Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tearing Up the Rule Book

Yesterday I was trawling the ‘fashion’ section of a charity bookshop, snatching a half hour’s gasp of time away from the library - where, obviously, there just weren’t enough books... There were all the usual suspects on the shelves: ghastly/ brilliant 80s beauty manuals, the odd exhibition catalogue, loads of outdated sewing guides full of oversaturated images, one absolute gem from Taschen on the history of lingerie (which I promptly snapped up), and several publications that I’m going to lump together under the genre: ‘clothes-shaming-masquerading-as-self-help.’ You might know the sort. Mostly from the late 90s and early 2000s, they’re something of a peculiar institution – their patron saints in Britain being Trinny and Susannah.

For anyone unaware of this duo, they were mainly known for their TV show called ‘What Not to Wear.’ That says it all, really, doesn’t it? The entire premise was rooted in the idea that women were getting it wrong, and needed guidance to improve: requiring rules about how to hide their upper arm fat or compensate for small boobs. I used to watch it with my mum, and remembered it being relatively innocuous. Having spent some time on Youtube today revisiting their offerings, I was shocked. Not that I should be, really. They were only saying what so many others did (and still do) about female appearance - that it’s something to tame and transform into a state of relative acceptability, and that women are inadequate and thus must make up for it (in their case, usually with a tasteful wrap dress).

As a kid, I just liked the makeover aspect. Woman in a baggy cardigan transformed into slightly prettier woman in a brightly coloured dress with a belt emphasizing her waist! With a make-up artist on hand to complete the metamorphosis! As a society we love a good old ugly duckling to princess narrative. It’s a narrative that has fuelled myriads of TV shows, magazine articles, films, and books. It can be a very compelling one too, no denying it. Sometimes transformations can be truly magical. I think that every time I put on an item of clothing that suddenly makes me feel different: whether it’s a grey, silk dress that makes me want to slink around like a 50s screen siren, or a pair of boots that add extra flair to my step. Age 14, making myself over into someone who wore fancy vintage dresses and silk shirts was super-significant. It helped to shape who I am now.  

What bothers me though is the number of those narratives that are built on a foundation of shame. That’s all I could think about when revisiting ‘What Not to Wear’. Maybe it gave some women positive new ways to approach their wardrobe. If so? Brilliant. But, to me, it reeked of the expectation that we should feel shame about the skin we live in, shame about the ways we present ourselves to the world, shame at being too large, too ugly, too hairy (ugh!), too unwomanly (double ugh!!), too much of this and not enough of that. In one segment, they asked a variety of women “Is there anything you don’t like about your body?” When one answered “no” and walked off, they joked, “she’s lying.” Because, of course, women do not possess the capacity to fully love who they are and how they look…

This isn’t even really about a slightly trashy TV show that had its moment and has now, thankfully, faded into little more than a footnote. It’s about questioning this generally bizarre idea that clothing could ever be something one could get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, according to an external set of values. Moreover, a set of values partly built on the idea that there should be a fraught relationship between flesh and fabric. The clothes-shaming publishing trend may have dwindled, but there are still plenty of outlets hollering about how we should dress around our bodies, rather than for them (and feel bad about any lumpy bits in the process…) 

I should point out here that of course we have processes of trial and error. Of course we all have - I think? - managed to wear hideous things, and may do so again. Of course we can acknowledge that outside help might be useful in pointing us towards dressing in a way that, ultimately, makes us feel fabulous. Of course we can learn to choose clothes that might flatter our particular body shape, and celebrate others who do so. But all of these judgments should ultimately come from a place of viewing clothes as something exciting and full of potential. NOT from a place of deficiency or disgrace at letting your bingo wings roam free (a phrase which still makes my mind boggle).

Too much of the fashion industry - and, ya know, capitalism in general - is built on making us feel like we’re not enough. As someone who now revels in striding around in gale force winds wearing ankle-length leather coats, the only response I can offer is blunt: fuck that. Avoid those who think that dressing should be an apology, a way of making up for something you lack. Dressing shouldn’t be an apology, but an act of joy. Joy that is yours, and yours alone, to own, in whatever way you see fit.

This post felt like an appropriate illustration because the one thing you can't see in the pictures is the number of people out for a walk throwing bemused stares in my direction  as I balanced on top of a pile of rocks, up a hill, in wind strong enough to nearly knock me over (the things we do for pictures, eh?) Once upon a time that would have fazed me. But now I just find it amusing. I assume I'm providing some kind of entertainment. And I'm certainly dressing entirely, utterly, and only for myself. Everything here is vintage or second hand (apart from the wellies - not shown - which were temporarily removed and kicked to one side). 


Ivana Split said...

very inspring words! That's exactly how I feel about it. Clothes should be there to improve our day and dressing should be an act of joy.

I watched that show myself and I had mixed feelings about it. I know it is good to learn to know and dress our body type but at the same time I feel that women are really restricted by all those rules...and often those rules end up making them feel worse and not helping them feel better.

There is nothing wrong in knowing certain clothing and fashion tricks but when society implies we should know them and apply them because the way we look is not acceptable in the first place...then it is when it becomes a problem...and we should just wear what ever we like.

I really like that fur cap! you look adorable in this outfit. Wonderful styling and photos...such dreamy images!

Melanie said...

Yes, it is an industry that promotes discontent and then ways to fix it. Happiness would ruin the whole thing! Haha. Did you get that show called "Swan" where they'd do maybe three or four cosmetic surgery procedures on a woman over a very short period of time and then REVEAL the swan? Hideous! When the kids met their After version mum they often burst into tears.

Lola Byatt said...

It was only over Xmas as I mindlessly flicked though channels when a duo who looked vaguely familiar popped up, selling a leopard print dress. Trinny and Susannah on QVC. I remember watching their show with my sister. We also loved the transition from frumpy to fabulous. At the time I didn't see the "shaming women" element but I guess I was a little young, hopefully I'd be able to pick up on it now because it's quite frightful if I am oblivious to it. I also remember Gok, this I remember with a little more clarity as I would have been around 11/12 when I started watching his show. I guess at this point there was little improvement, as I remember this show trying to give women more confidence to wanting to look their best.

I read this really interesting section in a book recently where a woman (who is a muslim and wears full hijab) discussed what she thought about the women and how they dress in the western world. She talked of the irony on how people must look at her and see a woman being controlled, a woman trapped but she said she felt liberated as she didn't ever feel she had to mold herself to anybody else's expectations whereas in the western world out mind's are constantly being controlled by the media...so who is more liberated? It was really interesting reading that. I like to think that I am quite free when it comes to dressing up, I do wear what I like and only for myself :)

Alyssa G said...

Beautiful photos!
xx Alyssa


I remember watching Trinny & Susannah & What Not To Wear, even then I would often tell my younger self, my dressing is not bad and that I disagreed with them some of the times, although still somewhat entertaining. But, as a former designer and working in the fashion industry most of my adult life I'm sure I might be the exception to the rule. My childhood has a lot to do with my influence, viewpoint, and confidence in dressing. I agree with you, our clothing/dress should be an act of joy and not an apology. I'm sure you were the highlight to those people's day (the ones walking about) as you were posing on top of the rocks. x

Vix said...

I loathed their shaming ways and they way they gave all their victims the same choppy, caramel bob instantly transforming them into daytime TV presenter clones. Don't get me started on wrap dresses and knee high stretchy boots.
Better bad taste than someone else's taste! xxx

T McG said...

This is so true! I remember reading my aunt's copy of 'What Not To Wear' and was always confused by the title. Like, why is it that women's style is found in the negation of choices? Besides, they always picked boring pieces. I'd rather see someone wearing clothes that make them smile even if it's not "flattering", a smile is the best accessory anyway.


emmacharlottesometimes said...

I've just stumbled upon your blog. - it is beautiful! Your photos are so stunning. I'm a new follower!

Emma Xx


Jean at www.drossintogold.com said...

Ah, so well said. It troubles me sometimes that a large portion of my (not large) income is generated from voicing tv and radio commercials, frequently selling fear to the audience, which "their" product will then fix. My job is to make it totally irresistible. I'm also so aware of the brilliantly seductive print ads in the fashion magazines and I avoid them as much as possible. Truthfully, the magazine editorials feature such outrageously priced items that I'm not interested all that much anymore. Well...sometimes. :-)

You are a glorious practitioner of thrift-dressing. I wish we could hang out!. Maybe someday. Have a wonderful week. XXOO

Theodora Goes Wild said...

Very thought-provoking post, I vaguely remember that show, but it had no influence over me at the time. I dressed as outrageously as I wanted in my twenties and thirties, but I must admit I am feeling the pressure to dress like a 'mother' now that I am in my forties, and am actually a mother. But I just can't bring myself to dress 'my age' when I still have all the beautiful clothes I wore then, looking at me from the wardrobe. Clothes that have such joyous, carefree memories attached to them.

Caterina Efé said...

This was so beautifully written, I'm lost for words.

The point you made about not dressing from "a place of disgrace and deficiency" to hide our insecurities really hit home to me.