Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Politics of Fashion

One time, many years ago, when Hot Topic was new, I was a letter-shirt gal. I went through a phase. They were new and exciting. Imagine! Wearing your heart on your sleeve-- but better yet-- wearing your snide, arch, detached teenager-dom across your chest!

"Make Him Beg"
"Tact is for People Not Witty Enough to be Sarcastic"
"Live Fast, Die Pretty"
"Don't Make Me Get My Flying Monkeys"

One day, after about a year of loyalty to this trend, I was sitting in a Denny's (yes, the infamous 24-hour home of the Grand-Slam) in Los Angeles on vacation (on Sunset, if you're interested) and the waiter asked me about my shirt. On this particular day it read: "Stop Pretending You Don't Want Me." The server- his name was Sam, by the way- was very attractive. Very, very attractive. According to him, a part-time back-up dancer for some singer we'd never heard of called Shakira. Well, after my girlfriends and I had been chatting him up for awhile and flirting our hardest, he said, "Why that shirt?" I batted my eyelashes- I was used to getting attention of all kinds from this shirt, of course- it was my first letter-shirt, in fact- and gave Sam some kind of flirty retort. He said, "Seriously. You're pretty, you're nice- you don't need shirts like this to get attention. It makes you look like you have no confidence. And it's obvious you do. You just don't need it."

This comment obviously affected me, but other than being something I'll always remember (I have a picture, actually. I wish I could share it but this was back before the prevalence of digital cameras), it caused me to stop wearing those message shirts that very day. I just totally dropped a trend that I had adopted as my personal style for about a year.

Which, at long last, brings me to the topic of this post. While Sam was spot-on about the advice he imparted to me, was it okay for him to offer it so brashly? It helped me, I was glad for it, but was it permissible according to Miss Manners? Probably not.

Was it okay for Sam because he was a guy (a hot guy)? Because he was a stranger and I could have just as easily laughed and dismissed his opinion? How well would it have gone if my server was a woman? Probably not well at all.

On the other hand, as a woman, I feel as though it is okay for me to tell a man that he should wear black socks with black shoes, if his belt should be a different color. Gender plays a large role in fashion etiquette, and maybe this is something that should be looked into more deeply. Am I just assuming that as a woman I'll know better than the man, that he will be grateful for my "natural woman's eye" for "that kind of thing"? Maybe my father taught me this by asking me if his tie matched his shirt before he went to work in the mornings, when my mom was already gone for the day, because I was a girl, even though I was 7.

I'm sure fashion culture stereotyping or sociology or feminism are issues too over my head to be appropriately thorough or articulate about, but they factor into my thoughts. Would it change the story if I told you that Sam was bisexual, even though that has nothing to do with why I took his fashion advice?

Disregarding, for now, the double standards of the sexes- what role does constructive criticism play in the public fashion sphere? It's okay to compliment someone's outfit, color choice, overall style. It seems like it would be okay to, say, tell someone that their panties or bra were showing through their clothes. But what about helpfully telling a woman on the street not to wear a tunic-style top with an A-line skirt? Or that a midthigh-length coat paired with boots over pants made another girl's proportions choppy and she appeared much shorter and therefore stockier than she actually was? If I were to say these things, meaning well, even paired with a compliment, I don't think it would go over well. I think I would be called a bitch.

I definitely think about these things every day, especially on public transportation. Like the profile says, my friends, I am a helplessly judgmental person. I evaluate. I consider. I form opinions. But should I get to inform? I mean, it's totally fine with me if you want to ignore me. Let you take three inches off your own height over a silly little pant-tucking habit that can be easily resolved! It's not like it's my business, or think my personal opinion should be valued above yours. But there are certain fashion rules that are solid, right? Busty-girls-shouldn't-wear-tube-tops imperatives! Stacy and Clinton get to do it on What Not To Wear. The gals over at Go Fug Yourself have many, many of us fans returning for their witty, enjoyable critiques of public icons. But of course, maybe it's like fashion libel, and if you're a public figure you just have to deal with it, but if you're a private citizen you have a right to call your fashion attorney. Speaking of which- we all joke about them, but would it be so bad to have real-life fashion police?

Maybe that's a bit overboard. (Maybe.) Reality shows tend to counter being mean with offering a lot of money to help repair the ego while correcting the problem. More like... fashion rehab than fashion prison. And I guess I can't really expect to adopt a system by which I would lean across the subway, pass a man a fiver, and tell him that unless he slid down a pole in order to leave the house this morning maybe he should reconsider those offensively red suspenders. I can see how verbalizing my inner fashion monologue could come off as insulting, I do. But if we take, say, me, with all of my glorious tactlessness, out of the picture, where is the generic fine line for individuals to helpfully make gentle comments about each other's clothes?

I got my mother the British What Not to Wear style guide this past Christmas, when I also gave my little sister Kevin Aucoin's Making Faces. The first to keep my mother's wardrobe perfectly flattering and stylish (since I can't afford to get her the lovely clothes myself), the latter to give my funky, spritely little sister some help in forming a makeup style that reflected her personality (she's just at the age where she's getting more exploratory about that kind of thing). My sister was intrigued; my mother was offended. Not fair! Well, after actually looking through the book and finding it helpful and interesting, my mother recanted her initial indignance, but still.

I'd like a world with less defensiveness and more tolerance for good intentions. Hell, I'd like a world where I get to say whatever I think without any repercussions, period. But I guess we're going to stay halted at the boundaries of "love that vest" "pssst, your slip is showing" until further notice. Hey, sometimes, if you're wily, you can get in "that's a great blouse but I think if you wore a cooler shade with the neckline closer to your face, it would really bring out your eyes" -- or, if you're me, "wow, I love those sleeves, were you also a big fan of Tales from Avonlea?"

Well, maybe I'm only good as an argument for why the future Fashion Police should have officials elect. However, because the rules of public behavior concerning fashion have yet to be written (as far as I know), please feel free to start a dialogue and share your thoughts with me about how we should think about this social construct.


Anne said...

I don't mind tips like that from strangers when we have struck up a conversation, but I wouldn't really appreciate someone randomly coming up to me and giving me any fashion advice other than the basics - t.p. on the shoe, fly down, skirt tucked into underwear, etc. Not that that has ever happened, of course, but if it did I'd want a heads-up.
I don't mind giving/recieving tips form my guy because I like to think that we both want eachother to look good (also he is color blind so can take some advice gracefully). However I tend not to buy him clothes or try and change him, just suggest what I think he looks good in. He does the same, and has actually deemed one of my favorite pairs of shoes "nun shoes" which I didn't hugely appreciate, but it made me come to terms with the fact that they are getting pretty beat up and weren't exactly stylish to begin with (oh my Clarks I love you so).
So I have to say, it's still advice, you can take it or leave it. From some people you should take it with a grain of salt (ahem, Dad), and some people you just must agree to differ with (the nun shoes aren't going anywhere except maybe a little farther to the back of the closet).

The Style Bard said...

Haha, true. I'm sensitive to criticism but I usually toughen up and reject it freely if I disagree, so I don't mind hearing it.

My roommate always says, "Why do you keep asking me how things look? You never listen to me anyway!" But secretly I do take her opinion into consideration, at least. And that way I'm prepared to accept multiple perceptions that others might have of my look.
But for now, as sassy as I am, I do usually keep my comments in my own head.

Except on my dinner cruise last week, when my acquiantance got hit in the face with a balloon and exclaimed, "Ow! I think I just lost colors!" and I quipped, "Are you sure? Are you sure you hadn't already lost them when you put on that shirt?" And I think it was okay... haha... (I think.) For a guy, he actually pulled off that shade of fuchsia very well, but I felt it my job to needle him a bit!

Cara said...

Oh, you do not, you liar. If you took my comments into account you'd never even mention 'skirt over pants' in the same sentence around me again. Which you did, last week. I remember.
Of course, as a result, I've forgotten how to read.
I have, many times, been tempted to say things about outfits I see. What usually stops me is the fact that the people go to my school and therefore know how hideous the outfits are and wear them so they can have the MOST hideous outfit.
I too, am much more likely to say something to a guy about what he's wearing than a girl. Probably because in my experience, if a guy is wearing something less-than-flattering it's because he genuinely doesn't care, whereas a girl usually puts together her outfit deliberately, a la Miss Slouch Boots and Poufy Belted Dresses.

The Style Bard said...

Kate Moss?!?!

Oh wait... you mean "The EvilM." whose name shall not be mentioned here....

Actually aren't the most important people to pick on the ones who try and fail..? Don't they need the help the most? The others just know not what they do!

Cara said...

Sure. But they might cut you.