Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The frump-skank dichotomy

I'm pleased to see the why-is-there-no-place-in-fashion-for-breasts issue addressed, even if I'd have addressed it slightly differently. We're used to hearing that the problem with the skinny-model phenom is that it makes women, particularly heavier women, feel bad about themselves, and then to hearing someone else pipe in that we shouldn't be encouraging obesity, and then someone else will say that beauty comes in all sizes, and so goes the discussion. But even if we remove from the discussion issues of self-esteem, overweight, and the well-being of the models themselves, there's one rather striking problem with models being built as they are, given that their job is to show women an idealized version of how they themselves might look in different clothes.

Let me explain. The great challenge of getting dressed for the day, beginning at give-or-take age 15, is adjusting to a post-adolescent build. One is accustomed to looking for clothes that fit one body, then suddenly must find clothes that fit another. Every shape presents its own challenges, but a common situation for women with breasts and/or hips of any noticeable size is as follows: too-baggy clothes produce frump, too few or too tight produce skank. Many of us were as children built similarly to today's models, which is precisely why seeing clothes on those models is of no use to us once we're old enough to buy our own clothes. In something too low-cut, models' busts are not bursting out inappropriately. In something baggy and androgynous, their breasts and hips are not tenting out the material to produce the visual effect of a ninth-month pregnancy. This, and not (just) what I said earlier, is why the whole 'let's take our fashion tips from off-duty models!' fad is such nonsense. Look one by one through those outfits and try to imagine each on a woman whose physique doesn't give everything an ironic, avant-garde interpretation.

What's crucial here is that not all the discussion of 'curves' and 'real women' is a euphemistic one about overweight. Clothing is not marketed to or designed for heavier women, agreed, and agreed that often, the heavier the woman, the more difficult the relationship with the fashion industry. But clothing isn't marketed to or designed for thin women either. (See Amber's description and linked photos of Lady Gaga's physique for an example of thin as it exists in the everyday spectrum of women's builds.) As clothing exists, evening gowns and bikinis aside, breasts get in the way. Is an idealized woman's body one without breasts or hips?

All of this leads to two possible conclusions. One, the 'frump-skank' dichotomy is itself nonsense, and rather than being disturbed by clothes doing the 'wrong' things with our curves, we should just wear whatever we want, bursting cardigan buttons be damned. It is The Media making us believe that sheer tops or menswear-inspired pants-suits only look appropriate on the shockingly tall and thin. Flattering is a construct! (Amber's desire "to run around in a PVC bodysuit with a rooster hood, or no pants with giant hoof-heels" is matched by my own, equally radical one, which is to just wear a button-down shirt, no sweater over it, without even a moment of self-consciousness). The other is that 'flattering' is not in fact a myth, but that some trickle-down effect makes it so that even non-designer clothing is made to best flatter a body type that is, yes, 'real' in its own right, but highly unusual among grown women, even slim ones.


PG said...

Flattering is of course a construct, but I'm puzzled as to what about button-down shirts makes you self-conscious. So long as I buy them in the right size (generally two sizes larger than I need for shirts I just pull over my head), and get ones cut for women instead of for men, I think they can be quite flattering. Stretchy fabric buttondowns are misleading, though; the fact of buttons means that you still end up with the gap at the bust if the shirt isn't large enough, no matter how stretchy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I did figure out (but it took time) that the button-downs need to be a size or two up, and designed for women. (Don't get me started on 'Boyfriend' clothing.) But what happens is often enough the tent effect, with the bust providing the illusion of a much-larger waist. Part of the problem could be that I like the androgynous/menswear-inspired look, and so even though I own, somewhere, a pink button-down with darts and everything, the button-downs I tend to notice on the rack are the very same ones that are not the most shall we say rack-friendly.

PG said...

I like the androgynous/menswear-inspired look

Then I think like the Balmain-jacket-wearing columnist, you'll have to be happy with looking chic without necessarily looking conventionally-sexy, since conventional sexiness among heterosexuals is mostly defined by exaggerating biological sex differences. If you're a woman and it's difficult to tell that you have breasts and a small waist under your shirt, or you're a man and it's difficult to tell that you have broad shoulders but lean hips under that sweater, you may be chic but you aren't appealing to the Darwinian hindbrain. Then again, we should have evolved past that by now, so your menswear may well be flattering even if it doesn't scream "this body can push out and suckle lots of babies."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What a coincidence - I have a Brooklyn Industries sweatshirt-material version of that Balmain jacket, although mine might actually predate it by a couple years. A major life achievement, I realize.

What this means, though, is that the only people with access to chic and sexy are models and could-be-models, and that all other women must choose. Because even if models aren't large-breasted, and don't look primed to pop out babies (even if they often do, and many, and young, one of life's great mysteries) it's generally assumed that they can 'get away with' far more than everyone else, meaning that they can look cutting-edge without sacrificing flattering-ness.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, what I'm getting at is, why are women whose builds potentially do appeal to said hindbrain the ones who must choose, whereas the straight-up-and-down types can have it all?

Petey said...

"you may be chic but you aren't appealing to the Darwinian hindbrain"

It's worth noting that, in terms of fashion presentation, this is completely intentional, not coincidental.

By design, Chic ≠ Sexy.

(Frumpy, of course, lies on a completely different axis.)


And tangentially, may I note that I have recently become somewhat confused about how to feel about the Rise of Gaga.

When she first appeared, I was pretty psyched. The performance art component of doing Peaches for the Masses seemed absolutely brilliant to me. And Stef has pulled it off perfectly.

But now what? She's the new Elvis. Everyone loves her. And she seems too well-balanced to make the smart career move for a rock star of dying young. I'd feel better about her future if she had at least some detractors to push back against...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Chic can also be sexy. What it can't be is too-obvious sexy, aka skanky. Example of chic=sexy: a well-fitting pencil skirt. It's out there, but tough to find.

Amber's the one following Lady Gaga - I know vaguely who she is, so that's the thread you want.

Petey said...

"Chic can also be sexy. What it can't be is too-obvious sexy, aka skanky. Example of chic=sexy: a well-fitting pencil skirt. It's out there, but tough to find."

See, I'd disagree pretty fundamentally here. Chic is defined by it's anti-sexiness. Chic is supposed to be appealing, but not sexy. There's a reason the word "heroin" has settled in so comfortably in front of chic, for example. The look of death can be quite appealing, but the appeal is something quite opposed to the appeal of sexy.

In a way, this echoes back to the whole "why do models look better on their days off" discussion. When models are working, they are being paid to dress chic. On their days off, they decide to dress sexy.

Or put yet another way, there's a reason that the women's fashion world of chic is such a popular destination for non-hetero men.

Or put one final way, chic has zero interest in the hindbrain. That's what the entire invention of chic was about.

There is a straight line with "chic" and "frumpy" as its terms, but in that graph "sexy" lies on a completely different axis.


"Amber's the one following Lady Gaga - I know vaguely who she is, so that's the thread you want."

I did preface my comment by saying it was tangential...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, this is easy enough to resolve. Chic does not equal sexy, but the two categories are not mutually exclusive.

(And I'm fairly certain the model-off-duty look is described as 'effortlessly chic', but no, can't be bothered to look this up.)

Matt said...

Not on topic at all, but I think you might enjoy this:


(that said, I have to say that these people don't really fit my image of "hipsters", so while it's fun, it's not quite as fun as it could be. Many of them seem more like yuppies to me, but maybe I just don't understand the boundaries of the terms these days.)

cd said...

(Hopping over from Amber's thread)

I think chic can most certainly be sexy. The two descriptors aren't going to be synonymous in every outfit, but a chic outfit - to me - should also appropriately highlight sexuality. Um, in a work appropriate way, too. (Okay, I know what I mean, but it's not coming across).

What comes to mind first - again, in a work-context way - would be nearly every suit worn by Portia De Rossi's character in Better Off Ted. Anyone seen that. I am in total clothing lust over her duds. Chic in every sense, sexy as hell, but about as conservative as you'd ever find too.

She doesn't really have the breast problem, though.

To answer your question about why the straight-up-and-down get to have it all and those of us with breasts and hips (or god forbid, in cases like mine, a lot of hip and not much breast) are screwed: my mom would say because there are more men designing clothes and they still don't get what it's like to have breasts and hips. I don't know if I'm on board with that.

I would say - for most of us that shop at mid-range stores (when Banana and Nordstrom are our nicer venues and we don't go much more custom or couture than that): it's because adding the necessary structure to make the clothes fit our bodies requires more time, more stitching and more attention to detail. And cheap crap shipped from overseas just won't ever fit as well when it has to fit everyone.

Britta said...

This also annoys me to no end. I was thinking about this because I was online dress shopping at J Crew for a special occasion dress (more like fantasy procrastinatory shopping). Apparently, they only build clothes for breastless, pear shaped women, because the dresses that would fit my waist were several inches to small in the bust, and a little big on the bottom. I've had similar experiences trying on dresses elsewhere--if they fit everywhere else, they smash my boobs out the top, and I am not even that well-endowed. I also love button up shirts, and definitely have many in the slightly-baggy boy range (including an old dress shirt of my brother's), but that's not the only look I want to pull off, and I feel, with officewear, it's not entirely appropriate (though as a grad student, I don't have to worry about that). I have broad shoulders and a very narrow torso + breasts, which is an even harder combination to shop for. Most clothing that fits on me in an approximation of my size is completely unwearable--baggy in weird areas and tight in the others, and not in a flattering way. This is definitely true of button up shirts, but also t-shirts. I am in search of a basic, long-sleeve shirt, but haven't yet found a company that makes ones that fit me.