❤ I can't always make up my mind, but I am boldly undecided. ❤

13 May 2013


Cause of ambivalence:
Cape Cod (Or more specifically the connection between money, clothing and power)

Note contents:
"Dear Cape Cod,
You were the perfect getaway, but the pairing of expensive accessories with cheap and tacky vacationwear was a reminder that while money may buy power it does not buy class. Ambivalently Yours❤"

Place left:
In a clothing donation bin, at the edge of Cape Cod.

I wrote this note last spring after dining at a Cape Cod seafood restaurant. As we were being ushered to the back of the restaurant to the bathroom-adjacent table, I realized that my partner and I did not quite fit into the scene we had just entered. The majority of the clientele in the restaurant, mostly retired wealthy women, were dressed in their Cape-Cod-casual best (colourful fleece sweaters with the names of their preferred Cape beach embroidered on the front paired with casual slacks) juxtaposed with very expensive handbags. Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Chanel, all the big names were proudly displayed on the tables amongst the lobster bibs and oyster crackers. I looked at my own nautical inspired striped canvas bag with fake leather trims and realized that even in a casual vacation setting, the lack of a proper couture label on the front of my purse was a huge social faux pas. This made me resent these rich ladies, their expensive purses and their ugly Cape Cod casual style. How dare they fashion shame me and make me sit by the bathrooms.

During this vacation I was reading a book called Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories by Herbert Kohl which included a critical analysis of the story of Babar the Elephant. This is the type of text that ruins everything you love about your childhood storybook heroes by making you realize that their stories glorify colonialism, capitalism and all the other bad “isms”. One of the points Kohl addresses in his essay is the shift of identity that happens to Babar when he goes to the city to live with the rich lady and starts wearing human clothes. According to Kohl, this sartorial transformation is a symbol of Babar’s assimilation into “civilized” (white) society. This shift becomes more significant when Babar returns to the jungle and keeps his city clothing, differentiating him from the other “nude” elephants and acting as a symbol of worldliness and superiority, which lead to him becoming king of the elephants.

Kohl’s analysis reminded me of my own interpretation of the rich Cape Cod ladies and their status symbol purses. I began thinking about the use of fashion as a a symbol of power and upper class domination and started to wonder if perhaps Kohl and I were oversimplifying a much more complex expression of personal identity.

Andrew Bolton, curator to the Met’s Costume institute, was quoted in the New Yorker saying that: “There’s nothing so immediate as fashion, in terms of an expression of one’s values and one’s state of mind. Even the negation of fashion is a statement.” Expanding on that thought, fashion can become a form of communication, an outwardly way of expressing something without words. The performance of one’s personal style can be a conscious act that represent ones inner self, associates one to different subcultures or create social cues about one’s status, education or ethnicity. As Kaja Silverman writes: “Clothing is a necessary condition of subjectivity - that in articulating the body, it simultaneously articulates the psyche.” More than just an expression of vanity, the act of putting on clothes becomes a complex expression of one’s relationship with one’s body and environment. With this in mind, it seems that because there is value in learning to use a language properly in order to ensure the clearest form of communication, it should be equally important to learn about the impact of dressing certain ways. Yet people who invest in their sartorial selves are often thought of as shallow individuals being duped by dominant social paradigms, instead of individuals who are concerned about what their sartorial self is saying to the world.

As a feminist who pursued her higher education while working in fashion, I’ve always felt a sort of push and pull between my desire to dress the part, and my inability to decide which part I actually wanted to play. I became aware that dressing like a fashionista and dressing like a feminist meant two different things and that my desire to be both at once was seen as a contradiction. In 1997, feminist literary critic and a professor emeritus at Princeton Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue Magazine entitled The Professor Wore Prada in which she wrote: “If fashion is free speech, why do we feminists get stuck with a pitifully small vocabulary?" Ten years later, after receiving a great deal of backlash from the Vogue article she expanded on this thought in a New York Times article stating that in academia the complexities, social cues and joys of fashion are “very much denigrated. The academic uniform has some variation, but basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.” 

Fashion has a dark past and a complicated future. I have written about my own conflicted relationship with fashion on this blog many times before and I wont deny that my relationship with clothing is full of ambivalent contradictions. However, I get frustrated when fashion is over-simplified. My own simplistic first impression of the Cape Cod ladies is a clear example of how it is an easy trap to fall into. Maybe these women weren’t only trying to showcase their financial power. Perhaps their purses were part of the uniform of their own rich lady subculture, a way to find other rich ladies to be friends with during their stay in Cape Cod. Maybe these fashion accessories acted as a type of safety blanket to help them feel connected to a home from which they were displaced. Maybe Babar just wanted to dress the part so it would be easier for him to fit in to his new urban life. Maybe the ladies and Babar just liked dressing up because its fun. In both circumstances, I would argue that it is possible that certain sartorial decisions are more motivated by personal desires than a result of political assimilation.

Fashion is just a language and like any language fashion can be misused. Just because some people don’t know how to speak properly, does not mean that the entire English language is without value. Sure, it has limitations and is prone to misinterpretation, but it is also a key element of communication. It is embedded in how we coexist, and it is something worth considering and questioning. I have concluded that fashion is perfect for the ambivalently inclined because loving and hating it in equal measures is the only way to understand the pain it inflicts without giving up the joy it can create.

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