Against his-tory's grain: Men act, women appear?

Hello everyone! The time has come to talk about the history of queer fashion! Over the course of Ecce Homo’s blog, we launched many blog series regarding fashion history, such as the four-part Story of Underwear series, the three-part Pink and Blue series, and more recently the three-part History of Swimwear series. All three blog series have in common a explicit focus on the history of fashion either in terms of a particular piece of clothing or in terms of the color of the fabrics used. Tracing these amazing histories three things have become apparent -despite their different subject matters- all of which testify to a shared cultural logic according to which the body politic or the social body is constructed and represented in such a way that mirrors the individual generic body, namely the male body. In other words, it seems that the schema of a state or a social group shares a lot with the bodily schema of a male subject with all these characteristics that have come to be associated with masculinity, such as strict borders as coherent and defensive ego, self-mastery as disavow of vulnerability, and autonomy as lack of dependence.

First of all, the history of fashion seems to be inextricably linked on the one hand to the history of gender and sexuality and on the other to wider socio-political developments. Indeed, fashion has been used throughout the centuries as tool of both oppression and liberation, and in many cases this distinction seems quite blurred from our historical standpoint. Sometimes, a garment, such as the corset, becomes a symbol of women’s oppression aiming at literally restricting a woman’s sexuality and body into a super tight definition of morality and decency, a way of putting women in their proper place in the context of heteropatriarchal society with high regulated and unequal gender roles. Other times, a piece of swimwear, such as the bikini, is not only a ‘revealing’ (whatever the hell this means and whoever the hell gets to define) piece of swimwear but also a demand for bodily autonomy and self-determination, a defiance of ‘man’-made moral codes and societal expectations, a material locus of political contestation in the public space of a beach always already marked as male-dominated. Furthermore, the accounts we have presented so far narrate the fashion history primarily from the perspective of the UK and the USA reproducing inevitably the problematic cultural post-colonial hegemony of these two countries. In this case, the geographical scope of these accounts is far from an innocent choice, but rather is an implicit compliance with the conceptualization of fashion as a ‘western’ phenomenon mirrored nowadays to the huge share European and USA-based fashion houses or brands have in a globalized market where fashion products are cheaply manufactured in 'under- or developing' countries with no respect to either environmental, human or workers’ rights but designed and marketed in 'developed' or rich ones where potential clients with purchasing power reside.
Secondly, as we have alerted our readers to this fact many times before, fashion history like any other history is exactly this, a his-tory, that is a history written by and for men. This translates into a specifically masculinist historiographical sensitivity, a male gaze that reads the archives and the historical data in order to interpret them in a way that aligns with a masculine way of giving meaning, narrating, inhabiting the world, and ultimately wearing a piece of clothing. This inevitably leads to a perception of clothing merely as a material object isolated both from its socio-historical context and the living embodied and embedded experience of actually wearing it on the part of women. Also, these histories are narrated in a way that takes for granted and thus contributes at further naturalizing a strict gender binarism according to which the body of a person detects their gender and there are only two opposite and complementary genders, men and women. In this context, intersex, trans and other gender non-conforming bodies are left out of fashion’s shiny picture that models its product on gender-conforming bodies in an underwear or swimwear market highly divided across gendered lines.
This phenomenon is closely related to another implicit cultural logic pointed out by feminist and queer critics for quite some time now, a rationale worth unraveling if we are to understand the intimate relationship between gender and femininity, the third feature all the historical accounts of fashion we presented in this blog seem to share. This phenomenon is no other than the commonplace assumption that fashion is feminine preoccupation, something that concerns almost exclusive women or those who are identified with femininity, that is gay men, especially effeminate ones. In the majority of the historical accounts on fashion, the so-called women’s fashion is presented disproportionally relative to men’s fashion which in many cases is but a footnote. Even the very notion of fashion seems to be feminized as something superfluous, bodily, narcissistic, performative, inauthentic, and vain. According to Simone de Beauvoir, author of the Second Sex published in France in 1949, the feminist existential philosophical treatise whose ideas on the social and historical constructed of gender had greatly influenced the political tenets of the Second Wave of Feminism, women are the other of the men who hold the position of the same. Moreover, this gender binary is analogous to the binary between body and mind, an intellectual heritage of the somatophobic and sexist intellectual tradition of Enlightenment. To put it simple, while masculinity is all about a disembodied spirit or intellect which gives men privilege access to a transcendence of their socio-historical embeddedness, femininity is defined as trapped inside a body, as immanent to itself unable of such transcendence of women’s limiting grounding to a bodily reality.
When it comes to the presence of men and women in the public space, where clothing comes to signify a gender and sexual identity or expression among others, men seem to act while women seem to appear. This is the thesis of art critic John Berger in his 1972 book titled Ways of Seeing that explores the representations of women in pop culture and art, in particular advertisements and paintings. As he succinctly puts it: ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.’ This gendered visual economy reflects the ways fashion industry constructs femininity as both a mirror image of itself and its primary customer. In other words, it seems that the way women themselves relate to fashion and clothing is mediated by the male ‘ways of seeing’, a male gaze at the female body as its object to be defined in contrast to male. 

For all these reasons, stay tuned for our next blog article which will trace some moments of queer defiance throughout fashion history, moments in which what is expected as fashionable gets subverted, and the clothing becomes a political statement!