Academic journal article Hecate

A Cheap Shot at Frocks? a Reply to Tara Brabazon

Academic journal article Hecate

A Cheap Shot at Frocks? a Reply to Tara Brabazon

Article excerpt

In her article, 'What Will You Wear to the Revolution? Thatcher's Genderation and the Fashioning of Change,' Tara Brabazon criticizes me for failing to acknowledge the importance of style and fashion in the process and formulation of social change. In her view, I am guilty of continuing the masculinist privileging of politics and economics over culture and style characteristic of pre-1968 British Marxism. In support of her argument she quotes the following statement from my article, 'The Meaning of Dress':

a danger with the postmodern celebration of rebellion through fashion is that of substituting revolution in dress for real social change. In the postmodern era, rebellion has primarily taken the form of projecting a certain image through the clothes one wears, rather than engaging with the economic and political structures which produce social inequality.(1)

In making this statement, I was not arguing against the importance of analysing the social and cultural meanings of dress and of exploring its significance as a potential site of subversion. Indeed, at the beginning of my article I note that 'no longer is dress dismissed as being unworthy of serious investigation on the grounds that it is merely decorative, lacking any deeper significance,'(2) and defend the importance of the task of decoding the meaning of dress against theorists such as Sawchuk and Baudrillard whose emphasis on the 'free floating' nature of the signifiers of dress threatens to dissolve the possibility of the interpretive endeavour altogether. I then proceed to discuss how dress has been expressive of inequalities in gender and class. Elsewhere in the same article, I also make the point that oppositional groups have appropriated elements of fashion, investing them with new meanings which contradict those of the dominant ideology.(3)

Rather than dismissing the cultural significance of dress as a possible site of opposition then, the point I was making in the statement quoted by Brabazon was that, in the postmodern era where the cult of appearance has become ubiquitous, there is now a real danger of losing sight of the fact that changing one's image is insufficient in itself as a means of bringing about social change. While I agree with Brabazon that in the pre-1968 period, questions of style and fashion did tend to be neglected in favour of an analysis of economic and political structures, now the pendulum seems to have swung full circle, with social change being defined primarily in terms of changes in one's appearance.

This is evident in the work of a number of recent theorists such as Butler, Gaines, Young, Wilson and Silverman who champion a performative notion of the self as masquerade in which constant transmutations in appearance are celebrated as subversive of essentialist conceptions of identity.(4) Wilson, for instance, argues contrary to earlier feminist critiques of fashion that the frequent changes in female dress, far from being oppressive of women, are potentially more disruptive both of gender and of the symbolic order than is the relatively static nature of male dress which defines identity as fixed and stable rather than as fluid and mutable. As she writes:

So far as women are concerned - and fashion is still primarily associated with women - contemporary fashions arguably have liberatory potential . . . For in "denaturalising the wearer's specular identity" contemporary fashion refuses the dichotomy, nature/culture. Fashion in our epoch denaturalises the body and thus divests itself of all essentialism. This must be good news for women, since essentialist ideologies have been oppressive to them. Fashion often plays with, and playfully transgresses, gender boundaries, inverting stereotypes and making us aware of the masquerade of femininity.(5)

In a similar vein, she suggests that 'with punk, women transgress norms of feminine beauty; when a young woman shaves her head and draws red lines round her eyes, the very notion of make up and hairstyles as an enhancement of what 'nature' has provided is gone and the body is treated more radically than ever before as an aspect of performance. …

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