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Posts Tagged ‘media’

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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(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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