Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thoughts on lesbian hipsters

The Threadbared crew tweeted that I should take a look at this article on Autostraddle, a girl-on-girl culture website, about "lesbian hipsters". Well, I feel rather out of my depth talking about lesbian culture, in which I've hardly been immersed, but let's have a look at what author "Katrina" (is she like Cher or Madonna?) has to say about hipsterism.

Well, first of all I think the article is really confused about what a lesbian hipster is and does. At points Katrina doesn't sound convinced that there even is such a thing. But for the sake of argument, they're gamine girls who are just a little bit too femme to be butch, but who are still recognisably dykey, but also, not quite recognisably enough, since straight dudes still hit on them. They wear the "lesbian three-piece suit" of flannie shirt, bandanna and skinny jeans.

It's such a temptation, but ultimately quite unhelpful and non-illuminating, to create 'definitive' taxonomies ("they wear this; they like this") of a chimerical cultural figure that means a slightly different thing to each different person. It's probably more useful to talk about what hipsterism does than what it definitively is or isn't. What discussions does the term 'hipster' enable about the contemporary uses of culture?

I found Katrina's attempt to ground the lesbian hipster in subculture, and to talk about it in Dick Hebdigean terms of subcultural incorporation, to be pretty misguided, because I feel that hipsterism isn't about incorporating elements of subcultural style, but rather it's a display of aesthetic singularity and cultural capital. The irony of hipsterism is not on its T-shirts; rather, it's that people strive to show their individuality, to reject the category of 'hipster', and end up looking generically 'hip'.

Also, what we often think of as the hipster aesthetic – the ironic sloganeering; the skinny silhouette; the self-consciously whimsical or nostalgic flourishes – has never been an underground one, but rather draws on and requires a mainstream cultural machinery, whether that's textile mills to produce de-branded plain cotton separates; old movies and TV shows to invoke or plastic toys and ephemera to transform into cute jewellery and other objets de craft.

Now let's look at the 'lesbian' part of the lesbian hipster. For me, the most confused part of the article is this:
Hipsterdom may be viewed as somewhere in between genders, but identifying yourself as a lesbian means not only identifying yourself as a woman but also identifying yourself based on sexuality. Therefore, the lesbian hipster has universal appeal. Her style is just new enough to be trendy and sexy, while the items in her wardrobe are familiar enough to be safe.
There are so many nonsequiturs and assumptions here that it's difficult to know where to start teasing them out. How is the "universal appeal" bit related to self-identification? Is her appeal only universal among other hipsters, or does the lesbian hipster appeal to everyone: gay, straight, male, female, hip, unhip…? What's new about her style, and what's familiar about it? Katrina doesn't say.

I want to dispute the claim that hipsters constitute a 'third gender'. It's interesting in fashion terms, considering that perhaps androgyny is a deliberate marketing strategy – aka, the CK One effect. But androgynous dress is really not enough on which to build the foundation of gender identity, which is a wider socialised role, a way of being in the world.

I'd also argue that Katrina's example of straight hipster boys hitting on her even though she's gay says much less about a 'third gender' than it reveals how hipsterism tends to gesture towards transgressive sexuality while ultimately retreating into sexual conservatism (as the various parodies of American Apparel's ads reveal).

Perhaps the in-between-ness of the lesbian hipster inheres in being what Katrina depicts as some kind of subcultural double agent: she can enjoy the coolness of being a hipster as well as the acceptance of the wider lesbian community. But here we have to think about the difference between a pose and an identity. Is being a lesbian an immutable part of who you are, or is it something to be donned and doffed like skinny jeans?

Bah! I feel that I've waded into some identity politics that I'm not really equipped to talk about. But I do have to admit that naming your cat Jane Lynch or Shane Jr. is an unbearably 'hipster' thing to do.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sitting this one out

This is a "babydoll" dress currently being sold at one of my favourite places to shop, Big Dubs. Here is Fashion Hayley wearing the same dress (I'm sorry for reproducing a dodgy photo of you, Hayley!):

Here's another pic of Hayley wearing a very similar dress (that Big Dubs probably copied), which is a Topshop design for Incu.

When I saw the dress in Big Dubs I was quite excited because I love floral dresses (and paying as little as possible for my clothes). However, when I tried it on, it looked really terrible on me. As far as the waistline it fitted me well, but I was unhappy with the spot at which the waistline hovered: lower than the empire-line spot under the bust, yet higher than the true waist.

I also didn't like the shortness of the full skirt. I felt it made my body proportions look weird. Personally – and this is just my own taste – the only sort of short skirt I would wear is a straight or stretchy one. I like a full skirt to hit my knees; I think it looks better proportioned that way. I'm not a child, I don't find childlike whimsy appealing, and I don't want to dress in a doll-like or childlike way. A full short skirt just reminds me of retro-styled childrenswear, like something Sally Draper would wear in Mad Men:

When I saw Patty Huntington's pics from this year's Jayson Brunsdon show at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week, I was appalled at how short he has cut his full skirts. I don't even think they look good on the models with their coltish legs.

(Image: Patty Huntington)

But anyway. I know that Hayley does favour short skirts, and I'm not having a go at her sense of style. But it infuriates me that it's almost impossible to find a knee-length skirt in the shops at the moment; they're either these short babydoll styles or long maxidresses.

I also found it very difficult to warm to The Uniform Project because of how short the chosen dress was. It's definitely not a style that would look good on many people, although I can appreciate that it adds more versatility to the project because it can be worn as a long-line top as well as a dress.

(This is only tangentially related, but I'm fascinated by trends in the lengths of girls' school uniforms. When I was at school they tried their hardest to stamp out short skirts; the rule was that it had to touch the ground if you knelt. But now I see girls wearing ludicrously short skirts. Oddly, I also see the opposite, especially with winter uniforms: the skirts will be so long they're almost ankle-length.)

I'm using this dress as an example of the practice of "sitting this one out". This is a high-level stylistic knowledge pertaining to your own relationship with fashion cycles. You not only recognise that certain styles are 'fashionable' but also which styles suit you, and you make a tactical decision not to buy, to wait until fashion returns to the things that look good on you.

Right now I'm wearing a black babydoll dress with a cream-coloured 'doily' lace decoration across the bust. I bought it from Valleygirl perhaps three or four years ago now and have got a lot of wear out of it since, making a mockery of their 'fast fashion' ethos. I like it because it's elasticised directly under the bust and is gathered, so it glides flatteringly over my midsection. It falls to just on my knee.

Over the top I'm wearing a slouchy red cardigan from Jay Jays. I remember when I bought it at the start of last year, I just really wanted a red cardigan and settled for this one. I'd wanted a preppy, tailored style and was annoyed that it was long and loosely fitted, which happened to be the style at the time. So, I didn't sit that one out; instead I compromised. But now I'm enjoying wearing the cardigan, because this winter I've really got back into the grunge silhouette I used to favour in high school: leggings and short, tight skirts with oversized, slouchy T-shirts, flannel shirts and cardigans.