How Are Fashion and Appearance Central to the Construction?
How are fashion and appearance central to the construction of social identities? Fashion can be defined as the prevalent style and custom at a certain point in time. Besides being necessary and protecting us, clothing also shapes and defines us in the cultural, social and psychological aspect. It has been a part of culture and identity since the earliest of times. We live in a world where fashion and clothing play a significant role in shaping and determining the identity and social image of people. This physical appearance often determines other people’s impressions of us and becomes a measurement of our self-worth.
Nowadays with an increased self-consciousness, establishing the social identity of a person, fashion and appearance have played a crucial role. Wilson (1992: 13) has said, ‘clothing in fact, has the unique characteristic of being able to express ideas about sex and the body while simultaneously it actually adorns the body. ’ While sexuality for both men and women has largely been shaped by the central ideas of fashion and appearance, there is evidence indicating women have been impacted more by the influences of fashion than men have.
Therefore it is possible to say women, who are strongly influenced by fashion, may be more susceptible to social identities as Craik (1994: 176) said, ‘women are fashionable but men are not. ’ Although Finkelstein (1996: 56) has argued that, ‘fashion has been seen as a device for confining women to an inferior social order,’ showing that these identities have not and are not always positive and empowering. In the concept of the ‘male gaze,’ the relationship between sex and sexuality in women’s fashion is entirely geared towards pleasing and catering to the male sexual desires.
Although Craik (1993: 156) argues that, ‘despite the rhetoric that women dress to please men, other evidence suggest that women primarily dress to please other women. Further, there is no clear pattern as to whose ‘eyes’ women view other women through. ’ To see the progression of how fashion and appearance has become what it is and what it represents in the world today in creating social identities, the past plays a huge role.
After the regimented discipline of World War II where fashion was purely functional, uniform and designed to blend in with the background there was a period where tough economic frugality which included rationing of almost every product, the unavailability of fabrics due to the collapse of the UK textile industry, very few imports because foreign currency restrictions and a general impoverishment of society as a whole. The fifties saw a gradual lifting of the stringent restrictions and along with the introduction of television and American made programming; a new sense of optimism took hold in the UK.
Programmes such as girl ¬¬¬¬¬¬debutantes (See Fig. 1) gave women a role of their own in society, unlike the ‘surrogate mens’ jobs in industry that they had to endure during the war. Sex and sexuality however was not key in the fashions of the time. The Calvinistic influence of the southern states American ‘Bible Belt’ in politics and popular culture determined distinct roles for women, and even though there were the beginnings of change, the only careers open were those of housewives, teachers and nurses.
And then, with the dawn of the sixties, everything changed. America elected a young handsome president, JF Kennedy, the birth control pill was launched and a four piece band from Liverpool called the Beatles became gods for a whole new grouping. The teenager. Teenagers were rebellious, questioning, and everything that their parents were not. In America they protested against the Vietnam War while in England they questioned all authority from the local police constable to the Queen herself.
Sexuality, and sex was everything and it was born out in the styles and colours of Carnaby Street, the mini skirt, Twiggy and the twist. The boring military uniform was transformed into the rainbow colours of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and the crew cut became a mop top. By the time the seventies arrived, division had to appear. Free Love and LSD resulted in addiction and sex-for-sale and fashions split the youth into Mods or Rockers. A macho motorbike riding image was adopted by the rockers, wearing clothes such as black leather jackets and listening to the likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent.
While the mods, wearing designer suits protected by Parka jackets and other clean-cut outfits, adopted riding Vespa or Lambretta scooters. Mods favoured listening to rhythm and blues, Ska music and The Who. The mods attention to detail and obsession with style was the complete contrast to their arch rivals the rockers’ love of motor cycles and leather jackets and this often cause friction between the two subcultures. These two subcultures faded from the public view by the late 1960s and media attention turned to two new emerging youth subcultures – the hippies and the skinheads.
So, sex and sexuality only became a central theme and basis for fashion and appearance from the 60s and 70s and has developed and expanded on a monumental scale until today, and will continue to do so. Given the strong connection more so between female sexuality and fashion, many people have begun to discuss the ways in which identity and perception from fashion have influenced certain ways women think they ‘should’ or ‘have to’ look like. This couldn’t be more evident than in the media advertisements that surround our environment constantly.
These thoughts can often be distorted and obscured, not necessarily the truth and reality of what the average women looks like. Media advertisements for fashion, more often than not, show how women could change or improve their appearance and this is where women’s thoughts and perceptions are drawn from. The easy answer could come from the idea that ‘sex sells’ which is the truth and reality of today. For many products being advertised it is possible to find a sexual connection or connotation.
This sexual connection it much easier to set up for men than for women, as men’s sexual desire have minimal criteria; as long as a women looks healthy and young enough, she is desired. By using women’s bodies and associate ‘getting the woman’ with the product, it is easier getting a man’s attention. Thus, playing on his instinctive view rather than his intellectual view of the world. Using sex in advertising to women can be much more difficult, as women are looking for more than mere anatomy. This becomes a cycle where advertising can sell the product because “women want this ‘product’ in a man.
Get the product, get the woman. ” The use of healthy, fit men does attract a woman’s instinctive attention and create desire but sexual desire for women is more complex. Women tend to not only focus on man’s physical appearance, but are also corned with the long-run and future with a partner. These factors are often learned through culture and society. Tom Ford’s advertisements for the launch of a male perfume (See Fig. 3) has been considered to be highly controversial, while at the same time it provides insight into the world of advertising sex and appeal and how it works.
Tom Ford’s advert is full of suggestion and imagination; the perfume bottle between the woman’s breasts could suggest male genital, not simply just a perfume bottle, creating a very erotic and adventurous feeling to the advert. This therefore makes it extremely appealing to any male who comes across the advert. Male instinct kicks in and immediately it becomes about if I buys this product then will I get lucky in the bedroom? D & G advertisement promoting their 2007 ready-to-wear collection (See Fig. 4) has also received a lot of controversial feedback.
The advertisement showed a woman pinned to the ground by the wrist by a shirtless man, with other men in the background looking on. It is possible to say that the female figure is shown in a degrading manner and offending the dignity of the individual. This can be contrasted by the fact that in her role it can appear that she’s actually willing to yield and surrender to the man’s aggressive behaviour willingly. From Biological Basis of Human Behaviour males have often linked sex and aggression to a certain degree and therefore in return females have learnt this association as well.
And in a way if she didn’t enjoy it, it didn’t matter as long as life was create as a result. So, this advert could represent a learned role of females that is possibly now acceptable, enjoyable to an extent and even desired. Thus, it is clear that sex is a strong appeal to use in advertising even though it can be gender linked appeal. Fashion and appearance have repeatedly shown to have a massive, immediate and sometimes potent effect on the public in a wide range or circumstances.
In particular women’s appearance seems to play a key role to one’s identity and self. Chapkis (1986) has said that, ‘a women is made to feel continually insecure about her physical appearance, and simultaneously so dependent on it. ’ Women, more so than men, are willing to go to dangerous and sometimes painful lengths in order to ‘improve’ and alter their appearance. Thus feeling like we fit with the desired lifestyle and with what is considered socially normal and acceptable in society today.