May 10, 2013

The Politics Of Dressing Up: Masculinity vs. Femininity

For most of fashion’s history, clothing has been seen as...

For most of fashion’s history, clothing has been seen as an apolitical phenomenon, with little ties to the world of politics and the resulting cultural and social movements. However, due to the rise of capitalism and modern society in the 20th century, clothes and fashion became more than just a statement of social status.

The problem with fashion was that it was rapidly attributed to women, and women who were seen as superficial, and spending their own menfolk’s income. Because of this, they were soon mocked and portrayed as passive. The men who adopted a certain concern for fashion were immediately ridiculed as well, as they were associated with the standard that was imposed for women at the time. A perfect example are the 19th century dandies, who were seen as excessive and effeminate and were damned by society to the fire of damnation. Of course, this used to mask a reality of wealth, in which these men and women did not need to work, so being part of a working society did not mean anything to them.

So far, we notice that the roles of genders were strictly assigned in past societies and anything that shifted from that norm used to create a phobia, an unmotivated fear, which can be explained basically as the fear of the unknown.

Photo by, from the public domain.

Photo by, from the public domain.

It was the 20th century when men started to walk the runway of life, but the only men that were accepted in their being dressed-up were movie stars or singers, otherwise they were labeled as narcissistic. In the first half of the 20th century, well-looking men were seen as homosexuals, which was a thing that was mostly frowned upon, despite the several exceptions that existed in the Western world. Today, sadly, such views are still seen, especially in the Eastern part of the world, such as Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The shift that broke the line and customs of society were the 1960s, which are often misinterpreted. This decade is more a continuity of the 1950s stoicism, as postwar consumerism continued without being interrupted, but there was a change as well. The stoicism of the 1950 said that “men look and act like men and women look and act like women” and during the 1960s, with the rise of the hippie culture, some men started to resemble women and some women started to resemble men. So what did change in society when men gave up on their shoulder-widening suits and slicked-back hair and started wearing long hair and women gave up on their full skirts and high heels?

We must not forget that this was not just the time of the hippies. During this decade, people like Elvis Presley were also famous and had massive audiences, redefining the concept of “sexy” and placing the male gender as the looked-at gender.

The 1960s meant not only a shift in fashion, but also a shift in movement and the two went very well hand in hand. The 1960s were the home of some minority and not so minority movements: feminism, peace campaigners, students and youth protests, gay groups, civil rights and of course, a lot of movements regarding race.

Out of these, the hippie culture was by far the most influential subculture of the time. Self-expression, spirituality and love were hippie values that allowed to incorporate outcast movements such as pacifism, youthism, homosexuality and some forms of androgynous femininity.

As a consequence, the impact of hippie culture was enormous: jeans, velvets, colorful clothes and long hair rapidly became the uniform of the entire Western population under 40. But they were not the only ones existing in the world. The, let’s call it opposition, was formed by over-forties, conservative stoics and corporatists. Therefore, the significance of hippie culture was threefold: it fueled a revolution in casual clothing, and undermined formal dress, pushing it to the middle-class middle-aged conservatives, secondly, it created an unprecedented interest in dress and appearance and third, it involuntary led to the creation of a politically correct dress code centered on anti-middle-class and anti-formal rhetoric.

Briefly, fashion became to mean: here, now and me.

From all this we can draw the conclusion that fashion and apparel is not just the way you dress expressing yourself, but the way you dress also lets people know what your ideals are and how you want the people you encount to treat you. It not only states your ideals, but also your political, cultural and social views and attitudes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, fashion and the old standards were trying to reproduce a version of femininity that was constricting and no longer existent. One way feminists chose to get out of the gender identity was to break out of the clothes that were constructing their identities. One of the great thing second-wave feminists did was to question femininity. They basically slammed the concept of the stay-at-home-passive-duty-to-the-male-species-woman and reinforced a new type of woman, a woman that was equal to men. The attitude break was of course joined by a style break: if women didn’t want to look as slavish people, there were not supposed to look like them either. Second-wave feminists considered that it was men who were responsible for producing the context and the goods (clothes, make-up etc) that they were supposed to live with and so they decided to change that.

It was then when women started to wear more pants, less make-up and cropped hair. This led to a shift in men’s attitudes as well. Men were no longer “banned from the kitchen” and the concept of the stay-at-home-dad arouse, even though this was a lot later.

During the 1980, if women wanted to work in male-dominant fields, they needed to look the part. This was a time when women were supposed to wear shoulder pads to be taken seriously at the office or other men-dominated workplaces. In a quite conservative society, women were asked to look like and act like men. Because femininity went through so much change, and many subcultures such as the “butch woman culture” appeared, women often were forced to ponder on who they were in order to decide what to wear.

What concerned men however, what the opposite: there was just one way of being a man in the late societies of the 20th century. There was almost no variety and so men needed to work harder to find some sort of originality in a sea of convention.

All these movements actually changed a lot, but only in terms of morality and world-views. In terms of physical presentation, not much has changed: there are still the same rules of the way someone is supposed to look: women ought to be thin, whereas men need to be muscular.

Women don’t need to wear shoulder pads anymore at work, and men don’t need to wear bland grey suits anymore to be taken seriously. Today, we see an increasingly variety of fashions and clothes, but an equally decrease in physical control.

It is highly interesting how there are no actual regulations in constitutions or codes that tell us what to wear and when to wear what clothes, but we all seem to know and moreover, strictly take care of these rules.

Fashion is one of the most contradictory fields today, with plenty of rules and exceptions and contradictions. However, there is a need now more than other times to learn to define ourselves and our errors and fix them, and to use style as a tool to creating a new culture of a better world.

Fraquoh and Franchomme

P.S. What do you think of the evolution of masculinity and femininity? Share your thoughts!

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tagged corporate fashion, 1960s, clothes, elvis presley, fashion, femininity...