By Kay Cole
One day last winter on a typically slushy day, I walked to my doctor's
office and observed the sign on her door: "Please remove rubbers
Dutifully, I removed my red-rimmed rubber boots, left them on the
mat outside the door, and entered, self-consciously, in my stocking
feet. Immediately I was confronted with four or five other women
in the waiting room who were not in my humbled condition. They all
had their boots on. But all their boots were leather, good leather,
the kind with two-to-five inch heels. Even the receptionist was
wearing high leather boots. Evidently the sign was meant to apply
only to those who were either male or gauche enough to actually
wear leak-proof rubber boots in slushy weather. The sign did not
even say "Remove boots before entering." No, only the
material rubber was specified as being necessary to remove.
However, my feelings of humility were somewhat put into perspective
a couple of weeks later when a gigantic slush storm decended on
the city, coupled with a great thaw which turned the sidewalks into
streams and rivers and the streets into lakes. Slushing home from
work I watched with pure enjoyment and pleasure as those unfortunates
(men included) who were not wearing high rubber boots like me, leapt
precariously from one relatively dry spot to another, or resignedly
walked through deep puddles with misery etched on their faces.
This is certainly not the only time I have been struck by the sheer
impracticality of people's apparel. Seeing a highly fashion-conscious
woman bravely stalking forward on four-inch heels always fills me
with a strange combination of admiration at her prowess, and contempt
at the utter silliness of it.
Dress the way people cover and decorate their bodies
is, as I see it, a form of self-expression. Fashion is the way each
person conforms to the manner of dress of his/her society or segment
of society. Some people, perhaps leftists in particular, have confused
the two. We have tended to see any attempts particularly
on the part of women to be elegant, or feminine, or simply
attractive, as surrenders to the world of sexist, objectifying fashion.
Any undue or apparent attention to one's apparel is looked on with
suspicion, and thoughts of bourgeoisification are never
far from people's minds.
Fashion is not a recent phenomenon or one unique to western society.
Throughout the ages and in all or nearly all cultures people, especially
women, have been expected to conform to the modes of dress prevalent
at the time. Usually it is the women who are expected to decorate
and disfigure their bodies. But sometimes, though more rarely, and
usually less inconveniently, it is the man. That this is in large
part a sexual action, like birds in plumage, designed to attract
people to each other or to signal that the wearer is not
available seems fairly evident.
It can also be a lot of fun.
Men and women both have always enjoyed dressing up. Changing one's
appearance for special occasions or just for the fun of it has always
been an indulgence for men and women both, except for those for
whom poverty precludes any frivolous activity extraneous to the
immediate struggle for survival.
Unfortunately, sexist attitudes and the manner of women's dress
have been inextricably linked. Women tottering precariously on bound
feet, or on platforms or high-heeled shoes, are made to seem vulnerable
and the men thus strong and protective. A waist made tiny by organ-mutilating
corsettes gives a woman that breathless but dainty quality which
is physically incapacitating, and is also attractive to the sexist
man of certain cultures.
The foot that fits the shoe: According
to the gospel of the shoe-makers,
the big toe ought to be in place of the third one.
Drawing by Bernard Pfriem. From Bernard Rudofsky, The Unfashionable
Fashions in the western world today are a little less of a physical
burden, but much more of an economic one. Since fashion has been
made the business of those with a profit motive, what used to be
a sometimes oppressive but often enjoyable indulgence, has reached
near the heights of absurdity. The speed at which hemlines rise
and fall, at which skirts flare or straighten, or shoes become fat
or skinny has became so predictable that each woman who wants to
be in now takes for granted that each year she will
have to buy a complete new wardrobe. Advertising introduces new
needs and reinforces the belief that everybody who is
anybody is improving their appearance and their relationships by
buying these new products, "carefully researched" by "people
To some, this may seem doubtful. How many women really slavishly
follow the dictates of fashion to such an extent as that? To find
out, all one really has to do is take a stroll downtown in any large
city at lunchtime and observe. Also observe the number of stores
and boutiques catering exclusively to the office crowds and obviously
doing a good business. Also if one has a job in one of these offices
in the big cities, one quickly realizes that it is not the "bourgeoisie"
who buys all these expensive clothes, but frequently those who can
afford them least, the clerk and typists and receptionists. Immigrant
women factory workers certainly have neither the time or the money
to indulge in the latest fashion trends, but most of then I'm sure
would like to and their children certainly do.
In a great many offices, especially those of the large finance
companies, dressing in the latest fashions goes along with the job
and it's hard to get away with dressing simply and cheaply. Indeed,
I've often thought that a good union demand for some offices that
are unionized would be a clothing allowance so one doesn't have
to spend one's hard-earned wages on clothes to come to work in.
At the very least they should be tax deductable.
Beyond a doubt, the fashion industry has made what should be a
pleasant and interesting activity, i.e., the art of self decoration,
into a chore and a drag. It's no accident of semantics that we now
refer to this chore as the "dictates of fashion". Men
and women both are afraid not to conform to what the media say "everyone
is wearing". They may not like the new styles, or more often
than not, they probably don't suit them, but not to wear then would
mean being "old fashioned" and "out of date".
Women, naturally get picked on far more than men because their role
as objects gives the male (and female) designers in the fashion
industry endless angles to exploit. And of course fashion is only
one aspect of "keeping up with the Jones", for which consumerism
prepares people from childhood. In suburban middle class society,
having a well-dressed wife is analogous to having a new model car.
It's a mark of success, of having "made it", and its often
essential to advancing in one's career.
Woman's body, as it might have
looked if it actually corresponded to fashions in clothes:
1. The 1870's period of the bustle. 2. The mono-bosomed dowager
3. The hobble skirted woman of 1913 who seemed to have a single
4. The flapper of the 1910's. From Rudofsky, The Unfashionable Human
But even though the fashion industry has made dress oppressive one
should not discard it completely, or at least only an appropriate
occasions. Do we really all want to walk around looking exactly
alike in dull green pajamas and peak caps? Do we never want to draw
attention to ourselves? Perhaps we should all wear brick and cement
camouflage in order to blend in with our city surroundings. Islamic
women in this sense have the right idea. They don't want to draw
attention to themselves so they cover up with long black robes with
one eye peeking out. In their society it is permissible for men
to attack any woman not so smothered. (Judges, lawyers and police
in rape cases world probably support this fashion in our own society.)
Unfortunately, in our sexist society, women justifiably do not
want to be too obvious in a crowd, but they do at the same time
want to be attractive and so they try to blend in, in an attractive
way. Thus the desire to conform in dress style.
For styles of dress to become matters of freedom and choice rather
than matters of social dictate and camouflage, society will have
to change fundamentally. Women will have to be free of the fear
of being potentially harassed or attacked by any passing man, and
fashions in dress have to be torn from the web of profit and commodity
production. Until women can exist freely in a non-sexist society,
it will naturally be impossible for women to be free about expressing
themselves sexually or otherwise through dress.
But that does not mean that women must do what Islamic women do
and hide from men altogether.
The seeds of change have already been planted. Same women and men
are already stepping out of their uniforms into their own creations.
But in this, as in other cultural activities, we have a long way
An example of "half-dress"
Oriental Album by James Augustus St. John.
Dress, television, dance, movies, bingo nights, music, decoration,
are all elements of popular culture, most of which (music and movies
are the exceptions) are ignored politically by those who advocate
liberation and which tend to be put down in the social microcosm
of the left because of the inevitable bourgeois elements. Some of
us boast that we "never watch television" thereby proving
that we are on a higher level of consciousness and have no need
of such passive forms of entertainment. We prefer to sit passively
in endless meetings instead. Dance is restricted to jumps and hops
accompanied by ear-jarring music, while the often more interesting
folk and square dancing are disdainfully left to our parents. Most
of us are embarrassed to open our mouths to sing, preferring to
leave one of the most enjoyable of group activities to the "experts"
on our records.
Presently the left - at least in North America - considers a woman
(or a man) who dresses up as bourgeois or at least as curiously
aberrant, allowing themselves to be objectified. The left woman,
coming home from work and changing out of her office or factory
uniform before joining her "comrades" must carefully choose
her clothing if she feels in a particularly dressy or creative mood.
Make-up is definitely out, even though it can be a lot of fun. Fancy
blouses are OK if they are not too new and are accompanied by the
inevitable blue jeans. Flouncy peasant skirts are becoming more
acceptable as long as they look hand-made, and especially if they
are made out of cast-off clothing or scraps. Necklaces are generally
OK but iffy, and other jewelery, such as bracelets and broaches
are darn right risque.
Even though women have been the more exploited sex in the world
of fashion, men have been much more restricted in the variety of
their dress: witness the suit. Lapels and tie may have gotten fatter
or skinnier, but that is about as much leeway as is allowed in men's
fashions. That stiff collars and neck ties are now virtually extinct
everywhere but the business world and the classier restaurants must
be a great relief to many men, but it is not enough. That they should
still be restricted essentially to shirt and trousers (jeans) in
a subdued variety of colours and texturres, means that there is
still much room for improvement. When men can wear skirts in hot
weather, things will really have gotten somewhere.
Reaction against aspects of the western fashion industry is natural
for those who consider themselves "liberated", but too
many altogether deny that dress plays any role in their lives at
all beyond staying warm, keeping off the sun and staying legal.
But there is no question that even the most blase of people do pay
attention to what they wear and are conscious of how they appear
however they may try to suppress this consciousness. Recently, my
housemate and I were preparing to go to a party, when to his horror
he discovered that the holes in his only pair of blue jeans had
become big enough to be indecent. The only other possibility was
a pair of dress slacks reserved exclusively for family obligations
such as weddings and certainly not to be worn in the presence of
real friends. Nonetheless he had no choice and was forced to walk
into a room full of blue jeans to a suitable chorus of admiring
Jeans are a good example of how the dictates of fashion - in this
case, the extremely fashionable fashion of pretending not to care
about fashion at all - can lead to impoverished creativity and the
suppression of common sense. They are not always the most comfortable
apparel, especially when new, and they can often restrict movements
if they are worn too tightly as they very frequently are (worn too
tightly in men, they can also inhibit the production of sperm cells.)
They are very bad in snowy conditions since they are not at all
water resistant. They often shrink, disintegrate into rags quickly
and on top of it all are quite expensive. Yet the are by far the
most popular apparel worn today, especially by the young, the left
and the self-consciously unfashionable, so popular as to be almost
a uniform. One redeeming feature is that they are somewhat sexy
and to this I would attribute their rise and stay in popularity.
Ideally, dress should be free speech. It should articulate what
that person is into, how that person sees herself, today or generally.
What fashion does is restrict that freedom of speech, mold everyone
into the same acceptable pattern of dress.
Dress is a statement that can mean different things in different
contexts. If a friend of mine, accustomed to wearing jeans and sandals
walked in wearing high-heeled shoes and lipstick, I would be surprised
and would wonder what had happened to her. My boss at work would
probably say she now wants to grow up and "be a lady".
I would probably say that she has either sold out or is mixed up
or has gone around the bend.
Attractiveness isn't an absolute. What society today might find
attractive, an earlier or later or different society may find downright
ugly. The important thing about such things as make-up is the context
in which it is placed. It isn't inherently bad or objectifying to
wear makeup, but to women who are trying to free themselves from
the sexist, objectifying nature of today's society, make-up has
become a symbol of false femininity, and a woman wearing makeup
today is making strong statements about her attitudes and position
in society, consciously or not.
Elegance in another culture: Neck
ring, skin, and
the severe abstraction of a blouse add up to a festive outfit.
There are really only a very limited number of considerations which
should be given to the choice of clothing. Clothes should be comfortable
and should not restrict movements. They should be easy to take care
of (though this restriction could be sacrificed in favour of a particular
effect.) They should be economical (could also be occasionally sacrificed.)
They should be flattering to the wearer. They should provide the
wearer with suitable protection from the elements. And they should
(in this society anyway) cover up strategic parts of the body, although
the way this is done can often make the body sexier than stark nakedness
But in a society where one's choice of clothing is wrapped up in
so many other considerations and causes, we have to decide how best
to cope with the restrictions imposed by them. Giving the matter
some thought would be a good way to start making our choices free
and more sensible.
Published in The
Red Menace, Number 5, Summer 1980.
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