We all read Elizabeth Wilson’s chapter “Fashion and City Life,” and Wendy’s board illustrates some of the key ideas Wilson discusses regarding the history of and connection between fashion and urban life. Wendy’s Shopaholic pin alludes to Wilson’s discussion of the arrival of department stores in urban settings and how they impacted the social lives of women during the 19th century. A respectable woman did not often travel and socialize in the city without the accompaniment of a man, but with the development of department stores, women were granted this independence within the safe, contained environment of the store. Shopping at and simply visiting department stores became social outings, encouraged later by the incorporation of restaurants, cafes, and restrooms (Wilson 144, 150).
Wendy’s caption for the “Leggings are Not Pants” image refers to rules of fashion—particularly in a city, where fashion bombards the viewer from bodies, busses, storefronts, advertisements, and everywhere—being dictated by what we see, not what we hear. The formal “rules of fashion” we’ve been told do not stand in the city, where anything goes. We may have been raised with the idea that socks + sandals is a HUGE no-no, or that you never ever wear navy and black together, but both of these rules have gone out the window. Wendy’s photo clearly exemplifies this idea—leggings in recent past were worn under dresses, skirts, and workout shorts, but rarely alone. Today, however, leggings worn under a skirt would look slightly strange because they are so regularly worn as pants. In the city we are constantly looking and being looked at; very little verbal communication passes between people as they pass one another on the streets, and yet we observe each other, take note, and adopt what we see.
The photo of Destiny’s Child’s epic return onstage at the Super Bowl certainly captures the sexuality they were attempting to convey. What the ladies of Destiny’s Child wore on stage was appropriate for what was probably the biggest performance of their career together; it is costume-y, overly sexualized, and over-the-top—quite acceptable for a show of this scale, but absolutely inappropriate as street-wear, let alone business attire, which Wendy references in her caption. She paraphrases Wilson who, quoting John Malloy, says “dressing to succeed in business…and dressing to be sexually attractive are almost mutually exclusive” (Wilson 140). Wendy’s caption says these are “definitely mutually exclusive,” but I’d argue against that claim using a photo from Rebecca’s board. Rebecca’s “Day-to-Evening Wear” pin shows how an outfit can be appropriate for both work at the office and going out afterwards. This outfit, while not provocative or suggestive, is sleek and sexy, albeit still somewhat conservative.
Rebecca sites Fred Davis’s idea that “the clothing-fashion code is highly context dependent.” Her photo shows an outfit that is appropriate both at the office, but simultaneously suitable for the nightlife scene. Taking Davis’s context discussion in another direction, it is interesting to consider that to us—in a bustling, urban setting—this looks like a basic, professional, trendy outfit; it might not even be particularly outstanding or eye-catching. However, in a small-town setting, for example, it may stand out as over-the-top; too dressy for, say, a stay-at-home mom just dropping her child off at pre-school; snobbish for a student to wear to class at a large state university, where her classmates wear sweatpants and university t-shirts daily. In the city, this would be a polished and sophisticated outfit, but in other contexts, even this outfit may be deemed inappropriate.
Wendy’s 1940’s photo shows a woman in a classic, versatile 1940’s suit that was worn “for all occasions—morning, noon, and night” (Wilson 139). This photo can also be discussed in relation to Rebecca’s pin of day-to-night wear. While these outfits are quite different from one another at first glance, they both reflect sleek and sophisticated outfits that were/are versatile in their respective eras and contexts.
The pin (and caption) that struck me most was Wendy’s central photo displaying a variety of colored fabrics. She says, “Fashion is constantly changing or ‘in process’ because of the difficulty of understanding fashion. We lack the understanding of the symbols behind the forms, colors, textures, and postures.” I certainly agree with Wendy and Davis that fashion is constantly “in process,” but I do not agree with Wendy that this is due to the fact that we do not properly understand the media we use to create fashion. Georg Simmel explains that styles enter into the “upper stratum of society” and then are abandoned when the lower classes begin to adopt them. In this way, fashion is perpetually evolving, because lower classes imitate the upper classes, but the upper classes move on to something new as soon as this begins. Additionally, Simmel defines fashion as “a constant change of contents”—something becomes its own fashion expressly because it is distinct from the fashion that came before it and what will follow it. This indicates that change is intrinsic to the definition of fashion, and he attributes this to the cyclic pattern between the upper and lower strata of society (Simmel 543).
Furthermore, the difficulty in understanding fashion arises, at leas in part, from undercoding, as Davis explains. We each have our own readings of styles and fashions, so we can never know for certain what another intends to portray in her fashion, just as we can never be sure that anyone else will accurately understand what we ourselves try to portray through our own fashions. This makes fashion impossible to grasp, as there is no indisputable, concrete definition or association with any particular component.
Perhaps this is what Wendy means when she says “we lack the understanding of the symbols behind the forms, colors, textures and postures.” Consider communication through verbal language; this is something more intelligible than fashion because the building blocks of language—the words—have specific definitions. Sure, words have different meanings in different contexts (just like clothing does!), and their meanings can change depending on tone, circumstance, and usage (just like clothing can!), but each word independently has a concrete definition. On the contrary, one fabric does not have one established meaning; one color does not have one specific implication. They may have cultural-dependent meanings, but no standard definitions exist so that when we see one fabric or one color, we know for certain what the wearer is trying to express.
An outfit cannot be read like a sentence in a novel: the skirt, the shirt, the necklace, the jacket, the stockings, the shoes, the hat do not have established definitions so an observer/reader can string them together and comprehend what the wearer/author intended to express. There are countless variables and a huge range of readings of any single outfit or fashion. Fashion is difficult, maybe even impossible, to fully grasp because of its infinite scope of meaning and its constant evolution.