The Many Ways Karin and Wendy Thought About Fashion

Wilson’s chapter titled “Fashion and City Life” created an excellent timeline of the progression of bartering and buying into shopping, a pleasurable activity (152). Wendy’s pin from the film, Confessions of a Shopaholic, illustrates the freedom women found in department stores in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Department stores, according to Wilson, were a realm in which women could congregate without chaperones or male family members, and enjoy being outside of the home (150). It gave women a sense of control over their own lives. In author Simmel’s piece he argues that, due to the hierarchy in “western” societies, women can only show individuality through fashion (551). I would argue that this is no longer the case, although in the pin’s representation of Rebecca Bloomwood, she is one who heavily relies on shopping and clothing as a way to define herself. Her shopping habit shows an extreme in behavior: addiction. Other shopping extremes include shopping vice, shoplifting: “women who had ‘fallen’ spoke of the irresistible touch of silk and satin, the visual seduction of the displays, and their thirst for possession” (Wilson 150). Focusing on the seductive visual aspects of displays also illustrates another point made by both Wilson and Wendy. As the world industrialized and transportation allowed people to commute, a new culture of anonymity and strangers developed. Within this new form of interaction, as Wilson illustrates through Edgar Allen Poe’s words, the eye took over as the key feature. This means that representation took on a new role, and in some ways seems to have superseded one’s identity. Wendy’s pin for this aspect of Wilson’s piece is interesting because it is a piece of clothing, representing an individual’s opinion, about another person’s use of clothing. The t-shirt in question begins to mess with the control a person has over their own identity and also what they represent to others. Simmel noted in his slightly archaic piece that fashion will never be accepted by all (549), that this is part of how fashion functions. There must always be an in and an out so to speak, or adherents and dissidents.

Wilson mentions with sadness that “the post-feminist career woman of the 1980s…has eliminated sexuality” (140). She says that women are being taught to cut sexuality and even gender from their appearances, but not in the “fashionable European androgynous” way (140). This control of women’s’ dress by the male dominated workplace is a sad example of power abuse for the sake of maintaining hierarchy. Wendy and I would both argue that Beyonce did not get this memo regarding sexual clothing in the workplace. (I still think her performance was responsible for the ensuing Superdome blackout.) Keeping Beyonce in mind, it must be noted that she is an exceptional case of someone that can be sexual while working. The average female cannot, or maybe should not, go to work wearing low necklines, short skirts, or tight outfits. I think that a return to the appropriated suits of women in the 1940s would better serve everyone: women don’t have to try to look like men, and men don’t have to/can’t ignore the fact that they now work with women. This pin shows a woman from the 1940s dressed in one of the Chanel-esque suits. She still looks stylish and well put together over 60 years later. The suit in this time period served as an all-day outfit, much like Wendy said. A women’s representation could also change given context. In the presence of a returning serviceman “the suit could be seductive” (140). Looking at contemporary suits for women it is hard to think that anyone might find them seductive. Today women are still struggling to gain high ranking positions within the corporate world-we are told that if we aspire to be a CEO or CFO, we must look the part, which unfortunately means that transgression is not an option.

Wendy’s final pin confronts how people understand fashion. Davis speaks about fashion as if it were its own language (148), which in a way it is. Fashion has a code that one can decipher using semiotic analysis, however Davis claims that this code has no fixed rules or formulas (150). A lack of consistency means that fashionable people must pay attention to what the fashion world is telling them, or become the icons that dictate fashion (hierarchy). Wendy uses a collective “we” in stating a lack of symbolic understanding, but I feel that there are people who do understand fashion’s code. Some of these people run the fashion industry; they’re at the top of the hierarchy. Others are those that understand the fashion code and choose to resist what they read. These people are like those shot by photographer Bill Cunningham. In my mind this is similar to the idea of lying. To lie, one must first know the truth. In fashion, to resist one must first know what everyone else is doing. These two rather polarized groups are held together by what Davis calls the “middle mass” (156). He says that this is the group that will accept or reject a change in fashion’s code. Does this imply that for dress to become fashion (in the sociological sense we have been discussing) an item must be appropriated by the “middle mass”? If so, then this may change the way one looks at fashion. After all, it is a consumption based industry, so the more people that buy (into) a piece of fashion, the more dominant and controlling the industry can become.

In class this week we were asked if the ambiguity of fashion was a good thing or a bad thing. The dictionary defines ambiguity as a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways. I think ambiguity is one of fashion’s best traits. The ability to understand a clothing ensemble or piece allows fashion to become, in the words of Bill Cunningham, an armor that we need in everyday life. Ambiguity allows people to separate their identity from their outward and public representation. I think that this little bit of separation is what allows people to find such joy and pleasure in fashion-they can read their outfit one way, and pay no heed to the opinions of others because frankly, they’ll never know how the people passing them on the street decode their outfit.


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