Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"For all the accusations of narcissism with which fashion gets pelted, the industry has remarkably little interest in making people look attractive."

Generally speaking, the place of models in fashion writing is far greater than need be. I don't want to hear about the village they were discovered in in Lithuania, the Italian soccer player with whom they're romantically linked, or what brand of jeans they wear in their free time.

I make an exception, however, for the NYT Model-morphosis feature. To anyone cynical, and with decent vision, it's clear that the "before" pictures are rarely if ever makeup-free. But the transformation bar is great fun, kind of like doing the makeup on one half of your face, then the next, to see what it is the makeup actually does. And maybe because full bodies don't enter into it, the fact that the images are of models isn't as distracting as it is when the topic at hand is, say, form-fitting dresses.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the commenters - straight men (or, requisite disclaimer, people who so present themselves online) - find the feature upsetting. They think the models look so much better bare-faced. What's with all the paint?

As I've said before, it's a good thing for women that men are attracted to a wider range of (wider) women than found on the runways. And it's absurd to celebrate the runway as a feminist space, where the male gaze is for once not catered to. I mean, far be it for me to complain that a touch of concealer, eyeliner, and chapstick is viewed as a more attractive look than some kind of garish art project that I wouldn't know how to achieve even with all the time in the world.

Yet there is something off-putting about the way men-who-just-don't-get-fashion march into the discussion. They seem to miss... that a runway is a stage, this makeup stage paint, not a suggestion for what your girlfriend might wear this Saturday night. That the look needs to be not only visible but also uniform - whereas day-to-day, women choose makeup to emphasize specific features, runways are all about one look for all. That the makeup is in part intended to disguise the youth of the models, to make it easier to suspend disbelief and imagine that a 16-year-old is really middle-aged - in real life a gorgeous 9th grader might not think to go in 45-year-old-woman drag. That makeup isn't permanent - a surprising number of the commenters (and some of these may be female commenters) pity the models, not because they need to weigh four pounds, or live in cramped apartments far from their families and their junior high schools, but because someone has put unflattering makeup on them, as though soap had not been invented. That the goal of runway paint isn't prettiness - people who I suspect would never dare enter art museums and ask why not everything there was a painting of a kitten nevertheless confidently announce that the goal of a fashion show is to present women at their easy-on-the-eyes.

But mostly, they miss that the way runway models are made up at a fashion show isn't about pleasing straight men. Fashion isn't about pleasing straight men. I mean, they realize this, but they see it as a strike against the fashion industry. Because this is how the commenters present it - that their preference for (what they perceive to be) bare-faced is evidence that the fashion industry is one big hoax. Women are being suckered into buying makeup and clothes that don't even make them more appealing to men!

Where to go from here? One might start with Hadley Freeman's brilliant take on the matter: "Is fashion a cruel anti-female industry whose sole goal is to make women feel bad about themselves and force them to wear crippling, uncomfortable apparel? Or is it empowering, allowing women to wear clothes that appeal primarily to themselves as opposed to men?" And, and! "For all the accusations of narcissism with which fashion gets pelted, the industry has remarkably ­little interest in making people look attractive. It's interested in making people look different." Yes, this.

Still, I think the relationship between What Men Want and Fashion is a bit more complicated than all that. In a sense, if it were up to straight men, there'd be no Fashion, just a timeless get-up pairing cleavage, long hair, miniskirts, and heels. In another, however, one that acknowledges straight men as complex human beings, there's the fact that looking of-the-moment (or of a particular subculture) is something humans value in other humans, across the gender and sexuality spectrum. A 1988 version of Sexy Women's Outfit would look off even to self-professed fashion-ignorant men of today. All of this is to say, even in dressing without pleasing men as a goal, women may end up doing so unintentionally, because looking current is a way of appealing to others generally.

40 comments:

PG said...

just a timeless get-up pairing cleavage, long hair, miniskirts, and heels

Or to put it another way, runway =/= hetero porn flick.

Phoebe said...

Pretty much!

My main point here, and what I'd have stuck to if I hadn't been in a rambling mood, was that the fact that fashion isn't geared at pleasing straight men isn't some kind of proof fashion is a scam. Women aren't being tricked into thinking harem pants attract catcalls - the two are just part of separate spheres.

hestika said...

Great post. That really was a fascinating interactive interactive feature.

I'm a straight male with no interest in "runway" fashion as actual clothing (I find it pretty ridiculous for men and women). But as art, it can be interesting, and the same with the make-up and hair.

That said, some of these transformations are pretty ridiculous too. Not in terms of attractiveness to me, which really doesn't matter to anyone, but in terms of "WTF, really?"

The first woman, from Marni, that's interesting. Probably not anything that would make it to the real world, but really cool.

The third one, from Jil Sander, is what exactly? A little foundation and neon lipstick? Yawn. Same with the last one.

The really subtle ones fascinate me, because they show off the skill of the make-up artist. D&G, Gucci, Anna Sui, very good work. The subtle reshaping and shading that was accomplished, that's skill.

The Rodarte one? Would I laugh at that person in a bar? Yes. Well, to myself, but yes. But as art, sure, why not?

Anonymous said...

Of course fashion isn't for (straight) men. But it is a scam--just a means of reinforcing class differences. (You slap a designer label on an otherwise unremarkable pair of pants, and suddenly you can mark up the merch by hundreds of dollars. And rich people will buy it! What a great con!) And it is also undeniable that the fashion industry makes girls (not just poor ones) who cannot be size 0 feel bad about themselves. Your point that "looking of-the-moment (or of a particular subculture) is something humans value in other humans" is true, but we don't need the ridiculous, harmful and shallow high fashion industry for that.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe: Your post is cited on Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish" along with the NYT feature, 30 Sept. 9:33 AM. -- JM

Anonymous said...

What struck me the most was how blank-faced and lacking in personality and expression most of the faces were, both before and after make-up. If you view fashion as art, then it makes sense, as the face is meant to be a blank canvas. If you view fashion in the wider context of culture/gender, the lack of character is much more disturbing.

P.S.

Eric Dimick Eastman said...

Of course, venturing here invites some abuse, but I'll go ahead and say it. Fashion is a game for, by and about female preferences. (Hetero)Maleness has nothing to do with it.

Allow me an analogy fashion:female::football:male. Both take natural gender differences and exaggerate them to cartoonish proportions. In both, the highest levels of competition take an extraordinary toll on the health of the participants. In both (and at every level) the winners are more attractive as potential mates than the losers are.

My wife is one of the smartest people I know and we are far from gender stereotypes, but she can't tell a WR running a slant from a DE running a twist just as I have no idea which shoes would go better with that outfit. (I often have to elbow her in movies "Is that character supposed to be fashionable or garish?")

It is no more fair to blame straight guys for anorexic super models than it is to blame women for the cumulative effect of repeated concussions.

In fashion, women make the rules, play the game, and confer status on the winners. We, knuckle-dragging guys, mostly just react to that status.

demonyc said...

i'd enjoy a series about women reacting to morphs of bald men with toops or weaves.

ALSO show them men with and without gray hair touched up.

ALSO show them examples of men with and without color, tints, and/or highlights.

i bet they prefer men with fake hair rather than receding hairlines, maybe with gray touched out, but they'd freak at men's hair colored the way half of women do.

Anonymous said...

Your post would make more sense if runway fashion were presented as just an art form, a type of conceptual theater. But it's not. The fashion/celebrity industry's existence is based on convincing everybody that this is what "beauty" looks like, and that attaining this look will grant us everything we wish for.

I went to the NYT piece and had the exact reaction you write about--I thought almost all the models looked better in the before shots. Not because they conformed to my sense of what's sexy, but because they looked like human beings. (They also all looked kind of unhappy afterwards.)

I came to that conclusion fully aware of the purpose of all the make-up: not to please me as a straight male (btw "cleavage, long hair, miniskirts, and heels"? Ick.) but to create the theatrical effect that the designer wanted and sell the clothes.

Phoebe said...

Hestika,

The "WTF, really?" response is the stereotypical straight male response. If you react to makeup that isn't subtle, or that isn't in the usual shades (brown or black eyeliner, red or pink lipstick) with ooh-that's-weird, you're not fashion's intended audience. It's clear from all the images that the makeup artists are skilled - like the color choices or not, they're at least applied with precision, and create some kind of effect.

Anonymous 1,

Yes and no. Yes, fashion tends to go with rather than against the "you can never be too rich or too thin" current. And yes, the industry itself is often worth avoiding even by those interested in fashion - I myself prefer fashion and style blogs to the mags (Vogue, etc.) because, again, I'm not interested in fashion always = models. But no, because if the rich are indeed buying the same pants as everyone else, but paying more, this is something we should be pleased with from a redistribution-of-wealth standpoint. Also no, because even if fashion were "just a means of reinforcing class differences," that wouldn't make it a scam, exactly, unless fashion were claiming to be a great equalizer. Which it's not.

JM,

So I see, thanks for pointing this out! I guess I shouldn't have tagged this a post no one would read

PS,

"If you view fashion in the wider context of culture/gender, the lack of character is much more disturbing." How should culture or gender be expressing themselves differently on the faces of the models? If they look "blank," it's probably a) because they're 15, and b) because they've missed too many meals.

EDE,

Why would your comment invite abuse? The problem comes when, rather than accepting that fashion is a feminine sphere, straight men assert that fashion is a scam because it isn't aimed at their enjoyment.

Demonyc,

Not seeing the analogy - the feature isn't about Real Women having flaws corrected, but models being put in costume. As for women's attitudes about male hair-dyeing, you may be right.

Anonymous 2,

You've missed the point - the high-fashion industry is not in the business of defining beauty. Not "beauty" in the sense of "female attractiveness geared at straight men," at least. You're also taking things too literally - the makeup is intended to "sell the clothes," but not insofar as it's the makeup anyone imagines women who buy the clothes would pair with those clothes. It's meant to contribute to the theatricality of the show, to the hype and press around it, to get the brand name-recognition, and get the clothes in stores.

Anonymous said...

"Also no, because even if fashion were "just a means of reinforcing class differences," that wouldn't make it a scam, exactly, unless fashion were claiming to be a great equalizer. Which it's not."

I think you miss the point. It's a scam b/c designers charge hundreds of dollars more for a product that is different largely b/c of a label. What is the value that comes from the label? Status. So, it's a scam with willing fools as victims (it's a scam in teh sense that it gets people to spend a lot of money for nothing; not a scam in the sense that the industry represents itself as soething that it isn't).

Your point re: redistribution of wealth is interesting. I don't know enough about the economics of fashion to comment on who profits most from high fashion, but I'm willing to bet it's fashion magazines owned by large corporations.

Phoebe said...

I'm still not convinced that overpriced pants are a scam - or even overpriced - assuming the status is something the pants-owner and the pants-owner's intended audience (other ladies at the Tribeca Whole Foods?) appreciate. The scam would be, people are paying up for what they believe to be ultra-durable cashmere pants, but that are really shoddily-constructed polyester. But if people know they're paying for a label (even if they give as a pretext that $300 jeans are just such good quality), no one's being deceived, so no scam.

Phoebe said...

I'm still not convinced that overpriced pants are a scam - or even overpriced - assuming the status is something the pants-owner and the pants-owner's intended audience (other ladies at the Tribeca Whole Foods?) appreciate. The scam would be, people are paying up for what they believe to be ultra-durable cashmere pants, but that are really shoddily-constructed polyester. But if people know they're paying for a label (even if they give as a pretext that $300 jeans are just such good quality), no one's being deceived, so no scam.

Eric Dimick Eastman said...

Phoebe,

I misread your point a bit. I took "Yes, this" as an endorsement of both quotes in the preceding paragraph rather than the latter one. Properly read, the only thing I think I disagree with is:

"A 1988 version of Sexy Women's Outfit would look off even to self-professed fashion-ignorant men of today."

I've had 15 years of "How could you possibly not notice ____?" comments that would argue against that little proposition.

Case in point, last week I played pick-up soccer. My wife was trying to figure out if she knew one of the players. I could remember that she had a good left foot but not the color or length of her hair. What is glaringly obvious and worth noticing is more idiosyncratic than most people realize.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe --

Anonymous 2 again--

Of course the high-fashion industry is in the business of defining beauty. I never said it was trying to define "female attractiveness geared at straight men." I think it's trying to define Beauty with a capital B: physical beauty being the outward manifestation of a mental, philosophical and spiritual state of mind. And it's a constantly changing standard that results from this echo-chamber of opinions between a really small group of people. So you get this kind of stylistic hothouse, where everything gets more extreme and self-conscious and divorced from the way people actually look in the real world.

You said this to other of the other commenters:

The problem comes when, rather than accepting that fashion is a feminine sphere, straight men assert that fashion is a scam because it isn't aimed at their enjoyment.

That's certainly not why I think fashion (or high fashion at least) is a scam. I think it's a scam because it convinces people that they need to "pay for a label" (as you said in another comment)in order to feel good about themselves. And yes, fashion is a feminine sphere, but that doesn't make it a democracy.

Eric Dimick Eastman said...

Anonymous --

It's perfectly democratic. Many people play a game where they convert $ into status points (there are lots of these; fashion is just one). The more talent you have and effort you put in, the more status you can gain for the same $. You don't have to play that game, but if you don't you don't get the fashion status points.

What it is not in "equal" in the 1984 sense of the word. Some people are smarter/funnier/prettier/richer/more musical/.../better fashion sense than others. We gravitate toward the games we can win then we gravitate toward other people who have achieved about the same amount (and secondarily the same types) of status as ourselves.

I win lots of nerdy points, some athletic points and virtually no arts and culture points. That means I'm a lower status individual in art settings, that doesn't make art a "scam".

Anonymous said...

EDE --

My point is that, in high fashion at least, what is considered "prettier" or more "fashion forward" is set by a relatively few people through the influence of magazines, websites, fashion shows and ads.

Phoebe seems to be saying that because the fashion world is not based on notions of what is attractive to hetero men, that somehow it is more fair to women. I'd say it's just as brutal--in fact in some ways maybe more.

You also say: The more talent you have and effort you put in, the more status you can gain for the same $. I ask: what constitutes talent and effort when it comes to fashion? Knowing what looks good on someone and knowing how to put it together. And how do you know what looks good? Because its in style at that moment.

Anonymous said...

"It's perfectly democratic. Many people play a game where they convert $ into status points (there are lots of these; fashion is just one)."

I don't know what democracy (or any other political theory) has to do with it. And I'm not arguing that everyone is equally talented or wealthy (or should be). What is objectionable to me is that the only value I can see that comes from a label is status. It's true that many people often buy status symbols (and I think that's foolish). But fashion is the only industry I know that is almost entirely devoted to selling labels. What makes it a hustle is the marketing that convinces someone that one product is significantly more valuable than another b/c a name is written on the label. That's the genius of the fashion industry!

Adam Villani said...

I think I kind of agree with Anonymous 2. I'm well aware that sexiness is not the same thing as beauty, and while I might personally enjoy things more if runway models were selected and made up to appeal to my particular tastes as a heterosexual man, I understand that that's not generally the point of fashion.

But aren't they aiming for, broadly defined, beauty in some form? That's what any aesthetic pursuit is doing, even if it's photos of slums or paintings intended to shock the viewer.

My frustration is that I have such a hard time even grasping what aesthetic standards they're aiming for. Especially since a lot of what they're doing seems to involve making the models uglier --- I'm OK with knowing that they're not creating pin-up girls, but if they're not making the girls look pretty, and they're not making clothes they intend for anybody to actually wear, what *are* they doing?

Phoebe said...

OK, 2 quick notes:

Anon 2,

I wouldn't say Fashion is better than Male Gaze, just different. Both can be damaging, but both can also be liberating. Also: the "labels" angle is only one aspect of fashion. I go on about this at length in a more recent post.

AV,

They DO intend for people to wear the clothes! Not with the same hair-and-makeup, and not arranged in the same way, but yes, the idea is for the clothes to be purchased and worn. The theatricality is about creating hype and making the show interesting, not about advising women how to style the clothes. What they are doing is rethinking how we dress. "We" being the rich ladies who buy what's on the runway, something I couldn't imagine affording, or imagine caring I couldn't afford, but trickling down to anyone shopping at Forever 21 or Zara, and, eventually, beyond. (With plenty of trickle-up as designers get inspired by what real people wear.)

If you can understand "slum photos," what's the mystery with fashion shows? I'm not really following your comment - you understand the goal isn't making models look hot, but why not make them look pretty? But, I would ask, aren't these just degrees of the same thing? That the models need not cause lust in straight men, just mild pleasure?

Pretty - like hot - is boring, predictable, and - again - about pleasing an audience whose approval is not necessary for the business to go on as scheduled. There's no novelty or innovation in pretty - some black mascara and subtle pink lipstick, plus skin-tone-appropriate foundation, would have to be the look in every show. And only outfits that make the models look slim-yet-curvaceous would be featured. Women already know how to do this, and it doesn't really change. So, not what fashion is generally about.

Jeff S. said...

Phoebe, I had the same question as Adam Villani, and your answer -- "They DO intend for people to wear the clothes!" -- still puzzles me. Are we talking about the same runway shows, like the ones on "Project Runway"? Because both there, and in the one and only fashion show I ever attended in person, the clothes absolutely have not resembled anything I have ever seen any woman wear, ever, anywhere. On the "Project Runway" episode a friend induced me to watch with her, the "winner" was a guy whose inspiration for women's outfits were the uniforms of Stalin's army in World War II. They looked preposterous from the point of view of actually being worn.

Now, maybe you're saying that there's another whole (very wealthy) subculture in which people shop at Zara, buy those actual outlandish costumes, and then wear them on very specialized occasions, like high-society soirees that I'm not invited to. Is that it? But even that puzzles me, because when I see the settings and gatherings of the glitterati portrayed in movies or TV shows, the women aren't dressed nearly so garishly. So I'm wondering if you're referring to something else -- a "tamer" kind of runway fashion that's different from the "Project Runway" kind. And if so, how would you answer Adam's question with respect to the latter?

Phoebe said...

JS,

First off, Zara is a relatively inexpensive chain store, like H&M or a trendier Banana Republic - confusing it with Prada maybe? If this is a comment along the lines of, women who can wear $40 pants are privileged, then yes, compared to the desperately poor, but these are not society dames.

I'm not going to any haute-couture soirees either, but I've seen the same images you have, and there are event-specific styles - ball gowns, like. But to keep with the Prada theme (I've never watched Project Runway and can't comment on how accurately it represents fashion), look at (slightly NSFW) these photos. Imagine that the models in something like bloomer underwear instead pair the shirts with pants or skirts. Why is it so tough to picture a woman wearing that - or a Zara knockoff/"inspiration" thereof - to an office? Things would be styled differently, and yes, some things probably do only serve as entertainment and never get produced, but the fact that something looks wacky on a runway doesn't mean an item itself couldn't look even understated in other circumstances.

Jeff said...

OK, Phoebe, as I thought, we're talking about different things. I just had a look at Zara's online catalog, and also found a slideshow of the line by Seth Aaron that I was referring to from "Project Runway." I see no comparison. The Seth Aaron dresses aren't clothes, they're gimmicks.

I think this is probably what Adam was referring to above as well. Thing is, on the "Project Runway" I saw (the end of a series / season, or whatever they call it, that Seth Aaron won), all three designers were going for similar levels of outlandishness. The one whose designs seemed a hair more "normal" -- i.e. actually imaginable in stores, or on women not confined to mental institutions -- didn't win, and in fact it seemed to me that the judges were mildly criticizing him for his conservatism.

So, are there two basically different kinds of "runway fashion" or something? Because if so, your original post here was apparently referring only to one of them.

Phoebe said...

Jeff,

Yes, there are two different things - one of these things is a reality TV show! An arena where everything's exaggerated. (Does "The Biggest Loser" accurately represent diet and exercise?) It's a show, again, that I haven't seen or been reading about, so I don't know how closely it's meant to mimic high fashion, let alone current trends. But the fact that, apparently, weirder was better tells you something about a TV show, not an industry. I mean, are there wackier and less wacky clothes presented at fashion shows, along with shows of different levels of formality? Yes. But there are also people who buy and go out in wacky clothes. They tend to be employed in fashion or the arts, but yes, a world exists where the dress codes at law firms or wherever don't apply. Sometimes such outfits look costumey and, even to someone plugged into fashion, ridiculous. Other times everyone else envies the courage it took to wear that, and soon enough a pared-down version thereof exists at, say, Zara, for the masses to buy.

But that said, I'm not seeing what you find so wildly bizarre even about these outfits. I don't know where you live or what you're used to seeing, but in conservative settings in NY, one could take a part of most of the outfits and style it differently without looking even the least bit bizarre. Remove the couple of really out-there looks, and what's making the rest look wacky is that it's a whole bunch of "different" piled on top of each model.

Anonymous said...

Hello Phoebe,

I apologize in advance for my long response, but this topic is very interesting to me. I'll confess that I'm a hetero male that loves fashion and pretty women. However, I've never been among the crowd that assumes that women primarily dress with men in mind.

I think it's important to distinguish between haute couture and pret a porter when we discuss runway shows. They have very different purposes and I don't think we should lump them together. (For the uninitiated, haute couture is more artistically wild and 'impractical," and that's probably what is getting debated here. You're much more likely to see clothes from a Pret a Porter show out in the street. ) Personally as an artist, I don't care about the practicality argument. I want to see beautiful clothes, and I think there should be outlets for fashion to "run wild." So we should look at these pics within the context of which type of show they come from.

I also think that you've set up an unnecessary dichotomy here. There's a lot of space between models looking their age (i.e. very young) and being made up to look 45. I'm certain that this isn't what you're getting at, but it sounds like you're saying that the choice is looking pretty or looking 45, as if 45 is a grim post-pretty stage of a woman's life. I think that there are plenty of pretty 45 year olds, especially nowadays with improvements in beauty care. And more importantly, there is a huge middle ground where women choose to be some combination of pretty and mature (and therefore models can be made up to fill that wide range).

I do think that the debate over how attractive the make up styles these models wear is legit. If models are canvases, then I don't think that designers would agree with the notion that what gets painted at the top of the canvas (the face) matters less than the rest of the canvas. The look matters a lot, and their faces are a critical part of the whole canvas. If the look of the models is unappealing (not just to men), then it influences how the clothes are seen. I also don't think that emphasizing prettiness (which some runway shows do) would be a deal-beaker for a woman looking to buy a dress or coat.

Finally, it is worth looking back at old runway pics from past decades. When I look at runway pics from the 80's, for the most part all of the models still look "classically pretty" even if their make up is as artistically indulgent as it is here. The blank and pallid look that some of these models exhibit is a relatively recent development. I would mark the changeover at the early 90's and heroin chic. The grunge look is long gone from the runway, but the emphasis on the grayed skin, bleached brows, and vacant eyes has stayed with us from that time.

Mike said...

I think male desire is for a woman that other people look at and desire to be/to be with. Sometimes they're looking at her sex appeal, other times that's considered crude and aesthetic appeal stands in.

Jeff said...

I don't know where you live or what you're used to seeing.....

I live in West Los Angeles, and I've been to dress-up social functions at local institutions like the art museums, so I'm guessing I've been at least in the vicinity of some of the target end-users of runway fashions. Plus, as I said, we all see high society depicted in movies and TV, I assume with some moderate attempt at realism.

...but in conservative settings in NY, one could take a part of most of the outfits and style it differently without looking even the least bit bizarre.

Well, yeah, but how it's styled is what we're talking about. If you "take a part" of Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland and "style it differently," it could be my apartment building or a 7-11. ;-) That doesn't say anything about the style at hand.

Anyway, I think Anonymous (just above) answered the question for me -- there's "haute couture" and "pret a porter," and if we lump them together then we're liable to be talking past each other.

Phoebe said...

Jeff,

Yes, the haute couture-ready to wear distinction might be it. Anonymous Hetero Male, good point. However, plenty of ready-to-wear is plenty out there. What I meant by "style it differently" is that a lot of what looks unwearable off the runway is something like, an otherwise normal outfit... with the pants missing, or altered to look that way, and paired with 6-inch heels. Issues like 'that shirt needs something under it' are irrelevant - the model can be essentially shirtless.

And again, I don't think "high society" is where one finds the most adventurous dress, even if we're talking about adventurous and expensive dress. There are some overlaps - Daphne Guinness, I believe of that Guinness family, exemplifies this look. But mostly, that world is about looking appropriate-for-the-situation.

Mike,

Very true re: looks most assumed to appeal to men - and what women know from experience most appeals to men - being thought too "crude" by some men, in some situations.

Consumatopia said...

In a sense, if it were up to straight men, there'd be no Fashion, just a timeless get-up pairing cleavage, long hair, miniskirts, and heels. In another, however, one that acknowledges straight men as complex human beings, there's the fact that looking of-the-moment (or of a particular subculture) is something humans value in other humans, across the gender and sexuality spectrum.

It is odd to associate timeless tastes with biological simplicity and changing tastes with aesthetic complexity. Art always changes, but we don't donate all last year's paintings to thrift stores once the new season's paintings are out. I care about aesthetics--not just sexiness or beauty, but symmetry, harmony, proportion, and all that. But I don't particularly care what's fashionable now as opposed to what was fashionable last year, because that strikes me more as a matter of power, economics, and social chaos than aesthetics. If it were up to this particular straight man, there would be still be clothing innovation--perhaps, even more than otherwise--but it would be more like new movements in art: designers might suddenly become collectively inspired to move in a particular direction, but this would not invalidate the work of earlier designers. I suppose the economics of this might break down--for what reason would people have for buying the work of new designers?

To the extent that of-the-momentness affects my perception, I do not consider this a matter of complexity, but of narrowness--like dismissing music because it comes from the "wrong" decade or subculture.

figleaf said...

@Phoebe: "pairing cleavage, long hair, miniskirts, and heels"

Or maybe just comfortable jeans and t-shirts.

Funny you should mention heels though. Around the same time you were posted this I was writing one questioning the uncomfortable-looking bent-knee gait the current trend in high-high-heel shoes impose.

I wrote (slightly out of order) "And yeah, I know and appreciate the argument that on many, many levels the way fashion is supposed to work is for the benefit of the wearer, and that the opinions of onlookers are supposed to be somewhere between irrelevant and intrusive.

...

I just mean I'm alarmed to be so evidently out of touch that walking on bent legs with your arms waiving around for balance just seems gawky and uncoordinated to me. Instead of cool, svelte, and drop-dead alluring."

I admit that even then I didn't completely capture your point that fashion is (obviously) about appearance but not hetero-attraction appearance.

But I'm going to stick to my overall point: whether you're trying to look "attractive" or just "fashionable" there's a point where the general population is going to start losing the thread and start wondering what the heck is up with that.

---

I'd also like to raise the concern that even if fashion isn't supposed to have any hetero dimension at all it still has consequences that go beyond the inner logic of fashion-as-personal-expression. I happen to agree that men's vocabulary might be limited in the sense that we equate "appearance" and "attractiveness." But even factoring out that error it's still the case that a flip side of fashion is that it still generates intense judgment of women based on appearance... even (especially?) when one completely removes men's impressions: in office environments, for instance, women can be (in my opinion) extraordinarily... off task in assessing other women's appearances.

I'd also add that men's confusion about the intention of fashion might be due to the language that's chosen to assess other women's appearances. And it's entirely possible that terms like "cow," "mannish," or "tart" have only technical rather than literal meanings in fashion (the way "oak" or "asphalt" does in wine tasting.) But if so then one must also understand how passers by could confuse those terms with more vernacular assessments of heteronormative beauty.

And finally, to briefly adopt Eric Dimick Eastman's sports-rules/fashion-rules analogy, it seems as inappropriate for fashion adherents to negatively critique non-participants as it would be for football players to randomly tackle pedestrians.

figleaf

Phoebe said...

Consumatopia,

Two things. First, it's really, really difficult not to think clothing looks off if it's from even 5-10 years ago. Even those of us not set on looking so-very-now react in this way without thinking about it. You may be the rare exception, able to see only Beauty, but this is not even the usual experience of non-trendy types.

As for art-art versus fashion, it's true that it's less, well, seasonal, and couldn't possibly contribute as much to landfills. But the idea that one is purer aesthetically... not to go all Bourdieu here, but what's defined as beautiful is often culturally subjective, about asserting one's class status, etc.

Figleaf,

I think the relevant sports-fashion argument is that those who take pride in their ignorance of silly silly fashion shouldn't be critiquing fashion. I mean, there's some value in outsiders asking the point of any such activity, whether it's sending emaciated adolescents down runways or having teenage boys risk serious head injuries. But the comment, 'this is dumb,' from those who just don't get it, is hardly worth responding to. I wasn't criticizing the fashion choices of random heterosexual men, but the fashion criticism of straight men who by their own admission think fashion is dumb.

As for catty women in offices calling one another cows, that is in itself a stereotype, but I'm not going to say it never happens. What I don't see is what that has to do with fashion, unless you're defining "fashion" so broadly as to include snide remarks about officemates' pantsuits making them look hippy. In the post responding to this post above, I clarify what "fashion" might entail, but at any rate I don't think it stretches that far.

And, as for heels, I'm afraid that's not a "new" aspect of female dress. It's not one I go for personally, but it's been considered both fashionable and sexy for a long long time now. It's not a "trend" - trends are, say, whether the high heels have pointy toes or round, whether the heels are stiletto or otherwise shaped.

figleaf said...

Yeah, I don't think heels have been new since Louis XIV first wore them. The trend in heels I was referring to is of the kind you mention: a trend towards more higher, more pronounced stilettos. I'll defer to your judgment that this particular trend is already last-year in more cosmopolitan circles.

My concern about avoiding critiquing fashion unless one is well-versed in it would be that the same would then be said of those who would critique sports, fur trapping, or late-night television commercials unless they were similarly well-versed. Sometimes it's enough to be subject to the impact.

When the impact includes critiquing women in the extravagantly gender-imbalanced dimension of their appearance, and when that impact extends to critique of my 6th-grader and her classmates, I'm not positive that the correct answer is that I, or she, should subscribe to Vogue.

Again, though, I think I'm mistaking "fashion" in the very narrow, formal, technical-discipline sense you're using it with "clothes women are obliged to wear to work, school, or church." And indeed I have no complaints about the former -- I occasionally read Vogue, and have clothes designers, dress-makers and tailors, and fine-arts fiber artist friends. (Friends friends, not "some of my best friends are..." friends.)

But without wanting to take anything away from that form of artistic endeavor I still have issues with informal, non-technical critiques of women for their sartorial imperfections in non-fashion situations such as the workplace or school where similar critiques are almost never made (and thus never have an impact on) men. And by "informal critiques" I mean snarking about someone's shoes, bags, or coats from previous seasons, not for wearing pantsuits period.

I hope that makes sense.

figleaf

Phoebe said...

Figleaf,

I'm going to have to repeat my response before - I wouldn't conflate 'all nasty comments made about female appearance, plus all images of female beauty in the media to which poor young girls/aging women are subjected' with 'fashion,' the latter being much more specific and, as the Freeman article explained so well, often about looking different rather than attractive. As for "so last season" snarking, this seems more like something that would happen on a sitcom set in the fashion world than something anyone would actually do, let alone do in a non-fashion-industry setting. Unless you mean junior high, but 'you're wearing the wrong jeans' harassment only tangentially related to fashion.

However, there are certainly aspects of the fashion industry outsiders might criticize. The fact that the models are 12 and weigh 2 pounds, the fact that they're almost always Northern European or Slavic, the way clothes are produced (sweatshops, etc.), and... you get the idea. And if anything, Vogue - the example you give would be an understandable thing for someone not interested in fashion to criticize, because along with featuring oh those wacky clothes normal folks like us just don't understand, it's got (and I'm referring, I think, to the most recent issue) gems like: a spread of celebs/socialites/models in the classic quilted Chanel bag, the ultimate status symbol, as though that's somehow Fashion and not a big ad for a ridiculously expensive status-symbol purse. Or an article about a hot young foreign actress, in which she's presented as delightfully indifferent to Hollywood body ideals because she's... I don't remember exactly, some height and weight suggesting extreme thinness, but meant to convey a proud rejection of such demands, along with photos of that actress indistinguishable from those of models on the other pages.

None of this criticism, however, has anything to do with the kind I was responding to in this post - people who haven't a clue about fashion, who think it's dumb, mocking those weirdo fashion-types. That sort of criticism isn't about protecting womankind from oppression, but rather about oppressing (or, well, insulting) those who dare leave the house in something not from the Gap.

As for super-high stilettos - those have not been "in" in my (grad student!) circles, oh, ever, but I suspect they were never in in any widespread sense, but probably still are among the just-getting-into-a-chauffered-car-to-the-gala-then-another-one-back set as much as they ever were.

Consumatopia said...

Yes, if something is a decade out of style that's going to alter my perception of it--I'm no exception there. But this alteration doesn't make me a "complex human being", it just means that I'm as much a slave to marketing as everyone else--if my perception were still authentic, I would see clothing and all other manufactured objects as they actually are, rather than seeing the old products as "off" and in need of replacement. (Or perhaps the products were always "off" and I only start noticing when the marketing allows.) Turning my nose up at old styles doesn't make my tastes any more complex than a teenager turning their nose up at the Beatles because they're old people's music.

Fashion is about making people look new. If it were about looking different, interesting or beautiful, old clothes would do just as well if not better.

Phoebe said...

"If it were about looking different, interesting or beautiful, old clothes would do just as well if not better."

What about vintage? The admiration fashion-types have for well-selected used clothes? Styles come back on a regular basis, so an outfit can be "new" as well as preowned. If anything, one wins extra fashion points for tracking down the authentic article.

Consumatopia said...

That's a good point.

And come to think of it, most of what I said is even more applicable to graphic design than fashion.

Adam Villani said...

people who haven't a clue about fashion, who think it's dumb, mocking those weirdo fashion-types.

I hope I didn't come off that way. What I'm saying is that the fashion industry has long mystified me, so can you help me out here and explain why they give models such bizarre looks.

And when I talk about them making the models deliberately ugly, this is the sort of thing I mean:

The grunge look is long gone from the runway, but the emphasis on the grayed skin, bleached brows, and vacant eyes has stayed with us from that time.

We can see this in the photos of the Prada models Phoebe linked to. Once again, I'm not asking for the models to be made up like strippers. But under what sort of situation would somebody deliberately make themselves up like that, besides appearing on a runway? What would be the harm in applying makeup and styling hair on a model in a way that she might actually do so off the runway? They could be made to look professional, or just done up like how she might to go shopping, or out to dinner, or whatever. Why do they instead make them look like they've emerged shell-shocked from an underground bunker?

And again with the Prada photoshoot, why the bloomers? The tops I can sort of imagine being adapted into clothing someone might wear, but never with bloomers like that. If it's the sort of thing one might imagine wearing pants or a skirt with, why not dress them in pants or a skirt?

Ultimately the idea is to sell clothes, right? How does this approach sell clothes better than dressing them in such a way that might more closely resemble how one might actually imagine a woman who bought the clothes would wear them?

Phoebe said...

AV,

"What would be the harm in applying makeup and styling hair on a model in a way that she might actually do so off the runway?"

Because it would be boring? I mean, this is sometimes what's done, or an exaggerated version thereof to be visible from a distance (again, stage paint). But it is Art, it's meant to keep people awake, it's... it's not about exact representation of reality. The intended audience enjoys the experimentation, but is able to imagine how the clothes would look under more usual circumstances. This doesn't need to be spelled out.

"And again with the Prada photoshoot, why the bloomers?"

Why do beer ads feature big breasted women in bikinis, not just accurate photos of the beer in question? The models are models, and their stick-thin thighs kind of Fashion things up.

"Ultimately the idea is to sell clothes, right?"

The runway is not the J.Crew or Land's End catalogue. The point of a high-fashion show isn't to sell clothes to sensible women shoppers looking to replace their worn-out Ann Taylor suits and look sharp for the office. It's to create hype around a brand, to show - often in an exaggerated way - what the new silhouette or hemline will be.

I mean, let me be clear - I'm not saying it should be like this - maybe it would be more interesting to see what the clothes would "really" look like. But I'd rather that be a change in who's a model - a wider range of body types and heights, ages and races, say - than for chuck the theatricality aspect of it.

PG said...

But I'd rather that be a change in who's a model - a wider range of body types and heights, ages and races, say - than for chuck the theatricality aspect of it.

Hear, hear. I'd take more of an interest in fashion if it seemed to take more of an interest in me and people physically like me (i.e. the teeming multitudes who are not pale, tall and thin). Some of us have money to spend! But as it is, the only designer dress I've ever bought was my wedding gown, which then was tailored to a fare-thee-well so it would actually fit. They took literally yards off the hemline.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Thanks for reading past my glaring typo. Anyway, I don't see a Revolution coming any time soon in this regard. As for clothes being massively too long, unfortunately this is true even far, far removed from "designer." I just ordered two pairs of "petite"-length lounge pants from Old Navy, and while one pair fits that description (which is to say, is a tiny bit too short on me, at 5'2"), the other implies that a "normal"-legged woman is hovering around seven-foot.