clothes/fashion

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month; cross-posted at Mental Floss.

Several factors were in play in the 1920s for the emergence of what came to be known as flappers, teenagers and young women who flaunted convention and spent their time pursuing fun instead of settling down to raise children in the prime of their lives. Many entered college or the workforce and felt entitled to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.

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A lot of young men did not return home from World War I, which left an entire cohort of women without enough husbands to go around. The horror of the war (and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918) also impressed young people with the knowledge that life is short and could end at any moment. Instead of staying home preparing to marry a man who might never come, young women wanted to spend what time they had enjoying all that life had to offer.

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Movies popularized the image of the fun-loving and free-thinking woman throughout the US and Europe. The 1920 movie The Flapper introduced the term in the United States. The title character, Ginger, was a wayward girl who flouted the rules of society. Played by Olive Thomas, a former Ziegfeld Girl (left), Ginger had so much fun that a generation of lonely young women wanted to be like her. Another role model was stage and screen actress Louise Brooks (right), who also modeled for artists and fashion designers. She was the inspiration for the flapper comic strip Dixie Dugan.

 

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Clara Bow wasn’t the first flapper on screen, but she was certainly a role model for young women of the era. She didn’t play by the rules, and was tabloid fodder for years for her sexual escapades with the biggest movie stars of the time. Bow’s first film was in 1922 and her career peaked in 1927 with the film It. “It” was defined as the sexual allure some girls have and others don’t. Bow’s fans wanted “it”, so they copied her look and behavior.

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The rise of the automobile was another factor in the rise of flapper culture. Cars meant a woman could come and go as she pleased, travel to speakeasys and other entertainment venues, and use the large vehicles of the day for heavy petting or even sex.

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These young women had plenty of opportunities for fun. Although Prohibition drove alcohol underground, that only added to its allure. Postwar prosperity allowed for leisure time and the means to spend that time drinking, dancing, and hanging out with free thinkers.

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Being a flapper wasn’t all about fashion. It was about rebellion. In this article from 1922, a would-be flapper (but still a “nice girl”) explains her lifestyle choices to her parents. Flappers did what society did not expect from young women. They danced to Jazz Age music, they smoked, they wore makeup, they spoke their own language, and they lived for the moment. Flapper fashion followed the lifestyle. Skirts became shorter to make dancing easier. Corsets were discarded in favor of brassieres that bound their breasts, again to make dancing easier. The straight shapeless dresses were easy to make and blurred the line between the rich and everyone else. The look became fashionable because of the lifestyle. The short hair? That was pure rebellion against the older generation’s veneration of long feminine locks.

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The party stopped when the economy crashed and the Great Depression curtailed the night life. Although the flapper lifestyle died along with the Roaring Twenties, the freedoms women tasted in that era weren’t easily given up. They may have gone back to marriage and long hours of toil for little pay, but hemlines stayed above the ankle, and the corset never went back to everyday status. And we’ve been driving cars ever since.

Miss Cellania is a newlywed mother of four, full-time blogger, former radio announcer, and worst of all, a Baby Boomer. In addition to mental_floss, she posts at Neatorama, YesButNoButYes, Geeks Are Sexy, and Miss Cellania. Miss C considers herself an expert on no particular subject at all.

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

I still remember when the female characters on the sitcom Friends started the trend of visible nipples:

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As long as I’d been alive and paying attention, hard nipples were embarrassing. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. I even remember hearing that women could get the all-hard-all-the-time look by buying those tiny rubber bands (that I only associate with the plastic bags aquarium fish come in) and fitting them tightly around your nipples. Nipples are still big, if measured by mannequins (Wicked Anomie noticed too).

It turns out this comes in fits and starts.  This vintage ad (no date on the source), for example, features a bra with built-in hard nipples! (Apparently it had been a trend before I’d been alive and paying attention.)

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In the comments, Dmitriy T.C. added a link to the patent for this device. I can’t resist adding this particular paragraph explaining why a bra with fake nipples is important:

…simulated nipples for a brassiere would offer an acceptable compromise for ladies who do not wish to go without a brassiere and a welcome release from the subconscious effects of the suppression brought on by wearing brassieres of the types variously available, which obliterate the nipple.

LOL.

Anyhow, Tracey at Unapologetically Female wondered about wearing such a bra:

Didn’t anyone ever start to wonder why these women’s nipples were ALWAYS hard? And what if their real nipples (realistically probably located somewhere a bit lower than the bra’s) ever poked through, creating a quadruple effect?! Horrifying.

I find this whole thing especially funny, since, while shopping recently, Katie and I were making fun of these bras with built-in “modesty panels” that provide extra padding so that the nipple will never make an appearance. Times sure have changed.

Except times haven’t changed in the sense that women’s bodies still aren’t allowed to just be. Their nipples either must show, or must not show, or they should show in some contexts, or are allowed to show, but in other contexts they better not show.  (Remember the outcry over Hilary Clinton’s “cleavage”?  Can you imagine if she’d shown some nip!?)

So apparently we’re supposed to have nipple bras, bras with “modesty panels,” and a couple rubber bands in our pockets just in case. The one thing that is clearly less than ideal in all this: actual nipples doing what they do.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at AlterNetJezebel, and VitaminW.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I go shopping for shoes, I’m always stunned by the incredible disproportion of high heels.  I’m just gonna guestimate here, but I’ll bet 85% of the shoes at the average store are high heels so impractical that most women only wear them on special occasions that involve a lot of sitting down.  These shoes, moreover, seem to be pushed to the front of the display.  Women’s shoe stores beckon shoppers by putting their most outrageous shoes out front.  You have to go digging for a practical pump. A quick Google image search for “women’s shoes” reveals the same bias in favor of the four-inch or higher, spindly heeled shoe:

How is it that a shoe that gets 1% of feet time takes up 85% of retail space?  I’m gonna take a shot at offering an answer.

In a previous post I reviewed the history of the high heel.  Originally a shoe for high-status men, it was adopted by the lower classes.  Elites responded by heightening the heel.  The higher the heel, the more impractical the shoe.  Eventually the working classes couldn’t keep up with the escalation because they had to, you know, work.  Sociologically, this is an example of what Pierre Bourdieu famously called “distinction.”  The rich work to preserve certain cultural arenas and products for themselves.  This allows them to signify their status; you know, keep them from getting confused with the masses.

I think something similar is going on today among women. Certain class advantages make it easier for upper middle class and wealthy women to don high heels.  High heels can really only be worn routinely by women who don’t work on their feet all day (I’ll grant there are dedicated exceptions).  Valet parking makes it a whole lot easier to wear shoes that hurt to walk in, so does not having to take the bus.* Having money, in itself, means that nothing stands between you and buying things that are impractical. So, high heels function to differentiate women who can afford to be impractical with their footwear — both monetarily and in practice — from women who can’t. This, I think, is why the highest, spikiest heels are are the front of the shoe store.  In a certain way, they signify status.  Wearing those shoes promises to differentiate you from other “lesser” women, women who can’t invest in their appearance and get lots of practice looking elegant on their tip toes.

Women of all classes desire such shoes because of the signals they send and they often buy them aspirationally, hoping to be the type of woman who wears them.  It’s primarily women at the top of the class hierarchy that will be able wear them routinely, though, feeding the supply of barely worn spike heels that populate every thrift store in America. So, that’s my theory.

But let’s complicate it just a bit more.  Since working class people do, ultimately, have access to high-heeled shoes, the upper classes have to go to extra lengths to effectively use high heels as a marker of distinction.  This can be accomplished by sub-dividing high heels into “classy” and “trashy”: I got the ones on the left by Googling “stripper shoes” and the ones on the right are courtesy of Louis Vuitton, $890 and $1,450 respectively. Now I know that you can get “classy” heels for much cheaper, but the point is to identify this as an arms race.  The rich have the power to control the discourse and can always access the high-status objects.  The poor can copy, but they are often playing catch up because the rich are always changing the rules.  So, as soon as the poor are doing it right, the rules change, otherwise the activity doesn’t function to distinguish the rich from the poor.  And so on.

* Men, if you’re reading, high heels really do hurt to walk in.  Yes, pretty much all the time.  Most women are used to it and mild pain may not even register consciously.  Sometimes the pain is quite significant, but women wear them anyway.  You’ve probably seen women in your life kicking off their high heels as soon as they walk in the door, or rubbing their feet and wincing; there’s a reason for that.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Screenshot_15Naama Nagar tweeted us an interesting video commentary about hipsters.  In it, Mike Rugnetta uses Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to describe the difference between nerds and hipsters.

This is a topic I’ve enjoyed thinking about myself (on CNN and here at SocImages).  I think Rugnetta makes an interesting argument that resonates with the observations of sociologists: being a hipster is about borrowing other people’s authentic cultural signifiers as their main or only consistent cultural practice.  Check it out:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Why do women wear high heels?  Because men did.

Men were the first sex to don the shoe. They were adopted by the European aristocracy of the 1600s as a signal of status.  The logic was: only someone who didn’t have to work could possibly go around in such impractical footwear.  (Interestingly, this was the same logic that encouraged footbinding in China.)

Women started wearing heels as a way of trying to appropriate masculine power.  In the BBC article on the topic, Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curates a shoe museum, explains:

In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits…

They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel — it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits.

The lower classes also began to wear high heels, as fashions typically filter down from elite.

How did the elite respond to imitation from “lesser” people: women and workers?  First, the heels worn by the elite became increasingly high in order to maintain upper class distinction.  And, second, heels were differentiated into two types: fat and skinny. Fat heels were for men, skinny for women.

This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction.  Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference.  Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc.  Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable.  Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it.  This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).

Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men.  (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men).  With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.

What brought heels back for women? Pornography.  Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

@bfwriter tweeted us a link to a college design student’s photograph that has gone viral.  Rosea Lake posted the image to her tumblr and it struck a chord.

What I like about the image is the way it very clearly illustrates two things.  First, it reveals that doing femininity doesn’t mean obeying a single, simple rule. Instead, it’s about occupying and traveling within a certain space.  In this case, usually between “proper” and “flirty.”  Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be.  Too flirty at work mean’s you won’t be taken seriously; too proper at the bar and you’re invisible.  Under the right circumstances (e.g., Halloween, a funeral), you can do “cheeky” or “old fashioned.”

The second thing I like about this image is the way it shows that there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong.  It’s not just a faux pas.  Once you’re “‘asking for it,” you could be a target. And, once you’re reached “prudish,” you’ve become socially irrelevant.  Both violence and social marginalization are serious consequences.

And, of course, all women are going to get it wrong sometimes because the boundaries are moving targets and in the eye of the beholder. What’s cheeky in one setting or to one person is flirty in or to another.  So women constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone.  So the consequences are always floating out there, worrying us, and sending us to the mall.

Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes!  We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty… at the very least… and all in casual, business, and formal.   And we need heels to go with each (stilettos = provocative, high heels = flirty, low heels  = proper, etc, plus we need flats for the picnics and beach weddings etc).  And we need pants that are hemmed to the right length for each of these pairs of shoes.  You can’t wear black shoes with navy pants, so you’ll need to double up on all these things if you want any variety in your wardrobe. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

In “Rock in a Hard Place: Grassroots Cultural Production in the Post-Elvis Era,” William Bielby discusses the emergence of the amateur teen rock band. The experience of teens getting together with their friends to form a band and practice in their parents’ garage is iconic in our culture now; recalling their first band or their first live show is a standard element of interviews with successful rock musicians. Bielby traces the history of this cultural form, which appeared in the 1950s. In particular, he argues that social structures largely excluded young women from full participation in the teen band phenomenon.

Though young women were involved in many other types of musical performance, the pop charts featured many successful female artists in the 1950s, and girls listened to music more than boys, rock bands emerged as a male-dominated (and predominantly White) musical form. One important reason was parents’ concern about the rock subculture and the lack of supervision. Parents might be willing to let their sons get together with friends and play loud music and travel around town or even to other cities to play in front of a crowd, but they were much less likely to let their daughters do so. Gendered parenting, and the closer regulation of girls than boys, meant that girls were less likely to be given the chance to join a band. So while boys were learning to take on the role of active producers of rock music, girls didn’t have the same opportunities.

Yunnan C. sent us photos she took of two shirts at an H&M store in Toronto that made me think about Bielby’s argument:

As Yunnan points out,

This, as fashion, enforces this idea that being in a band and playing music are for guys, limiting women to being the passive consumers and supporters of it, rather than the producers.

The shirts don’t just cast women in the role of fans; they specifically frame them as potential groupies, whose fandom is filtered through a romantic/sexual attraction to individual members of a band. Communications scholar Melissa Click argues that female fans are often dismissed because there is a “persistent cultural assumption that male-targeted texts are authentic and interesting, while female-targeted texts are schlocky and mindless—and further that men and boys are active users of media while girls are passive consumers.” While the image of the groupie is as well-known as that of the band, the groupie is usually viewed skeptically, seen as someone with a superficial, inauthentic appreciation of the music, “a particular kind of female fan assumed to be more interested in sex with rock stars than in their music.”

So the H&M shirts reflect gendered notions about who makes music (there were no shirts saying “I am the drummer”) as well as the idea that women’s appreciation for music and other forms of pop culture should be expressed through affection for a specific person, a form of fanhood that ultimately stigmatizes those who express it as superficial and inauthentic.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Anjan G. alerted us to an internet sensation, Liu Xianping.  The 72-year-old man in China has risen to fame modeling for his granddaughter’s clothing store, Yuekou.  The clothes are designed for teen girls:

Commenters are impressed about Xianping’s ability to “pull off” this look, but we shouldn’t be surprised.  Masculinity and femininity are performances, and so is age.

While the idea that we “do” gender is no surprise to SocImages regulars, we also “do” age.  In fact, we have a whole language of age-related chiding that serves to get people to act in ways that we deem suitable for their number of birthdays.  Says sociologist Cheryl Laz:

“Act your age. You’re a big kid now,” we say to children to encourage independence (or obedience). “Act your age. Stop being so childish,” we say to other adults when we think they are being irresponsible. “Act your age; you’re not as young as you used to be,” we say to an old person pursuing “youthful” activities.

Age, then, is a social construction too.

Accordingly, Xianping’s adoption of feminine poses and youthful fashions makes him appear younger and more girly than we think he should look.  Importantly, though, he is no more an actor here than are actual teen girls.  Each is playing a part, both with the help of just the right accessories.

Source: Laz, Cheryl. 1998. Act Your Age.  Sociological Forum 13, 1: 85-113. (link)

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.