Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fashion Week

Shakespeare was not thinking of Fashion Week when he wrote it, but his line describes the male attitude toward a woman’s closet.

To the male mind, a woman’s closet is: “… the undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.”

That says it all.

The tactile and visual complexity, the mind-boggling variety, the endless row of God-only-knows what…  nothing about a woman’s closet makes sense to the male mind.  That’s the real reason why, when it comes to women’s fashion, men are always worrying about how much it costs.

No man will ever understand why a woman needs five or ten or fifteen red tops, or why she must have dozens of pairs of shoes.

And no man will ever grasp how a woman shops for a new home. A man will understand perfectly why she cares about how functional the new kitchen is, but he will never understand how she can walk through a closet that is as big as a two-car garage and declare that it will suffice for her “collection.”

Researching the topic for the Economist, Luke Leitch went where other man fear to tread: “Recently I toured the cavernous walk-in wardrobe of Tamara Mellon, the co-founder of Jimmy Choo shoes, and was confronted by a systemised kaleidoscope in which everything inside was grouped by shade. It was like walking into a paint-colour chart. Other women I have consulted speak of ordering their dresses according to season, designer, length, material—or various combinations of all these. The more elaborate the personal Dewey system, the more central fashion seems to be to its mistress’s identity. The point of a well-marshalled wardrobe is to allow its owner total mastery over her fashion arsenal. And only when everything is thus at her fingertips is she best placed to choose what to wear. Humdrum considerations such as weather and practicality play a passing part, but ultimately this is a decision dictated by three factors: the individual, the occasion and the season’s trends.“

Essaying to make fashion relevant to men, Leitch offers an analogy: “What has become clear is that fashion is to many women what sport is to many men: a pastime, a passion, a shared language, a form of self-definition, and a temporary escape from the opposite sex, all rolled into one deeply satisfying whole.”

To my mind the analogy fails. When you enter a woman’s closet you will feel more like you are entering an artist’s studio and less like you have just stumbled into the Green Bay Packers locker room.

Humans are a hunter/gatherer species. Men hunt while women gather. Men attack the outside world while women make homes.

Today the roles are more flexible than they have ever been, but the ideologues among us have not yet repealed human nature.

Enterprising designers have tried to create men’s fashion, but tradition dictates that manly attire is modeled on the military uniform. Women revel in the aesthetics of fashion; men care mostly about tailoring.

A man will still be horrified if he is not dressed like the other men. A woman will still be mortified if one other woman is wearing the same dress.

The cut of his suit matters, as does the fit, because a man does not want his suit to draw attention to itself. He wants it to signify his place on the status hierarchy.

A woman’s fashion statement is supposed to draw attention to itself. Otherwise the woman will feel undressed. She most definitely does not want to be out in public looking or feeling undressed. Were that to happen she would be identifying herself as someone she is not.

A woman’s closet is a symphony of colors, shapes, forms, and textures. Add to that the dizzying array of cosmetics that she will call on to create the right face and you see that women spend a great deal of time and effort creating an appearance. Not because they are vain, as Kant would have had it, but because they are social.

In one sense, a woman will arrange her closet to make the act of dressing as effortless as possible. In another, she will organize it in terms of what looks good on her, what looks good to the world, how she wants to designate her relationship status, and what she wants to say to the world.

Far more than a man, a woman has the freedom to control the message that she is sending out. Is she attached or available? Is she there for business or for pleasure? Does she want to vamp it up or tone it down? Does she want to proclaim her womanhood proudly or does she want to hide it, as though she were ashamed of it? Does she want to show modesty or flamboyance? Does she want to show that she is up on the latest styles or that she prefers to follow her own whims?

Beyond what it says about her, a woman attire will reflect on those around her. If she is married, her attire will reflect on her husband. If she is a mother, her self-presentation will reflect on her children.

A woman has more freedom than a man in putting together an outfit or putting on a face. Yet, her freedom is not absolute. However well she believes that she can control the message she is communicating, once she steps out in public she can no longer dictate the way others will read her appearance.

For that among other reasons, women spend long hours studying up on fashion, reading specialized magazines, arranging their closets, and looking at themselves in mirrors.

This does not make them narcissists. When women look at themselves in the mirror they are stepping back from their creation, like an artist who looks at his work as though someone else had created it. 

Women want to feel that they look beautiful, but they also want to take pride in their appearance. The two are not exclusive, but they are certainly not the same.

1 comment:

Ray Sawhill said...

Brilliant little essay, thanks.