Fashion is obsessed with gender

Cultural studies scholar and fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams 1985,
pp. 117

One long-standing myth about feminism is that it is anti-fashion. In other words, feminists have long been accused of being uninterested in clothing, cosmetics, and beauty. There’s some truth to this, of course. Many feminists have pushed back against the ways that conventional femininity has been consistently linked with the frivolity of dress and the self-absorption of cosmetics. For some feminist thinkers, fashion is a diversion from serious work. In a 1984 book called Femininity, feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller wrote that “to care about feminine fashion, and do it well, is to be obsessively involved in inconsequential details on a serious basis.” Brownmiller is critical of the ways that socially acceptable – or hegemonic – femininity requires women to spend time, money, and energy on the fine details of their appearance.

In this lesson, we will learn about some of the ways that women’s bodies have been subject to the disciplinary force of fashion, and we will explore the ways in which fashion can be a site of social and political transformation. Below, you’ll find a brief lecture on the history of women’s activism around the gendered meaning of fashion, followed by a tour of The Impossible Ideal, an exhibition of American women’s clothing at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont.

Listening Time: 6:31 Minutes
The Impossible Ideal: Victorian Fashion and Femininity
View Time: 6:23 Minutes
Video source

BIG IDEA: Gender normativity

Before we define gender normativity and learn how it applies to the field of fashion, let’s first define social norms. Social norms, as defined by sociologists, are rules and regulations that keep societies in tact. They are distinct from laws because they are invisible or unwritten; but that does not mean that they are less effective than rules that are spelled out in laws or the rules of social institutions like an elementary school or workplace.

One example to which sociologists often turn to explain social norms is elevator behavior. There are no rules or laws for how to behave on an elevator. Aside from weight limits, there are no posted directions for how to use an elevator. And yet, anyone who has been on an elevator knows the drill: enter in an orderly fashion, one by one, take up a position facing the door, avoid anything more than idle conversation. But what happens if the social norms guiding elevator use are breached or broken? Nothing happens, really—the elevator still functions, we all arrive at our chosen floors. Consider how you would feel if an elevator-mate stood with their back to the door, or if someone on the elevator sang rather than stood quietly?

Normalization is the social process through which norms are enforced. In the elevator example above, normalization might take the form of asking the norm violator to be quiet, or casually suggesting that they face the door. A more frequent response to the presence of a norm violator is informal social punishment—shunning, non-recognition, avoidance. Instead of questioning the norm, we reject the norm violator. In the clip featured in the box below, you’ll see the force of normalization on a series of elevator riders—three men who take efforts to avoid social punishment and elect to follow norms rather than seem out of place.

For an excellent (and pretty hilarious) example of the force of norms and normalization, take a look at this Candid Camera clip. Here, instead of seeing the process by which a norm violator is punished, we see the ease with which a perceived norm is accepted by an unsuspecting subject of an experiment.

So how do gender norms and gender normalization function? Sociologist Clare Sears defines gender norms this way: “multiple taken-for-granted rules and assumptions that dictate how men and women are supposed to be in a given society, including how they should look, act, feel, and think” (Arresting Dress, p. 5). Unlike the relatively innocent elevator example above, gender norms are social rules that do more than prescribe behaviour—they tell people who they are supposed to be, and they function in ways that maintain gendered systems of power.

Gender normalization is the process by which each individual subject is rewarded or punished for their ability or inability to live up to an idealized norm of femininity or masculinity. Rewards might involve compliments, encouragement, support, friendship, all of which lead to a sense of social belongingness. Punishments might involve insults, discouragement, constant questioning, social ostracism, and even violence, all of which lead to a sense of social non-belongingness.

Although feminist activists and writers have often been critical of the way that fashion contributes to the construction of femininity, they also recognize that there are consequences to refusing to participate in feminine fashion. Brownmiller explains: “To not be involved [in feminine fashion] is to risk looking eccentric or peculiar, or sloppy and uncared for, or mannish and man-hating, or all of the above.” (Brownmiller, 1984, p. 56). A failure to participate in gender-appropriate fashion can have consequences far more severe than “looking peculiar.” For gender nonconforming folks, fashion can be a mode of self-expression that invokes confusion, derision, or violence.

So there are important reasons for feminist activists and scholars to be suspicious of fashion—and yet, fashion is a representational realm that holds promising opportunities for transforming how we think about bodies, genders, and identities. Whether we diligently copy the fashion guidelines spelled out in our magazines or blogs of choice, or if we create our own combinations of clothing, we are communicating something about ourselves to the world.