Measuring Up

“Judgments,” Image courtesy of Rosea Lake, http://www.huffingtonpost.com, 2013.

This photo, taken by Capilano University student Rosea Lake, is a visual representation of the many judgments passed on women based solely on their appearance. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Lake spoke about the subconscious objectification of women and her own tendency to “look down on and judge any woman who didn’t express her sexuality in a way that [she] found appropriate,” which were her inspirations behind the piece.

Even simple fashion statements, such as the length of a woman’s skirt, can lead to broad and negative assumptions about one’s personality and sexuality – and a woman’s “freedom” to dress as she wishes can be trumped by her fear of being labelled like the legs in this photo.

The photo, which was posted to Lake’s tumblr on January 5th, 2013, has received close to 800,000 notes.

Selling “youth, sex, and casual superiority”

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.

Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch

“Abercrombie & Fitch chief’s ‘cool kids’ comments draw outrage,” Los Angeles Times, latimes.com, 2013.

In a 2006 interview with Salon.com, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries revealed the company’s formula for success: targeting a small market of people who fit into even smaller sizes. Jeffries also made it clear that consumers who buy A&F clothes are not just buying clothes – they are also buying into and representing an entire lifestyle ideal.

When the interview resurfaced seven years later, Jeffries came under heavy fire for his implications that consumers who are not thin enough to fit into A&F clothes are also not cool enough, not pretty enough, not young enough, and not ideal enough to wear the brand. Wearing the label of the “casually flawless” “all-American youth” is a privilege reserved only for those smaller than a size 10. In the case of A&F, a consumer’s freedom to wear what they want is thwarted by the company’s “exclusionary” vision.

The Chanel Suit

Image courtesy of Thames & Hudson, http://www.marshallmatlock.com, 1958.

Coco Chanel is hailed as a fashion revolutionary for her many innovations to women’s fashion. Her designs were streamlined, slightly masculine, and absent of lace, frills, and other overtly feminine details relating to the “corseted silhouette” that was common of the early 20th century. One such example is the famous “Chanel suit,” worn by Marie-Helene Arnaud in the above photograph by Sante Forlano for the 1958 issue of Vogue France. 

The Chanel suit has been described as “a symbol of empowerment for the modern woman,” partly because it draws inspiration from men’s suits. However, this suggests that women can achieve liberation from gender inequality only by imitating their male counterparts, thus perpetuating the idea of male superiority.

What Not to Wear

“Personality in Your Style | What Not to Wear,” Video courtesy of TLC, Youtube.com, 2013.

What Not to Wear is a reality TV series in which women are nominated to receive a $5,000 wardrobe makeover. The show operates on the idea that clothes are a visible reflection of one’s personality, and that it is important to send the “right” message to other people through one’s style.

In the above video, hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly state that people should not hide behind their clothing or use “costumes” to “[mask] deeper insecurities.” Though they emphasize that a woman is more than what she wears (“people should notice you – not just your outfit”), they also state that dressing in an “approachable” manner can “help you in your career,” among other things.

While people are free to choose what they wear, Stacy and Clinton’s often caustic commentary on the nominees’ wardrobes confirms that people are not in control of the outside judgments attached to their fashion choices. At the end of the show, most nominees yield under pressure and conform to a more conventional style, in lieu of being deemed “crazy,” “frumpy,” or “unkept.”

Feminizing Menswear?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Raf Simons Spring 2014 Menswear,” Images courtesy of Yannis Vlamos, Style.com, 2013.

Raf Simons, currently the creative director for Christian Dior, released a menswear collection for his self-titled line featuring unique silhouettes: long tunics paired with short shorts, loose and sagging shorts that seemed to borrow its shape from the skirt.

Reactions towards the gender-bending collection were mixed. A New York Times blogger revered the “sporty shirt dress” and “girlish polo knits” as “airy, unconstrained, versatile clothes” for teen boys and young men in their 20’s. On the other hand, some Youtube users labelled the collection as “hardly wearable to the average person” and “too close to being feminine-looking” in comments on a short video of the show posted by Style.com.

Despite others’ continuous references to the collection’s “femininity,” Raf Simons himself described his inspiration as based on infant clothes – “the ultimate opposite” of the current “artificiality” of the world. In his attempts to recreate the gender-neutral innocence of infancy in adult men, Simons seems to suggest that masculinity and femininity are standards learned later in life, as members of society.

Bonny and Read

“Ann Bonny and Mary Read convicted of piracy,” Image courtesy of Bridgeman Berlin, myartprints.com, c. 18th century.

Bonny and Read were two of the most famous and few female pirates, sailing the high seas during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century. In Villains of All NationsMarcus Rediker described the cross-dressing efforts of Bonny and Read, as well as other women, as attempts “to disguise themselves and enter worlds dominated by men.” According to court testimonies, the two female pirates “wore male attire during a chase or engagement, when a show of ‘manpower’ might help to intimidate their prey and force a quick surrender,” but otherwise wore female clothes in their daily routine.

Bonny and Read, despite their notoriety and capability as pirates, were still victims of gender inequality and discrimination. Regardless of their weaponry and their skill with them, the women were considered most fearsome and dangerous when dressed in men’s clothing and thus distanced from their true gender. Mary Read even went so far as to categorize herself as a “[man] of courage” to assert her capability as a seafarer.

Back to School Uniforms

“Students Wear School-Sanctioned Dress,” Images courtesy of National Center for Education Statistics, usatoday.com, 2013.

Despite inconclusive research about school-sanctioned clothing, an increasing number of public schools are instating strict dress codes and/or uniforms for their students in hopes of fostering “better grades, better behavior, increased self-esteem and school pride.” Though popular with educators and parents as a straightforward and cost-effective way of enforcing discipline, there has been little to no evidence that dress codes and uniforms are actually benefiting students in the aforementioned ways.

The notion that school-sanctioned dress is conducive to a better learning environment also implies that the students’ loss of individuality and freedom of expression is beneficial – or, at least, less important than what they can potentially (or supposedly) gain. Regardless of the student’s own belief in the “better learning environment” or not, dress codes and uniforms force them to conform to the standards dictated by the education system, or face disciplinary action.

The counterculture of pink

“When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Image courtesy of University of Maryland Costume and Textile Collection, Smithsonian.com, 2011.

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys – in modern times, this color distinction is an instantly recognizable indication of a baby’s gender. It is, however, a fairly recent norm. Until the 1940s, when large-scale manufacturers of ready-to-wear infant clothing established the pink and blue standard we know today, the colors, if used at all, were commonly paired with compatible hair and eye colors. When they were associated with gender, pink, considered to be a watered down version of the imposing red, was a “more decided and stronger color” and therefore appropriate for boys.

In the 21st century, pink is a decidedly feminine color. Thus, when wearing the color, males must justify their fashion choice: The above shirt makes a tongue-in-cheek statement about the wearer’s rebellious and progressive nature, but even a simple, plain pink shirt can be used as an expression of a man’s unquestionable masculinity – he can still identify and be identified as a man, regardless of the colors he wears.

Raising a “gender-free” child

“Boy or girl? It’s a secret — and an international controversy,” Video courtesy of HLN, CNN.com, 2011

Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have attracted attention for their decision to raise their child, Storm, without sex or gender. Giving Storm “the freedom to choose who he or she is wants to be” has incited fierce debate. The couple has been praised for their brazen defiance of a “culture that’s obsessed with gender” and labels – as well as criticized for allegedly making gender “a bigger deal than it necessarily needs to be” and implying that “gender is wrong” and therefore must be hidden. Critics also point out that the child will bear the brunt of any negative repercussions, such as bullying, name-calling, or social exclusion.

At the time of media exposure, Storm was four months old – too young to actually have a say in how he/she is being raised. The preference of incorporating or excluding gender-specific material in child rearing is therefore not that of Storm’s but of his/her parents. In addition, if or when Storm is able to act on his/her own accord, dressing in traditional gendered clothing could be seen as an act of yielding to oppressive societal standards, and not doing so could lead to ostracism.