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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why we're so grossed out by scungy old underpants

I have a whole section in Out of Shape about the history and pop culture of underwear – both men's and women's.

Aside from its practical comforts, underwear has a cultural purpose. It tames and transforms the unruly body into a socially cohesive figure – a body that’s appropriate to present to the world. Our culture has endowed physical heroism and worldly success with aesthetic qualities of smoothness and solidity. Think about the smooth, stylised shape of Oscar, the little gold man on the Academy Award statuette, or those gilded action figures that garnish school sports trophies. It’s no accident that superheroes wear ‘undies on the outside’, since we imagine these characters as beings whose enhanced bodies let them behave in the ordinary world with astounding, superhuman success.

Underwear aims to control and contain the naked human body so that it becomes inconspicuous and docile, and doesn’t call attention to itself through the textures of its hair and skin, its quiverings and bulgings as we breathe and move. All the different underwear silhouettes in different eras share the same invulnerable smoothness. In the right underwear, we can feel invincible – ready to take on the world.

I did so much more research on underwear than appears in the book, and so I wrote a feature last year for Junkee about our squeamishness surrounding worn-out underpants. It's as much about the history of cleanliness and modesty as about the garments themselves.

Last weekend, I did a load of laundry that will keep me in underpants for about six weeks. As I was folding the clean undies to put away, I wondered — as I always do at this point in the laundry cycle — if I should throw some of them out.

It is maybe a good idea to throw undies away when they have holes, crotch stains, transparent fabric, fabric gone shapeless and baggy, faded colours, whites gone grey or yellow, and elastic fraying, detaching or losing its elasticity. Some of these are practical concerns. Worn-out undies aren’t pleasant to wear — we’ve all known the bunchy discomfort as an old, saggy pair of underpants scrunches over the horizon of your butt-cheeks.

But mostly, old underpants gross us out for cultural reasons of hygiene or moral propriety. And that’s what I want to investigate.

Head to Junkee to read the rest.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Spring racing fashion

Today is Melbourne Cup Day. Yesterday I did an interview about Cup Day, fashion, gender and consumerism with Lourdes García Larqué for 3CR Community Radio – it was broadcast on today's Breakfast program (I'll post the link once I know what it is). Since then, I've been thinking some more about the issues we discussed.

I find it hard to get excited about spring racing fashion because I believe racing is a cruel pastime with troubling inbuilt class politics. For me it's like enjoying the Duchess of Cambridge's fashion choices when she represents a system of inherited privilege that locks up much of the UK's wealth in the hands of a family whose only purpose in life is political symbolism.

Marieke Hardy wrote an opinion piece for The Drum back in 2010 calling the Melbourne Cup "a truly revolting spectacle". Hardy's anti-cruelty sentiments are laudable. There's really no excuse to celebrate the use of animals for entertainment and the miserable treatment that goes with this. I mean, Black Beauty, written to 'humanise' horses so readers could empathise with their lives as chattels, was first published in 1877.

But I was startled by – and uncomfortable with – Hardy's repeated, contemptuous references to racegoers' dress and behaviour. They dress "like a complete twat with scant regard to the weather forecast", with "streaky fake tan or idiotic, impractical headwear". And these "freezing cold idiot women toppling over in muddy, undignified heaps, the natty prats in matching comedy waistcoats blearily waving cans of Bundy about", will find themselves "eventually teetering home covered in a fine spray of puke and semen".

Wow. Apart from the language, we can tell this is about setting up boundaries between Us and Them because the magic word 'bogans' also comes out!

Hardy makes an unpleasant slippage here between class and cruelty, implying that finding racing cruel requires the same cultural capital as 'dressing well'. This seems odd considering that racing is 'the sport of kings' and is just as popular with toffs in the Birdcage, Members and corporate marquees as with the stumbling general-admission masses in their dishevelled apparel.

We go to the races seeking something glamorous, special, out of the ordinary… but too often, as Hardy ably sketches, we're instead put back in our class boxes and told we're dressing and behaving 'wrongly'. Tomorrow we'll see the traditional 'aftermath' photographs of people sprawled on the racecourse amid abandoned rubbish; of people throwing up; of women walking barefoot, having removed their high heels, and women huddled in their male companions' jackets, having not brought their own.

These are the shaming photos. Men's clothing is frowned upon as incompetently chosen: their suits, ties, shoes, hats and sunglasses are deemed 'loud', 'ill-fitting' and 'inappropriate'. Women are basically slut-shamed for dresses that are too short, too low-cut or that flip up in gusts of wind, and for dressing for vanity rather than practicality.

Janice Breen Burns, the former Age fashion editor, warned in 2006 that racewear is very different to fashion: "It's not as sexy, for one thing. It's neater, more controlled. Things match, knees are covered. Cleavage is a no-no."

Even last year, she tutted retrospectively about the dress of youthful racegoers: "poppets in string-strapped, knicker-flasher frocklets…had flooded out of the sparkly nightclubs and year-12 formals and on to trackside lawns." Still, JBB did concede that Fashions on the Field has since evolved.

In 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald's Luke Malone described spring racing season as "Schoolies for grown-ups": "The end result of a day sipping sparkling wine and sinking beers in the often sweltering heat sees men walking around with their flies undone and women with high heels in hand as if it were 2am after a night out in Kings Cross."

Malone's article is interesting because, while it also presents racegoers as infantilised consumer dupes, Malone suggests a certain festive permissiveness. As his anonymous friend says: "A couple of years back at Melbourne Cup I saw a pair getting hot and heavy right by the track - complete with hands-under-clothes action. There were easily 30 people watching and laughing yet it didn't seem all that inappropriate at the time. Everyone is always in good spirits. You never normally see people get that drunk without a fistfight breaking out."



These are the kinds of images that we often see at Melbourne Cup time; of all the days in Melbourne's spring racing carnival, it's the most carnivalesque. Because the Cup is a public holiday and is said to belong to 'everyone' – it's "the race that stops a nation" – many people feel they can dress and behave in ways that ridicule and upend traditional hierarchies and morals… including those of gender and taste. You'll see people dressed in drag, as animals, in parodies of traditional racewear and in matching outfits.

I'd suggest that perhaps these marquee race meetings offer 'ordinary' people opportunities to be carnivalesque by temporarily dressing as our 'betters', borrowing the dress and habits of the 1%. It's not just about the clothes, but also about betting, eating fancy foods such as chicken sandwiches and smoked salmon, and drinking champagne.

There aren't many similar events like these, for which to plan and enjoy wearing elaborate clothes and to consume conspicuously – especially for people who've left university and its cycle of balls and 21sts. Even at weddings, people rarely wear hats any more, and the evangelical churches that are now popular with churchgoers (as 'traditional' churchgoing declines) encourage attendees to wear casual clothes rather than 'Sunday best'.

Looking through The Age's photo gallery of today's event (photos by Eddie Jim, Justin McManus, Wayne Taylor and Angela Wylie), I was struck by the way that racewear has developed its own logics, separate from the dictates that made it so shocking in 1965 when Jean Shrimpton wore a short dress with no hat, gloves or stockings.



Look at this doll! Doesn't she look young and gorgeous? There's something festive and joyous about the bright colours chosen by some younger racegoers.



This is Joanna Stanes on her way to the Cup. I like her bold lipstick compared to the subdued colours and textures of her hat. She looks both romantic and modern. I also like that she's wearing a hat rather than a fascinator.



This is a rather ladylike, vintage-inspired look (and a stunning photo by Justin McManus). The popularity of Mad Men and the general interest in mid-20th-century culture has driven a return to these styles. I've also noticed that brides in my social circle who favour a vintage aesthetic tend to prefer fascinator-style veils to traditional wedding veils.

The demureness and prescriptiveness of much midcentury fashion dovetails with our cultural associations of racewear with 'correctness' and 'classiness'. Usually I loathe the term 'classy' as one of those words that actually connotes its exact opposite, but here it's appropriate because people are often striving for a certain class fantasy of being wealthy and privileged.



I also noticed several different strands of women's racewear emerging. You can see these two sartorial approaches here: an edgier style in terms of colour and silhouette, compared to the classic racewear on the right. We can't see their faces, but I assume the woman on the left to be younger than the woman on the right.



I like that these two girls seem to be matching each other's outfits. Perhaps their hemlines are 'inappropriate' but they look so happy!



Deborah and John Quinn demonstrate a fun way to dress up when you're older. Deborah is a well-known millinery collector; she's in her element here. They have opted for traditional 'rules', but don't look fusty and conservative. I especially love the way that Deborah's sunglasses and gloves match John's buttonhole and waistcoat – which are the traditional yellow of Melbourne Cup Day.



By contrast, these are quite old-fashioned racegoers; their outfits are quite fussy and froufrou. I love the centre lady's pillbox hat; I wonder if it's her own vintage '60s number.



This is a good example of what many younger racegoers now consider appropriate: they're wearing flowers in their hair rather than hats; their skirts are very short (what Janice Breen Burns would call a 'frocklet'); and the fabrics are quite slinky and diaphanous in a way we associate with cocktail wear rather than daywear.



Like many celebrity racegoers and Fashions on the Field entrants who are professionally dressed by stylists, Lauren Phillips is wearing what we could call 'contemporary conservative': a sculptural but minimalist hat and a well-fitting, tailored dress that doesn't show too much skin.

Contemporary conservative (or 'contemporary corporate') is a style of racewear that doesn't really take risks: it's not exuberant like a lot of young people's racewear. You see it a lot in photos taken at the corporate marquees, and on models, invited guests and others who are at the races in a professional or promotional capacity.

Despite the boldness of its hats, it's not very whimsical or individual. When you see a number of different celebrities dressed this way, you notice the sameyness, even down to the position and angle of the hats.



For instance, here are model Jennifer Hawkins, sass&bide designers Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke and football WAG Rebecca Judd at the Melbourne Cup in 2011.



And here are Hawko and Juddy at last year's Oaks Day, flanking Kris Smith, who I believe is best known for having once dated Dannii Minogue.