The question in the title has been one that has pestered me ever since I’ve had my first fashion awakening and duly realised that outfits are not just some constructed pieces of cloth that one simply puts on to then carry on going about their day-to-day business. Clothes, to me, have always held a metaphysical power, that transcends their inanimate nature. Recently, however, the question of ‘who versus whom’ has resurfaced with more urgency than ever amidst a wave of resistance fuelled by outrage at women’s (however not exclusively) lack of safety in the public sphere. It was no longer simply just a philosophical matter to be discussed at fashion shows or in the smoking area of some shabby chic cafe. It took on a very real and vital dimension.
The question could alternatively be phrased thus: Who is the object and who is the subject? Is the person wearing the clothes the one in charge of their outward self projection or are the clothes themselves the determining factor in how the person is perceived? When so many victims of sexual harassment are unnecessarily grilled about what they were wearing at the time of the attack as if the key to solving the crime lied in the length of their skirt, the fit of their jeans or the depth of their cleavage. It is time that we address the problem more seriously.
Despite the undeniable progress that women, trans and non-binary people have successfully made in society, we are often still reduced to objects by a a system that has perpetually represented us in one dimensional terms: we put on a lovely dress either because we desire attention, or because we are trying to sell you some artificial brand of cereal or other. Despite gender liberation and the accompanying freedom to wear anything one likes, women, as well as the wider LGBTQ+ community, continue to face massive discrimination based on their sartorial choices. To that extent, the freedom achieved is only partly true. Technically, you are allowed to wear anything you see fit, but that doesn’t prevent you from being judged for it.
Historically, clothing has often carried a moral weight outside of its aesthetic value. During the Victorian era, for example, there was talk of “loose” versus “straight-laced” women in relation to the manner in which they wore their respective corsets. ‘Obviously’ if you happened to be more interested in your personal comfort than adhering to the restrictive dress code of the time, you would automatically be considered morally-deviant, therefore an easy target for unsolicited male advances. Maybe the most telling example of clothing acting as a canvas upon which social prejudice can be projected is in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel ‘The Scarlet Letter’. After having been accused of adultery, the main character, Hester Prynne, is forced to sow a bright-burning red letter ‘A’ onto her chest, to the effect of marking her as a “degenerate” in the public eye. The novel also provided inspiration for the 2010 film ‘Easy A’, where the main character, Olive Penderghast, is again treated like a prostitute because of the revealing outfits she chooses to wear, ironically in response to the false rumours that she is no longer a “virgin”. Although the character in ‘Easy A’ is presented to be more in control of the narrative as she is in fact deliberately playing with the stereotype, the film still proves the point. The fact that so many more men approach her uninvited to ask for sex after she begins dressing more ‘provocatively’ only indicates the same bigoted attitude towards certain modes of fashion. Centuries-old institutionalised sexism did not simply just vanish overnight once women obtained the right to vote and walk around freely in their miniskirts. No, sexism, just like the perpetual disciplinary action imposed on women’s bodies through their apparel, remains a deeply ingrained ideology.
As much as I would love to believe that the examples cited above are mere fiction, and have nothing to do with the reality experienced on a daily basis, this is simply not true. I am often torn between two scenarios: on the one hand, choosing an outfit that unapologetically allows me to come into full bloom; on the other, settling for a neutral one, that ultimately allows me to escape the dangers of the street. My decision-making process is almost always tinged with a bitter flavour of self-censorship. Instead of being fully able to celebrate my individual sense of selfhood and womanhood, by opting for figure-hugging shapes, my favourite pattern- animal print, and my favourite colour-red, I’m forced to blend in the greys of concrete urban architecture for the sake of my own peace of mind. Isn’t that really sad? At the moment, it seems that the price a woman has to pay in order to feel emancipated in her fashion identity is being street-called, stalked, or even worse. Which causes a full-circle return to disciplining the female body at the hand of what she wears.
Going back to my initial question ‘Who wears whom?’, it appears that the answer is not so clearly cut as initially hoped for. Garments exist at the tense intersection between self and the outer world- “Dress lies at the margin of the body and marks the boundary between self and other, individual and society.” In a sense then, clothes can be seen as the fabric extension of the wearer’s inner existence - they visualise a particular state of mind, an affinity with a particular lifestyle or philosophy, gender identity, etc. In addition to the wearer’s selection of garments according to their personal identity, the garments themselves imbue the wearer with a particular mood, attitude, sensation. An example of this synergy between the wearer and ‘the worn’ can be found in the German philosopher Herman Loetze’s work, where he beautifully illustrates how “the sway and shimmy of our clothing gives us the pleasing sensation of swaying and waving ourselves.”
However, in light of a persistent toxic culture of female objectification and physical scrutiny based on women’s choices of dress, it is difficult to revel carefree in the pleasure of getting dressed up. As the quote above brings to our attention, clothing is situated right at the border between us and the society we live in. It represents our first point of contact with our material surroundings, and therefore it is bound to be subjected to external interference, whether positive or negative. Conversely, it (our fashion) also interferes with the exterior world and can thus be the conversation trigger for the change, we so desperately need. When MP Tracy Brabin’s dress slipped slightly on the side to reveal, lo and behold, her naked human shoulder, she received so much public abuse, that it was impossible to deny how bigoted our society still is against female public appearance. Society will continue to project its own beliefs and bias onto the fabric of our clothes, until we start debunking on a wider, political scale with a capital P, these outdated notions, which are still being inflicted on women's style of dress.
Edited by Bo Nguyen, Fashion Editor