clothes/fashion

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.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

I’d love to draw your attention to The Alpha Parent, a blogger who has collected a stunningly large number of toys for infants that socialize girls into preening.

Some of the toys are purses/handbags that include pretend lipsticks, compacts, and related-items.  My Pretty Learning Purse includes a toy lipstick and a mirror; the Gund Sesame Street Abbey Purse Playset includes a compact and powder brush; the Lilliputiens Liz Handbag includes an eye shadow compact complete with three shades and an eye shadow applicator.

In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.

It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play.  Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:

Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:

The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits.  I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:

The latter reverses into a nurse’s uniform.

The Alpha Parent concludes:

Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.

They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys.  Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.

It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism.  Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later.  Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.

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.

Amie G. sent along a five minute documentary in which a series of artists and entrepreneurs talk about why the Day of the Dead has become so popular in parts of the United States.

While they don’t discuss issues of cultural appropriation (like at Halloween), they have some interesting things to say about why it is so appealing to a broad audience. A professor of Art History, Ray Hernández Durán, for example, traces it to the growing Latino demographic, the way media has changed, and a history of the U.S. being open to cultural influence.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Today’s post marks the third time that we’ve highlighted a fashion-related appropriation of homelessness.  We saw it on America’s Next Top Model and in a catwalk show for a Vivienne Westwood collection.  This time it’s a fashion editorial in Vogue Germany in which a model poses as a “bag lady.”  Thanks to Ann Marie N. for sending it in.

When homelessness is made into a fashion object, it trivializes the pain and suffering of the homeless, transporting the issue into “something hip adopted by the beautiful people.”   Dressing like a “bag lady” can only be understood as fashionable when it’s a purposeful choice.  As I wrote in a previous post about the topic, “actual homeless people are not and never will be ‘fashionable’ in this sense; they will always simply be homeless.”

Or, as Judith Williamson was quoted saying on Threadbared (a sociology and fashion blog):

It is currently “in” for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.

So, while the appropriation of homelessness in the fashion industry may look like an homage, really it’s just a way to further marginalize and “other” the actual homeless.  It’s a way for fashionable people to demonstrate difference from, not similarity to, actual homeless people.

For the same phenomenon with race and people from post-colonial countries, also see: whiteness in fashion, non-whites as fashion props, black bodies as propsexotification of people and places in fashion, Orthodox Jew-inspired fashion show, and exoticizing India in Vogue UK.

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.

A few years back we featured a series of Playboy drawings from the 1960s and ’70s that trivialized the social movements of the time: feminism, the anti-war movement, native rights, and the civil rights movement.  You should really go take a look; they’re something else.

In any case, Peter from Denmark sent in another example from the same time period.  A 1970s JC Penney ad for pants; “slack power” is a reference to “Black power” and it’s no coincidence that an African American man is modeling.  Notice, too, that it calls the pants “anti-establishment” in the bottom right.

While companies like Komen are getting a lot of critical attention these days for turning cancer awareness into consumption, this strategy has been around a long time.

For examples of appropriation of feminism, see these framing consumption of clothesmake-upjewelry, cigarettesmagazines, and cosmetic procedures as expression of freedoms.

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.