by Alison Bancroft
There are a number of popular ideas about fashion: That it demeans and oppresses women, or that it is a capitalist plot to extract money – either that they do not have, or that they do have but do not appreciate – from the gullible and the credulous. Attached to both of these is the idea that fashion is vacuous fluff, something trivial that is only of interest to women and gay men and thus pointless by virtue of those who are interested in it. If it were serious, significant, relevant in any way, shape or form, then straight men would take an interest in it. The fact that, on the whole, they don’t take an interest in it, and the people that do are, on the whole, marginalized and discriminated against, is enough to move fashion to the back of the queue for cultural and political importance.
In this short essay I would like to propose another way of looking at fashion, one that will emphasize the ways in which it reframes notions of gender and sexuality. What makes fashion so remarkable is that it has zero regard for heteronormative ideas about men and women, masculine and feminine. In fact, it offers one of the only cultural spaces there is for variant models of sexed subjectivities. In fashion, the usual categories of man and woman do not apply.
Also, before this essay continues, it should be said that fashion here refers to creativity in dress and bodily ornamentation. It is a branch of the avant-garde that makes people say “but you can’t wear that” as if a garment’s unsuitability for everyday life is a problem when, actually, it is the whole point. Fashion is not about shopping, and if you think it is, you have missed a trick. Fashion is not going to change the world, of course. It is never going be truly revolutionary. It is seditious though, it subverts from within, offering challenges to the presumed naturalness of existing hierarchies within the terms that are available to it.
Sheila Jeffreys is the most vocal exponent of the standard criticism that fashion reflects and serves to maintain female subordination. In her book Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West she argues that the appearance of the drag queen Ru Paul in adverts for MAC cosmetics and on the runway for the designer Thierry Mugler is a testament to how much fashion hates women. By Jeffreys’ logic, using a drag queen as a model tells the world that fashion thinks women are irrelevant.[i]
Unfortunately for Jeffreys, anatomy is not destiny. It is not the case that fashion hates women so much it makes them redundant by using a man in their place. Instead, fashion ignores the very idea of men and women from the outset, and it puts men in the place of women, women in the place of men, and trans becomes the default, the norm, rather than an oddity or an abasement. This disregard for the usual categories of man and woman is evidence firstly that gender binaries are irrelevant in fashion, and more generally that gender identity is not located in the anatomical body anyway. For anyone familiar with the development of Queer Theory in the last twenty years, this second point is no surprise. Queer Theory, though, is a bit niche, and beyond the confines of the humanities and liberal arts departments of Western universities where it is researched and taught, no-one has really heard of it. For people outside of universities, the ideas of Queer Theory are communicated differently – and fashion is one of the ways in which queer ideas become culturally active. Indeed, it could be said that fashion was queer avant la lettre.