Saturday, September 26, 2015

Does fancy dress have to be sexy?

It's such a cliché that there are regular fancy dress costumes, and then there are 'sexy' ones for women, which focus on revealing cleavage, midriff, silhouette and legs at the complete expense of fidelity to the idea of the costume.

In Out of Shape, I argue that the vocabulary of sexiness we draw on when we dress up for costume parties comes from what I call 'exploitation culture':
So-called because it exploits viewers’ crudest impulses, this genre discards such piffling irrelevancies as plot and character; instead, it visually represents ‘sexiness’ to excite its (male, heterosexual) audiences. 
Flimsy, form-fitting, and tantalisingly unbuttoned and unzipped, women’s exploitation costumes represent the ordinary world viewed through a fog of lust. ‘Sexy teachers’ and ‘sexy librarians’ doff their glasses, unbutton their prim cardigans and shake out their severe updos. ‘Sexy policewomen’ wear skin-tight military-style shirts, tiny hotpants, and stiletto heels that would be very impractical for chasing criminals. ‘Sexy waitresses’ and ‘sexy flight attendants’ promise personalised ‘service’, while ‘French maids’ know what ‘dirty’ means. (Out of Shape, p. 166)
I have been thinking about fancy dress because my friend Andy's birthday is coming up tonight, and for his party we have to dress as something beginning with the letter A.

My first instinct was like Cady's in Mean Girls: to come as something nerdy and enthusiastic, not something sexy. Asparagus would be funny – I'd wear a green T-shirt and tights and make myself a pointy bonnet. Or an armadillo: I would wear a brown T-shirt and tights and wear a laundry basket as a backpack. I discounted an apple because it would be too demanding, structurally.

But Anthony, my co-author on our romantic comedy novel-in-progress The Hot Guy, just shook his head when I told him these ideas. He said that the entire purpose of costume parties was to dress in sexy costumes in order to get laid.

As a compromise, I decided I would dress as the Greek goddess Athena. Of all the Greek goddesses whose names begin with A, I identify with her most: she represents wisdom, courage, inspiration, learning, the arts, and war strategy (one of her epithets is Promachos, 'she who leads from the front'). As Athena Parthenos ('Virgin Athena'), she also isn't married and doesn't have sex, so… there's that too.

She's often depicted wearing a war helmet, and holding a spear and a shield in the centre of which is Medusa's head (which Athena was gifted by Perseus). She is also often seen with a pet snake, Erichthonius, and a pet owl (those animals are sacred to her).

I only settled on this costume on Thursday night, and didn't have time to find or make myself a Spartan-style helmet, or to make myself some weaponry out of materials to hand (garbage bin lids, broomsticks, cardboard, gold paint). However, I have researched ancient Greek clothing and have made myself a Doric chiton out of a curtain I got in an op-shop for $5, plus a flannel himation, which I already had as part of a previous Virgin Mary costume (see below). I also bought some gold sandals, and five metres of gold ribbon to wear as a girdle, and I'm going to pin a gold necklace in my hair as a diadem. And I was pleased to remember that I own a pair of gold earrings in the shape of wings.

 Here's what Athena looks like, in a marble Greek copy signed “Antiokhos”, a first-century BC variant of the famous sculptor Phidias’s fifth-century Athena Promachos that stood on the Acropolis. (Her empty left hand is meant to hold a spear.) She's wearing a peplos, under an armoured breastplate bearing Medusa's head.

But then here's some of what came up when I Googled "Greek goddess costume":

Yawn. This tendentious sexualisation of fancy dress isn't new, however. Fashion historian Amber Butchart argues that fancy dress began with the Venetian carnival masquerade tradition. Carnival, a medieval festival immediately before Lent, was a time when dominant social and moral standards were subverted and mocked, and people could mingle freely and behave eccentrically without being punished.

In my research for Out of Shape, I learned about the elaborate historical fancy-dress society balls in late-19th-century Canada:
Wearing old-fashioned clothes temporarily freed the members of high society from prevailing social mores – women could wear their hair down and don revealing dresses, while men flaunted their legs in tights. After an 1898 ‘historical ball’ that had featured many eighteenth-century-esque outfits, the Montreal Star wistfully reported that ‘those beautiful old-fashioned pink and white gowns, and great skirts of rich brocaded silk that fell in such heavy clear folds, made one wonder if the nineteenth century had not lost the art of dressing.’ (Out of Shape, p. 259)
There's so much to say about the history of costume parties and their use in either avant-garde or reactionary aesthetics and politics. There are 'exotica' trends that veer from Egyptian and Middle Eastern motifs to straight-up blackface. There's the whole 'bad taste' trend, which links back to carnival's burlesque of social conventions. And there are attempts to use costume to playfully transcend the usual shapes and functions of the human body – dressing up as abstract objects or ideas – which we can see in the Surrealist and Bauhaus costume parties.

Salvador Dali dressed up as the kidnapped Lindbergh baby at 1934 New York society party, and was forced to apologise publicly, only for his Surrealist mates to give him a dressing-down for the apology. (I once dressed as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween.)

The Pre-Raphaelites and their intellectual circle popularised vaguely medievalist 'artistic dress', which then morphed into 'aesthetic dress', and became a mainstay of Liberty of London, which from 1884 maintained its own Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, where you could buy dresses that combined late-19th-century silhouettes with design elements from medieval, Renaissance, Jacobean, 18th-century and Regency fashions. (In 1909 it was renamed "Picturesque and Fancy Dress".) Interestingly for me, I read that from 1887 Liberty made a Grecian gown called 'Athene', in "Arabian cotton with silk Himation".

In the 1960s and 1970s, these historical dress-up fantasies found their retail equivalents in Biba's visions of Golden Age Hollywood and Laura Ashley's pastoral nostalgia.

Because fancy dress parties are often private events rather than public displays, they can also be insular, reinforcing membership in elite in-groups. For instance, the 'Bright Young Things' of 1920s and 1930s England famously favoured elaborate costume parties.

Dressing as Athena Parthenos basically reveals that I have given up on the idea of being sexually attractive. But I do remember in the past putting a lot of effort into looking as 'sexy' as I could at costume parties, and yet not attracting any flirtatious attention whatsoever. So now I think, "why bother?"

Here are a few pics of me in fancy dress, which I ripped off Facebook. 

I always wanted to go to a toga party, so I made my 30th birthday a toga party. You can see that the Doric chiton always slips off the shoulders if you don't watch yourself. I was trying to be sexy at this event by not wearing a bra. In hindsight, I should probably have worn a bra.

I can't even remember what the theme of this party was (it could have just been 'party' – but I (left) went as Corey Worthington.

Best party ever; that's what everyone's been sayin'. To be honest though, while I was pretty happy with the humour value of my costume, I felt so gross and unfeminine all night with my jeans pulled down below my underwear. For me, dressing butch is not sexy. For someone who is butch or is into butch women, it might be.

Here I am (left) dressed as Cyndi Lauper earlier this year. In the pic (taken at the Filmme Fatales launch I went to before the party), I am looking really pissed off but I was actually deliberately doing this to try to approximate Lauper's squint.

The theme was New Wave, and basically Lauper was the only person I could think of where I could use my hair, and had all the components of my outfit already. I was inspired by her look at the start of the 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' video. At the bus stop on the way to the Filmme Fatales event, two teen girls asked if they could take a selfie with me. I agreed, unsure if they thought I looked cool or if they wanted to mock me. I choose to believe it's the latter.

This is me (centre) in 2006 doing the 'Thriller' dance at an Is Not Magazine Halloween party, dressed as Carrie from the film Carrie. The paint I drenched myself in looked red in the bottle, but as you can see, it was really hot pink. I am covered in fabulous hot-pink pig's blood.

Here I am in 2005, dressed as the minor TV Batman villain Marsha, Queen of Diamonds for a superhero-themed ball. I wanted to wear something 'hot' to impress a guy I was crushing on at the time; but he didn't even go to the ball, and nobody else was interested in me.

Here I am going to a Yacht Rock-themed party in a hipster bar. Again, I was trying to impress a guy I was into at the time, but basically nobody else dressed up, so I looked like a total idiot.

Bless you, my child: here I am at my 33rd birthday (my 'Jesus year') dressed as the Virgin Mary. I had an LED torch hidden in my bra that made my Sacred Heart glow. This is not sexy at all, but it is my favourite fancy-dress costume of all time. I think I look amazing. Mother of Christ? That'd be nice.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Lorna Jane has a fit model problem

Boutique activewear brand Lorna Jane is currently enduring a severe tutting from the online media after it posted a job advertisement for a dual role at its HQ: as a receptionist and a fit model.

My initial response was to tweet: "Fit model is a legit job that needs specific body dimensions. But Lorna Jane shouldn't combine it with another job. Obviously anyone can do a receptionist job; but not everyone can be a fit model. Your measurements need to embody the brand's sizing."

Fit modelling isn't 'fitness modelling' – which is a genre of modelling in which the models look athletic and have very defined muscles and very little body fat. Rather, fit models work in the back end of the industry. Unlike regular models, who get booked by matching a designer, art director or stylist’s desired ‘look’, fit models stay employed by winning another kind of genetic lottery – possessing a body whose proportions match the vital statistics of a manufacturer’s target customer.

When I was writing Out of Shape, I did a fair bit of research into fit modelling that didn't make it into the final book. There really isn't very much discussion of this fascinating subset of the modelling industry – just as we prefer to concentrate on the glamorous world of fashion weeks and couture rather than the nuts-and-bolts business of garment production.

At many clothing manufacturers, employees step in as fit models when required, in addition to their regular jobs. And at some fashion labels – including, famously, Leona Edmiston – the designer uses himself or herself as the fit model. (I wish I could've got one local designer to go on record with his yarn that, having used himself as his fit model, his sizing began to get smaller when he lost weight – something he only realised when a longtime customer pointed it out.)

Kathleen Fasanella – who to me is the authoritative resource on the technical aspects of fashion – had a great two-part blog series about fit modelling. Natasha Wagner has fitted for jeans brands ranging from Gap and Old Navy to Levi's, 7 For All Mankind and Proenza Schouler, leading Vogue to dub her "the model whose bottom is shaping a nation". And here are some fun first-person accounts by Sable Yong, who at 5'2" works as a fit model for petites.

When I interviewed Clea Garrick of Australian fashion label Limedrop, she told me she tests her sample garments on several fit models who wear a size 8 differently – taller or shorter, and with varying body proportions – so she can get a sense for how each garment will look on different body shapes, not just sizes.

“We still do make garments that are fluid and flowing, so our sizing is not as strict on some pieces as they appear in measurements,” she added. “We aim to make fashion that looks great on real people, not just models.”

Lorna Jane, on the other hand, needs a fit model more than many fashion labels because all its products are form-fitting and stretchy. The way tight clothes compress the body can't properly be predicted from using industrial fit mannequins, which is why it's so important to use a live model who can report how the tightness feels.

When I looked at the the websites of specialist fit modelling agencies, I was struck by their galleries of pretty girls, photographed at full length and labelled with specs of height and body measurements. The effect is slightly unnerving – like a flipbook of mugshots or mail-order brides. They all hover around a standard Australian size 8-10, and all have a similar svelte, leggy look.

Yet it’s heartening and strangely touching to see how even these girls, whose job it is to be living dress forms, represent the shape variations of the human body, their proportions all slightly different. And this is important! A fit model isn't always a 'house model' – like Clea, some brands bring in several differently shaped women to test the tolerance of the size being fitted.

However, fit models are inextricable from the practice of targeted sizing. As Christina Cato commented at Fasanella's site Fashion-Incubator:
I’ve worked with fit models at a very well known company. In the time that I worked for them we went through 4 different fit models. We were also working on an identity crisis with understanding our customer. Once it was determined who she was the fit model was replaced with someone that would better fit that ideal. It is not a general ideal or an average. It is specific to the woman that buys this line of clothing. Through constant customer feedback the fit is refined and if needed the fit model is changed.

The clothes certainly don’t fit everyone (I couldn’t wear them), but the customers that can wear them are extremely loyal. The fit is the “signature” of the industry. I think it’s very clever to keep that a secret and to keep it unique. It ensures that the loyal customers remain loyal.
Lorna Jane, however, has the same image problem as its fellow 'fashion sportswear' label Lululemon. In claiming to champion health and fitness, yet targeting a particularly small, thin customer, Lorna Jane has been accused of excluding potential customers who also aspire to be healthy, sexy and stylish, but who fall outside its target size range.

So it seems extremely tone-deaf of Lorna Jane to advertise the fit model job – which legitimately has very specific requirements – alongside the receptionist job, which can, and indeed legally must, be offered to applicants of any age, gender, ability, and body shape and size. A Lorna Jane spokesperson told Crikey:
As a fit model is only required in a part time capacity, Lorna Jane felt it appropriate to combine this position with the part time receptionist role which is also currently vacant. … There are a number of positions within our business that combine roles to accommodate the needs and interests of our staff.
For me, this media outrage stems from the same "what about me?" attitudes that I see again and again in media discussions about clothing size. I really hoped that Out of Shape would help dispel them; but they keep being repeated in article after article. And as I noted in 2013 about Abercrombie and Fitch, people really struggle to get their heads around the legitimate marketing practice of targeted sizing in the fashion industry.

There is a widespread belief that consumers 'deserve' to be able to wear whatever brand they want as long as they have the money to buy it; and that if they don't fit into the brand's clothes, then this is the brand's conspiratorial moral judgment. We hear things like, "X brand doesn't care about real women", "X brand doesn't want to tarnish their brand with customers like me" and "X brand promotes unhealthy body image".

Conversely, when a brand decides to offer a broader size range, the media report this as an act of generosity and moral acceptance rather than what it really is: a decision to target a different market. And we'll hear things like "Y brand understands real women", "Y brand is welcoming and inclusive of customers like me" and "Y brand promotes healthy body image".

For me, the main problem with Lorna Jane's two-for-one job ad is that it has allowed the perceptions of exclusion and discrimination associated with its brand to extend to its broader hiring practices. Workplace law specialist Peter Vitale told SmartCompany that it's unlawful in some jurisdictions to discriminate against someone based on their personal appearance. Much depends on the way a job ad is phrased, and “the way [Lorna Jane] have structured the ad hasn’t done them any favours … Because it’s for a receptionist as well, the ad probably sailed a bit close to the wind".

Lorna Jane has made it easy for onlookers to infer – as some media reports have done – that the company only wants to hire employees with very small body sizes, in any role. But the company is perfectly entitled to seek a fit model whose proportions reflect those of its target customer.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wearing the same thing every day

Check out this guy, always wearing the same grey T-shirt and charcoal hoodie. You don't need a facial recognition algorithm to know who he is.

It's Social Overlord Mark Zuckerberg, of course. (Captured by his nemesis, Google.) Recently Zuckerberg did a Q&A at Facebook headquarters and was asked why he always wears the same grey T-shirt. He answered: "I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve this community. […] I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous."

I decided to blog about this, but as the blog post got more detailed I thought, "Why don't I actually pitch this as a feature story?" So I did… and you can read the rest of it over at Junkee. I'm glad they have a 'Style' section over there, so I can pitch these kinds of stories.

This has been one of my more popular stories lately. I'm surprised by the pageviews and the number of comments, and that it's got the biggest reach of anything I've posted on my Facebook page in the last three months. That said, the comments seem to have taken issue with the way I situate 'wearing the same thing every day' within a culture of technologised neoliberalism. Jeff Sparrow's essay on Soylent has been very influential in my thinking about this.

But of course there is the broader truism that anyone who actually uses the term 'neoliberalism' tends to do so suggesting it is a socially corrosive, structural phenomenon. Whereas those who might actually practise and enable neoliberalism rarely acknowledge it as a guiding philosophy at all, preferring to couch it as a climate of ideologically empty 'individual choice'.

To me, it seems obvious that much of tech culture's thinking about the body is instrumental – obsessed with what the body can be used to achieve, rather than how it looks or feels – and also can't be disentangled from the historic disparagement of the 'nerd body' and the way it's dressed.

Popular culture has created this category of the 'nerd' or 'geek' as someone who lives 'in his head' (the nerd is a historically male category) and so consequently is either incompetent or uninterested in the social and aesthetic aspects of dress. When I as much as raised the issue of gender and the way that 'being interested in clothes' is feminised and hence devalued, commenters told me I was "reading too much into this". So I guess it's really about ethics in videogame journalism.

I also feel that some people who either identify as or get categorised as geeks might experience clothing primarily as a weapon of social distinction rather than as a source of joy or pleasure. At school, clothes are used to police in-crowds and are adopted as badges of honour by defiant subcultural outsiders. If you felt victimised by or wanted to opt out of all that bullshit, you might say, "I don't care about what I wear."

But as a researcher of clothes, I think very few people genuinely don't care about what they wear. I suspect that people who deliberately wear the same thing every day (rather than dress randomly from a limited pool of utilitarian clothes) actually have much more invested in the issue of clothing, and have a keener awareness of what their clothing says about them, than your stereotypical absent-minded professor whose mum or wife or workplace supplies his clothing.

So the semiotic question – what wearing the same thing every day might express about a person – is the issue I focus on in the Junkee feature.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Back on deck

On the weekend I went away and got a pretty good haul at the Venus Bay op shop.

This was a proper country op shop, with old-fashioned prices – the lambswool/angora jumper, stretch miniskirt, Glomesh wallet, glitter shoelaces and leather shoes cost me a grand total of $12. You can probably also tell that it's Seven Sisters Spring! (A trans-seasonal period that's not too hot and not too cold.)

And it's the class dimensions of this look that I find quite confronting. Even though they were only $5, I really angsted over whether to buy the boat shoes. When I was at school and uni, boat shoes were the uniform of private-school louts, along with rugby shirts and chino pants. I associate them with the sexism and political conservatism that come with being complacent about gender and class privilege.

But in recent years I've noticed that cool young people are wearing chinos (albeit skinny-legged rather than the pleated, baggy sort popular in the '90s), boat shoes, and chambray shirts (often worn buttoned to the neck). It's as if they are reinscribing these garments' connotations of wealth as aspirational and glamorous, similarly to the way 'Ivy Style' and 'prep' are nostalgic for a vanished WASP elite.

Recently I read an eye-opening Tatler feature about the Scottish aristocracy (reading Tatler always sends me into a tailspin of "who even are these people?") and thought to myself, this is the culture that produced my beloved British Country Winter aesthetic. What do I love about this look? If I'm being honest, it is that it's an elite look, one that speaks of the low-key luxury and leisure that intergenerational wealth can enable.

Boat shoes (also known as deck shoes or top-siders) are intended to be worn for leisure boating, as their name implies. (Interestingly, John Sipe, the innovator of cutting grooves in the rubber tread of tyres to increase their traction in slippery conditions, is frequently said to have cut lines in his own shoes while working in a slaughterhouse – hardly an elite occupation.)

The recognisable style – sturdily stitched leather; deep-treaded rubber soles; moccasin-style top-seamed toe; leather laces threaded through eyelets – was invented in 1935 by avid boater Paul Sperry, who called them the Sperry Top-Sider. They took off in 1939 when the US Navy decided to make them standard issue for sailors.

Traditionally they are never worn with socks. Because of the historical association of leisure boating with the monied US north-east, who also sent their sons to Ivy League colleges, a practical item became a signifier of privilege.

But as Jessica Friedmann commented on my Instagram, "There's definitely a class connotation but I like the idea of 'casual' shoes that are as meticulously and carefully made as dress shoes, to be chucked on with jeans on the weekend. It's one of the 'old money' affectations that I like - investing on good quality no matter the situation."

And she's right. There's something alluring about the zero-fucks way that old-money people buy expensive, beautifully made clothes and then just wear the shit out of them. That, I think, is why the modern Ivy/prep style revival can look too fussy and overdressed compared to the carefree fratboys captured in Take Ivy.

This aesthetic also challenges me because it is a conservative style. Fashion – by which I mean the industrial cycle of trends – recognises and rewards innovation and eccentricity, which is why older women are celebrated when they dress boldly and individually, and dismissed as 'frumpy' when they stick to unshowy, utilitarian 'classics'.

Young people can potentially make conservative clothes fashionable, due to the incongruity of fresh-faced, taut-bodied beauties wearing otherwise 'ugly' and 'unflattering' clothes. Hence the popularity (ironic or unironic) of 'normcore' and the 'Elaine from Seinfeld' look. But if you are 'plain', fat, or once you get over a certain age-related event horizon (which I constantly fret I have done), you have two options.

First is to dress flamboyantly and eccentrically in order to 'read' as youthful, beautiful and stylish. (This was Diana Vreeland's sartorial philosophy.) Second is to embrace minimalism: a cerebral and challenging 'fashionability' that flatters the non-normatively beautiful because it radically de-emphasises the body and focuses on the textural and sculptural qualities of the materials. (Coco Chanel was a prototypical minimalist.)

So, to return to items such as these boat shoes, I have this paranoid conviction that I can only 'get away with' them if I don't wear them with other 'preppy' items. Here they are today, on their first spin under my ownership:

I chose the skirt to match the shoes, and decided not to emphasise the black in the skirt, so I chose a white top with stripes of similar thickness, to highlight the block colours rather than the blackness of the stripes. I also wore my denim jacket because it added both colour and casualness to the outfit, and because blue denim is inextricable from Seven Sisters Summer in my mind.

I don't think long skirts are the go with these shoes; the effect is daggy. I feel like they go best with pants. (I don't wear jeans or shorts.) But perhaps I could also wear them with simple, non-uber-femme dresses, with miniskirts and leggings (I exposed my naked thighs to the world once – as documented in Out of Shape – and am never doing it again), or with knee-length pencil skirts.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Beret fashionable

I am not really a hat person, but when I do wear a hat, it's a beret. I own five: in black, navy, charcoal grey, yellow and red. I find the yellow one the jauntiest, but really struggle to match it with outfits because it's easy to look like you're in uniform if, like me, you wear a lot of block colours.

When I wear my caponcho (my navy-blue knitted poncho with epaulettes, brass buttons and arm slits, like a cape) with my yellow beret, the effect is very Madeline:

I end up wearing the black one most often. This was a miserable wet autumn evening in the Carlton Gardens, when I basically wore it to keep my head warm and dry.

Most recently, I purchased a bright red beret at Savers. However, I couldn't really decide how to wear it.

So I decided to investigate the beret's history, to see how it was actually worn. While beret-like soft hats have been worn throughout Europe since ancient times, what we think of as the beret is the traditional headgear of Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. In the Pyrenees it's worn straight across the forehead and piled loosely on the crown.

They began to be made commercially during the 17th century; Oloron-Sainte-Marie in south-western France became known as the beret capital. By the 19th century, beret-making had become industrialised. The beret was the working-man's hat – worn by Breton onion-sellers along with striped Breton shirts, it became part of the 'Onion Johnny' French stereotype that circulated in England after these farmers brought their produce across the English Channel to sell.

Soldiers have worn berets for hundreds of years – especially those who come from mountainous terrain, the beret's traditional home – but it first became internationally known when French mercenaries fought in the 1830s Spanish civil war between the crown and the Carlist rebels. The beret was later adopted during the 1880s by the French Chasseurs alpins.

But it was a new technological development that made it the ubiquitous military signifier it is today: the tank. Basically, soldiers' brimmed and peaked uniform hats – designed to shade the eyes – just got in the way in the cramped spaces of armoured vehicles, while wearing goggles and headphones.

French tank crews in WWI wore berets, and despite some grumblings that they looked too 'feminine', the British Tank Corps adopted them as early as 1918 – usually in black, which didn't show the oil stains from the tank. (The UK now has nine different colours for different branches of its military – the most in the world.)

Military berets have a drawstring and a leather band around the edge to keep them in place. My grey beret apes this style. Today, they're favoured by elite units – the US Army Special Forces are known as Green Berets – and UN peacekeepers are instantly recognisable by their sky-blue berets.

These military associations have also made berets popular among revolutionaries.

"LOL, Fidel forgot his beret!"

In Scotland, beret-style hats with pompoms have been worn since the 15th century; but the poet Robert Burns nicknamed them the Tam O'Shanter, after the hero of his 1790 epic poem. But what's interesting is that in the 1920s, tam o'shanters were popular sportswear for teenage girls. As fashion historian Geoff Caulton notes, historical photos show sporting teams wearing tam o'shanters.

During the 1920s, berets were worn pulled down low over the ears, the same way as cloche hats:

But during the 1930s – when hats became more sculptural and were worn tipped back at a jaunty angle, berets were also worn this way.

In Bonnie and Clyde (1967), set in the 1930s, Faye Dunaway wears a beret, alternating between wearing it straight on her crown, but with the mass of fabric to one side (which is my own preferred way to wear berets)…

…to wearing it on the side of the head, '30s-style.

By the 1960s, berets tended to be worn tipped backwards on the head, like pillbox hats:

That's how Peggy Olson wears her tam o'shanter in Mad Men:

Almost as big a beret cliché as the stripey-shirted Frenchman is the 1950s beatnik in a beret, black turtleneck and cigarette-legged pants. But berets have a long history among artists and bohemians.

In 1659, Rembrandt painted his Self-Portrait With Beret and Turned-Up Collar. He also painted himself wearing a beige beret; scholars argue this is in homage to similar paintings by Titian and Raphael. Thus, the beret signifies Rembrandt's trade as a painter.

In 1886, Claude Monet also painted himself wearing a beret. And in 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted his friend Paul Gauguin as Man in a Red Beret:

Pablo Picasso was well known for wearing berets, especially late in his life:

When Picasso's work was shown in Britain's Institute of Contemporary Arts during the late 1940s and 1950s, his acolytes would show up to the exhibition wearing berets, which became a common item of lost property. Around the same time, American jazz musicians and writers began to wear them. (Interestingly, 1960s musicians seemed much more into Greek fishermen's caps; Bob Dylan wore one in 1962, and they took America by storm when John Lennon wore one on the Beatles' 1964 tour.)

Ernest Hemingway was a massive beret aficionado. He'd served in WWI in Italy, lived in Paris during the 1920s, and was a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Perhaps the beret was his way of showing he belonged in Europe.

Hemingway (far left) on the 1925 trip to Spain that would inspire The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War, 1937.

Perhaps it's in Hemingway – in many ways an intensely macho figure, yet one who, like Picasso, inspired legions of slavish young boho imitators – that the beret's military, creative and cosmopolitan European meanings coalesce.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

What's my age again?

I was mildly annoyed to see the April 2014 issue of Australian Women's Weekly has a story about "the women who refuse to dress 'appropriately'". Just by glancing at it as I went through the supermarket checkout, I knew it would be a story about older women who wear sculptural, brightly coloured and patterned clothes with bold accessories.

And today I saw that vintage dealer Trish Hunter has blogged about the article.

Image: Trish Hunter

Trish was struck by the way 'appropriate' is put in scare quotes:
So who is the mysterious great and powerful OZ who dictates what is considered appropriate and inappropriate dressing? Who or what made the word ‘appropriately’ have to be placed in talking marks here?

I personally dress for no one but myself and I’m so happy that other people enjoy how I dress and tune into my blog to see my outfit posts. Sometimes Often I dress quite over the top, I style my hair, wear bold makeup and dress in a style that doesn’t follow main stream fashion, but does that also put me in the inappropriate dressing category to the ruler of appropriate dressing?
No. And here's why: Trish is young. Because our culture values women primarily for their youthful sex appeal, men learn to treat older women as if they are invisible, and women learn that as they age, the most tasteful and, yes, appropriate thing they can do is to fade gracefully into the background. We learn this in dribs and drabs, through culture, and through the media genre of orthovestia which teaches us which clothes are 'appropriate' to occasions and ages.

Here are a couple of examples of the little ways that culture teaches us what old women are 'meant' to be like. I have a lip tar in a peachy-coral colour that I thought looked quite fetching on me… until I noticed the shade was named 'Grandma'. Similarly, I love classic 20th-century perfumes, but I constantly notice people saying disparagingly that they 'smell like old ladies'.

However, the Australian Women's Weekly article is part of a broader cultural trend celebrating older women's style, led by Ari Seth Cohen's blog Advanced Style. Last year, Sue Bourne's Channel Four documentary Fabulous Fashionistas profiled six British women, average age 80, whose sartorial approach "is about more than following the latest trends; it's about an attitude to life itself."

It's easy to champion cool old ladies as feminists rebelling against sexist double standards by insisting on their individuality and visibility. However, writing in The Guardian about that documentary, Michele Hanson points out how patronisingly ageist our admiration is: "Telly has just picked out something they've done all their lives, and called it remarkable because they're old. Really it's just because they're them."

As I observe in Out of Shape, we allow certain older women to be celebrated for their zany, eccentric 'signature looks' – but only if their professional identities grant them the cultural power that older women are otherwise denied. From the photos Trish has posted on her blog, the "women who refuse to dress 'appropriately'" share a key trait: they are professional aesthetes and fashion insiders. They include former Vogue staffer Marion von Adlerstein, Marie Claire executive fashion editor Jane Roarty, fashion designer Jenny Kee and textile and homewares retailer Joan Bowers.

Internationally, 'advanced style' icons include English stylist Isabella Blow, American 'plus-age' models China Machado and Carmen dell'Orefice, American interior designer Iris Apfel and legendary Vogue Italia editor Anna Piaggi.

Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser (which is excellent, by the way) devotes a chapter to the invisibility of older women in public. She writes acidly that past the age of 50, careful dressing is vital for women, "if we want to have a presence in the world. If we don't want to be famished ghosts at the feast of life."

In Out of Shape I explain that fashion was once very dictatorial, but has splintered into a smorgasbord of market segments catering to different age groups, budgets and lifestyles. I argue that this is in response to "the baby boomers’ refusal to go gentle into that good nylon":
The boomers grew up during the 1960s ‘youthquake’, but they’ve followed fashion, and it has followed them, through their changing lifestyles – from 1970s hippie and folk apparel to 1980s power dressing. And they continue to adopt new ways of shopping; women aged over 35 account for 65 per cent of online apparel sales.
The word 'appropriate' is a hangover from the days of rigid dress codes, when there really were right and wrong things to wear in various social scenarios, and social penalties of ridicule and embarrassment for disobeying. But as Grant recognises, it's the very fact that fashion's rules are now more flexible that puts today's older women in fear of being socially penalised for the clothes they choose. They can no longer take refuge, as their mothers could, in etiquette, occasion and the artifice of glamour.

In her essay '"No-One Expects Me Anywhere": Invisible Women, Ageing and the Fashion Industry' (in Fashion Cultures, eds Stella Bruzzi and Pamela Church Gibson, Routledge, 2000), Pamela Church Gibson points out the cruel irony of the current popularity of retro: that "these garments cannot be worn by those who wore them first time around." This is especially cruel, she writes, given that the boomers were "the first generation to grow up with and within fashion".

Indeed, younger women are fascinated by old-fashioned glamour precisely because we've grown up in a fashion world that valorises carefree, intuitive dressing, and looking 'fresh' and 'natural'. Trish mentions Snog, Marry, Avoid? – which is a 'makeunder' show obsessed with replacing its participants' chosen style with a codified notion of 'natural beauty'.

It makes me wonder about my current 1990s renaissance. How long will it be 'appropriate' for me to dress in the styles of my youth? When will I begin to notice disapproving glances and overhear stifled sniggers in public? Knowing that your clothes make you publicly visible in a vulnerable rather than powerful way, yet refusing to feel disempowered, is the act celebrated by the Australian Women's Weekly article.

Orthovestia does offer advice to older women: cultivating a wardrobe of safe, unobtrusive ‘classics’. The crisp white shirt; the little black dress; the string of pearls; the tailored blazer; the striped Breton T-shirt; the cashmere cardigan; the beige trench coat; the black leather loafers or ballet flats.

"Depicted on Bianca Jagger or Catherine Deneuve, these classics look sensational," Grant observes, "but they look good not because these women are in their fifties or sixties, but because they happen to be the kind of style that suits them. And because, being ravishingly beautiful to begin with, they can wear a sack (clinched at the waist with a chocolate suede belt, with heels and a gold necklace) and look as if they were doing the runway for Yves Saint Laurent."

Again, what makes an older woman's style admirable is a certain self-asssurance – the paradox of classics is that if you wear them with timidity, they don’t confer sophistication; they confer invisibility. Life's too short to be 'appropriate', says Grant. "There will be more than enough time for neutrals in the darkness of the grave."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fractionally excited

My friend Clem is doing an intriguing project called TwentySeventy in which she is spending a year 'living in the '70s' – wearing, eating, reading, viewing, making and buying the products of that decade.

Inspired, today I bought some vintage polyester summer shirtwaist dresses. I already own quite a few '70s polyester dresses, but they're all winter.

Sorry, I didn't photograph them very well – I was concentrating on the labels. One of my new acquisitions is a jaunty navy and white number by Norman Hartnell! I wonder if Norm Himself designed this (he died in 1979). It has an A-line skirt, white vinyl belt and cute little cap sleeves with the same contrast print as the collar. They peel back in wings like mini collars, and button with two little white buttons per sleeve.

My other dress is by a label called "Antoinette Fractional Fittings" that crops up quite often on eBay and Etsy. Interestingly, almost all the examples that I've found being sold online are in the same style as mine: fit-and-flare silhouette, with either a pussy-bow or a shirtwaist bodice, and a self-belt.

Mine has a shirtwaist style with hot-pink buttons. I felt the sleeves were frumpily long (I think of that boxy, above-the-elbow style as 'old lady sleeves') but I took the cuff up so they now look more like women's T-shirt sleeve length. Note that I am holding my Antoinette label open in the pic because it has been folded shut so crisply that I suspect the past owner of ironing it that way to prevent the shameful SIZE REVEAL.

I asked Nicole Jenkins about these labels and she said: "Yes, the Antoinette is roughly a modern size 17: between a 16 and an 18 hence the "fractional" fitting. Re: the Hartnell, yes it looks like a mid '70s that has had its enormous collar remodelled, probably in the '80s, so it's likely that he was involved in the design but without the whopping collar its value has probably been diminished. Being polyester, all the rest that were made are probably still out there as they're indestructible."

Even before I heard back from Nicole, my interest was piqued by the term 'fractional fitting'. I knew about half-sizes but I wondered what 'fractional' meant. It makes sense that it's the 'in-between' sizes. But most of the archival material I dug up on Trove referred to 'fractional fittings' in the context of shoes, where you can still sometimes find in A, B, C widths (and so on).

On 3 March 1953, the Brisbane Courier-Mail reported excitedly on the advent of fractional fittings: "Women may soon be able to order their clothes by number." The Adelaide Advertiser followed suit on 10 April: "For years the woman whose figure measurements do not conform to the stock sizes of ready-made garments has yearned for the fractional fittings which have long been available to American women."

In the '50s, Australian women's clothing sizes followed the British system of SSW (slim small woman), SW (small woman), W (woman), OS (outsize) and XOS or EOS (extra outsize). The Advertiser article explains that the new fractional system was set to offer four different fits for each of these sizes, and be sold exclusively through a different department store in each major city.

It's interesting that fractional fittings were hailed as a solution for a 'broken' system of clothing sizes. "At present there is often so much difference in frocks that two distinct sizes in various makes will often fit the one person," opined Courier-Mail writer 'Annette'. "For the 'non-stock,' hard-to-fit sizes, 'fractional' fittings will be the perfect solution."

In hindsight, the bunfight over sizing was just beginning. Australia's national sizing standard, AS1344-1997, was introduced in 1959. It was a cobbled-together affair, combining Berlei’s data from 1927 with a United States government survey of 10,042 women across eight US states between 1939-40.

The US researchers, Ruth O’Brien and William C Shelton, had proposed a new sizing system featuring nine different potential height and body shape combinations for each numbered size. Nobody wanted to make sizing that fiddly – not the clothing industry, and certainly not the US government, which quietly shelved O’Brien and Shelton’s report.

When the US finally introduced its national sizing standard in 1958, they just plugged O'Brien and Shelton's data into a bog-standard graded sizing system based on an hourglass figure. But it's interesting to see that some enterprising firms had picked up this idea to cater to a niche market that was underserved by standard sizes.

The Australian manufacturer mentioned in the articles was Millerson, a Sydney family business headed by Mrs Belle Miller. "[Introducing fractional fittings] had been my dream for many years," she told The Advertiser on 14 April 1953. "I tried over and over again to interest the buyers from our retail clients all over Australia. But they wouldn't have any of it. They argued, among other things, that it would involve holding tremendous stocks. And I couldn't persuade them otherwise.

"Eventually I decided to make a stand myself and do something about it. I was confident of success. I knew that at least 50 per cent of the women who wanted to buy ready-to-wear garments had figures that did not conform to the standard sizes, or had to submit to being labelled OS or XOS. No woman should be tagged outsize no matter what her measurements may be. She is not outsize anything. She is just a 'size.'"

Amen, Belle. However much as today's fashion media are still struggling to get their heads around 'plus-size', it seems the 1950s fashion press (including Australian Women's Weekly) couched Millersons (and fractional fittings more generally) as being for the older, stouter consumer, even though the department store ads argued that they could also be for taller, thinner, shorter, bustier women, and so on.

However I can't find any info on the Antoinette brand, nor on what became of Millerson.