This month’s guest column is by Dr. Sheila Moeschen, an academic, writer, and Public Communications Consultant. For more of her writing, visit: www.citizendame.com. She currently resides in Boston.
The first time I saw the Gap ad for the skinny black pant starring the iconic Audrey Hepburn I was on a treadmill at the gym. The irony of the moment was not lost on my not-so-skinny thighs and me as we plodded along the motorized sidewalk to nowhere. Released in the fall of 2006, the ad uses footage from her 1957 film Funny Face and shows Hepburn, decked out in a black turtleneck and black, form fitting chinos, rehearsing a modern dance number. As the badass riffs of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” play, Hepburn kicks, minces, and twirls lithely across the screen. For Gap, it marked the re-launch of their skinny pants, for the rest of us it announced a new era of fashion: skinny fashion. The pants flattering Hepburn’s adorable, minx-like figure represented an unreachable brass ring to those of us carrying curves and the baggage of sugar binges gone by. The notion of catering to a (excuse the pun) narrow population of individuals seemed additionally ludicrous. What woman in her right mind, I wondered, would subject herself to the same kind of physical, fashion bondage suffered by her corseted or foot-bound ancestors? Who would deliberately participate in the tyranny of skinny fashion?
The answer: a lot of women. Four years later the skinny fashion trend remains firmly entrenched in the racks of couture boutiques and mainstream outlets alike. Gap’s skinny pant gave way to skinny jeans, which birthed skinny lyrca denim, known as “jeggings,” which helped to bring back stretchy, cotton leggings, the kind sported by late-80s teen sensations Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. Though designers have created skinny clothing lines for men and women, it is women’s figures that manufacturers have in their crosshairs. Correction, make that women’s and babies’ figures, as Gap recently released a line of skinny denim for its Baby Gap stores. It seems clear that skinny fashion constitutes another way manufacturers participate in colonizing women’s bodies. By transforming a wardrobe staple—denim—to an unrealistic and even sadistic silhouette, designers systematically shift consumer perspective to the skinny line as both desirable and normal.
What is less clear is the way this fashion trend shapes ideas about more than just standards of idealized female physicality. Feminist theatre historian Elizabeth Wilson writes about the ways in which fashion takes on political and ideological significance. “Fashion,” Wilson states, “links the biological body to the social being, and public to private. This makes it uneasy territory, since it forces us to recognize that the human body is more than a biological entity. It is an organism in culture, a cultural artifact even, and its own boundaries are unclear.”
The popularity of skinny fashion belies another story about the current enculturation of the female body. It is a narrative that speaks to women’s continued restriction and constraints during a historical period where women have made abundant economic, political, and social gains. Skinny fashion highlights the intersection of the biological and the cultural bodies as Wilson points out, ultimately presenting a depiction of women in crisis: they are asked to support a culture of thinness and health; they are sexually empowered but also subjects of sexual double standards; they wield tremendous power and influence on the world stage and yet must answer to charges about being “too feminine” or “not feminine enough.” It is no wonder that women take some form of misplaced comfort in fashion that leaves nothing to the imagination, that puts the body in a clear delineation of terms: attractive or not attractive, fit or unfit, Hepburn-esque or everyone else.