Utilizing Fashion and Clothing
Gender Presentation and Performance
Through expansive analysis and comparative research, scholars such as Judith Halberstam, Judith Butler, Marjorie Garber, Diana Crane and Jennifer Craik explain and analyze the ways in which fashion and clothing can be a tool for people to transgress gender norms and roles. Those who transgress traditional gender norms, or move away from socially constructed gender norms, can use clothing to achieve a gender identity that they identify with (Garber 1992). In doing so, gender non-conforming persons, butch women, and transgender individuals are defying and reconstructing their own gender identity, status and creating a narrative that deconstructs and challenges the existing institutional gender roles and norms.
History of Fashion & Clothing
To understand fashion, “[t]he most general term [that] applies to any way of dressing, behaving, writing, or performing that is favored at any one time or place,” (Merriam Webster Dictionary 1999) we must comprehend that fashion comes in many different forms and has evolved since its inception. In early fifteenth century’ societies, fashionable clothing was only accessible to upper-class citizens, because they had the disposal income required to afford fashionable clothes. It was not until the pre-industrial age that people began to use clothing as an indicator of a person’s “occupational position, religious affiliation, and regional origin” (Ewen 1985 as cited in Crane 2000:3). While in the 19th century, clothing became a means of signifying people’s style, gender expression, and personalities. Acts of cross-dressing, or dressing as the opposite sex or gender, were prominent in the early 1900s. Crane (2000) writes, “‘The suit, especially the tailored suit, was an extremely important article in a women’s wardrobe of 1909’” (p.105). Byrde (1992) implies that “waistcoats for women with distinctly masculine connotations appeared in 1846 and were fashionable for about a decade (as cited in Crane 2000:55). “These pieces of clothing became fashionable again between 1880 and 1895 as suits began to be widely worn” (p. 105). Additionally, Crane (2000) found that “over one-third of the women in the later period (1875-1909) did not own dresses, having replaced that type of garment with the newly fashionable suit (jacket plus skirt)” (p. 52). In 1846, women’s fashion transition and adoption of male clothing in their wardrobe allow us to understand that cross-dressing was widely acceptable and associated with masculinity. This is because people who adopt male clothing, as described by Crane, are people, more specifically females, who perform or identify with masculine traits. Female masculinity in this context is distinguished from the typical dominant masculine traits or qualities that are socially constructed through hegemonic masculinity, “the dominant and privileged, if invisible, category of men” (Lorber 1994: 458). Furthermore, Halberstam (1998) argues that “female masculinity…challenges hegemonic models of gender conformity” (pg. 9). This is because female masculinity highlights and recognizes the experiences and struggles of females as masculine as well as males when hegemonic masculinity only glamourizes the dominant traits of what it means to be male in an androcentric society.
Fashion & Clothing Can Be a Powerful Tool
Hence, gender non-conforming individuals defy gender norms and roles by disregarding their ascribed status and claiming an achieved gender using clothing that does not accentuate their bodies; thus, they are able to attain their gender identity that does not bound by societal structures or gender hierarchy. Clothing can be a powerful tool because it formulates and gives meaning to a person’s style and performance, gender identity and social location in society. Since fashion and clothing form many social identities and representations, it can be utilized to deconstruct normative gender identities, differences, and norms. Ultimately, it can also reinforce or perpetuate normative gender identities, gendered costume, and gender conformity. Clothing can be carefully utilized to prevent mere perpetuation of the status quo if designers create clothes for all genders and body types. Fashion shifts over time; therefore, it is very important to trace its history, meaning, and transformation. Some scholars like Crane (2000) believes that fashion, or clothing, may have an impact on the wearer and affect how individuals perceive themselves in society. Yet, people in society also can redefine fashion in a way that fits their needs, desires, or identities.
People who have the ideal image of proportional, thin, fashion model bodies and ideals that fit the definition of gender norms are able to buy clothes that align with their bodies while people who identify as gender-fluid, gender non-conforming, transgender persons, butch women and more do not have access to clothing that fit their needs. As gender variant people are queering, moving away from strictly defined gender norms, roles, images, and standards of femaleness or maleness to obtain a gender that is authentic, they are creating an alternative way to express their gender that does not bound by societal structures. It is important to recognize that people need clothes or business attire that speak to the them, that allow them to focus on other aspects of their body rather than sexualizing and gendering their experiences in relation to systems of power and oppressive patriarchy structures.
Mainstream Fashion Sexualizes Bodies While Gender Non-Conforming People are Queering Fashion
Gender expression and identity are inextricably linked to fashion and clothing. Since clothing can be a source of language that people use to communicate to the public, clothing as objects have meanings attached or given to them by individuals and groups in society. People wear clothes because they want to cover their bodies but some people see clothes differently and have different interpretations and ways of using clothes to achieve gender. Although gender is socially, culturally, and institutionally constructed, people can also create or redefine their own gender expression which is different from the norm and does not have to be bound by social structures or systems of power. People are moving beyond gender conformity and away from hegemonic gender norms by wearing clothes that have been traditionally made for males or men. Resisting normalization and overcoming physical and psychological restrictions of mainstream fashion clothing allow people of the transgender community and gender non-conforming people to transgress and dismantle ideologies of gender binary, hierarchy and physiological limitations. Gender non-conforming people naturalize gender by actualizing and extending their gender performance to their daily living experiences and bringing their authentic gender expression to existence.
Here is a short youtube interview with Tim Gunn (suggested by a classmate in Queer Ethnography) that discusses a bit about a person’s fashion, style icon, and problem solving. According to Tim Gunn, fashion is design or fashion as design “solves someone else’s problems.” In other words, designers are (or fashion is) creating clothes that meet the needs of people and a solution to their problems or style.
Furthermore, Tim Gunn suggests, “Find the style icon….find someone who you can find photos of, someone who navigates the real world not just the red carpet.”
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