Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Footnote zeitgeist

Today I checked my stats and discovered that Kate has posted on Larvatus Prodeo a response to my post about 'silly' or 'bad taste' clothing. Basically, Kate was observing two chicks out shopping wearing playsuits.
Anyway, even as I tried not to stare with incredulity at these two young women I just couldn’t help but think ‘why’? Why a short tight blue jumpsuit? Why a terry towelling athletic-style dress with red piping? And the answer is: I don’t know.
But Kate does gesture towards an answer: that it's like something Marissa Cooper would wear on The O.C. I thought this was an intriguing idea, given that these girls live in an affluent beachside community, as Marissa does (in their case, Claremont, WA), and most probably they also watch The O.C. and follow the doings of Mischa Barton in gossip magazines, etc.

Yet Kate goes on to shut down the possibility she'd just raised, turning instead to a discussion of whether it is or isn't a feminist act to stand in judgement about what women 'should' wear. She concludes:
... it is worth discussing: but not in a way that damns people who don’t dress in Approved Feminist Uniform. Or, conversely, who don’t conform to mainstream fashions. All that said, I still love Go Fug Yourself, and I reserve the right to mock people who I think dress weird, I’m just not going to pretend there’s anything feminist or intellectual about it.
I agree that moral judgements about women's clothing should never be couched as feminist, and I agree that people are entitled to wear non-mainstream fashions (although I am not nearly as interested in them as, say, a subcultural theorist would be). But - and I'm slightly perturbed by the thought - is Kate beginning with a quote from me advocating a thoughtful and open-minded way of analysing one's feelings about clothing one doesn't wear or like, and then finishing by saying her preferred mode of engagement is mindless mockery?

I couldn't disagree more with the idea that some clothing choices don't merit attention other than to dismiss them as 'ridiculous', 'silly', 'weird', or, in generationalist terms, as just one of 'those things' that 'the kids of today', aka 'Gen Y', do. (This theory was raised by a commenter on the cross-posted version of Kate's post.) So, am I one of those damned fools who "pretend there's anything ... intellectual" about the clothing choices people make? Maybe mockery is healthy in measured doses, and my seriousness is like the profound humourlessness about bogans that set in once I'd been researching that topic for too long. It disturbs me that a playful way of approaching a research topic could be hammered out of me so easily.

Perhaps a more productive way of looking at situations like these is to conceive of public space (even privatised public space - yep, I'm writing about shopping centres at the moment, can you tell?) as a space of affective encounters. Sophie Watson's City Publics: The (Dis) Enchantments of Urban Encounters seems like a useful book, because Watson explicitly couches ordinary city geographies as spaces where difference may be encountered and negative affects can erupt, but 'enchanted' and wondrous possibilities may also be found. Watson's main examples are racism and homophobia, but it'd be interesting to view the observation of 'ridiculous' and 'bad taste' clothing as another kind of exclusionary practice - one that, as Watson argues, can appear innocuous and unobservable to those not implicated in the encounter.

I also recall Melissa Gregg's excellent essay "Five Bonds T-Shirts From K-Mart: Intervening Against Indifference" (my apologies if I've got the title wrong - you used to be able to read this as a PDF on Mel's blog, but I can't find it there any more). I am sure Mel would have many more (and many more intellectual) things to say about indifference. She also has a cracker of a post up at the moment.


Kate said...

"Is Kate beginning with a quote from me advocating a thoughtful and open-minded way of analysing one's feelings about clothing one doesn't wear or like, and then finishing by saying her preferred mode of engagement is mindless mockery?"

Um, that wasn't really my intention and I don't think mockery is the way to go -- I meant to raise Go Fug Yourself as a bit of a guilty pleasure, because I do, as I said, see fashion that I just think is ridiculous and I want to mock, but I was trying to open up a few ideas beyond mockery -- certainly not shut down the discussion. I was trying to indicate that I'm only human, and sometimes enjoy a bit of mockery after dinner.

I am interested in reponses to clothing from a feminist perspective, and how that ties into the gender of both the person who wears the clothing, and who is responding to the clothing.

I do think it's worth considering clothing seriously -- just consider the amount of time feminists spend agnsting over high heels -- and that's what I was attempting to do, but I didn't find the discussion at LP very... useful. Of course, I like the way you describe it here, and I'm reconsidering both outfits I saw in response to your comments about exclusion and other thoughts about class as well. Oddly enough, in Claremont, I tend to feel excluded from the 'community' by dint of being less well-dressed than other people, and perhaps there's an element of sour grapes in my own negative response to what I'd consider daring fashion choices.

lucy tartan said...

I read the linked comment by Helen from Cast Iron Balcony somewhat differently; I took her to be suggesting that maybe dress is one of the few remaining areas where differential generational identity can be expressed and explored, now that other markers of identity are more evenly diffused across different age groups. So I think she agrees with you that clothing is laden with significance and not to be dismissed as trivial or silly.