As some of you may know, I’m pretty interested in fashion. I spend a fair amount of time and energy (and probably more money than I ought) on my wardrobe and appearance. I pay a fair amount of attention to other people’s style: admiring it, analyzing it, deciding if I can steal it. I watch TV shows about fashion. I read books and blogs about fashion. I buy fashion magazines, and even subscribe to a couple. (It would have been just one, but we got a two- for- one deal when we subscribed to Vogue and got Glamour thrown in for free.) At big public events, Ingrid and I will spend many happy hours checking out/ commenting on other people’s outfits. Fashion has become one of my central hobbies.
And in general, I find fashion to be a fascinating form of expression. A language, even. Not in the literal Chomskyan sense, of course — we’re not born with a fashion module wired into our brains, the way we’re born with language modules — but in a metaphorical sense. In the sense that many extremely useful parallels can be drawn between the two. In the sense that different articles of clothes are assigned meaning more or less arbitrarily, in the way words are assigned meaning — not because those meanings bear some connection to objective reality, but because we all more or less agree on their meaning. (It doesn’t matter why, historically, a suit and tie means “I am willing to treat social conventions with some degree of respect, and expect in return to be treated with respect myself” — that’s what it means now, regardless of its history). In the sense that the meanings of these clothes shift over time, the way the meanings of words shift over time, rendering them even more arbitrary. (The meaning of makeup on women, for instance, has shifted over the decades from “prostitute” to “brazen” to “fashionably cutting-edge” to “entirely conventional.”) In the sense that these meanings change depending on how we combine them — the “grammar,” if you will (jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt). In the sense that these meanings can change depending on context (jeans at a rock concert mean something different than jeans at a funeral). In the sense that different cultures assign vastly different arbitrary meanings to clothing. (A short skirt and stiletto heels mean something different in Manhattan than they do in Cedar Rapids… and something very different again in Dubai.)
In fact, fashion and style are so much like a language, I’m always a bit baffled when people say things like, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the clothes I wear.” It’s a bit like saying, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the words that come out of my mouth.” But that’s a point for another time.
Here’s my point for today. Fashion is a form of expression. A language of sorts. An art form, even.
It’s also one of the very few art forms/ languages/ forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men. [Read more…]