So, I’m on Pinterest. Sure, it’s a huge time-suck when I’m in one or another non-functioning frame of mind, but it is also thousands of dollars worth of reference books (on Charles James, ikebana, Callot Soeurs, embroidery, various crafts, crockpot recipes, Andy Goldsworthy and land art in general, European floral design, contemporary calligraphy, ceramics, to name a few) and a visual feast. And it is excellent palliative behavior–calorie-free and, very loosely, a sort of research.
It’s the way I keep track of lots of stuff, including couture. And therein lies today’s WTF feminist moment. If I see one more exquisite, creative evening gown on a runway that is super-obviously being worn over either nude bikini underwear or granny-panties, I am going to–well, in truth, do nothing, because it’s not worth turning into a specific cause, I have no voice in the couture world, and it’d be a waste of energy. But it is disturbing.
I was talking about my grand-daughter’s hair with her mother this morning. The grand is almost 2 and her hair is finally becoming thickish–kind of a perfect natural pixie cut at the moment, and just barely long enough to put in a top spout or a pair of them, in which she looks freakin’ adorable for the .7 seconds before she pulls them out. And so we were talking about how we raise girls to think it’s their job to be pretty, and to work at it (or put up with it, depending on the girl), and what a double-edged thing it is. Feminist mama though I am/was, I did it, too, though to a lesser degree than I might have without feminism and therapy, and to a greater degree than if I had I been as aware then as I am now of how much I was using my daughters to play out the little-girl-wardrobe-fantasies I’d had and been prevented from living out by my parents not having much money, the absolute lack of readily available glittered shoes and tutus in the 50s and 60s, and my parents not-so-subtle opinions that I was more “handsome” than “pretty” and too plump to wear the super-girly dresses I longed for desperately. “Tailored” was the word that got used a lot about what would look good on me. Needless to say, as soon as I learned (Thank God for Home Ec!!!) to sew competently, I took over and went through high school in one version or another of baroque-shepherdess dresses. But I wanted my daughters to be able to be as fluffy/girly/PRETTY as they could be. One loved it absolutely until she decided (partially on her own, and partially courtesy of some bullying) that she needed to spike her purpled hair and disappear (for the better part of a decade) into hoodies. The other liked it some (she’s venturesome fashionwise), and didn’t like it all the time, so when she asked for colors other than pink and purple, off we went to the boys’ dept. to buy her blues and greens and clothes in which she could comfortably be her part-time tomboy self. One of the privileges of being female is that there is a much larger range of approaches to clothing/style that we’re permitted to wear, experiment with, and play with. It’s a lovely kind of freedom. As long, of course, as we don’t stray into anything that the universe can construe as “slutty” or come-hither-ish, at which point we deserve what we get unless we manage to get away with it by luck or context or whatever. Still there is a great freedom that men, even now, don’t have, even though that is improving some in some arenas.
But the other side is that we do tend to inadvertantly, or intentionally, teach our girls that it’s part of their gender identity to be pretty, At least we’re now mostly letting them wear capris or bike shorts under their dresses so they can climb comfortably on the playground, though dresses are still limiting.
But no matter how much fun, fashion is a form of document. It communicates (sometimes confusingly–when we were in the Frick Musuem recently, I had to explain to my husband why there were all those nice young men running around dressed like lumberjacks–he tends to not keep up with what’s hip, bless him), or speaks, or signals, or advertises (it continues to baffle me that the more money you spend on your clothes, often enough, the more likely it is that you will be paying someone like Ralph Lauren a bucketload of bucks to advertise for him…). It’s text. So people are not wrong to “read” it, though what they do in response to their reading is all too often very wrong.
So toddler-impractical clothing or uncomfortable hair styles is also text, which the kid wearing the clothing is absorbing as surely as they absorb nutrients or toxins from food and ideas from TV. And the people who start or push trends are creating cultural texts with what they create, and not inconsiderable power attaches to those texts/trends (which is why, when Dolce & Gabbana felt compelled to make as-if-they-had-any-authority-on-the-subject pronouncements recently that babies who are born or raised in any but fertile cis-hetero marriages are somehow “synthetic” humans and their families are anti-natural abominations I was unsurprised, but still repulsed, and which, following on the heels of drunken rabidly anti-semitic pronouncements from John Galiano several years ago pretty much proves for the zillionth time that brilliance of one sort does not indicate either brilliance or basic decency in others–a lesson we seem to need to keep hearing over and over and…). So when I ran into what seemed, initially, to be another gorgeous Valentino gown on Pinterest today, it upset me to see that even that famously tasteful designer had given in and put what should have been a graceful, graphically interesting dress that would look good on more than one body type (a thing Valentino is traditionally pretty good at), was yet another oh-look-you-can-see-her-panties bit of runway woman-stripping. Bad enough that the models have to walk on orthopedically catastrophic stilt-age (I gather that they actually do fall not infrequently–and lots of fashion shoots are now clearly done with models not only in platform stillettos, but also standing on boxes, especially in wedding mags) without them having to–oh, who am I kidding, models have been stripping for designers’ delectation for generations. It’s ugly. The underwear-under-lace/chiffon/cutouts thing is just lousy aesthetics for the most part–it distracts and interrupts the visual integrity of the gowns. And it is yet another form of hyper-emphasis on the very limited body-type of models–a fashion extreme that offers yet more emphasis on a body type that is unattainable for most humans, and on commodifying that particular female body type.
The good news is that there are counter-messages out there–even designers whose models get to wear flats, and gowns that are both edgy/lush and gentler in their approach to the female body (Carolina Herrera, for instance, or Issy Miyake, for a radically different instance). And women who model all sorts of dressing. But you have to look, to pay very close attention, to find that alternate discourse much of the time. And, without getting into a hopelessly long and complicated discussion of the extraordinary class, gender, economic, environmental, ethical, and cultural texts that clothes constitute at pretty much every level of every culture, I’ll settle for asserting firmly that there is a point to paying attention to what you wear (in so far as you have control over it–but even not having control over it is itself a text), to making yourself comfortable and happy with it, and to being aware of what the clothing you design conveys or means in the larger culture. Evening gowns that sacrifice design aesthetics in order to turn the bodies wearing them into objects are a questionable cultural message, kind of like making little girls wear scratchy dresses or pulled-tight hair in the service of “pretty” or “cute.” Just like it’s a text when retailers and manufacturers offer much more limited and much less attractive clothes in plus-sizes. It’s not a function of the market–it’s a judgement about what plus-size humans deserve.
My granddaughter deserves to wear what she wants (I am making her a sparkly tutu at the moment, and if it thrills her, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll live and be just as amused by her emphatic self, but I will not make it so that the tulle scratches her skin any more than her mother will use plastic bands that don’t pull out to make Cindy-Lou-Who pigtails in her hair). Exquisite 16-year old Russian beauties (who seem somehow to dominate the modelling world these days) deserve not to break their ankles or ruin their knees in impossible shoes. And designers should not be ruining the lines of what they design in order to slavishly follow the kardashianization of culture. It may not be all-of-a-piece, but it is all connected to the issue of womens’ bodies and how we teach our daughters to live in theirs.