Tuesday, March 08, 2016

A closer look at fash-speak

Fashion writing is popularly understood to be a vapid genre. Most people see it as remote from their daily concerns, referring instead to a fantasy world of runway collections and red carpets. And it's written in a gormless, burbling dialect that I will call ‘fash-speak’.

‘Fashion’, by the way, is not a synonym for ‘clothes’. It's an industrial cycle of design, media and retail, which constantly renews itself to drive demand for new garments. Fashion is a dynamic, wealthy business sector that engages with politics, ethics and social ideologies, and writing about this is not stupid. To intelligent, discerning people, fashion offers plenty of food for thought – and some fashion writers are impressively knowledgeable and analytical.

However, the majority of fashion writing – from glossy magazines to weekend newspapers and the increasingly crowded blogosphere – is explicitly framed as ‘lifestyle’. That is, it’s all about the role clothing plays in an individual’s consumerist fantasies. And because ‘lifestyle’ is still consumed as part of a broad media diet, readers who aren't interested in fashion are likely to encounter fash-speak and find it meaningless.

In the style of Star Trek's Leonard 'Bones' McCoy, let me point out that I'm a cultural critic, not a fashion writer. I don't go to runway shows and industry launches, or follow designers and trends. I've gone to fashion events before and felt completely unwelcome. To be frank, sometimes I see fashion journalists at media screenings of fashion-adjacent films (most recently, The Dressmaker) and experience a mean yearning to make them feel as unwelcome on my turf as I feel on theirs. So it would be easy for me to massage my professional self-respect by hanging shit on fash-speak.

But inevitably I want to defend fash-speak as a legitimate linguistic practice, and to explore what it might do. Like all industry jargon, it's a set of shibboleths that reflects shared concerns and polices insiders and outsiders. Industry aspirants learn to use it, because mastering fash-speak establishes professional authority and credibility.

Fashion writers have been playing with language for ages; Diana Vreeland was an especially inventive wordsmith. Stephen Fried coined the term fashionista in his 1993 biography of model Gia Carangi, as an umbrella term for all the industry people in her orbit. It was a playful riff on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who were prominent in the media at the height of Carangi's career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 'Fashionista' was irresistible because it connoted both exoticism and political militancy. It's since birthed glamazon and frock star.

But while Fried now regrets opening Pandora's portmanteau, fashion blogging has supercharged fash-speak. A brand-building exercise for individual bloggers is to create terms that go on to be adopted more widely. Self-declared Man Repeller Leandra Medine is an avid neologist, but she's best known for inventing the arm party: a term for a collection of watches, bracelets and bangles worn all at once.

Fash-speak can operate in two registers. When it's talking down, it's euphemistic and twee, aiming to generate solidarity with the reader. Hair is a mane or tresses; a mouth is a pout; eyes are peepers; fingernails are talons; toes are tootsies. When it's talking up, it's constructing an air of mystique and exclusivity around industry practices. But it does this in a vague, nebulous way that fudges the distinctions between different price points and market positions.

The word couture just means sewing; but haute couture is a trade appellation granted by the Parisian Chambre Syndicale (now the Fédération française de la couture) that entitles a designer to show at Paris Fashion Week. Nonetheless, fash-speak uses hautecouture and high fashion as adjectives that all mean 'labels that show at fashion weeks'. Other brands are described variously as luxeboutiquecult and niche – all of which imply that they are still expensive and exclusive, but have a small, discerning market. Bespoke, strictly speaking, is clothing tailored to one person's specific measurements; yet fash-speak uses it much more loosely to connote things that are hand-made and customised.

Much of fash-speak reflects the palimpsestic nature of fashion’s trend cycle. The treadmill of seasonal collections moves so fast that writers are flat out just describing how outfits look on models. It's impressionistic rather than contextual, aiming to capture evanescent moments, moods and gestures.

Some words and phrases seem to be deployed primarily for literary effect. Va-va-voom, originally a 1950s term for the sound of a car engine revving, now connotes a buxom, old-fashioned kind of sex appeal. Outfits that are presumably not sentient are nonetheless whimsical and flirty; they're also floaty and flippy and filmy and froufrou. And mute objects have something metaphorical to say: they become statement pieces.

Because of the pace of the trend cycle, fash-speak valorises an ability to anticipate and lead trends rather than to follow or lag behind. We hear of a fashion-forward or directional person or garment. Things are on-trend, or even bang on trend. They're edgycutting-edge or even bleeding-edge. X is the new Y. However, you'll often be allowed a sneak peak (always misspelled) at what's coming up next.

Other elements of fash-speak refuse to view fashion as an industrial process of producing and marketing clothing, but instead see it as a rarefied aesthetic practice. I don't think it's accidental that what Alix Rule and David Levine have dubbed International Art English is an industry jargon almost as universally maligned.

When fash-speak is forced to consider the everyday practicalities of wearing clothes, it sounds almost grudging. It assures you that sober yet very costly garments constitute investment dressing, and that sometimes a garment must take you from day to night. Perhaps the most arch word in fash-speak's vocabulary is wearable, which faintly damns a garment as bland and unimaginative, but also contains a note of admiration that a designer has been so bold as to invite non-fashionistas to wear their garments.

By contrast, fash-speak is at its most free-wheeling and grammatically elastic when it ponders aesthetic choices. One of fash-speak's most commonly ridiculed quirks is the Fashion Singular. This is the tendency to depluralise things that come in pairs: a pant, a lip, an eye, a shoe. Could this refer to the fashion writer's own eye, which has to travel so quickly that paired objects merge conceptually into one? The fashion writer's gaze displaces itself onto the things gazed upon, which synecdochically become looks. And because this gaze has a velocity and a direction, fash-speak doesn't have contemplative colour 'schemes'; it has colourways.

Obviously you would never wear only one shoe, or make up only one smoky eye; but the Fashion Singular refers not to the actual object or body part, but more to the act of making a single aesthetic choice, or to the effect of any one element in a successful look. You can make the Fashion Singular buddy up by teaming X with Y. But if you want one element to quickly draw the eye, you make it pop. Colourful items in drab contexts so reliably do this that they become nouns: a pop of colour.

The fashion writer's knowing, expert gaze is also implied in the fash-speak terms for choosing clothes – the prepositionless to shop (never 'to shop for' or 'to shop at'), or the connoisseurship implied by to source (that is, to track down items to the place where they originate). Even the fashion editor's job of choosing garments for an editorial is displaced onto the designer, whose runway collections are an edit – especially a tight edit.

Because the fashion world deals in exorbitantly priced luxury goods, it encourages mercilessly commercial writing that hypes the merch. In grammatical terms, this is the Fashion Imperative. Fash-speak deals heavily in hyperbole: journalists announce their current obsessions, what's hot and not, dos and don'ts, the essential clothes they're really feeling, which you need right now, the It bags and other must-haves they're currently all about. This garment is everything. It's killer. I die.

Here, it's important to acknowledge that a lot of fash-speak is appropriated from the language of people of colour – especially queer people of colour – and that this political redolence is neutralised in its use within mainstream (white) fashion journalism. In fash-speak, as in US hip-hop, people look fresh to death in what they're rocking – their kicks are totally on point, on lock; their brow game is on fleek.

The underground queer ballroom scene is deeply entwined with fashion. Voguing is named after Vogue magazine; its moves are inspired by the poses of models and the performance space of the runway. Ballroom collectives are also called 'houses' – like fashion labels – and many have even been named after fashion houses. Competitors walk for their house, much as fash-speak refers to models appearing in a given designer's show.

The ballroom use of language to commentate on performance emerges in fash-speak when someone is slaying it, worked it, did that or went there. Yaaaaas queen! And fash-speak expresses enthusiasm by declaring the writer is living for or is here for expensive designer merchandise.

Popularised by designer Christian Siriano during his time as a Project Runway contestant in 2007, the term fierce is older; it appears in drag artist RuPaul's 1992 single 'Supermodel (You Better Work)'. To call black women 'fierce' is to reappropriate racist myths that they were savage and primitive, less feminine and deserving of less respect than white women. 'Fierce' became a term of pride in and admiration for a racialised (trans)femininity.

But fash-speak's attachment to 'fierce' has had the unfortunate effect of dehumanising black women, while granting white women access to feelings of playful power.

The terrible irony is that fash-speak is not a very good idiom for citing or paying homage to aesthetic influences. It will freely admit that something is iconic and that certain people are style icons, and will even dabble in spiritualism to suggest that a garment or person is channelling someone or something else. But its ideas of classicvintage and retro are vague, unmoored from specific periods in fashion history, and relying much more on the reader's emotional stake in the past.

Like any other industry jargon, fash-speak only becomes meaningful in the encounter between fashion writer and fashion-savvy reader. It's a connotative rather than a denotative argot – surprisingly poetic in its use of allusion and onomatopoeia, and intended to create moods – of urgency, of pleasure, of possibility – as much as to actually describe things. But fash-speak's innate elitism means it's troubling that it's so happily adopted the language that disempowered people use to assert their own dignity and sense of style.

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."