Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fashion & Feminist Theory

For those of you who may not know, I'm studying for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams in English. One of my exams will be in feminist theory, so not only am I reading lots and lots of feminist theory right now (particularly focused on contemporary feminist theories of the body and associated science studies) but I am also always looking for ways in which my feminist theory reading can be made relevant to other parts of my life.

Like fashion.

I'll be writing more soon about my personal relation to both fashion and feminism as well as about the connections between fashion and feminism more generally in the future, but for now, here's a short but fascinating tidbit from today's reading.

This afternoon I was reading Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism and came across this description of the way gender roles have been constructed and perceived through clothing:
Lillian Faderman writes that what to modern eyes would be regarded as relatively amateurish efforts at cross-dressing, at transvestism, were rarely detected prior to the popularization of Freudian theories and androgynous clothing styles. Dress was taken as a clear indicator of sex: "If a woman craved freedom in a pre-unisex fashion era, when people believed that one's garments unquestionably told one's sex and there was no need to scrutinize facial features and muscle structure to discern gender, she might attempt to pass as a man."
In other words, before the lines between mens' and womens' clothes were blurred even as much as they are now, people identified the gender of others in passing not by making constant judgments of their hairstyles, body types, level of makeup, or bone structure but by simply looking at their clothes. Dress? Woman. Pants? Man. Simple.

This is a great reminder of the fact that what seems natural to most of us now (e.g., the assumed ability and necessity to immediately judge someone's sex or gender by their physical attributes) is not at all natural. Sex and gender have in the past not been defined so clearly as absolute elements of one's individual identity but instead (at least in part) as an assumed costume or role.

What would our world be like if we still read gender in this way?

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