A motive of fashion is to exhibit the self – it is a pathway of distinction, travelled with cotton and tulle. Clothing is a medium of communication; it is crux in identifying and securing your social role in culture at large. People that dismiss fashion as frivolity miss the baseline of clothes itself: nobody goes to work naked, and the clothes you do wear to work have been pre-determined to suit a standard of respectability and style itself. Clothing – and fashion at large – is entwined in a debate on all platforms of identity. Fashion is a sex struggle, a race struggle, a class struggle, and it has been for all of time.
The concept of Western sexuality, as we know it, is not that old, (19th century). Sexuality is not a natural but a social and artificial construct. Foucault revealed in, “ Histoire de la sexualité”, the power relations that are involved in our perception of sexuality. What counts as erotic or demure, is time and space determined and always contextually bound. In other words: the link between fashion and erotica is culturally coded and arbitrary. In that sense, fashion can be used as a powerful communication tool.
The attractiveness of a body and how it is emphasised is bound to the time and space it occupies. In the roaring 1920s hemlines became shorter and revealed women’s legs. Madeleine Vionnet liberated the female body from corsets and created elegant, flowing fashion. It was an evolution in which a new ideal of beauty, the athletic woman, (among other designers such as Chanel and Poiret), was accepted. A couple years later, only the floor- length gowns with back cleavage were the standard, and so on.
Throughout our history, each period has a fascination, and therefore an emphasis on a particular body part. In the Renaissance, a woman might have showed a glimmer of her calf or ankle and sparked a scandal, while at the same time bear her bosom and received a certain admiration. In “The Corset: Fashion and Eroticism”, Valerie Steele used underwear as an example: “a person in underwear is simultaneously dressed and undressed”. Underwear has both the function of coverage and emphasis, we must consider that our way of looking always is determined by our culture, and in some cases may be invisible to us because of the conceptuality of it.
Here we see the ambivalence – the tension between what is normal and what is ‘perverse’, both the production and the revolt. This is reflected in elements of punk subculture that originally revolted against bourgeois values. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren sold in their store ‘Sex’ fetishistic attire and accessories of the sadomasochist underground culture. These days Westwood still goes against dominant fashion, although is seen and accepted at the same time as an influential fashion designer. Of course, punk in itself was a commodity brand to begin with: punk is dead and punk is forever, but that’s beside the point. Fetish wear – punk attire included — is a conversation between sexual power and contextual acceptability.
In her book ‘Fetish’, Valerie Steel reveals how in the last three decades, elements of this fetish culture have been adopted by the mainstream, speaking of a popularisation of fetish culture. “Once fetish fashions achieve a certain ‘style factor’ among trendsetters, they are picked up by internationally famous designers. All whose work is then ‘knocked off’ by mass-market clothing manufactures.”
The status of fashion is highly ambiguous: you can love what it offers but hate the hoopla, the exploitation, the complexity of the reactions and entitlement of the discussion around your clothes. One the one hand, fashion is regarded as superficial, frivolous, spurious and trivial but on the other hand we have the ability to display the inner form and express ourselves. That isn’t a superfluous quest, is it? Clothing and fashion play a crucial role in giving meaning and social exchange thereof, in forming self- awareness and self-understanding.
The role of clothing in your life doesn’t have to a sobering point of practice though. It is in the end a game to participate in. It is a fantasy of fabric. Fantasy, is as Steele points out, an important psychological function. “We may protest that “the pervert is always someone else!” but our fantasies betray our hypocrisy. What is a ‘normal’ erotic fantasy? Fantasy or imagination is inevitably about the forbidden and the impossible.”
Sexuality, the taboo around the naked body and the sense of shame that it causes continues to haunt us. These tensions, contradictions and ambivalences around the body are expressed by fashion.
We are social individuals: we want to be unique and belong to the group. We have to find a certain balance, we want to construct ourselves as individuals and not just blend into the group and imitate, but we don’t want to deviate too much from the group, because that has exclusionary effects. Through the paradox of fashion we can make our own inconsistencies and express our ambivalences. Because fashion is both frivolous and profound, both high and low art, business and beauty, both deception and expression, we can use it to form our own ambivalent attitudes to gender, sexuality and social positions. Because evidently, there’s no clear seduction strategy anymore. Perhaps there never was.
Words by Giselle Defares
Second image from: Miss Pink Will See You Now