The Fashion Stigma

4:18 PM

I recently read this article by Lisa Bloom, called How to Talk to Little Girls. It's a quick and interesting read but the gist of it is that the author recently met the five-year-old daughter of a friend, and had to stop herself from complimenting the little girl's appearance. Instead, she started talking about books, in the hopes that this little girl would learn that her mind is valued more than her appearance. Bloom also gives some troubling statistics about the girls and women of America:

"This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments."
The second paragraph is the crux of her argument and I completely agree. We need to stop valuing women based solely on their appearance, and we need to teach girls to be happy with themselves, whatever shape or size they may be.

But what struck me, and what I want to talk about, is the following quote about the book the little girl read to Bloom:

"Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities. But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book: mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group."

This argument presupposes that an engagement with fashion and appearance is shallow and stupid. I agree that society should not tell women and girls that they have to look a particular way, and there are definitely billion dollar industries sending bad messages. But that does not mean that those who do engage in the industry and consider fashion an important part of their lives is wrong.

In 2005, a reality show aired in America (and probably elsewhere) called Beauty and the Geek. It pared beautiful but "dumb" women with "unattractive" male geeks and the teams of two competed for some some sort of grand prize. I don't really remember all the details, but what I do remember is that there would be quizzes for the participants. The men would teach the women about politics and other "serious issues" and then the women would be quizzed on it. And what did the women teach the men? Fashion and celebrities and other "shallow" things. The whole premise of the show was that anyone who is beautiful is stupid and anyone who is smart is ugly and obviously that is ridiculous. But my point is that these beautiful women knew more about fashion than politics and this made them dumb.

This all adheres to the stigma that fashion is shallow. That idea is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. The gendering of fashion is a fascinating topic and one I will post more about later, but here's a quick summary. Fashion became shallow and a female thing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when gender roles became extremely strict. This was when men started wearing dark suits, which were relatively basic compared to the flamboyant clothing of previous centuries. It was decided that men were serious and intelligent, while women were silly and superficial. Thus the world of dress was confined to women (interestingly the majority of couturiers were and still are men but that's a topic for another post). This idea has more or less remained in tact today, coloring women interested in fashion as superficial.

My argument is to fight that stigma. A little girl can be interested in fashion and expressing an identity through clothing and still be intelligent and worldly. I say instead of fighting fashion, fight a system that labels fashion as shallow and dumb. Teach the next generation to value more than appearance, but don't devalue an interest in appearance altogether.

What are your thoughts? Comment and let me know!

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  1. I think you do see the idea that fashion = shallow, destructive, weak, etc. in the 18th century, existing for both men and women until the mid-19th century - so many caricatures. Those wasp-waisted dandies with enormous collars, chests, and sleeves were made fun of until that style ran its course.

    I find it so interesting how mid-to-late 19th century feminism/proto-feminism (where is the line for that?) is so strongly anti-fashion, without a hint of the idea that a woman could use dress as strength and power. It's all "YOU'RE KILLING YOURSELF WITH YOUR CRINOLINE, STUPIDS".

  2. I think fashion is important to the extent that it is the first impression we have of a person - we visually see them before we converse with them. A person's clothing can clue us in about their profession, their socioeconomic status, or their creative character. But these are only clues, and the saying goes: You cant judge a book by its cover or a man by his clothes. By focusing exclusively on fashion (or giving it too much weight), you miss the true character and value of a person which cannot be defined by one attribute.

    A child's interest in fashion is part of self-discovery. They recognize that members of a social group wear the same style of clothing, and they know that dressing alike suggests they might share the same values and ideas. They want to emulate their role models by copying their fashion. And how often do we hear teenagers defend their fashion choice as an expression of their identity. Kids know that fashion is a symbol of identity.

    As a parent, I feel my job isn't to discourage my child's interest in fashion. It is to help her put fashion in proper perspective by reminding her that appearances can be deceiving and that a person's value is measured by virtue, not by the way they look. And then I will help her cultivate varied interests and talents, one of which might be snazzy dressing (though this fashion backward mama will have little to teach on that subject), so that her self-esteem is not tied to one attribute. I will show her that fashion can be fun, and that she should not take it too seriously.

  3. You are bang on the money!! Love this article, I complete agree, there are two extremes (as with most arguements) and no one takes the middle ground. What you are talking about is a middle ground, and I am always banging on about how fashion can be important and interetsing (as much as a social indicator, an art board to express your personality and as a form of art to look at)but that undue empahasis should not be put on an ideal appearance or look, and fashion should be personal to you not what society tells you you should look like etc.

  4. I totally agree! I've being thinking something similar for a while now. I'm an Ancient History graduate and often when I tell someone I want to work in fashion they look at me a little aghast.

    I think part of the problem is the way the industry portrays itself and the way it is portrayed by the media. Fashion is often linked to celebrity culture and as such is seen as something both ethereally glamorous and unduly excessive, even morally bankrupt. I interned for six months with a young fashion brand and soon learnt that the industry is anything but superficial, glamorous or 'girly'.

    It takes a lot of hard graft to make clothes and the labelling of fashion as superficial just hides this fact from the public. Fashion is serious business and should be something that one can take an interest in with attracting ridicule.

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  6. I agree with so many of you. Unfortunately for the most part, young girls are only exposed to celebrities on the red carpet or promoting their own "line", models in a magazine, commercials or often terrible "trends" in ready-to-wear. They do not get the full understanding of fashion except from the standpoint of what the fashion police say & thus, what they are influenced to like and not like.

    Young girls are often not exposed to how design is born, made and preserved or how styles get reincarnated. They do not know the story of the sacrifice of haute couture designers (many of whom came from impoverished backgrounds) who started quite young driven by passion and making first communion dresses or shoes for their sisters, or when they were learning their trade picking up pins for a famous designer, trying to break out on their own and create a name and a business. They do not know how powerful egos (the industry does manipulate and exploit) - the fashion industry is actually a good example of what can go wrong in people because beauty doesn't necessarily equal brainpower and designing clothing, owning a modeling agency or editing a magazine does not equal ethical or non-racist behavior. Girls should be taught about fashion empires, mainly owned and controlled by men and the business of a non-haute couture brand like Louis Vuitton which has acquired about 60 luxury brands. I encourage us to open our own eyes as parents and relatives of girls and teach them because haute couture and bespoke was supposed to fit the patron's form (no matter what her size) or age. It can be a joy to examine fashion with them from a business perspective, what haute couture takes from ethnic fashion and historical costume, and the evolution of fashion design as art, use of materials, fabrics, texture, color, innovation and examples of the finest craft and workmanship.

    Floyd Gary Clyne

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  8. Check out the CBS Sunday Morning segment on the professor at Notre Dame who has developed a course titled "A Nation of Slobs?" Linda Przybyszewski started as an attorney, but now teaches a fashion course there, and sews her own clothes, cuffs with 6 buttons no less. Her students are fascinated by the quality of materials and construction. How many of them have stopped wearing their PJ bottoms to class I don't know.

    I would love a world where we can dress as we please and be judged solely on the content of our character, and not care what other people think. But caring what other people think can either lead to generous understanding of one another - or narcissism I think, however, that taking this "I don't care" too far with bad behavior, vulgar speech and sloppy clothes expresses a laziness to follow the pack rather than stand on our own as individuals, and the respect we have for our individual abilities and ideas. This laziness does a disservice to the self expression of the individual's imagination, creativity, and ability to "do one's best" or "put our best foot forward" It is by standing for our individual selves, rather than a group, that we gain the most respect. If style can be an expression of that, that we can use fashion as a tool rather than be a victim of it, then that is the world I want to live in.

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