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.