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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"The Devil Wears Prada" inspired a few more thoughts, related to the relationship between fashion and feminism. Now, many people will, quite reasonably, say that there is none. Many of those people will themselves be feminists. We're suppose to be above all that frivolous nonsense, designed to divert female energy from changing the world to worrying about acquiring this season's must-have handbag. Don't get us started on high heels, either. Many others stay away from the women's movement because of the Andrea Dworkin - image: ratty hair, obese, clad in deliberately ugly clothes.

I never found the words to explain what bugged me so much about that early 70's attitude until I saw a documentary on Afghan women after the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban forbade all forms of cosmetics, yet many women risked painful and severe punishments to smuggle in mascara and blush. Make-up was sexual and Western, and therefore evil. Ms. Dworkin and her philosophical sisters never lived in the Bible Belt. The current face of conservative Protestantism is the suburban megachurch, with its coiffed and polished Republicans, but when I was growing up, there were still a lot of old-fashioned Pentacostals, who held the same view of cosmetics and fashion as the Taliban. My family wasn't in that group, but there were enough of 'em to make their attitude influential. Make-up and fashion were still somewhat forbidden, racy, and, consequently, the perfect emblem of freedom.

My mother and I went to Dallas every six weeks to restock the Clinique supply. To us, the Nieman-Marcus cosmetics department was rather like a cathedral -- it's magnificence transcended reality. We were really Someplace. We'd get a 1/4 pound of Godiva chocolate and a coke at the snack bar, and we were in heaven. We knew it wasn't reality, but man was it ever fun.

Too many of my liberal friends will read that sentence and immediately conclude I'm a shallow nitwit. My experience wasn't "authentic." It was too dependent on Nieman's status-symbol image; too 'consumerist,' not enough odor of sweat and soil. I think the leftists, the Pentacostals, and the Taliban all have something in common, and it's closely related to the idea of "authenticity" that fashion somehow denies. The fashion industry thrives on the imitation of status. I can't be Audrey Hepburn, but I can buy her scarf. Because there's no way to determine whether I got the money from a trust fund, a successful real-estate sale, a theft, or just loaded up the VISA, possession of the scarf really doesn't convey any information about my place in society. Also, because anyone with a credit card can have one, the original scarf itself actually loses a lot of its status-symbol worth. (By the way, none of these thoughts are original with me. Adam Smith said a lot of the same things.) The fashion industry, more than any other aspect of industrialism, corroded the supports of the old hierarchies. You can't tell how important anyone is just by looking anymore.

Fundamentalists are the original literalists, but fashion, and its cousins in art and entertainment, is all about image and metaphor. As the make-up artist Way Bandy said, "beneath the surface, there's more surface." The fundies are terrified of being wrong, but fashion depends on planned obsolescence. This year's right is next year's dreadful. Boatloads of quite unfrivolous cash depend on making us prefer cerulean to turquoise next year. (For the uninitiated, cerulean is bluer than turquoise. And no, you can't just say "light blue.") Certainty isn't possible. If one's entire personality depends on certainty, this is deeply offensive and must be stopped. Thus, Communists, Pentacostals, and the Taliban all agree that this must be stopped.

You will have noticed by now that I never once mentioned sex. Everyone thinks fashion is all about being sexually attractive, but I don't think the evidence supports that. One look at a six -foot tall size 4 should have stopped that argument. For historical support, note that foot-binding, white lead face powder, tight corsets, and belladonna eyedrops have all been the peak of fashion, and are all either quite unhealthy or actually poisonous. If sexually attractiveness is about reproductive fitness, how on Earth can it require poison?

The one thing all of those traits, and Hermes Kelly bags, Jimmy Choo stilletto heals, and powdered wigs have in common is that costliness. Until the industrial revolution, fashion was the exclusive province of the upper classes. It only spread downward when factories started producing lots of the required products. Humans are hierarchical, but the fashion industry makes that much harder. While the ambitious and clever betas and downward love this, the ones comfortable in their places really lose, since now, not only are they lower in the pack anyway, but they lose relative status since their position is no longer easily perceived. They have to do something to show their importance, which means they risk being wrong.

Wow, I never really meant to spend multiple paragraphs on something quite this pretentious. Oh, well. Next one will be really silly. Promise.

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