Thursday, 16 February 2012

On fashion and identity-building

I've felt detached from the world of fashion for a while now, and it always hits me during fashion week that this is so. Twice a year I go through the same process, out of a bad habit: I feel that old, strange pull of the runway images, spend a few days on them and the bland "reviews" that accompany them at style.com, and end up with a mix of negative emotions. Fashion frustrates me. Almost everything on the runway feels forced, self-referenced, and trend-driven. Fashion seems to focus on producing gimmicky add-ons to the fashionable folk's supposed "style identities", and the whole thing is just empty, tired and self-centered, consumerist and mostly plain silly. As one fashion show after another plays with whichever dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion that fashion is about this particular season, I can't shake the feeling that everything is, excuse my language here, all fucked up.

In the March issue of Elle, Daphne Merkin discusses the "New Prettiness" and the 1950s pretty housewife look of the current spring/summer season. She argues that women are drawn to traditionalism in these difficult economic times, that women are tired of identity building, and that the old roles and the old representations of being a woman feel safe. In this particular time and space, when our clothing and style choices are so closely linked to identity building, the idea of circle skirts, cat-eye sunglasses and pretty pastels makes me, indeed, think of where women once were, not where we are now or where we are headed. There is safety in that, but also a serious sense of regression. If the attempt is to mirror the post-World War II era and the way women went quietly back to their traditional roles as homemakers after having kept societies afloat during the war, I don't see what the significance of that is today. That type of regurgitation doesn't feel right to me.

I think that my discomfort rises from the new role of clothes as intentional identity-building-blocks. In a world where our style choices are increasingly considered personal narratives of some sort, the 1950s housewife looks and feels like a backlash, a submission to patriarchy and to the traditional understanding of what it means to be a woman. My discomfort comes from the fact that in shaky economic times, the role of women in society as equals is still not sturdy enough. After all of these decades of feminist thought and the fundamental changes that have taken place in the world of work, women still feel safer in submissive roles, or they feel safe being portrayed as such. The old stereotypes are alive and well, as is clearly visible from this very paragraph. In my head, at least, the 1950s housewife look is still symbolic of past times when women didn't have a voice, and when their identity was built for them. But now more than ever, clothes are not just clothes. Gone are the days when our clothing choices defined us because the society told us so. This time around, we are the culprits - we engage in costume-play and a form of dress-up in order to define ourselves willingly. Somewhere along the way we have bought into the idea that we must carefully build our styles to match whoever we think we are. Fashion and clothes are marketed and bought as identity-makers or -enhancers, and it is in this context that the housewife look becomes problematic to me. Whatever the stereotype, we actively pick and choose the elements that go with it, and think that it is safe, or forward-thinking, when in fact it is much more complicated than that. Personal style has become a costume of sorts, and I am not sure if that's right.

The idea that we can, or should, construct a style that matches our identity is fundamentally troubling to me. The above-mentioned Elle article discusses this a little bit, with the help of Caroline Herrera, who thinks that we essentially wear clothes to make ourselves look pretty. (I would add that whatever we consider pretty or attractive is not really the point - it is a process to beautify regardless of the standard of beauty.) Herrera thinks that identity-building with the help of our wardrobe is a little silly, and I think I agree with her. Fashion is fun and clothes are almost by definition a channel of self-expression (we choose what we wear), but I don't know how healthy it is in the long run. The links between fashion marketing, consumerism, and identity-building run deep, and I feel like in the current world of faster-and-faster fashion, we have blindly bought into the idea that we consume in order to define ourselves. Whether we actively play with multiple style identities or stick to one that seems to work for us, we almost seem to accept at face value that clothing as identity marker is a good thing, something to actively pursue. We all know the power of a new pair of killer heels, and what great-fitting jeans can do to our self-esteem at a given time, but I feel like we are past that point. We've gone further, and I don't know if it is the type of identity-building that could ever really last. Whatever it is that we are trying to find with the help of clothes, I am pretty sure I am not the only one who is confused by it.

Whatever the answer is, I seem to be on some kind of a journey to re-define what clothing really means to me, and I'm noticing that the less I focus on what I wear, the better I feel about myself. The less I focus on coming up with "interesting", "different", or even "like myself" type of outfits (isn't the term "outfit" a little troubling, too?), the less I feel like I am what I wear. Of course, there aren't any "truer" or "more authentic" style identities out there: we always pick and choose what we wear, so in a sense there is always going to be something constructed about the way we look, something false, something glued-on. I guess what I am trying to say here may sound like a minimalist-in-the-making, but here it goes anyway: the less I try, the more I feel like I achieve. More importantly, my choices are starting to make sense, and it is mostly because I have stopped trying to channel anything, because I have stopped preoccupying myself with narratives or identity-making, or with the way I might be perceived by others. I have started to wonder if it is, after all, possible to love clothes from the bottom of your heart but to simultaneously jump off the spinning wheel of the idea that our clothes tell a story of who we are, and that the story must evolve and change in order to be considered "personal".

Recently I've given a lot of thought to Eyeliah's bold transformation, where she culled her wardrobe to a handful of pieces. I've thought about making things simpler, about getting down to the basics, about enabling some inner force that is worn-out by all the effort that goes with managing a nonsensical wardrobe and thinking about the links between identity and style. It has served me well to have to look at my crazy, complicated, bulging, often ill-fitting wardrobe long and hard. I am close to claiming that if clothing has something to do with identity, perhaps that identity is not defined by what we own, but by what we choose not to own.

15 comments:

lapindelune said...

I have always sensed this, yet never been able to formulate a description, neither verbally or with the written word. This sensation of falseness, the concept of our sartorial choices having to define who we are....and even though I do like to play with this idea, something always leaves me cold, somewhat confused (and perhaps 'confined'). I have never read fashion magazines, they have felt alien to me since a very early age, although my interest and passion for clothing remained strong. Reading your post has made me think about that, and the reasons why, for the first time in decades.

My overall fear regarding magazines tends to revolve around the amount of attention women are encouraged to pay to appearances, facades, other women's bodies, the style & the dream as opposed to substance. And although I do not equate an interest in fashion with its legendary reputation for shallowness and frivolity, I have always felt that magazines most certainly appear to epitomise it. I find them empty - so much glossy space containing nothing.

And to cut a long comment short(er), I am in agreement with so much of what you say, especially regarding Elle/March.

Very glad to have located your blog.

Ali said...

I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate this. I'm still digesting this, but I find the discussion about clothing and identity building fascinating. I think of fashion (external) and style (ideally internal) as separate things, but can you have style without deliberately constructing an identity? I, too, am trying to get by with less, but what I keep and what I wear are choices too. Sort of mind-boggling. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtfulness.

Carolyn said...

So well written. This is a very thought provoking article, and one I will need to read a few more times for it all to sink in! Thank you for this excellent post.
The trend for vintage has always troubled and (slightly) repelled me too.

Eline said...

I love the points you bring up, and I agree that when the 50s housewife look is projected upon a large audience with that idea in mind, it can be problematic. But I am also reminded of a lot of "retro style" girls to whom this style is a personal thing, and to whom this style can be subverted and is played with because the clothing itself is modernised and not as inhibitive and also because they play with the idea of this supposed 50s housewife weakness and show their strong characters, armpit hair, whatever... You cannot claim that a certain style or dress is regressive personally, but bringing up the idea that a collective return to this old ideal is valid, though I don't think I agree with it.

As for the second part of your musing I really want to mull that over. I don't know if I actually feel if clothing actively expresses who I am, I feel like I am always putting on an enlarged part of my personality, or sometimes a costume which is a good thing to me because clothing is a very strong escapist tool to me which I often need.

Terri said...

That last sentence will haunt me for a while. I don't think I have ever believed that I was building a narrative about myself with style, simply having a bit of creative fun. Without the emphasis on fun or self-expression, daily I will put on a loose pair of jeans and a heavy tee and slip my naked feet into a pair of fleece-line moccasins and not think twice about how I may be regarded if I go out into the world in that get-up.

Roobeedoo said...

Really thoughtful and thought-provoking. I definitely don't choose clothes because they are "pretty", but I recognise myself in the description of someone who is trying to find identity through their clothing... and then panic that I am projecting the "wrong" image of myself. My mother used to joke about me having "a uniform", wearing the same few things all the time because they just "worked" and I didn't have to think about what to wear. I have kind of come full-circle since then and now seem to be obsessed with creating a hand-made wardrobe full of "individuality"... and I am beginning to feel it as a pressure to keep coming up with something new that is "me". Thank you for this post. You are making me think.

The Waves said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

lapindelune: I agree with you re: fashion magazines. The weird thing is that I still read them actively, sort of in the same way like I still follow the fashion weeks. It's almost like a bad habit I can't shake, because after all the frustration and negative feelings fashion leaves me with, I still love clothes and the idea of fashion. Weird, huh?

Ali: that is a great question. I am leaning toward "no"; that style is not possible without identity-building. And that thought just makes my head spin! I guess the most important thing is to keep asking the questions, even if the answers are problematic.

Carolyn: the vintage loving phenomenon is interesting, and once I get to Eline's comment, I'll try to hash that out a little bit...

Eline: I fully agree. As I was writing the post I kept thinking about the girls and women who totally rock the 50s look, taking it and doing with it whatever they want, and I sort of felt bad about what I was writing. But it is the collectiveness of this type of fashion that is problematic, and the fact that the fashion is taken at face value and that the societal connotations are not discussed. I guess it is the general problem I have with fashion: that there is no criticism, even when it is desperately needed. You know, I almost tackled another article that was in Glamour magazine, which had to do with the trend regarding women's sexual submission - Rihanna wants to get spanked and all that. The idea that women are somehow safe in a submissive role, whether it is style related or sexual... that is really problematic.

I also agree that sometimes that role-play-type of dressing up is the most liberating thing there is. I guess I just have a problem with the general discourse that I see in fashion mags and on tv so often: it's the type of hyped up identity building that is used as a marketing tool. "Find your style and buy more stuff!", you know?

Terri: "fun", now that word is something really important. I feel like a lot of the identity-building with clothes lacks the fun, and perhaps that is why I am so uncomfortable with it..? I love the idea of playing with clothes just for the heck of it, and I feel like a lot of that is missing in the way women get dressed these days. Perhaps a lot of that is missing in the way I feel about my clothes..? Now that's something I'll have to get my head around!

Roobeedoo: I think uniforms in general are a good thing, if and when we hit a moment in life when we're confused about what our clothes mean to us. It can be liberating to put on something you know and love, something that feels safe, and funnily enough, I guess that's the argument the Elle reporter was using, in regard to the 50s fashion. So who knows where all of this leaves us; we're confused about style issues and still love clothes, we want something safe, but have a problem with style stagnation as well, we want to have fun with clothes but often it is just one big headache. Go figure! :)

Sunjo said...

I don't like the idea of a '50s housewife mentality being pushed on women by encouraging styles from that era. I definitely don't see it that way with myself though. I've been wearing and loving vintage from various decades for a long time. I guess I see myself as reclaiming the styles for myself and I'm far from a '50s housewife. If I choose to wear a circle skirt, it's because I find the skirt beautiful but I honestly haven't really look at it from a feminist standpoint. I think a lot of women buy vintage clothing because they just personally find them pretty. I also try to buy a large amount of my clothes thrifted or vintage since it's so good ecologically. But honestly sometimes if I go in a store with new clothes I just don't see anything that appeals to me. If I went in a store specializing in '80s, I'd probably run right out :) It's just a matter of taste... I know what you mean about clothing as a costume but I just see dressing in different looks as having fun. It's such an easy way for me to lighten up a boring day at work. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

The Waves said...

Sunjo: I agree that wearing vintage doesn't have to be supportive of the past values that are sometimes associated with them - most times it is not. I guess I am after open discussion regarding what's fashionable and why, and what types of connotations those fashions might entail.

I also agree with what you said re: fun. I am starting to think that perhaps I am not in a fun place with my own wardrobe...

jesse.anne.o said...

In reading this I realized I have some mixed feelings about clothing as identity. For years when I was more present in the queer community I dressed in a masculine way and often times passed as a younger boy (to the point where gas station attendants asked me how old I was because I looked like a 12 year old boy driving a pickup truck). Both then and when I started consciously dressing more feminine again clothes were extremely important to me in terms of gender idenity. Both afforded me invisibility and visibility in different areas. (Dressing like a boy afforded me being out of the male gaze but pushed me into being visibly queer if interpreted correctly. Dressing like a girl afforded me invisibily as status quo and erased my queer identity, put the male gaze back on me and let me quietly pass and get jobs I wouldn't have otherwise.) I feel like I am one of those rarieties where I was comfortable in either at different stages (so much so that I when I was dressing one way, I could NEVER see dressing the other way) and have the benefit of having positioned myself in our culture as either.

When I started dressing "like a girl" (and I use those terms loosely and becuase I'm lazy) again it was because I had a huge compulsion to dress femininely again. It totally bummed me to dress like a boy at that point in time and I had to give up some of my queer identity to do so. I had butch friends who laughed at me when I started to wear dresses, although I'd never personally identified as butch.

So it's from that standpoint that I cannot say that clothing didn't help shape and present my identity. While femme clothing is seen as compulsory and expected, I don't take it for granted. It is a conscious choice - I have been on the other side and I know I have other choices.

Within femme clothing, however, there is a full range. And that is what I think you are really speaking about. In one way, I think that "identity" helps me focus on what I know will pan out for me if I wear it. If I shop with a uniform in mind, I'm usually more successful in buying pieces with more stylistic longevity. I have considered personal style identity an anchor that lets me stay where I need to be while I watch "trending". I think I'm more focused on finding these kinds of things that really work for me vs putting togethr interesting things (although I tend to magpie over accessories at times for that "interesting thing").

I think Julia's post @ l'allure garconniere re dressing for work presentation and function also plays into this. I need to wear a lot of hats during the workweek and I can't pretend that doesn't fit into this issue of identity, either.

I am troubled by the retro thing being coupled with antiquated roles - but like Sunjo says - I try to take that as subverting the connotations of that style and reclaiming it. I think what's most troubling is people's actions as a result of assuming that type of clothing means something. And it's funny because '50s women's clothing always makes me think of girl gangs before it makes me think of anything else.

As always, an interesting topic and thanks for making me think about it.

The Waves said...

jesse.anne.o: I'm seriously starting to re-think my own position. There is no denying that clothes have power, and no matter what, our identities are tied up to them somehow, even if it is troubling at times.

The more I think about this whole thing, the more I am starting to think that my problems with fashion emerge from the total lack of criticism and honest discussion in the mainstream fashion-related discourse. Perhaps I am still holding onto that mainstream somehow, thinking that I want to keep it and change it, rather than abandon it altogether and completely focus on alternative forms of discourse, like blogs. As usual, your comment has given me a lot to think about!

Teeny said...

I don't think I can add any intelligence to the above comments....but I will say this....50s housewife clothing - doesn't make me think of a patriarchal Post WW2 societal role for women - it makes me realise how fricken IMPRACTICAL pre-sports/resort/casual clothing was for mothers. As a generally active woman and mother I cannot even consider dressing like that on a day to day basis. I'm not shabby and don't tolerate sweatpants on myself - but heels and circle skirts that blow up in the wind uh uh no no no. Not unless I'm child-free. I nodded in agreement with you regarding not thinking about what i wear = feeling better about myself. This very morning I had to run out of the house to get milk - i (half awake) put on a big shirt, cutoffs and sneakers - and have had the best day at the beach, walking my dog, not giving a toss about what i was presenting to the world. I like vintage clothing and thrifted clothes - both for the ecological impact AND because they weren't churned out of a factory dictating what I should be wearing this very season. It makes me cross that the clothing stores have early seasonal changes to their clothing options. For example...Autumn is already in the shops here, not due at least for another month.

metscan said...

Having read your post ( not yet the comments ), I am impressed by how much this subject has obsessed ( in a nice way ) your mind.
I like what you write, and won´t debate with it. I´ll just add a few of my own thoughts about fashion and identity-buillding.
First, in many ways, we all need fashion. It is good that things roll forwards.
Fashion cheers the dull days. But I am not a fashion victim, never have been. I only choose the thing (s ) I like.
These days, the comfort of wear is my top criteria. Quality follows right behind.
That´s it.
I am not drawn to trends, I dislike everything vintage, as I hate the idea of wearing someone else´s old clothes.
I dislike having much of anything, clothes included - and thus I have a minimal amount of clothes : ).
I also dislike the expression " capsule wardrobe ".
I don´t have a need to build my identity through clothes. Even the idea of this sounds terrible.
I only wish to have comfortable, clean, fitting clothes, which please my eye.
Great post. Now I´ll read the comments.

lin said...

I'm late to the game, and would just like to thank you for this post and for all the great responses it provoked - gave me much to think about.

I think there's a point in every "style/style tribe" out there where it comes a look to be imitated, than it actually standing for something (subversion, identity, etc etc), and maybe that's when a space opens up for disturbing interpretations of a particular look - like Daphne's Merkin's article. I feel like she's applied a lame theory to a perfectly legit way of dressing that people freely adopt for their own reasons.

And I wholeheartedly heart the "finding personal style via consuming" part - I find it disturbing and wrong, and it's also sad that marketers are perverting the spirit of self-expression.

Eyeliah said...

You know don't be so proud..... after 8 months in the same place and three or four clothing swaps later I have probably added 25-30 new pieces (maybe more). My wardrobe is bursting again, there are many things I never wear and I need to purge once more.