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Essay: Understanding the Complexities of Fashion Liberating or Oppressing in Society

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,834 (approx)
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  • Tags: Fashion essays

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We live in a postmodern consumer society where everything it embodies is growing and changing at an exponential and unpredictable rate, unlike ever before. This has given rise to fierce competition in almost every aspect of life; gender, social and identity politics, struggle for survival and thus, the immense pressure for one to successfully find their place and voice in society. Fashion plays a vital, if not the most important role, in enabling individuals to construct, sculpt and express their identities, especially in larger metropolitan cities where they “mingle with crowds of strangers and have only fleeting moments to impress them – Bennett.

It is constantly stated and reiterated everywhere we go, that we have the freedom to express ourselves and our identities’ through our fashion choices. As an individual is given this fundamental right or freedom to expression through fashion, fashion is automatically associated with the concept of liberation so much to the extent one assumes that – “fashion is liberating”. In a solitary bubble, free from the social and psychological forces that are constantly working to mould us as humans and as a society, this could perhaps be true. However, in the society that we live in, where everyone is struggling, and constantly making an effort to be accepted by their peers, their families, friends, bosses and even strangers, and where everyone is seeking validation and therefore everyone is a validator themselves, how far is this possible? What happens to an individual who would like to express themselves through elements of fashion that are not considered “normal” in their surroundings.

This brings us to the question “ Are our fashion choices only liberating once they become the norm?”

“In almost all social situations we are required to appear dressed, although what constitutes dress varies from culture to culture and also within a culture, since what is considered appropriate dress will depend on the situation or occasion. A bathing suit for example, would be inappropriate and shocking if worn to do the shopping.”

(Addressing the body.)

Lets suppose that it is a really warm day and an individual has errands to run, and they feel like wearing as little as possible, because of the weather. A bathing suit would seem like a practical option – it is comfortable, made of flexible material that does not restrict movement, and deals well with sweat. Yet, if this individual were to walk into their local super-market sporting a red bikini, they would undoubtedly be met with pro-longed stares, awkward glances, and in some countries even legal action such as arrest, a monetary fine or penalty. On the other hand, if they were to walk into a swimming area or a beach dressed this way, no one around them would care, and the only glances towards them would be out of admiration towards their appearance.

It is both interesting and saddening that, a garment which seemed so liberating to an individual for their comfort and practicality, actually became an oppressing force when put outside of the normative context or situation.

In every period of history, in every territory of human inhabitation and in every culture, fashion has taken on the role of chief operator in the refashioning of constant change into.a norm of the human way of life.” (Lydia Bauman, Fashion, Liquid identity and utopia for today). History certainly presents countless occasions wherein fashion has been a powerful tool for change and a force of liberation, especially to women and any group at the unfavourable end of the power-play dynamic that has always existed in our world. But history is usually looked back upon as a whole, with only the larger picture being visible, and the details of day to day experiences and hardships tend to escape us. If one were to dissect this grand scheme of events into smaller time frames, they would certainly see the difficulties and hardships faced by each group during the transition from a change to norm.

Schools in the United Kingdom have begun discussions of changing their uniform policies and dress codes, contemplating over whether boys should be allowed to wear skirts or pinafore, which have traditionally only been worn by girls. While this is certainly a commendable thought and could perhaps initiate a necessary shift in mindset, the transition will definitely be a tough one. With the issues of gender being put into the spotlight of our society today, educated, informed and open minded people do not discourage children from their right to discovering themselves, including their feelings about their own gender. However, with social norms so deeply ingrained into large chunk of society, and with children being socialised in a rigid manner from such a young age, it would not be surprising for a young boy choosing to wear a skirt to be sanctioned in some manner or form, for dressing against the rules of what is “normal” and ”right”. His peers may exclude or ridicule him for his choice to wear a skirt, and he could even be bullied, through physical or emotional violence, for this simple form of self expression. Although intended to be a policy facilitating and enabling children to feel liberated by expressing their true identities or feelings, there still remains a trade-off, of either fitting in or freedom of expression through this fashion statement. Fast forward to 2030 when this change has normalized, and the rule regarding school uniforms is nothing new. As it is now accepted by society, and thereby children have been socialised to this norm, young boys can comfortably, and without worry, wear skirts or dresses to school.

This event would go down in history as a victory for the LGBTQ community,

any individuals close to the cause, and our general social progress. What may not be highlighted 50 years from now, is each playground incident that victimised every non-conforming & non-normative young boy.

In cases of crimes of violence and victimisation against cross-dressing persons, it is more than often that the victim is blamed. It is insinuated that these crimes were committed by the perpetrator due to provocation by their victims through their deviancy with regards to gender expectations. To put it bluntly, these innocent people are being harassed for dressing in a manner different to that dictated by society and its rigid constituents. Additionally, they are being blamed for this pitiful injustice.

These scenarios though rather extreme and blunt, highlight the fact that our dressing choices can be a real source of injustice, ill treatment and violence, when they go  against the norm, in every sphere of society – from the playground to the workspace. While there may not be a physical force that prevents an individual from dressing, embellishing or adorning their bodies in any particular fashion, there will always prevail the judgemental gaze of society.

This unfair and seemingly regressive phenomenon has penetrated every realm of life, including but not limited to fashion, luxury, music, and the show business industry. It manifests itself in multiple ways, such as  cultural appropriation and gender bias.

In 20 Valentino had their models walk down the run-way with their hair styled into cornrows. For his fashion show in New York, Marc Jacobs sent his models down the cat walk with dreadlocked hair.

Simultaneously, a large number of individuals of African descent have to spend money, time and energy to “tame” their hair, in order to make it look more “white”. While cornrows and dreadlocks were accepted and praised at fashion week, they are often considered unacceptable in schools or places of work. The BBC cites cases of women being told by their employers that their natural looked unprofessional. In the luxury industry, it is the brands or their creative directors that determine and decide what is “beautiful” or “trendy”, and that is the norm of this industry. It is for this reason that this was accepted largely in the fashion and luxury community, with the exception of the few people that dared to speak up & raise the issue of cultural appropriation.

(picture of valentino models cornrows)

The debate over the blurred lines between cultural assimilation, appreciation and appropriation is an on-going one. There are a number of baseless arguments stemming from statements such as “why is it not cultural appropriation when black women straighten their hair”, as Marc Jacobs said in attempt to defend his own actions. When members of a minority group emulate an element of the dominant group’s culture, they do this in order to fit in and appear the way social norms dictate, not for fun or out of much choice.

(picture of Marc Jacobs and his response)

In recent times, there has been a rise in gender fluid and non binary identification, as well as curiosity and interest in this field. Therefore, it is unsurprising that gender neutral and non-binary dressing has found its way to the limelight in the fashion industry, which is notorious for capitalising on any on-going shifts in cultural consciousness.

Naturally, a number of brands began creating clothing lines and campaigns based on this social issue. Some efforts can be seen right through and are evidently gimmicks, simply exploiting a real concern and turning it into a marketing tool or a PR stunt.  A few brands and luxury houses however, have shown genuine concern and compassion towards this cause. In either case, it has been embraced by the industry as the new ‘it’ theme.

As it has become acceptable, normal and even praised within this environment, an individual within this social sphere may feel fully content, free and liberated wearing an on outfit, traditionally seen as one belonging to the opposite sex. However, outside of this small social area, where this phenomenon has not yet trickled into from the runways, the very same individual may feel uncomfortable or oppressed from the social sanctions for not following the norm – long puzzled stares, sni**ering, inappropriate comments, violence etc.

One may argue that once something becomes the norm, it is no longer an individual or personal expression. This is not true. It is completely normal for one to wear a white t-shirt if they want to, or a black one if thats what they want. However, for someone to wear a black shirt repeatedly, says something about their personality/identity, and it has not been taken from them just by the fact that social norms allow them to do this.

The point of this essay was not to state that every person’s fashion choices must agree with the norm for maximum liberation and happiness, but rather to illuminate a rather harsh reality and paradox of our present day. This phenomenon is visible in all spheres of life, and no realm is free of it – whether the as the creator of the change of the normaliser of it. The very fact that an individual could be oppressed in some form, for their dress makes the phrase “fashion is liberating” a paradoxical one. That being said however, it is largely evident that fashion can be liberating, as long as it follows the norm.

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