Sunday, April 24, 2011

When straight men talk fashion UPDATED, TWICE!

Often, so very often, gay men stand accused of ruining things for women through their imagined machinations in the fashion industry. 'They want to see boys, not women!', accusers claim, as if that explains the absence of breasts and hips from the runway, and the requirement that the female models be heights that would count as tall even for men. Which is ridiculous - gay men, in the fashion industry, in the auto industry, whatever - are attracted to men, not preadolescent Estonian girls. But there is a certain sense in which the fashion industry ignores that which straight men traditionally find appealing - aka a body for which a bra is necessary for looking dressed in the conventional sense. Without getting all sinister and conspiracy-theory on the topic, it's fair to say that fashion is not about the hetero male gaze.

Which is why it's amusing when a straight guy claims authority on the topic. Slate has reposted an article from the Financial Times, in which Geoff Dyer, a straight man - or at any rate, a man who refers to being married to a woman, and who's given us no reason to think he's not straight - muses on "the perfect summer dress." (Accompanied, alas, by an ad for American Apparel, another case of straight men in fashion.)

The essay - written in that lighthearted way that just dares you to take it seriously, only to laugh at you for having done so - encapsulates how straight men (who are not employed in the fashion industry, or what was for a time referred to as "metrosexual") understand women's self-presentation, and, as such, is worth a read, even if one does not come away from the article with ideas of what to wear as the season turns.

-The "natural" look. No makeup, no heels. Optimally no shoes. No artifice for Dyer's summer-dressed lass. Nothing frilly or fashiony, please.

-The emphasis on health. The essay fixates on the idea that a woman in a summer dress must look not merely good, but well. This, combined with the "natural" notion, is because men who are attracted to women are judging such things as whether she'll look similar at 50 and whether she'll produce "fit" offspring. The theoretical summer-dress-wearing woman is being judged semi-holistically, one might say, and not necessarily for better.

-The ignorance of cut, design. "It does not require special treatment. It can be crammed into a duffel bag. It doesn't even have to fit perfectly. Price is irrelevant. You can pay a lot but, equally, it can be the kind of thing you can pick up for next to nothing." Now, this does happen to be my own personal philosophy of dress-buying, especially for warm weather, which is how so many Gap nightgowns/tunics end up getting worn outside. However! The cut of an item does matter, and, to a degree, the fit may be better if you pay more. Again, this is coming from someone for whom long tank-top+5'2"=dress. But a straight man might well notice a woman whose dress fits a particular way, whom he would not notice if her dress were cut wrong. Cut can make a woman look much thinner or wider, bustier or straight-up-and-down. Again, again, I'm not saying women should make decisions based on this, but it is what it is.

-The ignorance of the fact that women typically wear underwear. The summer dress is "the last layer separating the naked fact of a woman from the world." Just as straight (and, I suppose, gay) men see makeup-less when a woman's spent an hour getting mascara and 20 other products just right, straight men can easily suspend disbelief and think a woman is almost naked, even if that's not so much the case.

-The air of having 'discovered' that which women already know. Wait a moment - the summer dress must be sleeveless, yet not too short? Dyer expresses this notion as if it were a new one, but the rule about wearing something revealing only on the top or the bottom, not both at once, is high up in fashion's Constitution - that sweet spot between hooker and Hasid. Same with the thing about not wearing tights - tights can be used to make a summer dress fall-and-spring-friendly, but are obviously not worn with casual attire when it's 85 degrees out. This is not "fashion," but common sense. As in, a summer dress should not be made out of heavy wool or quilted down. And not because of the ethereal essence of what a summer dress symbolizes.

Dyer gets one key point right - one of warm weather's great perks for women (not working in corporate law offices, PG) is that we can get away with wearing what is essentially a long t-shirt, but designed in such a way as to make the woman appear to have made an effort/dressed up, while men have no comparable alternative. The summer dress is a thing, but only insofar as women can all of a sudden switch to a low-maintenance uniform and still look put-together, as men continue to face the suit-jeans dichotomy. But overall, one gets the sense that this is an essay about Woman, not Fashion.

UPDATE 1

The commenters there have arrived, and the verdict is in - dude's male privilege is, it seems, showing. He's even directed to a male-privilege checklist. Argh. I mean, perhaps so, but that's not what's interesting. What is is that here's a straight man entering a conversation that the likes of him typically don't, and that it plays out precisely as we might have imagined it would: dude's utterly ignorant about fashion, proudly ignorant, and thinks artifice is yuck because, well, he doesn't even quite get what artifice is, or how much of it women he thinks have on just a spot of lip gloss have going. He may ooze with privilege in all other arenas, but in this one, not really. Yes, the male gaze exists, but the business of telling women specifically what to wear is one straight men don't generally delve into.

UPDATE 2

Compare and contrast: a "fashion" take on the summer dress. A slideshow with commentary, not a going-for-witty-essay format, but an argument of sorts. And evidence of the far opposite side of the spectrum: different new dresses for barbecues, music festivals, day weddings, formal weddings, beach, and brunch? Brunch? We are now buying special clothing for this? So I'll take this opportunity to argue for a middle ground between $685 silk dresses for outdoor rock concerts and the one magic shmatta that looks just as good at a party as on a camping trip. (Which, actually, as I type this, reminds me of why the whole dress-for-hikes-and-cocktail-parties angle is so amusing. It's totally the dating cliché of 'I'm just as happy going out as staying in.')

15 comments:

dance said...

And:

"as mentioned, it works for tennis, but also hiking or cycling and it can then be worn to a party—no matter how glamorous—that same night."

Three reactions:

WTF. Where is this fool hiking? (Oh, right. Somewhere you can "hike" barefoot.)

So, this is his ideal summer dress:
http://www.rei.com/product/795192/prana-quinn-dress
(or just browse dresses at REI)

The hiking/party thing suggests that his summer dress is a very contemporary ideal. There's nothing in the past that would qualify. Which is odd, given the emphasis on primal, essential, and the general nostalgic tone of timelessness.

Britta said...

shorter dude: why don't women own the perfect dress that can be worn to all functions and in performing all activities, looks great, flatters your figure, is affordable, and requires no special care whatsoever?

Because yeah, there are *tons* of dresses like that around, but we women would prefer to wear instead something uncomfortable, awkward looking, fragile, and which goes with nothing else in our closet.

David Schraub said...

Random aside (though I suppose this post is as good as any to bring it up), but what hold does Estonia have on your fashion-psyche that Latvia lacks?

Phoebe said...

dance,

I'm not seeing how hiking would be possible in even those dresses. Nor do they fit the writer's ideal of this barely-there ethereal garment. Anyway. Once anyone starts on a piece of clothing as 'eternal,' you know you're dealing with someone a) who is trying to sell you an expensive handbag ('you'll wear it for years! so what if it's $20k?), or b) who has no understanding of fashion/dress-in-history whatsoever. The idea that a woman could wear just this light sheath of sleeveless fabric anywhere throughout history... I guess what the author's going for with essential/primal/nostalgia is a nostalgia for a time when he was young and checking out young women in dresses.

Britta,

The thing is, there *are* dresses like that, of the well-designed-long-t-shirt variety. They can't literally be worn everywhere, because sometimes a situation is professional/formal/athletic (see above), but they can cover a lot of ground. But it's hard to pay a lot for a jersey-material dress even if you want to, I suppose. Where dude goes wrong is... aside from what I mentioned in the post, in thinking that every time a woman doesn't go the cotton-t-shirt route, it's in order to be high-maintenance and difficult. When the reality is, different situations call for different looks. And - and! - even a man who in principle loves The Summer Dress would be annoyed if he hosted an important function/meeting and a woman arrived actually wearing what he's described.

David Schraub,

Estonia just strikes me as more interesting generally. And I once saw a picture online of Estonian national cuisine, and it appeared to be a bowl of porridge with a carrot stick and celery stick stuck in it... and all of a sudden it made sense how this is a country where there'd be a lot of potential models. Not a basket of "chocolatines," that.

Britta said...

Hmmm...where do you get these T-shirt dresses? I have only ever tried one on at H&M, and it clung to me in rather unflattering ways. I assumed that any T-shirt dress that would not be unflatteringly clingy would have to be baggy enough that it would look like a large T-shirt, but is this not true?

Also, I find Estonians kind of fascinating too, since they are similar to Scandinavians but not quite the same. Like, they're kind of like Finland in an alternate universe. Since I find Finns kind of fascinating, I think Estonians are even more so.

Oh, on Estonian cuisine, I have never eaten it but I have eaten lots of Finnish cuisine, and...it's pretty unexciting (my mother's partner is Finnish, so she has taken up Finnish cuisine with an enthusiasm far beyond what it deserves). There is a dessert that is actually like, wheat flour mixed with milk, water, and berry juice whipped into some sort of porridge thing.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Uniqlo and Gap. The one I'm thinking of from Uniqlo is basically a Breton-striped shirt (navy with white horizontal stripes, 3/4 sleeves), with pockets, and above-the-knee. Not a defined waist, i.e. not the most flattering thing in the entire world, but not tent-like either. The Gap one (ones, actually) are just long (also above-the-knee) tank tops. While I do own a couple things along these lines from H&M, they're not so great, because they go with some kind of stretchy-clingy material, not just cotton/jersey, of the sort that even the largest size they sell in an item will be skin-tight on anyone.

Also, yes re: Finland - I had to fly through Helsinki once, and it did seem fascinating. The language, the Russian-ness, the whole thing.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and this is the Uniqlo dress.

Sheera said...

Adorable. Dyer sounds like he's narrating a catalogue from the perspective of a second-tier poet mid wet dream. Everything should be simple! Everything is one big metaphor for summer!

And possibly-hetero dudes want women to look beautiful sans makeup, shoes, cloth? That is an Interesting New Fact. Thank g-dddd I never wear makeup but always look like I do!

But really I'm most offended by the notion that he thinks he has a point of view at all. That, and his prose.

Phoebe said...

Sheera,

Yup. A commenter there likened it to J. Peterman, and if that catalogue is what it sounded like on "Seinfeld," then that's it exactly.

And, I Googled. He's apparently a well-established writer. Make of that what you will...

Sheera said...

Yeah, I checked him out after a Slate commenter said he was a fox. So...that's why I Google. And yeah, we're all doomed.

P.S. Let me know if you post about interior decor. I'm more into that than clothes lately.

Britta said...

Thanks! I am very sad there is no Uniqlo in Chicago. Maybe I will go to the one in Beijing this summer. For the gap stuff, are they actually sold as tank-tops? (would they work for someone who is 5'5"?) Also, do night gowns work?

PG said...

A J. Peterman catalog was randomly mailed to my parents' house when I was in high school. It's very much like on "Seinfeld," but actually a lot more endearing than this guy's writing, because it had a whole variety of happenings that were not all based on the male gaze. (I think my favorite, to date the catalog fairly precisely, was a story about an older woman who was throwing a "We British are leaving Hong Kong" bash.)

Oh, Britta, speaking of Hong Kong, would the classmate I mentioned be useful to you if his consultancy is HK based?

Britta said...

Hi PG,
I think so. I focus on the mainland, but talking to him might still be really useful. I sent you an email a few days ago, so hopefully you got something, I just wanted to double check that I sent it to the right address. Thanks again for your help!

PG said...

Britta,

I received your email, but for some reason Hotmail is choking on letting me into the account to reply. So I'm abusing WWPD's comment section to let you know that I contact my classmate's admissions consulting firm and they've said they can't participate at this time. Sorry!

Britta said...

PG,
No problem. Thanks so much for contacting your friend for me!