question. But I can see that working.
I expect my position of authority in my field to be recognized, but I’m approachable and friendly and happy to hang out and have a beer.
One of the consultants I occasionally work with nails this look down to a T, so I actually don’t have to invent this one. The following could possibly sound a bit odd, but she pulls it off. Also remember that I work in the small-to-medium IT industry. The following look works well there, but it might not translate well to, say, a high-pressure high-stakes law firm.
Pointed shiny brown leather boots under denim jeans with a very short heel. Brown leather belt with fancy buckle. Expensive women’s shirt with French cuffs. Silver and black cuff-links. Grey coat that comes down just a little bit past the waist. Understated woman’s watch – chrome, small dial face, narrow black leather strap. Wedding ring on left hand (gold, decent-sized diamond). Thumb ring on right hand (no stone, silver or white gold – pattern in inlaid gold on the face of the band). Stud earrings. No other jewelery.
Hair worn down just past the shoulders, brushed back over the ears. Slight wave. Makeup is limited to a soft red lipstick and some very light bronzing over the eyes. Maybe light foundation… But the woman I’m thinking of is lightly freckled and lets them show through.
There you go.
Okay, I invite the brutal criticism of my peers and betters.
Greta? I had a medium-length post where I put together some fashion ideas in response to Nathan’s earlier post, but it never came through.
I’m posting from a new laptop and I’m not currently logged in – so I’m *hoping* the message came through and is locked in moderation.
If it’s there, feel free to delete this message. Otherwise let me know and I’ll try to reconstruct later.
I can read your post above fine
To wirte something productive: There are some expressions I am puzzled about. There is for example the woman who, every time she takes her kid to the playground, is dressed in something that would be normal for a middle-class restaurant in the evening.
What is her message?
“I don’t want to be here anyway?”
“I’m fine with taking the kid outside but don’t expect me to join him in buolding sandcastles”?
“Don’t come here when you’re crying and your nose is running because I’m wearing eveningwear”?
This is the problem with the idea of fashion/style as a language, it’s totally subjective. To me a Homer Simpson tie does not say “recognise my authority”, it says “prat to be ignored”.
I agree that the way a person is dressed can convey simple information in much the same way as body language, but any message that is too complicated to be expressed by a small child with crayons is likely to be read entirely differently by everyone who sees it.
That said if the main target for your message is you it can be useful psychologically to put you into the right frame of mind for whatever it is that you are doing.
I understood you to be making this argument, and was hoping you might respond to my comment on the previous post (admittedly a long way down) that it is relatively recent (the last hundred years or so) for fashion to be primarily a woman’s art form but criticisms of fashion as shallow, trivial and vain go back a lot further.
“I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.”
Thank you. This was the issue with PZ Myers and that whole Dictionary Atheists thing. He made a post that made it sound like he was saying something that a lot of people disagreed with (that atheists who think the lack of belief in a god is the only thing all atheists have in common are wrong), when in fact he was talking about something different (that atheists who, when asked “Why are you an Atheist?” don’t think there’s any reason to carry the conversation beyond “I just lack belief in a god” are not helping). When many people disagreed with what they thought he was saying, he spent the comments threads insulting all of the people who were disagreeing instead of realizing and acknowledging that he hadn’t explained himself very well, and clarifying. I lost a lot of respect for him over that whole situation.
“I’m sexually available, but I’m choosy, and if you treat me with disrespect you don’t stand a chance.”
IF you can communicate that with style alone, it stands to reason you can communicate “I’m sexually available, you don’t need to bother treating me with respect”. Which sounds way too much like “she wore X she was asking for poor treatment”.
And we’re left back with my main objection to fashion on feminist grounds- what we can say, and how we can say it, is extremely constrained in many ways that seem important to me. To focus on the the richness of the expression is not inaccurate, if you are talking to people who view clothes as objects to provide protection from the elements, but it is misleading, if you are talking to feminists.
“about a century ago, women started saying, “Fuck that noise.”
I am troubled by this characterization for two reasons.
First, I am not sure it is historically accurate. About a century ago, we entered WWI and we needed metal for warships. Women were urged to give up corsets for the war (like the pantyhose thing in WWII). Also, elastic came in. Now, I’m not sure either of those in themselves would be sufficient if corsets were not falling out of favor anyway. But why were they falling out of favor? Was it because women finally, collectively, got sick of painful clothing? Or was it because the whims of high fashion (i.e. what clothing is popular) changed, as they are wont to do?
Frankly, I find it incredibly amazing that corsets lasted as long as they did.
Second, I am troubled by this characterization because of the assumption that women *will* reject stupid noise that causes pain to our bodies. I see no evidence this is the case, only a cultural relativism for justifying your own time’s standards of painful fashion and no such accommodation for other time’s standards. A fish doesn’t feel water, and a modern women interested in high fashion doesn’t feel that high heels are painful.
Greta, you (and the various scolding voices) have convinced me. Even though I live in ConservativeChristianLand, I’m going to communicate with my clothing deliberately instead of pretending that fashion is a game I was born losing – too many women and girls feel this way.
So I’m actually thinking about my clothes as I get dressed in the morning. Today I’m saying that I’m a naturalist ready to go on a hike and teach kids about fungus. Yesterday I was saying that I’m a down-to-earth, easy-going fiber arts teacher who can camouflage herself as a conservative homeschooling mother for the purpose of making it easier for the Spawns’ friend to visit us despite his fundy parents. And I’m actually knitting and sewing more clothes for me, of the art-to-wear variety. I’m going to finish my stays for my 18th century reenacting outfit. I’m going to have fun.
The great thing is to see this make my teenage daughter’s life easier. A few months ago, I bought her a hot pink sportsbra as a joke, and she hit the roof, insulted that I’d think she was “that sort of girly girl.” Then I asked her what she thought Josh SpokesGay at Pharyngula would do with that bra, and she decided that it was, in fact, her SpokesGay bra, for wearing under her uniform at Boy Scout camp as a statement that one should play with gender instead of treating it like a prison. Same thing has happened with clothing that is form fitting, brightly colored, or ruffled: she chooses to wear it, along with her more usual fiercely practical unadorned wardrobe. Clothing is more of a source of carefully-planned pleasure, and the world really needs more of that.
And a more global thanks: Last year I discovered your weight loss essays just as I began a still-ongoing weight loss program. This year, 40 pounds thinner and WAY healthier, I’m starting to play with clothing. And for anyone with teenage kids, Greta’s lecture on sexual ethics for atheists is the best sex-ed talk I could imagine. Especially the bit about broccoli.
Artemis: I see your point. But I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about people who completely deny the very concept that clothing is a form of communication… and then get baffled and upset when it communicates something they didn’t intend. If you’re making conscious choices about your clothing, and are aware that it’s communicating something… you’re not who I’m talking about.
For the record, I think it’s more than possible to dress comfortably and still express something other than “I dress solely for comfort.” I dress comfortably 90% of the time, and still dress to express many of the messages I talked about in this piece. And if you really are dressing 100% with your own comfort in mind and with no interest whatsoever in how others perceive it… then yes, I think that communicates a lack of concern for others that may not be what you want to be saying. But if you object to the forms of the language… by all means, protest.
cesargon: The most common analysis of this, and one I share, is that women are seen as ornaments. In this social view, we exist to be looked at, and are therefore expected to make ourselves into the most appealing ornaments we can.
Ramel: I agree that the “language” of fashion is less precise than actual verbal language, and is more open to misinterpretation. But that doesn’t means it’s totally subjective, and it doesn’t break down the metaphor. Actual verbal language is also open to a wide variety of interpretations, and can also be misunderstood.
CW: Is that really true? I’ve seen a lot of books on historical costuming, and while in the past men certainly had more variety of expression than they do now, it seems that for many centuries women have had more. (In Western culture, anyway.)
becca: I didn’t say that there weren’t constraints. In fact, I keep saying that there are constraints. My point is that, even with those constraints, women have more options in fashion and style than men; fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form; and it is sexist to automatically dismiss it as shallow, trivial, and vain. If you’re going to argue with me, please argue with the points I’m actually making.
And when WWII ended, women went rushing back into stockings. They did not go rushing back into corsets after WWI.
I didn’t assume that women would do this. I encouraged them to do so.
??? Are you kidding? Women who wear heels all day complain about the pain all the time. They have a variety of responses to it, from gritting their teeth and sucking it up to claiming it as a point of pride. But they sure as hell feel it.
Wikipedia has an article on the history of corsets (is there any subject it doesn’t cover?): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_corsets
Since you wrote your previous entry about this topic, I’ve had many opportunities to think about what you wrote. (Perhaps this is God’s way of telling me you’re right…) Between then and now, I attended two parties (one for Eid and one wedding), went clothes and shoe shopping with my mom, and attended the first lecture of a class in which we have to dress professionally (because I’m in pharmacy school).
I don’t want to violate the comment policy of the Benevolent Autocracy, so just 3 quick points:
1. It occurred to me that there are many ways people can express the same message. For example, when we’re told to dress professionally for class,
3. My family is Indian, and whenever we go to a party
(Think I clicked submit too quickly when I wrote this comment before.)
Since you wrote your last post on this topic, I’ve had opportunities to think about this topic. I’ve been to two parties, went clothes shopping with my mom, and went to the first lecture of a class in which we have to dress professionally (in pharmacy school).
I’ve never been interested too much in fashion, but the way you write about fashion makes me want to become interested in it.
I don’t want to violate the comment policy of the Benevolent Autocracy, so just 3 points/observations.
1. It occurred to me that many people may choose to communicate/express the same thing different ways. For example, when we’re told to dress professionally, certain clothes are just not allowed, but two people may still dress differently.
2. My parents is from India, and whenever we go to a party by Indian family members or friends, I notice that while many men wear suits (with only a few wearing Indian clothes) but almost all women wear Indian clothes. (Usually, the only women not wearing Indian clothes are non-Indians).
3. About why fashion is considered trivial, I think it may be caused by people having a bad experience (being made fun of as kids, or people assuming too much about them based on looks) and not necessarily because it’s mostly considered for women. I always thought it was sexist that women are judged too much based on looks and that men are discouraged from being interested in fashion/appearance, but my reason for considering fashion trivial when I was younger was based on those bad experiences, not based on the fact that it was women who are interested.
If it is possible for all casual dressers to communicate not-lazy, not-uncaring, then I would suggest perhaps it is possible for fashion maven women to express their style in ways without communicating they are ‘vain and shallow’. If you wish to transfer responsibility for the communicating “lazy and can’t be bothered about others” to the dresser by suggesting they aren’t doing casual ‘right’, then I suggest the same for those communicating ‘vain and shallow’ — perhaps they just aren’t doing it ‘right’ either.
I’d also say that people often express their protest and outrage at the oppressions of society in ways that come across as bafflement and shock. For people who inherently believe that one shouldn’t disparage people based on their clothing choices reality causes dissonance, since it is sometimes hard to believe that society is really that oppressive and hateful. And yes, it really is.
Shock and outrage is not lack of knowledge, even when expressed in the terminology of disbelief.
Or maybe you meant to say that this class of unknowing casual dressers should get informed so that they can better fight against the idea that it is OK to think people are lazy and uncaring based on dress? Joining with the people who want to fight against the idea that it is OK to think people are ‘vain and shallow’ based on dress. I agree that an alliance to fight against both of these would be stronger, but it came across as you thinking only one of those was worthy of being challenged (and worse, that you felt the first was entirely reasonable).
@artemis: I’ve also had that concern of casual dress being misinterpreted as laziness or uncaring. (I think FreebornJayne made a good comment on Greta’s previous post about this topic, saying that sometimes people assume too much based on clothes, more than what’s warranted, and I guess that these incorrect assumptions could be made about people who dress in all different ways.)
artemis: I see your point, and am thinking about it. But here’s my problem:
You say yourself that you dress 100% with your own comfort in mind. Why is it unreasonable for other people to interpret that as an expression that you prioritize your own comfort over other considerations?
Why is it unreasonable, for instance, for a potential employer at a job interview to think, “Sheesh, they supposedly care about this job, and they couldn’t be bothered to express that they care about this job by spending more than five minutes thinking about what to wear and putting on something other than jeans and a T-shirt?” The very fact of putting in effort expresses that you care. If you don’t put in effort, that expresses that you don’t. I think there are a lot of things wonky about this language… but I don’t see that as an unreasonable interpretation. (Especially since there are lots of ways to dress comfortably and still put some effort and thought into it.)
And my point about judging women who dress stylishly as vain isn’t that it’s impossible to express “vanity” through dress. It certainly can be. My point is that the mere fact of paying attention to how you dress doesn’t automatically make you vain.
I guess I’m unclear about what your basic point is. Do you object to the very idea that what we wear communicates something to other people? Or are you objecting to some of the specific forms of that communication? If the latter… then I’m with you. I agree, for instance, that the socially mandatory wearing of uncomfortable shoes for women who want to be taken seriously is deeply problematic. If you want to advocate for acceptable forms of expression through dress to be more comfortable, I’m totally with you. But if you’re arguing against the entire idea of clothing as a form of communication, and against the entire idea of people forming opinions about others based on what they choose to wear… sorry, but I’m not buying it.
Plenty, though it has far more than the Notability Nazis would prefer. >.>
I didn’t have time to sit and put my thoughts down on the first post, but I bristled at it not so much because I thought you were talking about the former, but because the distinction wasn’t specifically made and I’m aware that there’s a very concerted and largely successful effort by advertisers to trick people into conflating the two concepts. And I can confirm that a lot of people I’ve met who should know better don’t draw that distinction and are resistant to having it explained to them.
I assume that the kinds of sentiments one wants to communicate with fashion/style are limited only by one’s creativity. I have no doubt that many, subtly different messages can be communicated, however imprecisely, with fashion.
As to why women have more freedom in this form of expression than men I can’t help but see this question through the lens of Animal Planet. There may be lots of messages one can communicate with attire but it seems to me that most of the outfits I see women wearing come in two broad categories: Outfits that display their reproductive fitness and outfits that are largely constrained by whatever their job requires. However, I live and work in a college town so I admit that my daily experiences of women’s attire are more skewed to a younger age group.
I can recall when a 30-something female friend commented to me one Spring about how the college girls she saw “couldn’t wait to break out the mini-skirts and slut-wear”. I’m not female, but if I thought that dressing in a way that revealed more of my body would make me feel desirable & powerful I suspect more men would take an interest in it. As a straight man, the cultural cue I often receive about “how a man should successfully peacock himself through fashion” is to dress in a manner that projects a higher socio-economic status as opposed to one that say, reveals my abbs or the shape of my legs.
I realize that your article wasn’t focusing on how fashion is used to display reproductive fitness, and instead, was about how it is used to communicate many other things about a person. But, deep down, I have to admit that beneath the array of subtle accessories that indicate one’s political affiliation or previous youth sub-culture affections, it’s going to be difficult to talk about such things without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Which is that fashion is the easiest, more immediate way to display reproductive fitness to the herd. And its deeply rooted into our psyches to see echoes of that expression even when it isn’t intended. There will always be the suspicion in the back of the viewer’s mind that behind all the various permutations of “personal expression” the beast of sex is the one pulling the deepest strings.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that someone doesn’t care about a job (or whatever) just because someone didn’t put as much effort into clothing as you think they should have because I don’t think it is justified. It seems to me that there could be several other reasons behind why they dressed in a certain way, and you don’t really have any real way of knowing why they dressed in a particular fashion. This person may have dressed this way because they couldn’t afford to dress nicer. Or they may be dressed in a way that they think is totally appropriate and your particular sense of fashion doesn’t agree. Who knows?
I think at the end of the day that people unjustifiably read way too much into what people choose to wear. If fashion is indeed like a language, then it is a highly imprecise language which highlights incredibly subjective elements. If we want to be rational beings and treat people fairly then it seems to me that we should abandon this language that makes it incredibly easy to misjudge others. Does this mean that people can’t put a lot of thought in what they wear? Of course not. It just means that we shouldn’t put a lot of thought in to what they wear.
However, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we will abandon the “language” of fashion anytime soon, so those of us who don’t understand and even abhor the “language” will continue to have to piece together garbled translations and be judged accordingly. It’s just kind of sad.
(all you’s in this were global you’s)
I think that most people would agree that it is a bad idea to show up to a job interview in a t-shirt, because as you point out it communicates that your do not feel that it is worth the effort to conform to a social norm (looking “professional” at a job interview).
However, there is the issue of how you are required or implied to dress once you are hired. I am a graduate student in engineering who lives with two other engineers; one in industry and another in graduate school. The one in industry is required to dress professionally at work, and is actually *required* to conform to a dress code.
There does not seem to be much of a dress code for graduate students… something along the lines of no exposed genitalia. Over the course of the day my roommates and I both perform some useful work (on a good day…) before returning home. Is the quality of our work that day a function of how we dressed….no. In terms of the quality of *what you do* unless you are involved in something that depends largely on your looks fashion is irrelevant, providing you pass the no exposed genitalia-type clauses.
I am not a fan of fashion because it largely comes down to the generation of speculated judgements of others based on what they wear and not who they are. I won’t deny that we all make these judgements, but I try not to infer too far into a person based on what they wear alone.
As an engineer and a musician, I may be slightly biased on this issue… 🙂
Laurence: There’s a difference between not putting in as much effort as I personally do… and not putting in any effort at all. There’s a difference, for instance, between showing up for a job interview at an office in a plain buttoned shirt and nice simple trousers… and showing up for a job interview at an office in sweats and flip-flops. The former says, “Fashion and style aren’t particularly my thing, but I respect this job and my colleagues/ customers enough to put some basic effort into making myself presentable.” The latter says, “I don’t give a shit about this job, or anyone involved in it.” The former is less effort than I personally would put in. The latter is no effort at all.
artemis said that they dress 100% with their own comfort in mind. If that’s really true, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that they think other people aren’t worth making an effort for. And if that’s not really how they feel, then I think it’s worth it for them to look at whether they’re communicating what they want to.
We can certainly discuss and debate how much should be read into what people wear. The question is whether it’s reasonable to read anything at all into it. I think it is. We make conscious choices about what we wear: it’s not like our height or the shape of our nose or something.
And as someone pointed out in the earlier thread: Are you really claiming that you don’t come to any conclusions about people based on what they wear? If someone showed up for lunch with you and was wearing a wedding dress, a burqa, a bikini, a ball gown, a scuba suit, a filthy smelly track suit with holes in it… you wouldn’t think it meant anything? If you’re saying that, I don’t believe you. And if you’re not saying that, then we’re just arguing over details and differences of degree.
And here’s where you completely lost me. Actual verbal language is also imprecise, highlights incredibly subjective elements, and is easy to misjudge. Should we therefore not evaluate people on the basis of the words they use?
I agree — and have said repeatedly — that fashion and style are less precise than verbal language. Nowhere have I said that we should evaluate people solely, or even primarily, on the basis of what they wear, or that we should pay more attention to it than what people say in words. I’ve simply said that what people wear is a form of communication, and it’s reasonable to come to some sort of provisional conclusion about them based on it. If you don’t understand the language and feel uncomfortable with it, I have sympathy. If you hold the entire language in contempt, then I don’t.
Maybe it’s just me, but whenever someone says they dress for comfort I kinda assume they prefer to dress in a manner that comfortably hides their body. This is pretty much what I do. If someone feels good about a particular aspect of their body I assume that they would feel comfortable displaying it (when they want to) and when we perceive a part of our bodies as being unflattering we select clothing that covers up that area. Isn’t this the point of comfortable clothes being associated with being baggy or loose-fitting? To me, this is what comfortable clothing mostly means. Although, i guess others will intuit something different.
ts42: And my whole point in this entire exercise is that what people wear is an expression of who they are. Not always conscious; not as precise as we might like; open to misinterpretation — just like any form of expression — but still an expression.
But how do you determine whether someone put as much effort as you do? You can really only determine it by what they are wearing other than asking them. I think that the assumption of effort based on solely on how you are dress can be destructive to people’s lives. For instance, imagine a homeless person who literally has only the dirty closes on his back and shows up to a job interview. Is it reasonable to assume that this person doesn’t respect the job and doesn’t care? I don’t think it is reasonable to make this assumption because there are obviously other things to consider. I think this attitude simplifies things to an unreasonable degree.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to use an imprecise, incredibly subjective, and unreliable “language” to make judgments about people. Furthermore, I think it can be incredibly harmful to make those judgments about those people. To me, it seems like something that is based primarily on emotion rather than reason.
Of course I do, and when I do, I’m not acting rationally. It is something that I shouldn’t do. I shouldn’t conclude that the girl in the lowcut top is slutty just like I shouldn’t judge the guy wearing a shirt with a pot leaf is a stoner. I just don’t have enough data to warrant those conclusions. I don’t think any of the situations you mentioned give us enough data to justify any conclusions.
Verbal language is infinitely more complex and reliable than fashion (or style) to a degree that I think that we shouldn’t rely on fashion to make even provincial judgments. Sure, you can, but I don’t think you are being fair to people when you make those judgments.
I don’t necessarily disagree that it can be a form of communication. And I don’t think I even generally have any contempt for it. I just don’t think it conveys enough information to make any kind of justified conclusion. And I think we all should endeavor to come to conclusions that are justified by good and reliable evidence.
Look, I’m in IT. Jeans and a t-shirt with something stupid on it is my general MO. As Greta says: I wear clothes because I don’t want to be naked… And because I’m self-conscious about exposing my knees for some weird reason. I’ve been told that knee-exposure-anxiety is an actual thing that some people have. Weird, huh?
And in general, I’m relaxed about what people wear to a fault.
But if someone comes into the office with a red and yellow polka-dotted clown suit… Yeah. I’d be wondering what the hell they were doing.
Similarly if someone came into work in their underwear.
Or having a dress code at a bar or a pup. No shirt, no shoes, no service is something I can get behind.
Laurence: Where, in anything I’ve said on this subject, did I use the word “solely,” or any word like it? You’re making a very all-or-nothing argument — and you seem to be assuming that I’m making one, too.
You seem to be saying that, because fashion and style are imperfect forms of communication, therefore we should ignore them entirely. That’s a very all- or- nothing argument. Actual verbal language, as I’ve said, is also an imperfect form of communication — and you don’t think that we should ignore that as well.
Now, if you’re arguing that fashion and style are less precise and more open to misinterpretation than verbal language, and we should therefore place less emphasis on it than we do on verbal language… you’ll get no argument from me. Nowhere have I said that we should reach final, unalterable conclusions about other people based entirely on their clothing and nothing else, or even based primarily on their clothing above all other considerations. I am saying that clothing is a form of expression, and it’s reasonable to make partial, provisional conclusions about people based on it.
I feel like I’m arguing with people who are saying, “I don’t understand French, I’m not comfortable with French, French has all sorts of limitations that don’t exist in English, when I try to communicate in French I’m misunderstood — therefore French is a stupid, irrational, unfair language, and nobody else should speak it.” I have sympathy with the first part of that. I have very little with the second.
I read Greta’s post as having a slightly different point than you seem to. You seem to think that Greta is saying that “when people dress in a way that others perceive as “vain and shallow” that is the perceivers who are wrong and who should change.” I didn’t read that as her point.
What I understood her to be objecting to is when people perceive the act of paying attention to clothing as itself vain and shallow. This has nothing to do with actual clothing, or the people wearing it — it’s all about judging people based on their interests (in this case, the meanings of clothing).
As such, it’s a separate issue from the (real, and unjust) social sanctions against people who dress unconventionally or with socially-“excessive” interest in their own comfort.
I may be sending messages, but I’m not actually a member of the culture you’re suggesting many of us hold in common. I’m more like the guy from Monty Python with the Hungarian phrasebook.
And actually, if I thought I could easily acquire a phrasebook, that would change how I feel about trying to learn to express myself in this particular language. Unlike spoken language, the meanings of even the basic vocabulary in fashion/ style seem to me to change so rapidly that my attempts to learn it are futile. But there don’t seem to be translation guides everyone agrees on. My friend with an interior decorating design eye took me shopping last week and flatly contradicted everything I had tried to research at home… which might be where the backlash you’re perceiving ? against those interested in style is primarily sourced. If I’m supposed to be learning French but one person is teaching me German and another Quechua then eventually I’m entitled to get a bit irritated, aren’t I?
I never thought my first post to you would be about fashion, but here it is.
I wonder about the thing about people who “pay attention to their looks” being dismissed as vain. Somebody used an example of a woman who took her kid to the park dressed in eveningwear. Is the problem that she took a whole lot of trouble to dress up, or that her mode of dress is “not appropriate” for the park? Had she taken a lot of trouble to dress in stunning/understated/elegant/whatever parkwear would that be a problem? That whole thing about what to wear and when is a totally different topic.
I was interested in the need to wear high heels to be taken seriously. Perhaps this is a US thing; I do not get that feeling here in Australia. It may just be a personal though: I see them more as bedroom. (And can I help sort through your stocking drawer?)
Speaking as a man who likes to look at woman’s fashion, I sort of understand when people throw around the superficial and vain tag. What I think they really mean though, is that the woman has failed in her fashion statement. It doesn’t say what she wants, or worse, it says what she wants but nobody understands the message.
To me at least, the effort should be invisible.
Actually my argument is more like, “It is nearly impossible to have any kind of idea that you are right about what someone is saying in French even if you have the ability to speak French. Because of this fact, it seems more reasonable to not make any kind of judgments based on people speaking French than doing so. But if you want to speak French, go for it and have fun!”
Nearly impossible? I think not.
Consider the following scenarios:
You see a woman in a graveyard. You cannot see her features to know her facial expression. She is wearing entirely black clothes.
What do you infer about this woman?
You are in England. You go to the entrance of a building. There is a man in a tall black hat/helment, red coat, white pants, standing to attention and hardly moving.
What do you infer about this man?
You are having interviews for a high-pressure sales job selling bulk products and services for the internal use of multinational corporations. You will be responsible for the performance of the person you hire – your pay increases and future with your employer depend largely on the performance of the sales people you hire and manage.
You look outside your office and see two applicants waiting.
Your first applicant is dressed sharply in a buisness suit, has tidy short hair, is clean shaven, with a crisply ironed shirt, and his belt matches his (polished) shoes.
Your second applicant has long unkempt hair, a beard that looks as though it has never been groomed, is wearing sandals, torn jeans and a badly stained singlet.
Without even having interviewed either of these applicants, what is your impression of each?
Are you more likely to offer the job to one or the other?
If so, why?
Note that of course any inferences drawn in these situations would have to be provisional – we can always be mistaken about these things. And when the stakes are high, of course we should seek additional information.
But all of that is besides the point: That there are things that we can and do infer from style in the vocabulary of fashion in various circumstances.
Re: the food — that example doesn’t sound like communication or expression, just, I dunno, tradition. And the cooking shows, well, I’ve watched one or two, and all I saw were interesting tips on how to cook good tasting food. I didn’t really see any artistic expression, or communication. Still, it’s probably not a good idea to pick apart an analogy too much, so moving on.
First, I don’t believe you when you say that “fashion happens to other people” as far as you’re concerned :). You described an entire outfit, down to the jewelry, that you made up. And a very detailed outfit it was.
However, while I do admit that I have an issue with visual imagination, I don’t think you met the challenge. All I got from your description is she dressed to look good, drinks white wine, and I should think twice before I approach her, because that aloof sneer says “don’t bother.” Sorta the opposite of what you were aiming for.
The other one also didn’t seem to say anything to me except “casually professional.” Nothing about beer.
When I was at the mall today I tried to observe some of the outfits, and ask myself what kind of communication I was getting from them. I wasn’t getting much. That guy’s wearing what he wears at home, that lady just came from work, that other woman likes that top. I couldn’t see any nuance. I’ve also thought back to tv shows and movies (if this communication is real, I would expect the director and costume designers to be very particular about making sure the character’s outfits said exactly what they wanted in any individual scene). Again, I’m not seeing much. He’s got money, he doesn’t. Sheldon’s got a Flash logo, he’s a comic geek. Really, not much there that I could see.
I get some things. I get the “how serious am I about this interview?” idea. I get a continuum from casual to professional, and that not every scenario is appropriate for every point on that continuum. I get dressing a certain way to identify with a particular subculture. I get why I love to wear suits: I love how I look, they’re comfortable, and they make my wife want to tear them off me. But I’m not really getting much else.
Greta, I’m trying to understand this concept of style as communication, but I’m just not seeing how it can be as nuanced as you suggest. I’m not talking about as nuanced as an actual language, just as nuanced as you suggested in the above post. I’m just not seeing it. I feel not so much like I’m having trouble with French, but that I’m colorblind trying to understand a language that’s based on subtle color gradations (now, who gets that reference?).
Clearly a Goth.
He should have studied harder in school.
Insufficient data, let’s see a CV.
Is it reasonable to use clues which originate from unconscious influences and cultural programming as a judge of character? Why?
If a woman goes outside only when dressed in a very conservative manner, do you take that as a signal as to her beliefs and value systems throughout her life? If not, what use is her clothing in assessing her character or attitude? If so, how is that not equivalent to transient prejudice?
It is a form of expression, no doubt, just as painting or music or dance is. What many people object to is that they should need to express themselves in that particular way on a continuous basis. Would you ask someone to paint you a picture, compose a song, or dance a jig in order to assess their character? If not, why is it appropriate to ask someone to dress in a particular way to prove their character?
At no point did I say that what someone is wearing at any given moment is a communication of what they are like throughout their life. What someone is wearing is a partial communication of some limited portions of what they are like on that day.
I think I’m about done with this conversation. I keep being asked to defend positions that I haven’t taken, and that I’ve clearly stated I haven’t taken.
I get that this can be a difficult, emotionally loaded issue. I get that some people don’t feel comfortable or conversant with this particular form of expression, and feel frustrated at the fact that they’re expected to communicate in it anyway. (People who aren’t good with words must feel frustrated at the fact that they’re expected to communicate with them, too.)
But I feel like I’m stating something really obvious: we make choices about what we wear, and those choices communicate some limited information about us. I’m a little baffled at how strongly resistant so many people are to this idea. And I’m getting frustrated at being asked to defend extreme and absurd versions of a very moderate position. It’s making it hard to have a good conversation about the actual position I am taking.
Your post above referenced MarinaS’s comment about how the things that can be expressed through clothing (to most people, who aren’t fashion mavens) are comically limited when looking at fashion as a type of language. You clearly understand this argument, and you argue against it.
However, in your responses to the comments above, you seem to have forgotten that just because clothing can express *something* doesn’t mean that clothing can express *anything*. Saying “your clothing says something about you” is so obvious it’s almost tautological. That adds nothing to the conversation. The question is: what can your clothing say that’s going to be understood by most of mainstream society? I think MarinaS hit the nail on the head when s/he listed the messages that most of society can intuit from your clothing. It is only the “fashion mavens” who can tell anything beyond those areas.
This is why people see an interest in fashion as vain, trivial, and shallow. These are 3 different adjectives, so let’s take them one at a time:
(a) Shallow. Judging people based on their clothing is about as superficial as it gets. “Shallow” seems an apt descriptor. Own it.
(b) Vain. “excessively… concerned about one’s own appearance” – dictionary.com. Your entire point seems to be that we SHOULD be more concerned about our own appearance. Or, at least, that you are, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Your post is a defense of vanity. Own it.
(c) Trivial. As one commenter put it, “any message that is too complicated to be expressed by a small child with crayons is likely to be read entirely differently by everyone who sees it.” Trying to send a more complicated message is doomed to failure. Therefor, people see it as trivial. This should not be surprising.
Also, I’m hoping you will respond to Becca’s comment that if you can send the “respect me” message with clothing, then you can also send the “don’t respect me. I’m open for business.” message with clothing. That seems very troubling from a feminist perspective.
Wes: Okay. I’ll take this one on.
I think there are women — and men — who do express through their clothing, “I’m sexually available, and I’m not that particular, I like having sex with lots of different people and I’m not that choosy.”
And I think this is a perfectly valid thing to say. I think it’s a perfectly valid way to live, if it works for that person. The problem isn’t with people expressing that through style. The problem is with other people assuming that this means, “I have low self-esteem, and don’t need or expect to be respected.” (And, more obviously and more seriously, the problem is with treating this as an invitation to rape.)
And yet plenty of people in this conversation are fighting hard against that very notion.
If, as you yourself acknowledge, clothing says something about you, why is it shallow to evaluate people based on it?
Why does “more” concerned = “excessively” concerned? In any case, I’m not advocating being more concerned about appearance. I’m advocating making choices about appearance, and what one expresses about one’s self through it, intentionally rather than unintentionally.
Really? Any concept too complicated to be expressed by a small child with crayons is doomed to failure? David Hume, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, Werner Heisenberg, etc. etc. etc. — these people’s ideas are trivial because children can’t express them with crayons, and they’re open to misinterpretation? I must be misunderstanding you, since this literally makes no sense.
And see my comment above, where I said that I am getting very frustrated with being asked to defend extreme positions that I don’t hold, and have repeatedly said I don’t hold. If you want to debate positions I’ve actually expressed, I’m open to the possibility. I am not willing to debate when I’m asked to defend words that are being put into my mouth.
Oy, clearly I do not understand HTML. You were supposed to be quoted several times in the above comment. Let’s try it this way:
The problem is with other people assuming that this means, “I have low self-esteem, and don’t need or expect to be respected.”
Isn’t this precisely the problem that people have been pointing out? That you can be trying to say one thing, but people will interpret it as another, and that there is no “phrasebook” to tell us who is right? That it’s entirely subjective? Also, this begs the question: can’t a person send the message “I have low self-esteem, and don’t need or expect to be respected”? Are you comfortable with people interpreting one another’s clothing to say that?
If, as you yourself acknowledge, clothing says something about you, why is it shallow to evaluate people based on it?
“Shallow” does not equal “wrong.” It’s shallow because it only goes skin-deep. That’s what the word means. Being shallow is sometimes justified.
Why does “more” concerned = “excessively” concerned? In any case, I’m not advocating being more concerned about appearance. I’m advocating making choices about appearance, and what one expresses about one’s self through it, intentionally rather than unintentionally.
That sounds an awful lot like you’re saying we should be more concerned with our appearance, and what it says to other people. To a person who is less concerned about that sort of thing, your level of concern seems excessive. It’s a subjective judgment. I’m just point out that, to most people (especially people who read your blog), your level of concern seems excessive, and therefore, vain.
Regarding the “trivial” paragraph, I assumed you had read the comment I was quoting. It’s #10, by Ramel. It should be read “the idea was that any message [ATTEMPTED TO BE EXPRESSED THROUGH CLOTHING] that is too complicated to be expressed by a small child with crayons is likely to be read entirely differently by everyone who sees it.”
I take your point about words being put in your mouth. But you are arguing that the range of expression available through clothing is a lot larger than I (and apparently, many of your readers) think that it is. The ideas that you feel can be expressed through clothing choices seem comprehensible only to a small subset of society that has the same fashion sense as you. Someone with a different fashion sense is going to get a totally different message, when you try to convey anything more subtle than “I’m dressed up” or “I care about this job interview” or “I’m a member of X tribe.” It’s useful to be able to communicate these things, but anything deeper is a waste of time & energy. It is trivial, it is shallow, and it is often motivated by vanity
Why, precisely, is it shallow, trivial, and vain to select particular colors, textures, or clothing styles as a sort of self-expression? Sure, the message that I am sending is not necessarily received in the same way by those around me, but so what? This discussion has gotten as silly as a “sex is for reproduction only” tirade at a Catholic marriage prep workshop. I can enjoy clothing, sex, writing bad poetry, making paintings, and a whole host of other things that aren’t officially useful. I can’t imagine Wes announcing that anything other than the most mundanely routine sex or more tasty than that vegetable loaf that prisons serve as punishment food is a “waste of time and energy,” so what is it about clothing in particular that makes people so eager to be the Pleasure Police™ and declare attention to clothing shallow, trivial, and vain?
By this same reasoning, wouldn’t it also be sexist to think a male dominated field like football or video games is trivial? This seems like kind of a persecution complex. Fashion, football, and video games are in no way essential to our survival on this planet. Is it really sexist not to consider them all that important? My masculinity does not feel threatened when I meet someone who does not like football, I just recognize that it is not their thing and move on. Does fashion really have to be inexorably tied to femininity? Why the special status?
I take no issue with anything else you say on fashion in general. I have found it all very interesting and informative.
No. And here’s why: When women say, in actual verbal words, “I’m sexually available, and I’m not that particular, I like having sex with lots of different people and I’m not that choosy”… that *still* gets interpreted as meaning, “I have low self-esteem, and don’t need or expect to be respected.” The problem isn’t that the message isn’t being conveyed clearly. The problem is that our culture assumes that Message A automatically equals Message B… no matter how it’s being expressed.
Really? You’re trying to argue that “shallow” isn’t an insult? And in any case, you didn’t address my actual question: If, as you yourself acknowledge, clothing says something about you, why is it shallow to evaluate people based on it?
That is not what I’m saying. I’m going to try this one more time.
There are lots of people who are unhappy and frustrated because other people come to inaccurate conclusions about them based on how they dress. Many of those people say things like, “I want to be judged for who I am, not on what I wear.” To those people — and to those people only — I’m saying that, like it or not, what you wear expresses something about who you are. And you can make more conscious choices about how to dress, in a way that expresses who you are more accurately. If you don’t care, or if you’re reasonably happy with how your style presents who you are, then I’m not talking to you. You can care about this as much or as little as you like. If fashion/style is a language you’re not comfortable with, you can learn it fluently enough to translate Proust, or you can learn it well enough to be able to say “Please direct me to the railway station” without accidentally saying “My hovercraft is full of eels.” I don’t care; it’s none of my business. But for people who are unhappy because they keep talking about eels when they don’t mean to, I’m suggesting that they can become more familiar with the basic phrasebook.
So “more interested in the nuances of this art form/ form of expression than others” = vanity?
And why is clothing different from other imprecise forms of expression? Why is it that words that can be misinterpreted aren’t trivial, but expressions through style are? Why is it that music, art, architecture, poetry, dance, etc. that can be misinterpreted aren’t trivial, but this one particular art form is?
You’re basically just repeating the thesis I’m countering — namely, that this particular art form/ form of expression is inherently shallow, trivial, and vain — without making any real case as to why that is.
All I can say to this… well, what I really want to say to this, I can’t say without violating my own comment policy. So all I can say to this is: You are flatly mistaken. There are plenty of people who care about this art form/ form of expression, and who do so in a way that is intelligent, thoughtful, nuanced, artful, and concerned with communication and connection. And when you make this assumption, you are unfairly dismissing those people. Not to mention being flatly insulting.
In other words: We’re debating differences of degree, questions of nuance. We’re not debating whether fashion and style are a form of expression. We’re debating to what degree it can do this, and with what degree of nuance, and how accurately it can do this, and how many people will understand it or misunderstand it.
Which I’m happy to do. Or rather: Which I would have been happy to do earlier in the conversation, before I got completely frustrated and irritated with so many people putting extreme, non-nuanced, absurd versions of my ideas in my mouth and demanding that I defend them. And, frankly, which I would have been happy to do with people who wanted to engage in that conversation in a good-natured, slack-cutting manner, and who didn’t insist that caring about an art form/ form of expression that they personally aren’t interested in makes me shallow, trivial, and vain.
“By this same reasoning, wouldn’t it also be sexist to think a male dominated field like football or video games is trivial?”
I answered this question of yours on the last thread, so here goes again: As a society, we *don’t* think football and video games are stupid and trivial. I’ve heard men and women–some even self-described feminists!–say they think clothing and fashion and make-up are stupid because they’re “lame and girly.” I have never heard ANYONE say football or videgames are “lame and boy-y.” Now, I generally don’t give a damn about fashion, but I do notice when activities that are gendered feminine are derided not for any inherent boredom-inducing property they possess, but because they are seen as belonging to girls. There is mainstream approval for a straight girl who likes football (provided she doesn’t want to play it herself, she’ll be thought of as cool and receive that much-coveted “one of the guys” status.) There’s very little social approval–and often, much outright opprobrium and hostility–for a straight guy who enjoys fashion too much. Why do you think that might be?
I’ve heard videogames called “lame,” “dumb,” and “stupid” before. And I’ve heard football players derided as stupid neanderthals, and not in any tone that was positive. Still, that’s not enough to say society as a whole views them that way (although I’d say acceptance of videogames is a recent development).
That’s . . . actually the conversation I was hoping to have, or see started, with my previous comments. I’m sorry this went south for you.
You missed the 2nd part: “boy-y”. Have you heard videogames derided specifically because of their association with young males? I’ve certainly heard that association being made, but not pejoratively, although I may have missed it. (I’m male, if it matters.)
Sorry, meant to address that. Probably forgot to because, well, no, I can’t think of any time that I’ve heard videogames derided because of an association with young men. Football, yes, but not since pre-adolescence, and at that age, most girls are deriding anything connected to boys. Although, I’ve never heard “Neanderthal” used to refer to a woman, so perhaps using that language is similar to “boy-y”?
I was thinking about this.
I think it is kind of “shallow” (more precisely, presumptuous, uncritical, thoughtless, self-centered, and dysfunctionally normist) to assume that the associations (generic) you, personally, have for a given piece or combination of clothing are the only things it could possibly mean to anyone else. Assuming that everyone who wears shorts or sandals is lazy and self-absorbed (actually came up recently), even if you very grudgingly rephrase it in slightly less moralistic terms (which doesn’t help if you ignore 20+ people pointing out that you’re making an association on a par with “if I buy kippers, it will not rain”), is “shallow” in the same sense as, say, assuming all men who prefer their partners shave their pubic hair are really closeted pedophiles (came up a while ago and I had reason to cite you talking sense on the matter recently).
There are a number of other problems with “fashion” as a social institution and as daily practice that have been cited or can be. I agree that this doesn’t call for dismissing the entire concept of communicating via personal appearance choices or of any kind of consensus vocabulary for such communication, but…
Well, the tub is pretty big and pretty deep. We can start draining the bathwater while we continue to look for the baby.
I’ve certainly heard the phrase “stupid guy thing” on more than one occasion.
That would be “shallow,” but Greta at least has not made that claim. It appears that some in your experience have. I assume, however, that the use of “(generic)” was an attempt to be clear you aren’t implying Greta is being shallow in this sense?
Not familiar with Greta’s comments on this, but I like to respond that by the same logic, women who prefer men that have clean-shaven faces are closeted pedophiles. Or (just thought of this), would that mean that people who shave, and prefer to be clean-shaven (me), really just want their childhood back (when frankly, I don’t look at my childhood with nostalgia or warm fuzzy feelings)?
Sorry, tangent. That one just always bugs me.
“But I feel like I’m stating something really obvious: we make choices about what we wear, and those choices communicate some limited information about us. I’m a little baffled at how strongly resistant so many people are to this idea. ”
Context and experience are important here. As a geek in a geek world I have _learned_ that the clothes my colleagues wear at work communicate _nothing_ useful about their competence, skills, working style etc. Or, alternatively, that I lack the cultural capital and the will to interpret whatever the hell it is they’re communicating.
Otoh, it’s obvious, I would have thought, that what the same people wear in a social setting – for example to the office xmas party – says considerably more.
Have you looked at pictures and literature from the past? ‘Books on historical costuming’ might be influenced by current norms, e.g., they may assume they are much more likely to be read by (modern) women looking for inspiration, or that (modern) men are going to be more conservative about what ‘costume’ they will wear. Okay, maybe the last few centuries have had more conservative choices for men, but the period I know best is medieval to rennaissance, and I think there is no question that men had more variety, partly because of the strong constraints on what women were allowed to reveal. E.g. medieval fashion in shoes is mostly male because you could almost never see the woman’s shoes as she had to wear a floor length gown; meanwhile “hem length” for men goes from ankle to knee to thigh to bum-revealing and then around again. And there is no end of sermons from the period denouncing the triviality and vanity of those who cared about the latest styles.
In other words, these criticisms occured before fashion was predominently female. That doesn’t mean that there is no sexist element to current criticisms; but I think it casts some doubt on sexism being a major explanation for the existence of these criticisms.
Sorry I missed your earlier reply, I had thought my comment never posted last time and did not check it. Thank you for your answer, twice.
Your point is well taken. I’ll agree that if someone does not like fashion because “that is what girls do” they are indeed being sexist. It just seems like a heavy assumption to make about motivation. I like video games a lot, but I will admit my indulgence in them is indeed trivial and shallow. I even know some elitist people that are vain about their skill level, though this is in no way fundamental to playing video games (much like being vain about fashion exists but is not a requirement).
Greta’s argument was that since fashion is female dominated, it is sexist to think it is shallow, trivial, or vain. I was trying to point out that there are other reasons, besides sexism, for considering something, fashion included, shallow, trivial, or vain.
As for mainstream opinions about men and fashion, male gender roles are always more restrictive than female ones, not just in fashion. I have difficulty thinking of an interest that makes a woman inherently unfeminine. For men there are many: make-up, fashion, interior decorating, early child education, etc. Let me emphasize, that I don’t agree with these opinions, I just consider them to be culturally popular.
I think one of the main areas of confusion here is that you seem to be conflating “clothing as expression” and “clothing as communication.”
As a form of expression, much like a work of art, a person can say ANYTHING with her appearance. Looking at the body as a canvas, one can “mean” anything one wishes. And like a painting, such expression is personal to the creator. Expression may mean a different thing to each person that hears it, and THAT IS OK. IMO good art *will* mean something different to each person who sees it. Art speaks to us all in different ways. I can interpret a Dali painting to mean something wildly different than what Dali meant to say, but that doesn’t mean that either of us are doing it wrong. Expression/art *means* whatever it means to the individual who is observing it. Clothing can be used that way to say absolutely anything, so matter how subtle or nuanced.
What clothing is NOT good at, however, is communication. Sure, clothing can clearly communicate relatively shallow messages. Here are the ones MarinaS pointed out:
– Level of attractiveness
– Level of wealth
– Crude tribal cultural associations that can be signalled with one or two items (vintage dresses, punk t-shirts)
– Some tribal political associations (hemp jeans, preppy chinos, Birkenstocks)
– Limited information about ethics (brands with “bad” ethical reputations)
– Limited and potentially misleading information about sexual orientation or interests
(Ok, I think I did that right. Maybe?) I’m sure there are a few more, but that is the level of communication you can accomplish to most people with your clothing, and it’s all widely open to interpretation. When you claim that your clothing can say “I’m mature and self-possessed, with a friendly and playful side,” that’s where you lose me. As a form of EXPRESSION, clothing can say that. But expecting the public at large to get that message from your clothing is, I think, asking a bit much. Many, many comments, both in your original post, and this one, have pointed out how the ways in which clothing is interpreted by different people to mean wildly different things.
The reason for this, in my assessment, is because your idea about fashion being a shared cultural vocabulary is simply wrong. Unless you are referring to “the culture” as consisting of only the so-called fashion mavens, the cultural at large shares only a very limited vocabulary in terms of what a person’s clothing means in any given context. Only specific subcultures have a larger vocabulary. But what is communicated in one subculture may be wildly different from what is communicated in another.
As to whether an interest in fashion is shallow, trivial, and/or vain:
Fashion/style as a form of expression or an artform may be shallow, trivial, or vain. Like any other artform, it depends on the person practicing it. But it is not necessarily any of those things, so I understand your frustration at having it assumed that it is, and I understand your suspicion that sexism may be a part of the reason why.
(side note before my next paragraph: “shallow” (much like “vain” and “trivial”) is a word with a clear, agreed-upon definition. It is not an insult. Just because it has a negative connotation does not mean that the definition changes. Treating words that way is what leads to all the ridiculous statements that start “I’m not racist, but….” Words have meaning. Just because it feels bad to have a certain descriptor applied doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.)
Fashion as a form of communication, however, once it goes beyond the overt messages of the type MarinaS pointed out, IS shallow. “Shallow” is a relative term. Communication using clothing is a much shallower form of communication that communication using words. This is why it’s looked at as shallow, while verbal communication is not.
“Trivial” is more debatable. I look at attempting to communicate subtle messages using clothing as trivial, because, as I said earlier, I feel it is doomed to failure, and creates just as much confusion as actual communication. But really, I don’t think it creates much of either. I think the difference between one subtle message and another will go over the heads of almost everyone who sees it, hence my belief that it is trivial. It accomplishes nothing.
“Vanity” is a subjective term. I defined it earlier as “excessive” concern for one’s own appearance. We all get to decide for ourselves what is excessive. If I feel that your level of concern for your own appearance is excessive, you can either argue that I’m wrong (and give reasons for that), or you can ignore me. I feel that your level of concern is excessive *if* you’re going for communication. If you’re going for expression, I do not feel that way. However, most of your post seemed to be talking about how to communicate using clothing.
The other problem with the “vain” descriptor is that many, many people who pay a lot of attention to their appearance are simply trying to look good to other people, and I think we’d all agree that that behavior fits the description “vanity.” While it’s unfair to lump everyone in with the offenders, I think artemis did a good job explaining why what YOU wear, when it’s clear you put a lot of effort into it, might be communicating the message “I am vain.”
“But for people who are unhappy because they keep talking about eels when they don’t mean to, I’m suggesting that they can become more familiar with the basic phrasebook.”
Can you help me out by pointing to a source for this? I’m serious; my friends have staged interventions before when I showed up for”gala” in what was apparently “business casual” and as I said my design friend just flatly contradicted everything I had researched online. I am apparently Doing It Wrong.
Sorry but I think I’m now missunderstanding you. Just how does a lifetimes work, that could take you months read and years to fully understand, compare to picking an outfit? Words have broadly agreed upon meanings and are designed to be strung together to comunicate complex ideas, and even then missunderstandings are frequent. Fashion has no dictionary and is subjectively interpreted by the veiwer. You can make a good argument for fashion as an art form comparable to music or painting, but if after a couple of centuries people still can’t agree on the meaning of the Mona Lisa’s expression, what chance does your shirt have?
And what is the difference between judging people on their style, and judging them on something like their nationality, accent, physical attractiveness, age, body type, or conformity to gender norms? People routinely make judgements about others based on trivial observations that they link to stereotypes, why should we raise clothing to a higher level?
Frankly all I’d ever want to communicate with my clothing is “talk to my head, it might actually have something to say”.
Clearly not a gamer then? I do play a lot of games in my free time and I routinely hear people disparaging games using sterotypes of pimpley teenage boys and stoned loosers who live with their mothers.
For a good example of this, see the “Make Love Not Warcraft” episode of South Park: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s10e08-make-love-not-warcraft
“What Not to Wear” is a really good start. The more recent episodes are better: the earlier episodes are more snarky and less subtle (although still worth watching). In the more recent episodes, they get better at getting inside the heads of their subjects and figuring out what would work for them specifically. I don’t always agree with their choices, but it’s been very helpful to me in thinking about this.
I view the nuances of fashion as somewhat akin to fine wine culture. A person can get deeply immersed in it, and as one does I imagine it becomes more interesting, more absorbing, more complex, and more expensive. Aficionados of wine and fashion (and many other things) are apt to lose sight of the fact that ultimately it is a luxury hobby they’re engaged in, and that most people are content with an 8-dollar wine bottle, or the basic appropriate dress for their occasion.
I do agree that clothing on the “basic appropriate dress” level is worth giving a little time and thought to, and I don’t have a lot of patience for people who would show up to a first date in a ratty T-shirt and say “I want to be judged for who I am, not how I dress!” But fashion on the level you’re talking about is far more esoteric, and in my view isn’t defensible as anything but a luxury hobby. There’s nothing wrong with an expensive luxury hobby, but when you try to convince the rest of the world that it’s deep and important, they are likely to be unimpressed. It gives you pleasure to participate in fashion; you shouldn’t need to defend it on any other grounds.
azkyroth: I agree. Fortunately, I don’t do this. I don’t think I’m the sole arbiter of what fashion/ style communicates. I understand that it’s imprecise, open to interpretation, varies from culture to culture, etc.
Ramel: I’m not saying that fashion and style are in the same league as great literature, etc. (In some cases I think it is — Alexander McQueen comes to mind — but the stuff I put on to go to work in the morning doesn’t fall into that category.) My point was just this: The fact that an art form/ form of expression is open to misinterpretation and can’t be clearly expressed by a five year old with crayons doesn’t make it trivial.
(In any case, who do you think makes those clothes? People who put years of work into their craft. This is a topic for a separate piece… but I often see fashion and style as a collaborative art form between the designer and the wearer.)
You’re making my point for me. The fact that an art form/ form of expression is open to question and interpretation does not make it invalid or trivial. And as I keep saying, even literal verbal language is often misunderstood and open to interpretation. (Note, for instance, Wes’s insistence that calling someone “shallow” is not an insult — an idiosyncratic interpretation that I have never heard before in my life.) As I’ve now said approximately eighty bezillion times (sorry if I’m getting cranky, but I’m really tired of repeating myself and not having it be heard): If you’re going to dismiss fashion and style as a form of expression and communication because it’s imprecise and open to different interpretations and misinterpretation, you have to dismiss actual verbal language as well. Along with every other form of art and expression.
Like I keep saying: If your point is that fashion/ style are a *less* precise form of expression and communication than verbal language, and that *less* weight should be therefore be given to it, I’m in 100% agreement. If you want to discuss to what degree it can effectively communicate, that is, again, an interesting discussion that I’d be happy to have. (Or again, that is an interesting discussion that I would have been happy to have before I kept having points I repeatedly make ignored, and kept being asked to defend positions I haven’t taken, and became entirely irritated and frustrated.)
The difference is that we make choices about our style. We don’t make choices about these other things. (And please note that I’m not using the word “judge.”)
You know, I really do get that this is a loaded issue. It’s a loaded issue for me for me, too. But I feel like I’m making a really moderate point here: “What you wear says something about who you are — what and how much we can discuss, but it says something — and if you’re saying things you don’t intend to say and are unhappy about that, you can make your choices about what you wear more conscious rather than less.” And I feel like I’m being asked to stand in for the bitchy, judgmental fashion police.
Two problems with that.
First, the philosophical problem: you’re recommending (or at least implying) that people unhappy with the way society functions should try to conform. A lot of the commenters on your original post expressed a lot of dissatisfaction with our society’s focus on appearance, and your seeming endorsement of this focus. I think you insult the intelligence of your readers when you say “if you don’t like what your clothes say, maybe you ought to wear something else.” We understand that people make assumptions about us from the clothing we wear. The frustration, to a lot of people, is that our clothes say anything at all. We don’t like that. We want to change it. We want to encourage people to pay LESS attention to appearances. Your recommendations in your piece perpetuate society’s appearance focus by recommending (or at least implying) that people unhappy with what their clothing says should focus more on their appearance. They are arguing that the rest of us should focus on it less.
The difference between this and language is that nobody is arguing that we shouldn’t have language. Language is incredibly useful, and its usefulness clearly outweighs all of its faults. That is not the case with fashion. I would argue that the faults of the “language of fashion” grossly outweigh any usefulness it has, and we would all be better off if nobody assumed that anyone else’s appearance communicated anything.
Second: that’s not all you said! You said a lot of other things about the range of concepts that can be communicated using appearance, the value of this particular form of expression, the motivations behind those who consider fashion vain, trivial, and shallow, and a bunch of other things, all of which people are responding to. You chose to complicate your message. You can’t now insist that it is simple.
Seriously? You’ve never heard something described as “shallow” that’s not an insult. Here’s an example: I liked Transformers 2. My enjoyment of Transformers 2 was shallow, as I only really liked it for the hilarious stupidity of the storyline and the cool special effects. Saying so isn’t insulting! It’s true! But the larger point is that even if it IS insulting, it’s still true! Saying “it’s insulting” isn’t a refutation. On some level, all disagreements are insulting.
Those points weren’t intended to be a statement of your position. I understand that you don’t judge a person’s general character on what they happen to wear on a particular day.
My fundamental point was that many people do, sometimes on an on-going basis. We are culturally programmed from an early age to treat some forms of dress as serious and respectable and others as trivial, foolish, or careless.
I don’t see this as being in conflict with your position. I was trying to open up the discussion as to the questionable implications and potential moral issues with using cultural intuition to make judgments about people. Clearly I failed quite badly to convey that.
Note that I often use the second person out of sheer habit, to engage the reader. I see why it was taken personally.
I’m sorry I did not make it clear that my post was not meant to be read literally or understood in a personal manner. That was my mistake and I’ve wasted your time with it.
Though I didn’t expect my post to be read with an emotionally charged tone, I should have known better.
I agree that the choices people make, for whatever the reasons, convey something about them. What I question is whether people are truly able to make completely free choices about many things, and to what degree the apparent ‘choice’ is actually a reflection of social conditioning.
I’m sorry that I frustrated you. My points were abstract and so may very well have been extreme or absurd when compared to the real world.
Further, I didn’t intend to close off the conversation or make anyone feel that their position was not being represented. The thought of that makes me quite sad, honestly.
Linguistic communication is often seen as shallow, too, among many other things. This depends a great deal on the context, especially the speaker or writer and the audience.
I think Greta is correct that clothing and dress is often considered shallow precisely because it is a “women’s pursuit”. Culturally, there’s not much you can say in response to someone’s claim that paying attention to what you wear is shallow or vain. In a real sense, it’s a tautological statement because the meanings of those words have been intimately connected to such hobbies for centuries now.
In other words, you can’t use the dictionary to prove these kinds of points. The dictionary doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum, with robot writers free from all worldly influence. The reason why words change meaning over time is that they no longer adequately describe reality to people’s satisfaction, not that they were intrinsically deficient.
As to the comparison with video games and sports, there is one key distinction. Although members of both genders do disparage hobbies dominated by one gender, there’s a power difference. Women have very little say over how football is run or the content of first person shooters; their opinions are largely ignored. On the other hand, men have a great deal of influence in fashion from the very top of the supply chain on down.
That was kind of my point. Saying “paying a lot of attention to appearances isn’t shallow or vain” is demonstrably false. It’s like saying “this 2D object has 4 connecting sides of equal length, but that doesn’t make it a square.” Or, more relevant, “I think men should have dominion over women, but I’m not a sexist.”
Instead of insisting that fashion isn’t shallow or vain, I think a defender of fashion ought to be insisting that there’s nothing wrong with being shallow or vain, if it’s in pursuit of a worthwhile goal.
Saying someone is “shallow” strongly implies that the person will not look deeper than the surface. In this context, it implies that the person will judge someone based solely on appearance, and will hold that impression even if the person judged demonstrates they are more complicated or nuanced than the appearance suggests. And Wes, you are the only person I’ve ever seen try to defend “shallow” as not insulting, or as not having that implication.
I do want to be sure that I understand your position, so a few questions: What are your thoughts on school uniforms? Or on restrictive dress codes at work? Or -as I saw once- a job ad that specifies what kind of clothes to wear for a job interview? All three level the playing field in terms of making everyone look alike, making personal expression based on clothing and appearance limited or impossible. Thus, in such cases people cannot pay attention to appearances, and must look to other things in order to make judgments about people.
Saying someone is “shallow” doesn’t mean that they won’t look deeper than the surface. It means that they are NOT looking deeper than the surface, which is exactly what someone is doing when he derives communication from someone’s appearance (or when he attempts to communicate using appearance). Defending this practice as “not shallow” is intellectually dishonest.
I’m very in favor of specifying what to wear for a job interview (so long as it’s not acting as a barrier to entry). I think that is a way to minimize the (conscious and unconscious) biases the interviewer might have based on the dress of the applicant. However, I’m not in favor of dress codes in general. See my comments above regarding “expression” vs. “communication.” I think the freedom to express oneself is important, and I tend to disfavor anything that limits expression without a really good reason. I just wish that people wouldn’t draw conclusions (even provisional ones) based on what someone is wearing, unless it’s the clear intent of the wearer (i.e. a shirt with a written message on it such as “I support Planned Parenthood” or something). Uniforms might help with this, but it would be at the cost of squelching expression, and I don’t think it’s worth it.
kagerato: Thank you. I really appreciate your last comment. At some point, when I’m feeling less raw, I really would like to have a good conversation about the nuances of this question with people of good intentions who I disagree with. Right now, I think I need to drop it. I may raise it again, though. This is an art form/ form of expression that I find fascinating and love to talk about, and I really want to find a way to talk about it that doesn’t work everyone’s nerves.
Wes: Thank you for sharing.
This is absurd. Clothing says a great deal about how a person regards and treats their body. When I see someone in uncomfortable, ill-fitting, or dirty clothing or shoes, I know something about them. When I see someone in neat, clean clothing that fits comfortably, even if it is inexpensive and faded, I know something else about them. Same with a handknit shawl, well-broken-in hiking boots, or resoled shoes.
Why in the world would one WANT everyone to stop paying attention to other people’s bodies in this way?
Greta, I think I came across as being more arse-holeish about this subject than I intended and I’m sorry if I annoyed you. This subject has been an issue of mine for a long time, I tend to get very defensive when I feel I’m being judged for my looks, accent, dress sense or whatever. And as they say, “the best defence is to take offence”, or something like that…
[blockquote]We understand that people make assumptions about us from the clothing we wear. The frustration, to a lot of people, is that our clothes say anything at all. We don’t like that. We want to change it. We want to encourage people to pay LESS attention to appearances. Your recommendations in your piece perpetuate society’s appearance focus by recommending (or at least implying) that people unhappy with what their clothing says should focus more on their appearance. They are arguing that the rest of us should focus on it less.[/blockquote]
This is basically what I was trying to say although not nearly as clear.
Because there is a high probability that that you are not learning something true about a person, and as people who value the truth, we should use the most effective methods for discovering it and not use methods which are highly suspect.
You asked: Maybe it’s just me, but whenever someone says they dress for comfort I kinda assume they prefer to dress in a manner that comfortably hides their body.
I disagree, comfort and whether one chooses to hide one’s body or display it are orthogonal. When I say I dress primarily for comfort I mean I choose clothes that do not restrict my movement and which are made of soft fabrics that feel pleasant on my skin. The last jeans I bought are form-fitting but surprisingly non-restrictive and amazingly soft on the inside. They don’t particularly hide my form. Shorts are also comfortable in the right weather.
On the matter of dressing for work and for job interviews:
I think rationally speaking, it should depend on the type of job one is interviewing for. I think it would make sense that people would dress for a job interview in a style resembling what they would wear for the job in question. (Within reason – if job attire includes items worn for safety, for instance, no need to wear them to an interview.) If one is interviewing for a job where they are expected to interact with the public, represent the employer to the public etc, and the employer thinks a certain style is required to do the job justice then it makes sense that a candidate would be judged (among other things) on how well s/he can wear that style (or one close to it), how naturally one behaves while wearing that style, etc. But in other cases – why not wear jeans and t-shirt? When I am comfortable, believe me, my job performance is better than when I’m not.
As for shoes – I will show up to a job interview in sneakers or hiking shoes. I commute by bus, I walk several miles each day as part of my commute, I spend many of my work hours walking or standing. I’m going to wear shoes that let me do that without suffering.
Laurence – exactly why would clothing NOT reflect, at least to some extent, how a person regards their body? I’ve gone through stages where I dressed in poorly fitting, unmended, or stained clothing. It absolutely reflected my attitudes towards my body, which at that time were of the “my body is just the cart that carries my brain around” dissociation variety. I’m not talking about Versace versus Old Navy, I’m not even talking about new versus thrift shop clothing. I’m talking about clothing that shows that the person has thought about how their body feels, and how well they take care of things that touch their body.
Do you have opinions of people with yahoo or aol email addresses? People who run Linux compared with people who run Windows ME? People who are clean compared to people who haven’t brushed their teeth or bathed in a week? People who read Twilight versus those who read Roger Zelazny? Why is this different?
I think you can legitimately argue for costume as art, and self-expression, but not as language. There *isn’t* a phrase book, any more than there is for any other visual art.
And from what I’ve seen of Trinny & Susannah – granted, only one episode – their idea seemed to be “your tastes suck, now wear something boring and conventional.” I just now went and had a look on the website, and they will give you style rules to print out and take shopping with you (assuming that you are a woman) “to avoid stares and sniggers at your fashion disasters”.
It has ZERO to do with what you might want to express. All the quiz points to get your “personalised” style rules are about physical shape – how big is your bum, waist, shoulders, height etc. Having broad shoulders is bad. Being fat is bad. You want to hide these things. Of course you do. Being an olympic swimmer is shameful. You want to look tall and thin. Otherwise people will stare and snigger.
I’m not taking advice from that.
Pure personal preference here kagerato, I’ve never found second person especially engaging (even when I use it). I usually find it off-putting and disruptive.
@JohnK: I agree that the male gender role typically has more no-go areas, and that that’s unfair. I wish men had the freedom to wear skirts and work with small children without raising eyebrows and revel in the sensuality of different fabrics; sexism can screw men too. I have zero arguments there.
“I have difficulty thinking of an interest that makes a woman inherently unfeminine.”—JohnK.
Belching swear words? 😛
Okay, seriously: I think refusing to reproduce might be one.
I do think that sometimes people confuse a feminist critique of masculinity’s excesses with reverse-sexism, though. If there’s a hyper-masculine culture among, say, football players (sleeping with underage girls, beating their girlfriends, whatever) those football players may be characterised as knuckle-draggers. I think it would certainly be unfair and sexist to say that “football players are all idiot knuckle-draggers, who perpetuate the worst stereotypes about men.” I have heard one or two hardcore feminists say this. It’s similar to that oft-heard line about all models being bitchy anorexics who perpetuate the worst stereotypes about women, I suppose.
“Clearly not a gamer, then?”—Ramel.
Honestly, I think the ‘pimply male nerd stereotype’ is a badge of pride for some boys. It’s considered cool to be thought of as a nerd and to have ‘nerd’ hobbies these days. Every second celebrity claims to have been a massive dork in high school. I think the old stereotype of the nerd being male still holds, but girls aren’t thought of as nerds because that would imply that we like sci-fi trivia-hoarding and computer-programming and all that brainy stuff that chicks just don’t get, you know?
Tangentially, my experience is that computer-focused stuff is no longer considered uncool. Even your stereotypical teenage sports freak can proudly also announce that he plays Call Of Duty Black Ops, and no-one will batt an eye. Every young person’s a computer geek these days—it’s just a matter of to what degree!
Coming very late to this discussion, so I doubt anything I say will be noticed, let alone deemed relevant. That said –
Greta, I’ve always admired your fashion choices. I always thought you followed the same path as me: study current fashion for “the vocabulary”, then say what you want to express. I’ve always been a bit envious, ’cause you were willing to be more effusive. (I’ve always had a conservative streak.)
I agree that fashion is a language, one that not everyone speaks to their own advantage. I consider myself fluent; not only am I speaking French, I’m speaking Russian, Incan, and occasionally Bushman. I consider carefully what I wear each day, constructing my statement to the world – and that statement can vary wildly. I have closets full of clothes, and sometimes I hate them all because they can’t quite say what I’m trying to convey.
I don’t think I’ve looked at a Vogue magazine in 2 years. I don’t watch television, or follow fashion in the media. I do watch what others on the street are wearing, and I have a background in historical fashion. I am a member of the working poor; I spend less than $1,000.00 a year on clothing, including such essentials as underwear and shoes for work. I thrift shop, buy at sales, and make my own. With these, I have a broad palate to work from – and I never throw anything away until it’s truly dead.
Given this, I know what I’m saying when I get dressed (usually in under ten minutes, despite the underlying thought involved). And I accept that most of the nuance of what I’m saying will be lost on my “audience”, because they perhaps don’t care to speak the language beyond its simplest basics, speak the language poorly themselves, or maybe even speak a different dialect. So what? If I choose to descant in the Old English of Beowulf, does the fact that almost no one understands alter my enjoyment of the poetry? I think not, at least not for me. And I accept that people will make judgements about me based on my choice of apparel. That they are usually wrong I choose to be amused by rather than upset.
Am I vain? Perhaps just a tad. Shallow? Not on your life. Trivial? I think not. Oppressed? Certainly not by the dictates of fashion. Feminine? You bet, when I choose to be; or as powerfully masculine as I want, when I want. And my clothing helps me express these things, whether anyone’s listening or not.
I’ve truly missed you, Greta, and I’m so very happy to see you and Ingrid doing well. Best wishes.
The different cultures thing? I had *no idea* what you meant by “What Not To Wear” before I talked to Google about it.
Thinking about the title of the show, though: if that’s indicative of how they talk about clothing, then do they rule things out, rather than rule them in? That strikes me as a classic fuzzy problem – negation is the origin of content – but not as a basic phrasebook, because it doesn’t tell you *what to wear* the way a phrasebook should. It tells you what doesn’t count instead…
However, I haven’t seen the show!
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I know this is really old but I need to tell it like it is. I disagree very strongly with everything written here, though I do value that someone is willing to think a bit more about it.
I do not think fashion is self expression.
I do not think fashion is “art.”
Fashion designers and fans would hate me for this, but someone HAS to say it. And that someone in this case is me. I’m saying it. There is no downvote button for you to hide and censor my opinion.
Fashion is a form of oppression and I continue to find it disturbing that people think it is justifiable. Fashion will be considered an appalling aspect of human past at some point in the future.
It is a way to display social status, and little else. I mean, how can you not see this? How is judging based on physical appearance in any way considered an ethical practice. “Well it’s just part of the world we live in, you have to get used to it!” That’s the single shittiest justification possible. There are many things that are part of our world… we don’t get USED to them, that is, not if we’re “good people.” We think about them, see them for what they are, and work to change them.
Fashion is fascism, and people who celebrate fashion are fascists.
It has nothing to do with “feeling good about individuality.” Never has more bullshit been spewed! That “feeling good” is actually a feeling good about “fitting in” or “displaying status.” It has nothing to do with the “aesthetic value” of the clothing. When a nice pair of pants are worn, that feeling is comfort knowing that for the period the clothing is hanging over the body, that body will not be judged negatively by other humans. The feeling good is more of a sigh of relief than an aesthetic positive feeling. A reduction of fear, not an increase of joy.
You can’t justify high heels. You just can’t. It isn’t possible. High heels are an abomination and in every way an example of female oppression. Seriously, why would anyone try to justify such a thing?! But they do, they do and they do and they do. The only reason to justify high heels would be the RARE case that they are worn for some bizarrely aesthetic choice… it makes no sense however and in the end just boils down to a need to appeal to class and status. That’s it, folks. I honestly think it’s absurd that “fashion” and “style” are considered so normal in our society… they are considered “part of life” that everyone must partake in. We celebrate these things which cause us oppression. Fashion is the lowest form of art, and ALWAYS will be. Art has never been FASHION, and what ART has been FASHIONABLE has often been considered BAD ART, POSING, POSTURING, and all of the lowest parts of human nature combined.
So, to recape… if you’re a low income fellow, you’re fucked, because the fashionistas have told you you will not be worthwhile, human, if you don’t spend half of your paycheck on nice clothing. You will not be considered, listened to, or given respect. You will be judged immediately and tossed out by the unconscious. Good, let’s keep cheering this attitude on.
“You have to face it, it’s a ‘language’ we all must use! If you don’t like it, you’re bad at the language.” OK, there is some truth to this. ONLY because I am upper middle class, I can afford good enough clothes to make me feel confident I won’t be judged. The ONLY reason I do this is so I don’t have to deal with people like YOU out there who consider it so important. I’m constantly SHOCKED when I find out how much people think about fashion. I’m disturbed, honestly. But that’s life, and there are no easy answers.
“Wear whatever you want.” OK, but then soon it just devolves into rich people buying the nicest clothes, and all the poor people needing to aspire to that: wasting money. Pssh… in the end I guess I can agree, it’s part of life. The attitude is what needs to change, and it may be a long time.
Face the facts, fashion=fascism.
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