Monday, 23 March 2009

First spare thoughts on thoughtful dressers

Late and I have been working and am tired, so this is just a preliminary sketch. Linda does superbly well in laying out the following areas:

1. Why clothes are important
2. Why clothes are an essential part of personhood
3. Why clothes are particularly intense part of personhood for women
4. Why fashion is important in the lives of women
5. Why clothes are an essential part of the personhood particularly of older women

Points 1 and 2 are easily enough argued, and all I would add regarding 2 is that clothes are one important element among other essential aspects of personhood, such as health, intelligence, opportunity and so forth. In looking at a clothed person one notices posture, movement, expression all which witness to health, intelligence etc. Nevertheless, point granted.

Point 3 is strongly asserted throughout and amply demonstrated although not fully explained.

Point 4 is also well argued though again I think there is more to be explained, or at least I am curious for more. Maybe Linda will write more in due course.

Point 5 is easier again, because here we are invited to regard various rearguard actions against aging, and dressing well is certainly one of those actions. I don't think I need any more explanation for point 5.

Points 3 and 4 are clearly related but are not exactly the same.


I am interested in points 3 and 4 because I am curious and because I like women. One is always curious about what one likes. My thoughts, in so far as they are thoughts, run a little like this.

Whatever people say about biological determinism it is certainly the case that carrying children, having them and caring for them for parts of their lives at least, takes considerable energy and time. In the days before easily available contraception there were far more pregnancies, miscarriages, births and infant deaths, so the whole motherhood cycle was one of the most dramatically determining factors in a woman's life. I say this without any feeling that undergoing motherhood is any form of obligation, or that once entered on, the weight of the process should be entirely born by women. By all means let us have creches, housefathers etc etc. Nevertheless the business of bearing children is not nothing.

So consideration of the possibility of motherhood is probably natural, even if it is dismissed.

Becoming a mother involves, generally, attracting a partner who may be chosen, or be offered for various reasons. This needs to happen during the period of fertility.

The period of fertility is the period of greatest attractiveness for a variety of reasons (hence maybe the significance of TITS). But human beings are intelligent, complex creatures not composed solely of reproductive urges, or even of the sheer desire to give vent to their sexual energies. For just how complex they are, read enough of, well, almost anything that seems interesting to you.

Linda stresses, and has stressed before, that women don't dress to attract men. I agree. That would be too simple a thing for intelligent complex beings to do. Women's dress will, in practice, chiefly be judged by other women (as will women's behaviour). But consciousness is subtle, because it has never been the case that, outside religious or possibly puritan ideological restrictions, women have ever dressed with the clear idea of repelling men, or even simply making them indifferent. As more than one feminist theorist has written apropos the male gaze: women look at themselves as though they were looked at by someone else, and somewhere behind that someone else, or behind yet another someone else, there is a man. Appraising her. It may well be the case, though I have never read it, that when a man looks in the mirror he is aware of being looked at by another person, and possibly, at the end by an object of his desire, or possibly his mother, or his anti-mother. It might be so. I suspect it is so. Nor can we completely separate the consciousness of men and women.

The notion of attractiveness, prettiness, femininity involves - as how can it not? - desire. So whose desire are we talking about?

Enough for now. More when I have more than one-tenth a brain left. What do you call a man with half a brain? A genius. (Feminist joke, vintage 1970-2000)


Unknown said...

Interesting post. This is a subject that's interested me for a long time. I think sometimes the importance of clothes for men (or for some men) is underestimated. Think of someone like Jimi Hendrix and you can see what I mean. And I wonder sometimes about the "tomboy" phenomenon, where you see women who dress, not like men, but indifferently.

In Berlin, during the winter, you see many women ages 17-26 wear basically the same outfit: very tight jeans, knee-high leather boots, and a poofy white jacket, with dyed blonde hair. I don't know if this is to attract men when you can't show much skin, or what the idea is behind dressing like everyone else. It's complex but I would guess it has something to do with appealing to other people.

I've heard women say that men notice clothes without noticing they notice them, if you follow me. So, if a woman walks in wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, they probably won't look at her twice, but if the same woman walks in wearing a short black dress, they will notice. And men seem to be scared of their friend's opinions, don't you think? So over time, with women noticing each other and men afraid of ridicule, you get a cultural idea of what makes someone "sexy," which maybe only a minority find really attractive, and the others pretend they do.

George S said...

As you say, it is complex, and it would take a proper book-length study to follow through variations. I am thinking specifically down the lines of Linda Grant's book where it is the idea of clothes and their function in women's lives that matters, rather than this or that specific look. She does discuss those too but that discussion doesn't seem to me the core of her persuasive argument.

There is one argument I do want to pick up at some point, which is the one that suggests that there is a particular item of clothing or accessory that is RIGHT, right for a particular person at a particular time. That it is in some way WHO they are, not an add-on to the personality but a key to it.

Men being afraid of ridicule:

Men are always afraid of being ridiculed by women. It is, I suspect, the ultimate emasculation. Being ridiculed by other men is also bad - unless it is the man being ridiculed who is controlling the ridicule. There is a line, are rather a pair of lines in the poet Martin Bell, in one of his Don Senilio poems about old age that go:

'It doesn't do to laugh at Don Senilio / He'll time the laughs himself.'

I'm quoting from memory but it's pretty close.

Dream on, Don Senilio, I mutter. (And so, inwardly, does Don Senilio).

dana said...

Women are also afraid of ridicule. From other women/girls, it cuts at who you are. From men/boys, it means you don't qualify for the marriage/motherhood market. Each is feared, both together are devastating.

No wonder we become clones in our youth. Quitting the meat market is confusing, because for the first time since adolescence, the rules have changed. But once you get there and gain some equilibrium, it's wonderful.

Off to order Linda's book.

George S said...

I'm sure that's true about women too, Dana, but as genders would have it, you wouldn't talk about women being exactly emasculated by ridicule. I suspect that the same word, and a very similar experience, has different chains of associations for men and women.

But much more to think about as and when I can.