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Archive for the ‘Fashion and Identity’ Category

Recently I was asked to reccommend some academic texts for the study of fashion alongside a cultural studies/anthropological theme. You can find the answer on the ‘about’ comments page, however I thought it might also be useful to paste it in here as a post too.

The following books are listed alphabetically by author, because that’s not only fair, but also it would be impossible for me to advise anyone on what books could be of most use to them. It depends entirely on the information you’re looking for, and the aims of your theoretical research. However, I do have a large personal library of academic texts surrounding anthropology and gender in particular, as well as fashion theory, and these have inevitably become interlinked with feminist texts, media and PR critical analysis, and various other intermingling topics, particularly psychoanalytical of late.

If you’re thinking about looking at the subject of fashion and culture, however, these texts might be a good starting point – I know they were for me:

Barthes, Roland (2004), The Language of Fashion. Berg Publications
Barthes is concerned with semiotics – i.e. the idea that everything can be taken as a sign or symbol for something else. I personally used this book to help me research Dandyism, of which this book has a short chapter, examining not only the techniques of this dressing style, but also its social ethos and political symbolism. The book is not very long, so I see it (perhaps mistakenly) as an additional add-on to Barthes earlier work, ‘The Fashion System,’ which is also excellent.

Crane, Diana (2000), Fashion and it’s Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. University of Chicago Press.
This book examines clothing not only as a mode of self expression, but as a mode of non-verbal reaction against social norms. It examines views on class and gender in particular, with a keen focus on outward expression of sexual orientation. I found the chapter “Fashion Images and the Struggle for Women’s Identity’ particularly impressive whilst researching for an essay on advertising in women’s fashion, and the notion of ‘building’ and embodying identities. However, the book also touches on political elements such as global markets, class and control, and also, unlike many books about fashion, devotes an entire section to a very interesting exploration of masculine identities as impressed through dress.

De Beauvoir, Simone (1949, republished 1997) The Second Sex. Vintage Classics.
Good lord, where to start on this book? It’s vast, for one thing. My own tattered but faithful copy looks like a hedgehog on acid, it has so many coloured tab markers in it! Helpfully segregated into two ‘books’, and these into various parts with their own chapters, De Beauvoir’s book is one of the most important books (in my very humble opinion) to study when looking at not only Gender studies, but also the social construction of ‘woman’ from infancy, through childhood, to adulthood, with the section on motherhood particularly interesting as it examines the idea that a mother is not a natural transitional identity, but must be in some ways socially formed. Anyway, I can’t go on about this because we would be here for many days!

Moore, Henrietta L (1988), Feminism and Anthropology. Polity Press.
It is very difficult to discuss Fashion, in an Anthropological sense, without looking at Feminism. I have a love/hate relationship with the subject, however it is important to understand certain movements of feminism (the so-called ‘waves’ are very different from each other and should influence the way we view movements in fashion and embodied identity differently). Moore’s book looks to the main social issues surrounding and impacting feminism, such as changing family structures, the viewing of and status of women in the workplace, and what ‘women’s work’ is or has evolved as, and perhaps most importantly, examines feminist critques in anthropology itself. The book has come under a lot of criticism, not all of it complimentary, but this by no means makes it less useful reading.

…Those are my ‘big four,’ if you will, for the specific area of focus on fashion and anthropology, however the following are equally important and very often influence my reading:

Butler, Judith, (1999) Gender Trouble. (Routledge)
Cole, Shaun (2000) Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay men’s dress in the twentieth century. (Berg)
Vinken, Barbara (2005) Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System. (Berg)
Wolf, Naomi (1991) The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. (Vintage)

Various other theorists of interest:
Sophie Woodward (women and everyday dressing)*; Emma Tarlo (muslim and faith dressing and it social and political signifiers)*; Hannah Arendt (theories of loneliness); Valerie Steele (fashion theorist and historian); Joanne Entwistle (the dressed body); Donna Haraway (theories of cyborg and techonology in the social sphere); Ariel Levy (feminism); Germaine Greer (feminism); Frances Pine (women’s work and family roles in rural Poland)*, etc etc etc!

Also, if you have access to JStor or AnthroSource, these are invaluable search engines for academic articles and readings, as well as academic book reviews. Most universites have access to these and they are brilliant. I like to download and save interesting readings, even if I just think they might be of use at some point though not necessarily for what I’m researching at the time.

I hope all of this is useful to anyone looking into this subject area! If you have your own reccommendations, please leave comments for other people to be informed – and to inform me too!

(*okay, I’m biased, these three have been tutors of mine…)

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After rediscovering and posting my 2006 piece on fashion photography and advertising – which focuses essentially on what is now known as the ‘size zero debate,’ I thought I’d do a search of ‘thinspiration’ on wordpress to see what others have come up with. The myriad results were interesting.

The following links I am not going to fully critique; they each approach the idea of thinspiration in a different manner, and are therefore equally academically interesting to me, particularly from a psychoanalytical view…

The first link is from ‘Portraitdunefemme”s blog:

http://portraitdunefemme.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/thinspiration/ the piece is simply entitled ‘thinspiration’ and is mainly pictures of models and celebrities – there’s some pretty extreme thinness towards the middle photos. Selected quote: “No, no. I am not anorexic. I just find their form of… inspiration to be… inspiring. Looking at photos of thin, beautiful women makes me want to exercise and watch what I eat.”

‘Coup de Gras’ seems to be a blog that has a focus on weightloss, as there is a ‘weight loss barometer’ at the side of the page.

Again, the post is simply entitled ‘thinspiration,’ however this one examines the word and attempts to give it some different meanings. Selected quote: “I like to use “thinspiration” as any quote that reminds me why I want to lose weight, live a better life, etc.” However, as the piece is about weight loss, I’m not sure the meaning of the word is altered. The link is here: http://coupdegras.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/thinspiration/

The third link is to “23 and somewhat nornal.”

This very short post links to an interesting youtube video about ‘Sacrifice’ – ie. sacrificing eating, to anorexia. http://drema101.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/thinspiration/ I found her revalation that although she ‘knows it’s wrong,’ just looking at thinner women makes her wonder whether she is overweight.

‘Anti-Thinspiration‘ is an educative blog that teaches women what thinspiration sites are, and their dangers. For anyone looking to research this academically, I believe there would be an interesting source of amateur work here – the message boards of this blog are thoughtful and informative too.

The post I am referencing is entitled ‘What is Thinspiration?’ and can be found here: http://antithinspo.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/what-is-thinspiration/ They also give information on ‘reverse thinspiration’ images, which show overweight people in a bid to show women and men the perils of overeating. This site does contain some rather gruesome (in my opinion) ‘thinspo’ images, however I am impressed by the large warning on their site: ” WARNING: The following post contains images which may be triggering to those suffering from or recovering from an eating disorder.”

Finally, please, if you don’t want to have to look at thinspiration skeletal images but do want to read a very impressive critique of fashion advertising and thinspirational sites, please visit the blog ‘This is Not a Diet,’ which is witty and intelligent.

The post I accessed is called ‘Grown Women have Curves’. Selected quote: “In the midst of the obesity epidemic we are facing, it is no wonder that we are obsessed with the opposite of obesity: emaciation.  We’ve lost sight of the line between a healthy, natural female shape and an obesity problem.  The more we obsess over Skinny, the fatter we become.” Find the full article, complete with some beautiful images, here: http://notsobigk.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/grown-women-have-curves/

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(Catherine Lucas, May 2006)

The Impact of Fashion Photography on Consumer Choices and Embodiment of Identity.

The manner in which we, as consumers, choose to dress, depends heavily on the psychological effects imposed upon us by images projected daily on us. These images may come in advertising, or photographic media, and even in film and music videos but generally none influence us so potently as images of fashion photography, which generate so many conflicting ideas of what it is socially acceptable to look like in terms of physical attributes, and which garments we should be wearing.

“Lakoff and Scherr… claim that fashion photographs generate enormous dissatisfaction among women because they create unrealistic expectations that most women are unable to meet.”[1]

The gangly, unblemished, fresh yet slightly androgynous form of Kate Moss[2] posing awkwardly in the Calvin Klein Obsession adverts is not an image easily forgotten by those who have seen it. The photographs are iconic, an emblem of the brand, incorporated into its heritage, and stands out as one to inspire a generation of waif-wannabes. Websites not only guarding against the dangers of anorexia nervosa, the condition in which people feel that they must starve themselves to lose weight, no matter how thin they become, but also websites promoting so-called ‘thinspiration’[3], in which those promoting anorexia and associated images as an ideal of beauty, use the image of Kate Moss in these adverts as either a deterrent or an incitement to desirable appearance. This is an extreme reaction to a fashion photograph and proves the incredible lasting impact (for good or bad) of some prominent or ‘iconic’ images.

 

According to Diana Crane (professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania) the goal of fashion “is to project images that are intended to attribute meanings to items of clothing.” Fashion photography serves to create an idealised ‘character’, a connection between the model and the clothing, which influences self-perception and social standing. For example, in the magazine advertisements for the ‘Dior Addict’[4] fragrance, the model’s image is distorted, and her pose purposely wanton and sweaty, glamorising the idea of a drug-induced ‘trip’. However, as Crane puts it, “fashion photographers have synchronised their themes and images with those that circulate in youth cultures and…the media…”[5] Fashion photographers have observed an already present, underlying glamorisation of drug culture in youth society and the general media, and have used it to their own advantage. By generating a high-impact advertisement that will be seen in all the key fashion and lifestyle magazines, the photograph is promoting not only the product, but also an elusive and (allegedly) exciting area of society. Those influenced by the advert might not only buy the fragrance, but also adopt elements of the clothing and lifestyle into their own identity.

Dior 'Addict' Magazine Advertising

It is not only advertising which may use fashion photography in influencing not only what we wear, but also out ideals of celebrity culture and social standing. Elizabeth Hurley became the centre of great media attention in 1994, when she accompanied Hugh Grant to the premiere of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ wearing a stunning Versace evening gown secured at the sides with gold safety pins.[6] The image of this then largely unknown actress, and the stunning dress she was wearing, instantly dominated the media headlines. The images of this dress have achieved iconic status, a place in fashion history in their own right. Women craved the elegant yet sexually provocative styling affected by these photographs.

Elizabeth Hurley

Through the huge attention to the paparazzi shots of this ensemble, Hurley’s figure, trim yet curvaceous in the right areas, became the ‘perfect’ body, and one that women believed might actually be attainable, rather than that of Kate Moss. However, one commentator, the author of ‘Is being Thin really that Great?” says of Hurley:

“The patron saint of thin, Elizabeth Hurley, never seems to tire of offering titbits of advice on maintaining her Twiglet proportions. Last week, she ‘revealed’ she is always hungry, hardly eats a thing and will occasionally allow herself to pig right out on six raisins. It’s the ‘six’ that gives her away as a total obsessive.”[7]

According to a report in the Times,

The crazed system across the media that prizes celebrity thinness and leads “style icons” such as Liz Hurley to announce that if she looked as “fat” as Marilyn Monroe she would kill herself, needs to be thoroughly upended. Because Kate Moss is thin she is prized and paid millions to lead “campaigns” across the media, rather than identified as an ill- educated drug addict who managed to miss her only child’s third birthday because she was in a drying-out clinic.”[8]

Clearly, behind the woman [Hurley] idolised by many is just another woman driven by images of ‘perfection’ and fearing degradation in society –one of the severe and prominent dangers of the ‘celebrity culture’. Hurley’s ‘obsessive’ nature may be compared to those of other celebrities who are suffering from or have in the past suffered from publicly scrutinised eating disorders. Anorexic or bulimic celebrities such as Mary-Kate Olsen and Calista Flockheart have obviously had their diet inspiration influenced by fashion photography of models such as Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd[9] on the catwalk –they’re ‘all bones,’ and this is promoted! It is little wonder that these images show up on ‘thinspiration’ sites.

'Thinspiration' Sample Image

Jodie Kidd on the Catwalk

However, it is not only the state of our bodies that are influenced by fashion photography. More affluent consumers, and celebrities in particular, often try to remake the catwalk ensembles, as is particularly commented on in the pages of ‘Vogue’, announcing ‘it’s a look’[10] as stars and women of social standing hanker after the same ‘it’ bag, dress, shoes, etc. The success of the Birkin bag, Chloe Paddington bag and the Fendi Spy bag are prime examples of a ‘trend’ in action. After the bags were shown and photographed on the catwalk, they became the key ‘hot item’ for any serious follower of fashion, with huge waiting lists and even more extravagant price tags.

However, it is not solely the fashion photographer (although notable fashion photographers such as Mario Testino are revered for their talents, the pioneers of a whole fame status of their own) who is responsible for the fashion photography that influences us. Behind the fashion photograph may be photography sitting and art directors, stylists, make up artists, fashion designers, and of course the choice of model is also pivotal to the success of a fashion photograph. The choice of model lends a different effect to the whole photograph, as he or she must be completely compatible with the clothing and set choices. For example, though Kate Moss has achieved global recognition and superior model status, in some cases she would not be as suited to a shot as Lily Cole.[11] For this reason, it is fruitless for a ‘normal’ woman to attempt to completely emulate a look she has seen on the catwalk or in fashion photography: the look will never be quite right, never exactly the same, and if she does not accept this, her paranoia could lead of obsession, examples of which we have already discussed.

Lily Cole in a magazine spread

Kate Moss is a clear example of a model and style icon whose fashion choices clearly influence those who see her photos in terms of how to dress and in some sense, to behave. In a survey carried out by a social experiments researcher, journalist Kate Finnigan said, “You can’t deny that Kate Moss never gets it wrong and Sienna Miller is working it. They have that cheeky, just-picked-this-up-off-the-floor style that so many ordinary British girls have – except they’ve got more money.”[12] Photographed constantly wearing a lot of clothing from high street giant TopShop, Moss’ photographs, whether paparazzi shots or choreographed, have influenced thousands of British women and also tourists into shopping there, also paving the way for the high street phenomenon –suddenly it has become the height of ‘cool’ to mix extremely cheap, throwaway fashions with occasional designer pieces. In the afore-mentioned survey, Finnigan listed TopShop as one of her most frequent stores to buy in, showing a direct correlation between her admiration for Moss’ style and her own buying habits.

 (Note: this piece was originally written before Kate Moss’  Topshop line was launched.)

Throwaway fashion directly influenced by the fast-moving catwalk trends and fashion photography seen in magazines such as Vogue, Tatler, Glamour, etc, has had a huge cultural impact –A vest from Primark, at £2, can now be teamed with the coveted Fendi Spy bay, and the bargain will be flaunted just as much as the luxury purchase, according to ‘steal her style’ articles and the influence of photographs showing supermodels and celebrities doing the same thing. 

Shoppers have become much more savvy, claims Top Shop brand director Jane Shepherdson: “They want to be able to buy the things celebrities are wearing or they want to be able to buy into the trends that they’ve seen from the catwalk as quickly as possible.”

Top Shop’s move towards fast fashion increased sales by 20% last year.”[13]

Looking back on the history of fashion, and its promotion through photographs of ‘the right’ model, Twiggy[14] (born Leslie Hornsby) may be seen as a notable, earlier example.

 

She was named “The Face of ’66” by the Daily Express. In the mid 60’s at 16 years of age, Twiggy became internationally known as the world’s first supermodel, her photographic modelling success epitomising the age.”[15]

The first official ‘superwaif’ supermodel, she not only influenced a whole new wave of ‘skinny’ fashion, but the iconic fashion photography images of her, also promoted the miniskirt, babydoll dress[16], and 60s mod look, now all firm staples of the ever re-emerging Sixties’ fashion trends. 

“Twiggy was the personification of “Swinging” London (or Mod London, if you prefer); she adorned the cover of virtually every magazine except Field and Stream, and was on hand for all the “in” parties and public events always decked out in the trendiest frocks. A 1967 TV special revealed this supermodel to be a giggly, somewhat airheaded cockney kid, but this “everygirl” quality only enhanced her charm.”[17]

There is no doubt that Twiggy ‘changed the face of fashion’ –even almost fifty years on, she remains an icon of British fashion and the Sixties’ image- one whose photographs still serve as an inspiration of style for women today.

'Twiggy' in the 1960s

The Sixties mod look became a collective identity between the consumers who pursued this trend. Hundreds of women began shopping at Mary Quant[18] and the Biba Emporium[19] based on the looks promoted by Twiggy and the related fashion photography. The success of the miniskirt in particular stands testament to the longevity of these trends and the fashion photographs that inspired them. In 1993, Lutz and Collins acknowledged, “…a magazine photograph is ‘a dynamic site at which many gazes or viewpoints intersect’…”[20] Therefore, consumers many draw on parts of a fashion photograph as inspiration towards what they see as their own individual look and identity. The women who followed the Sixties’ mod look may have done so after looking at photographs of Twiggy in a miniskirt, but at the same time have felt that they were inventing their own personal look, in keeping vaguely with the current trend but not duplicating it directly.

In answering a questionnaire on the subject of the influence of fashion photography on our collective and individual styles,

“Some women suggested that fashion photographs should be viewed as a form of art and fantasy rather than as representations of fashion: “It’s like a dream, because you know that 90 percent, probably 98 percent of the clothes are unattainable.”

However, one woman admitted she was susceptible to trends: “I think if you’re flipping through a magazine and you continually see the same type of outfit on different pages, you might, I might try to alter what I’m wearing. Because you see it’s like a new trend.””[21]

This research shows that although many women realise they may never duplicate the looks they admire in fashion photography, they may still aspire to do so. In other cases, they may be influenced ‘unconsciously’, and might “be inclined to wear a particular combination of clothing, without remembering the source of the idea.”

We may conclude from all this, that fashion photography holds an enormous influence over what ‘we’ (as consumers) wear on a day-to-day basis, whether we make a conscious effort to do so or not. The majority of us probably perceive ourselves as individual dressers, even as pioneers of style in our own social groups, rather than admitting to following a collective identity. The psychological impact of constant media throwing fashion, celebrities, trends and the ever obscure pursuit of ‘cool’ as us every day, may affect our choices far more than we are willing to admit. Yes, perhaps it is ‘obsessive’ that Elizabeth Hurley sees six raisins as a gross battering to her ideal diet, but can any of us honestly say that we have never looked at a picture of her and wished we could take the clothing or even a body part and swap it with our own?

Ultimately, what is truthfully going through out minds is probably this, a quote from a white undergraduate interviewed over the impact of fashion photography, spoken in a sudden burst of honesty:

“I know I’ll never, never be able to look like her, and it really pisses me off.” [22]


[1] “Fashion and it’s Social Agendas” –Diana Crane, 2000. p 205.

[5] “Fashion and it’s Social Agendas” –Diana Crane, 2000. pp 202-203.

[7] http://www.diet-blog.com/archives/2005/01/30/is_being_thin_really_that_great.php

[8] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-2124939,00.html

[12] http://www.antiapathy.org/socialexperiments/index.php?i=32

[13] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3086669.stm

[15] http://www.twiggylawson.co.uk/biography.html

[17] http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=72246&mod=bio

[18] See picture reference: http://www.maryquant.co.uk/imgs/page/shops/par_shop.jpg

[20] “Fashion and its Social Agendas’, Diana Crane 2000. pp 209-210.

[21] “Fashion and its Social Agendas.” Diana Crane, 2000. p 214

[22] “Fashion and its Social Agendas.” Diana Crane, 2000. p 215

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(Catherine Lucas, 2006)

Using the Psychoanalytical Notion of the ‘Male Gaze’ to Analyse Visual Examples from Film, Photography and Advertising:

Challenging whether this concept is still relevant to an understanding of our cultural production.

The feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in 1975.

“ Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29).”[1]

In considering concepts of pleasure, Mulvey ascertained two types of scopophilia, which is defined as a joy of ‘looking’. The first of which is ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ –the pleasure one gets from looking at others, which is highlighted in modern culture by the cinema, as we “in the darkness of the cinema auditorium … may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer … the voyeuristic process.”[2]

One may also identify with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera, which may intrude on habitually ‘private’ moments –for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “The Rear Window” contains intrusive shots into the windows of the protagonist’s neighbours so that the viewer may see what he is looking at out of his window –as he spies on the intimate moments of his fellow man, the audience may do the same by adopting the camera’s ‘gaze’ as their own, and so become secondary voyeurs. Mulvey argues that in most cases, the gaze one is adopting is intended as ‘male’ because it may portray women as objects. For example, “The Rear Window” focuses on woman as an image of desire, and the male protagonist as bearer of the gaze –the woman actively displays herself by exhibiting herself and her dress to the man.

This concept of voyeurism is still highly relevant when examining modern popular culture. Feminist writer Ariel Levy refers to the popular American ‘men’s’ TV show “Girls Gone Wild” as an example of a program specifically catering to the male gaze, yet also as an arguable example of what some women may view as an expression of female sexual liberation. Her in-depth investigation into the female exhibitionists who choose to partake in the show, which films ‘ordinary’ women in various states of undress and sometimes in scenes with other women, brought up this quote from “Girls Gone Wild” regular, Debbie Cope: “…yeah Girls Gone Wild is for guys to get off on, but…it’s fun!”[3] This quote clearly signifies an awareness of the male gaze, but also as an alternative to habitual feminist views against the use of the male gaze and suppression of a ‘female gaze’ in popular culture, a certain desire of some women to exhibit themselves for this very purpose –a trait explained by Mulvey’s theory of ‘narcissistic scopophila’[4] and exhibitionism, which will be explored in more depth as the essay progresses.

Many feminists argue, “…media images of women are always directed at men.”[5] However, this argument, once fuelled mainly by images from the pages of “Playboy” [Fig 1], seen by some as degrading to women, may now in our increasingly liberal culture even be traced into ‘prime time’ advertising, with the concept of voyeuristic scopophilia particularly apparent in the portrayal of some scenes, such as that which I shall now relate:

 

 Modern advertising is controlled in the United Kingdom by the Advertising Standards Agency, which ensure that what is shown on our television screens is politically correct and inoffensive. However, there is still strong evidence of the male gaze. Take, for example, the ‘Fashion versus Style’ advertising campaign[6] launched by French Connection UK. The basic plot of the advert was a fight between two girls [Fig 2a] clad in FCUK’s latest clothing line. However, as a twist towards the end of the advert, one of the girls pushes the other against a wall and kisses her [Fig 2b/2c]. This advert characterises a clear influence of the male gaze, from the point of view of women being exhibited and objectified as lesbians for a male fantasy ideal. On the other hand, feminists could argue that there is a pro-lesbian message behind the plot, and that this advert was shown on national television, approved by advertising standards, and signifies the furthering of public acceptance of exploration of female sexuality. That said, it was not an advert too widely enjoyed by heterosexual women, although the sensationalism of the advert certainly worked in the brand’s favour.

The FCUK advert is only one of many examples of the male gaze through voyeuristic scopophilia, though it may be seen as an extreme. The scene witnessed in the advertisement is shot in a ‘private’ setting, with no other characters; the audience’s gaze becomes a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to their emotions, culminating in the kiss, which in itself is categorised as an intimate and therefore private act.  “As Jonathan Schroeder notes, ‘Film has been called an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from a male point of view’ (Schroeder 1998, 208).”[7] The FCUK advert could definitely be categorised as a portrayal of male sexual fantasy, although ultimately the advert is supposedly aimed at women who would buy the clothing collection.

However, the lesbian element of the advert cannot be ignored, and brings us into the idea of the ‘homosexual gaze.’

“A useful account of ‘queer viewing’ is given by Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman (1995). Neale argues that ‘in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explictly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated, its erotic component repressed’ (Neale 1992, 281). Both Neale and Richard Dyer (1982) also challenged the idea that the male is never sexually objectified in mainstream cinema and argued that the male is not always the looker in control of the gaze. It is widely noted that since the 1980s there has been an increasing display and sexualisation of the male body in mainstream cinema and television and in advertising (Moore 1987, Evans & Gamman 1995, Mort 1996, Edwards 1997).”[8]

The homosexual gaze has been addressed more intensively as gay culture has made its way further into the mainstream. As can be ascertained from the FCUK advert, lesbianism, for example, is now an accepted idea which can be shown nationally and during peak viewing hours rather than ‘post-watershed’.

“The emergence on the gay scene of rockabillies coincided with a general interest in the 1950s. Interest in James Dean and Marlon Brando as icons grew, and advertising nodded a nostalgic head towards the fifties, with adverts such as the Launderette [Fig 3a] and Bath advertisements for Levi’s jeans.”[9] These adverts were part of campaigns in 1985, showing a clear admission of the homosexual gaze. However, the televised version of the ‘Laundrette’ advert showed women as the active viewers in the scene [Fig 3b], not exclusively homosexual men, suggesting less acceptability of such areas of human sexuality than is apparent in more straightforwardly subversive adverts of today, such as the previously explored FCUK advert.

 

However, “with the increasing visibility of gay men in British Society it was almost inevitable that gay images would appear in the press…new style magazines…were published in the 1980s… Aware of their gay readerships, I-D and Blitz along with Face featured articles, features and photographs that would appeal to this market…an explicitly homoerotic style developed, consciously or unconsciously aimed at and appealing to a gay audience…inviting heterosexual men to view gay-inspired images and to question the assumptions of the male gaze.”[10]

Mulvey’s original theory of The Gaze is centred on that of an active male and passive female; the heterosexual male is always the one who is looking at or objectifying the passive female, who exists to be looked at for pleasure, in a position of submissiveness. One may argue from a position of hindsight that Mulvey expresses some proof of naivety by neglecting to address the existence of the homosexual gaze, and even of the heterosexual female gaze. Similarly as one may argue that sexually provocative images of men, for example, are an appeal to the female gaze, they may also stimulate the homosexual male gaze, and equally as one may argue that the images of sexually precocious women in “Playboy” are aimed at the heterosexual male gaze, they may also be seen as examples of female sexual liberation, and also as attractive to the lesbian gaze.

Conversely, it would be irresponsible to the debate not to assert that images portrayed in media and popular culture do not have to appeal to any aspect of gaze on a solely sexual plane –images of women in clothing advertisements that grace the pages of Vogue, for example, are in fact targeted at a heterosexual majority of women. They are not encouraged to buy the clothing advertised on attraction to the model, but because of a desire to be the woman in the advertisement. This brings us into another area of scopophilia: ‘narcissistic scopophilia’. This is defined as seeing other people, people you feel an admiration for, as a surrogate for yourself. For example, one may identify with a character in a film, and seek to project their own self onto this character, or vice versa –they may wish to empathise with the character on screen. Freud identified an early idea of this in his exploration of the ego and the id –“when the ego assumes the features of the object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too –I am so like the object.’”[11] Narcissism is no new idea as is the concept of ‘self gaze’, the action of looking at and actively objectifying oneself. It is an idea given greater credence through art and mythology to signify actual human ideas. Benvenuto Cellini’s Narcissus [Fig 5] “remains transfixed by his image in the pool, neither eating nor drinking, ‘perque oculos perit ipse suos,’ consumed by his own eyes.”[12]

 

There is a tension between ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ and ‘narcissistic scopophilia’, between the pleasure from narcissistically imagining ourselves as the object of the gaze, and the sense of power wrought from being the director of that gaze.

“Popular culture for women has conventionally been concerned with representations of women (the female protagonist of romance fiction, the cover girl on women’s magazines). In this respect it is both like and unlike popular culture for men: men are invited to look at women (e.g. in ‘girlie’ mags), and so are women (e.g. in women’s mags); but obviously these invitations to look are different, and we may assume that the resulting experiences of looking are also different.”[13]

However, one has to wonder how the gaze should be dealt with when it comes to ideas of androgyny. How can one apply the theory of the gaze if they are uncertain of which sex they are looking at? The 1992 film “Orlando”, directed by Sally Potter, has a protagonist played by Tilda Swinton who evades death by living one life as a woman, then again as a man, and so on alternatively. It is a complicated idea because it displaces the gaze between gender and sexual preference, resulting in unease for the audience. As a man, the character is portrayed in a very feminine manner, which disrupts the stereotypical perceptions of Gender. Orlando also has the role of simultaneously being the protagonist, and the object of the gaze, which brings confusion not only to the viewing audience, but also for the minor characters.

Another example of androgyny misplacing the gaze may be witnessed in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” with Hilary Swank portraying a girl who attempts to pass herself off as a boy in order to escape her own sexuality. [Fig 4] Swank makes a very convincing boy, in so much as one could be mistaken for thinking she actually was a boy if one had completely no inkling of that film before viewing. The character’s ambiguous gender and sexuality is psychologically unsettling because of the indecisive nature of the gaze –who should be attracted to this character?  The confusion of this in itself stands testament to the fact that the gaze is still an integral part of the way we relate to film.

 

“The question of whether a female gaze exists in contrast to the male one arises naturally in considering the male gaze. Mulvey, the originator of the phrase “male gaze”, argues that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze…”.” Mulvey’s reluctance to explore the idea of a female gaze could be construed as a fear of subversity and sensationalism. At the time of writing she could have been on the receiving end of some anti-feminist criticism if too much assertion was placed on women in the active position of looking, and men taking a passive role.

“In 1978 Margaret Walters argued that women were still estranged from their own visual pleasure: ‘But even today, a woman is expected to take a narcissistic pleasure in fullfilling male fantasies rather than in exploring and acting out her own. There is still a rigid distinction between the sex that looks and the sex that is looked at. The dichotomy is bound to breed perversion in both sexes, in the man voyeurism, hostility and envy, and in the woman masochism, exhibitionism and hypocrisy. Both men and women are deprived and impoverished.”[14]

This view was suggested only three years after Laura Mulvey first published her concept of the male gaze. However, some feminists argue that although the concept of the male gaze is still dominant in popular culture, such as the rise of ‘lads’ mags’ and the further accessibility of pornography through the internet, the women who choose to exhibit themselves to men in this manner are choosing to do so of their own free will, which is in itself a feminist expression of sexual liberation.

The concept of the male gaze is clearly still relevant to one’s understanding of our cultural production, yet it can be used as a tool for the exploration of other gazes and the psychological exploration of the strands of scopophilia, which dictate the way we view others and ourselves. In fact it could be argued that these concepts are all the more relevant as our society progresses in the acceptance of gender equality and the exploration of human sexuality.

(Please note this is the work of Catherine Lucas and may not be reproduced although citations are welcomed)


[1] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[2] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[3] “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”, Ariel Levy, p 10. Pocket Books Current Affairs 2005.

[4] Concepts of scopophilia formed in the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey 1975.

[5] “Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing”, Diana Crane p205. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[6] The video of this advert can be found at http://www.fcuk.com/campaign_06ss_video_film.html

[7] “Notes on ‘The Gaze’”, Daniel Chandler. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[8] http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html

[9] “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century”, Shaun Cole p171. Oxford New York, 2000.

[10] “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel” p177.

[11] “The Ego and the Id,” Sigmund Freud, p24. W. W. Norton, 1960.

[12] “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 29. Thames and Hudson, 2003.

[13] “The Female Gaze,” edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment, p 4. The Real Comet Press, 1989.

[14] “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 226. Thames and Hudson, 2003.

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Teddy Girls & Boys is another Rockabilly-themed post, this time based in London and with an excellent analytical look at some brilliant black and white photographs from the late 1950s. It also has it’s own recommended links to another related article.

Selected quote:

“Teddy girls carried closed umbrellas and flat clutches, wore velvet blazers, knotted scarves, rolled trousers, high-necked blouses, cameo brooches, mannish waistcoats, flat shoes and coolie hats. Their outfits were statements of identity and independence and rebellion against the proper, feminine attire of the 50’s homemaker.” – undisclosed locations, April 19, 2010

Find it here:

http://chereefranco.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/teddy-girls-boys/

It was a pleasure to discover!

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Another reccommendation, for an astute introduction into the translation of Rockabilly American subculture in Asian countries – particularly Japan. Found on ‘Appears’ blog.

Selected quote:

“…if Jennifer Greenburg is anywhere near succinct in her remark that rockabilly is “a subculture of people who mostly turn away from the horrors of contemporary American culture to focus on family, friends, music, and culture,” then perhaps the topic is worth further examination as it applies to a particular non-American culture (even beyond the idea that America’s influence is so expansive as to essentially make it everyone’s culture)” Appears blog, May 5, 2010.

Find the article here:

http://appears.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/subculture-american-alternatives-in-east-asia/

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(October 2007, Catherine Lucas)

‘Uniforms’, as a subdivision of clothing categories, are continuously and obviously present in our daily lives. School uniforms may be our own personal experience of uniforms, followed by those worn by the public services such as the police, defence services of the military, and even up to and including hospital workers, shop assistants, and the ‘business uniform’ of the suit worn to the office. However, uniforms are present in many less defined areas of our clothing decisions. Using theories of semiotics, we can begin to understand how our conscious (or unconscious) decision to wear black clothing, for example, may link one’s appearance to that of the goth, without comprising a set uniform, but by taking clothing as a signifier of non-verbal messages to extend an idea of a ‘uniform’ of a certain ‘social group’ towards others.

To understand this idea of simulated uniformed dressing, one must first address the idea of semiotics, which cultural theorist Umberto Eco defines as “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.”[1] Clothing acts as one of the many social signifiers with which we visually convey information about ourselves to each other. According to the semiologist Roland Barthes, who used theories of semiotics and applied them to fashion, “for any particular object (a dress, a tailored suit, a belt) three different structures exist, one technical, another, iconic, the third, verbal.”[2] In terms of fashion, media and social informers are used to determine the visual language that certain clothing conveys. This links back into the idea of networking social subcultures, as we may give a certain meaning to a specific garment according to the social subculture we come to identity it with.

The same idea can be applied to uniforms, in that a school uniform, for example, is specifically formulated to convey any number of meanings. A school uniform does not, merely tell outsiders which school the wearer attends, but is also designed to give an impression of the school’s educational status as an institution, and also to give an impression of the social ‘sector’ it takes its target students from. For example, a school uniform worn with a blazer and tie may be intended to portray a sense of middle class elevation, and also hold the school up as one which encourages smart dressing and through this angle of presentable appearance, one which inspires good grades and polite social conduct. The origins of the school uniform began in Great Britain, with many older schools still embedded in military roots[3], particularly boys’ schools such as Eton College[4] and Gordon School, and remains a tradition for many schools sharing this background despite becoming co-educational and dropping their fees after ‘modernisation’, such as Sir Roger Manwood’s School. The traditions of many such schools continue to incorporate a cadet force and draw their uniforms from this influence, although for most schools full military regalia are only worn for parades or on ‘founding’ day.  

Our social obsession with identity, our desire to fit with the crowd yet simultaneously assert ourselves simultaneously as individuals, is at the heart of the idea of fashion, as the social signification of the clothes we wear is used to assert different ideologies every day. With some very standardised uniforms such as school uniforms, individuals may often feel that their ability to assert themselves in an individual manner is being quashed, however where we assert ourselves to less regulated uniforms of our preferred social groups, we may feel that we are allowed to express ourselves more freely. According to the theories of Joanne Entwistle concerning the ‘dressed body’,

            “Not only does dress form the key link between individual identity and the body, providing the means, or ‘raw material’ for performing identity, dress is fundamentally an inter-subjective and social phenomenon, an important link between individual identity and social belonging.”[5]

What we wear is chosen whether consciously or not, to reflect our social or intellectual aspirations. Where such cases may arise that we wish to assert ourselves within a particular or preferred social group which is ‘not our own’, this dressing may cause a subversion of our own identity, taking on the characteristics of a ‘costume’ or social disguise. Uniforms, whether consciously constructed in an obvious manner for school or work, or unconsciously in order to signify a social ideal, allow us to construct our own identities; identities which may easily be altered by simply changing our uniform to that of another social arena.

Calefato extends on this idea; describing an example of a specific scenario where we may see another outside of the ‘uniform’ we have become accustomed to associating them with:

            “We have all chanced to meet… someone we normally see only at work, hand haven’t recognised them immediately, since they were dressed (or undressed) differently …with a soldier…we are used to seeing [them] in uniform, and so we don’t recognise them in ‘plain clothes’.” (2004)[6]

Our daily uniform becomes synonymous with how we are placed in relation to others in such a strong way through the semiotics of clothing, that to be parted from this ‘identity’ becomes a potentially shocking experience. Many of the subcultures we are identified with can trace their fashion statement roots back to an injection of military uniform styling.

In addition to forming the basis for what we can now recognise as the source of the school uniform and workers’ uniformity of dress, leading to the integration of more recognisable ‘uniforms’, military uniforms remain the most obvious examples of strict uniforms in our society. Although the dress codes of our many subcultures adopt variations on a uniformed identity, elements of military dress are seen throughout many of these arenas and across the fashion spectrum, providing the inspiration in cut, design, silhouette and even self-comportment. This essay will explore elements of military dress and how they have influenced fashion in recent history.

In the 1980s, female office attire centred around the ‘power suit’, and the concept of powerful dressing in the workplace. This apparent ‘pro-masculine’ aspect of female fashions took its inspiration from the power of elevated individuals in the military, seeking to inject women in the workplace with a similar sense of power. Boxy shoulder pads, for instance, emulated a masculine physique and encouraged a ‘powerful’ stature. Similar to the origins of the male office suit, the female ‘power suit’ was derived from these military roots, and echoed the political climate for the 1980s, in the UK in particular, under the leadership of Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was also apparent in popular television soaps of the time such as Dallas, or Dynasty .[7] Although these styles do not appear to look like military uniform copies, the design concepts they drew on heavily borrowed from this area of clothes design. The effect this had on fashion was to give women a newfound sense of power within the workplace and also in their own bodies as powerful symbols of economic and sexual iconography. This reference to the military continued into the early 90s even as the shoulder pads gave way to aviator jackets, which were derived from the uniform of air force pilots.[8] In a hint towards the Navy, blue jeans with crisp white shirts and blue blazers also made an appearance around 1993. A more recent return to the nautical trend was seen in summer 2005 on the British catwalks,[9] featuring a variation of takes on the integration of Naval elements into fashion design, from an almost fetishised femininity at Alexander McQueen, to more sombre attempts from Stella McCartney. 

Elements of fetish dressing in fashion are often associated with the influence of military uniforms, as are the origins of some gay subcultures such as ‘leather men’ in the 1950s. Films such as “The Wild One” (1953) starring Marlon Brando popularised leather jackets, which were “first used by German military personnel in the First World War (Farren 1985) and later by military personnel on both sides in World War II,” and had become adopted by motorcycle gangs and then into areas of gay fashion as a symbol of “a man in combat with all positive social forces”.[10] Leather jackets and in particular ‘aviator’ styles, continue to move in and out of fashion trends, as with other military influences. In a less obviously machismo manner, Dolce and Gabbana periodically incorporate military and nautical themes into their men’s wear collection through braid detailing and added components such as epaulettes to suggest a hint of uniform styling.

As a consequence of these earlier leather subculture adoptions, military influences began to filter down to subversive up and coming designers such as Vivienne Westwood, who designed her infamous ‘seditionaires bondage suit’ in 1976 “inspired by American military fatigue trousers and the motorcyclists Belstaff jacket. It was first worn by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in Paris, and caused uproar. The trousers have a zippered seam under the crotch and a detachable black towelling bum flap, like a loincloth, and ‘hobble’ straps.”[11]. It was the clever adaptation of ideas alongside seductive but not overtly reputation-destroying subversive designs such as these that helped propel Westwood into success, and earn her a place in mainstream fashion. The essence of decadent military is a theme Westwood returns to consistently across her collections, such as the collection of parade jackets produced for her Spring/Summer collection of 2005.[12]  

In contrast to the popularity of military uniforms as the basis of sexual statements, they are also used on a political angle to promote peace, with a recent example coming from “Collection Bebe” in March 2007.

“The collection, designed by the astute couture hand of David Cardona, began with inspiration from the state of the world and how everyone is longing for peace… This season, Cardona explored the contrasts of war and peace. He juxtaposed military styles with edgy futuristic looks and used the structure of masculine tailoring to contrast the curves of the feminine form. It was toy soldier meets sexy little doll. Cardona said the collection wasn’t originally meant to be a political statement, but he and British stylist, Paula Bradley, ran with the theme… There were sleek, sharply tailored military officer coats… leather jackets … styled with white officer’s belts and gloves. “If clothing could only inspire peace that would be something amazing,” said Cardona. (March 18 2007, AM)”[13]

Contemporary fashion statements reflect the political state of the world. At the time of publishing, the above quote was written as British and American troops waged war in Iraq, and fashion allows individuals to express their own opinions of these political and social events. The idea of “everyone longing for peace”[14] is manipulated within Cardona’s collection not only as a fashion statement but as a social commentary, purposefully drawing on military influences to illustrate critical opinion on the world as seen by anti-war exponents.

The topic of war is one which will always be associated in some way with military-inspired fashions, and collections may not be as well received at that of Cardona. The below story reported in July 2001 stands testament to the use of militant imagery gone wrong and taken as an ill-favoured political statement by critics and religious groups.

Barbaro Treatment

THE Jewish community in Britain has rallied in condemnation of an Italian designer who made use of a swastika motif in a fashion show in Rome last week. Francesco Barbaro, a 26-year-old from southern Italy, argued that he was attempting to ridicule the slavish nature of fashion by dressing his models in military-style clothes daubed with the controversial Nazi symbol. “I wanted to attack the pretentious side of the fashion world and the fashion victim who is even willing to wear a tragic symbol like the swastika just to keep up with the latest fashions from the designer of the moment,” he told Reuters. But the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which understands that some designers will engage in shock tactics to gain media attention, has slammed his actions claiming that the swastika would always be linked to the Holocaust. “The use of the swastika is not only tasteless and offensive but it may also encourage racist and anti-Semitic behaviour by neo-Nazi groups,” Public Affairs Director Fiona Macaulay said. “The electoral rise of the far right in Britain reflects a Europe-wide increase which all ethnic and minority groups are monitoring with some concern.”[15] 

 
 

The shock tactics employed by Barbaro had a damaging effect on his status as a designer but also influenced contemporary fashion for the following season against utilising potentially subversive uniformed references, keeping areas of the armed forces which are generally characterised in fashion as less disruptive, such as nautical themes which become less threatening through a dominant colour palette of white, red and navy blue, which has a more psychologically calming influence due to our concepts of colour signifiers through which we associate colours such as white with peace and tranquillity.

Nautical themes and feminised Naval uniforms crop up periodically as a trend, generally for Spring/Summer collections, as a more accessible take on uniform trends. The temptation to plunge too far into the kitsch is one which is often fallen into, but at its core, the habitual clean lines and uncomplicated colours long associated with this look continue to ensure its popularity not only on the catwalk but also on the high street. However, there have always been some designers such as Gaultier who play with the ‘hello, sailor’ camp imagery derived from some Naval references, though these are generally met in better humour than Barbaro’s swastika offering.   

If the “imposition of uniforms and dress codes” is intended to “exercise control over the workers within,”[16] (Entwistle) then it is fashion’s purpose to release the worker, and break the mould of obedience. Even if there is a truth in the statement that we dress in a way that “may assuage… fear by stabilizing our individual identity,”[17] (Wilson, 1985) there are no rules to suggest that the fashion industry cannot shake up these identities we have cocooned ourselves in, even if that means a drastic reshaping of our common uniforms. The integration of aspects of military uniforms into our habitual styling allows for a more expressive comment on clothing and its sigification, whilst simultaneously offering the wearer a crutch of uniformity to cling on to.

Although some interpretations incorporating militant references have failed to meet the approval of critics and industry press, fashion’s love affair with the uniform of the armed forces continues to reinvent itself periodically throughout fashion history and continues to enjoy a strong status in recent years. The coded meanings embedded within some interpretations may remain open to further speculation and argued interpretations as their potency maintains its level of insight dependant on the political and social feelings current of the period. However, it is clear that as we look back on the progress of these trends throughout the 20th century and into the present day, the subcultures and social commentaries built around these trends invariably hold particular or significant insights into the continuously changing climate of fashion, pop culture, sexual and political awareness, and the semiotics of clothing as social and cultural signifiers.


[1] Umberto Eco, “A Theory of Semiotics.” Macmillan, London 1976.

[2] Roland Barthes, “Elements of Semiology.” trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. Jonathan Cape: London 1967.

[3] http://www.archivist.f2s.com/bsu/Bsu.html

[4] http://www.etoncollege.com/default.asp

[5] Joanne Entwistle, essay: ‘The Dressed Body’. From the book: “Body Dressing.” Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Berg, UK / US. 2001. (Sub-section: ‘Dress and Embodied Subjectivity.’)

[6] Patrizia Calefato: ‘The Clothed Body’. Berg, US / UK. 2004. p.23.

[7] http://www.fashion-era.com/power_dressing.htm

[8] http://www.fashionera.com/the_1990s.htm

[9] see catwalk stills at http://www.vogue.co.uk/Trends/Spring_Summer_2005/Nautical/slideshow.asp?Page=0

[10] Diana Crane, “Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing.” University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 182.

[11] http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1231_vivienne_westwood/changing_styles_2.html

[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk

[13] http://www.vogue.co.uk/vogue_daily/story/story.asp?stid=43798 Article by N. Jayne Seward.

[14] Ibid.

[15] 27th July 2001. Journalist unknown. http://www.vogue.co.uk/vogue_daily/story/story.asp?stid=853

[16] Joanne Entwistle, “The Dressed Body”.

[17] Ibid.

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