Identities are therefore constituted within, not outside representation’ (Hall 1996: p. 4)
Feminist power to change the perception of women and the habitus of femininity forms the basis of this essay’s argument. The guiding statement is; ‘the power within is much greater than the power to change according to Bourdieu. The feminist power to change and empower women is an external power that can never win against the Habitus of femininity that is explicit in society.’ (Bourdieu, 1980)
Before and early in the 20th century, gender defined culturally acquired feminine or masculine behaviour and values in society. Masculinity has been defined culturally as Patriarchy and its manifested has been the dominance of the male over the female. Women were deemed as male’s possession, with their role limited to their appearances as the men’s role got defined by achievement. To conform to this identify, ‘women converted themselves into works of art, a site of aesthetic innovation subject to periodic upgrading.’ (Finkelstein, 2008: 211) A standard for perfection developed overtime and the closer the body approximates these idealized states of perfection, the greater its exchange value. Women therefore acquired a narcissistic obsession of appearance to meet the standards of perfection at the early ages. Before the birth of feminist movement, the society had been accustomed to the woman taking a romanticized symbol, such that it had becomes a social norm. According to Blackman (2008) social norms can be internalized and operate through our own self-forming and self-regulating practices… With time, these practices become part of our lives to the extent that they become automatic and impulsive. (Blackman, 2008: 26) Female gender became marked by romanticism; habitus romanticism.
Feminism has been described as a commitment to human dignity and equality between the male and female subjects. The feminist ideal has been a struggle of the woman to erase habitus romanticism as defining factor. Fashion has been one of the ways that feminists have used to erase feminine habitus romanticism and gain the male identity that was usually defined by achievement. In the various phases of feminism, different strategies of blending with the masculine identity have been employed through fashion. Davis comments that ‘The history of Western fashion is marked by a profound symbolic tension arising from the desire, sometimes overt though more often repressed, of one sex to emulate the clothing and associated gender paraphernalia of the other.’ (Davis, 1992: 33) However it will be noted through the various phases of feminism that; feminists attempt to acquire a masculine identity through fashion is trying to create another habitus in an institutionalized population, which is impossible due to class mobility and group dynamics.
The first-wave of feminism came in the 1940s, in UK and United States and encompassed theoretical, political, academic and business angles. Of much significance in this feminist movement was fashion which was (is) obsessed with gender, defining the boundary between masculine and feminine. (Wilson, 2011 p.117) Early efforts of blending into masculine by feminist fashion designers, was burying this boundary by making the women take on the appearance that men did. Coco Chanel began women’s wear inspired by men’s designs. She made flannel blazers, straight linen skirts, sailor tops, long jersey sweaters and skirt Jackets. (Wilson, 2011) In the second wave of feminism, there was an advocacy for more functional modes of dressing. A good illustration is the design by Lee smoking of a pant suit designed by Yves Saint Laurent as shown in picture below.
This picture is a symbol of masculinity with an essence of power, control, dominance, action, success being portrayed. The woman stands hair slicked back, with an aloof gaze, and portraying male body language. Hand in pocket is a symbol of indifference her as the other is holding a cigarette a habit characteristic of male. There is an air of authority on her and a characteristic male dominance that she exudes in her regalia as well as the pose that she strikes. Tuxedo styled suits were a symbol of independence and ability to do all that masculinity could be able to do. Through tuxedo, the woman is able to transform from being a symbol of romanticism to a fiercely independent individual who and appear in control. The feminist understanding was that gender is matter of bodily style and performance, which can be destabilized to achieve the needed end. (Butler, 1987)
It is however evident from the curves in the above picture that the body of a woman is shaped through the Tuxedo outfit. The interpretation is that there is a woman that is hidden by the man. Le Smoking accurately describes this transformation by describing it as ‘a sexuality that did not rely on ruffles or exposed skin, but instead smoldered beneath the sharp contours of a perfectly cut jacket and trouser.’ (Le Smoking, 1975) Tuxedo did not therefore manage to eliminate the romanticism that is associated with a woman’s body by portraying her as masculine.
Les smoking made a second image to illustrate the struggle of the dominance of the male over the female as in the picture below. In this picture, there is a naked woman behind the tuxedos style dressed woman. She is on heels and wearing a lady cap on her head. The tuxedo dressed woman has her leg on the sidewalk, as if forming a barrier to the nude woman. Her expression is oblivious of the nude who is by her side. Though the nude woman places her hands on her, she indifferently ignores her and continues to hold her cigar as if she were not there. This is an image of feminine attribute hidden by masculinity attributes. Masculine dominance fails to take the upper hand as the picture has been described as erotic by art critics. Romanticism rules both images by Le Smoking, evidence that is impossible to separate romanticism from the woman by adorning her with masculine qualities.
An attitude derived from male models is that their work is to “be on time,” “walk,” and “wear clothes” but nothing more. There is an apparent attribute of ‘action’ that is missing in the modeling job, as the ideal job of a man is to, ‘act,’ not appear. (Entwistle, 2004 P55).’ Though the model in the tuxedo suit tries real hard to assume, masculine, ‘action,’ she does not shake off the feminine, ‘appearance’ that is attributed with romanticism. Feminists failed to appreciate that gender is not fluid and cannot be assigned through fashion. Habitus has fixed and imposed romanticism on the female, leading people to always pick out, imagine and derive romanticized characteristics whenever she appears in any form. (Sassatelli, 2005)
A solution to the evident curvature is found in the oversize dress coats that leaves no trace of feminine curves. This outfit seems to be hiding the woman’s body from scrutiny of the outsider. Closer look can reveal that the coat design is that of man with a few modifications. Yamamoto who was one of the pioneers of loose closes once said, ‘when I started making clothes for my line, all I wanted was for women to wear men’s clothes.’ In the picture below, the woman wears what is rather large coat for her small body. To make sure that it is not an inconvenience to her mobility, it has been strapped at the waist. It is said that people pocket their hands, when they are unsatisfied with their looks and the lady in the picture is trying to tell the male subjects that there is nothing to be romanticized about her.
Even when the woman is still dressed in a coat, man will see past the coat as reflected in Helmets picture below. The man’s gaze will see the reflection of the woman that is on the mirror with the inner clothes that they are perceived to be wearing. Yohji Yamamoto puts it correctly when he says, “I liked imagining what’s inside.” There is a mystique about the oversize jacket that the woman is wearing to cover the parts of her body that are usually of much interest to male subjects. It can also be noted that the strap on her waist gives the woman’s chest a bump leaving plenty much room for imagination.
Unisex clothes played more or less the same role that was played by the coat; conceal the curves of women’s body. Unisex designs are full length covering the whole body and no trace of curves anywhere or revealing of a part of the body that is provocative. In the picture below, the man and the woman are wearing the same piece of cloth and both look comfortable in it. The woman’s body seems well protected by the rather semi-masculine clothe. However, we note that there is always some part of the body that will still be uncovered by the garment and this brings in the feminine hint that gives away everything to imagination.
Cropping in the late second-wave of feminism, (late eighties) unisex fashion did not prevent the development of post-feminism phase which is a deconstruction of the first and second wave of feminist fashion. Bourdieu’s statement is reinforced that, ‘The feminist power to change and empower women is an external power that can never win against the Habitus of femininity that is explicit in society. (Bourdieu, 1980)
Black fashion was considered eschewed to the romanticism that characterize women wearing colored clothes. “Black is the color of a kind that is of most attitudes; it is clear in the expression: I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me either.” — — Yohji Yamamoto.
The lady in black tuxedo style in the above picture has her hands in her hips a posture that denotes, ‘ready for action’. Her look is assertive as if someone was violating her, and she was ready to deal with them. Putting legs apart is an indication that at any moment she was about to take any action that she may have to take. Pulling of the head backwards is normally seen as an act of aggression. The color of the tuxedo, her posture and body language all points to the masculine attributes. However, the curves of her body gives are allure to the looker; color fails to eschew the romanticism about the woman.
Post feminism is characterized by the return of adornment designed to enhance the sexual allure of the wearer. Post-feminism is ‘a process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s are actively and relentlessly undermined’.’ (McRobbie 2009: 11) By returning to being the basic symbol of romanticism, the habitus of femininity is affirmed in the society. Physical appearance is a ticket to a degree of social status in the post-feminism period. Fashion in post-modern feminism encourages women to change their bodies in line with male notions of beauty.’ (Shilling 1993: 8)
To understand post-feminist period, one can evaluate the scourge of miniskirts and mini-dresses. Early 1990s miniskirts and mini-dresses were re-introduced with force into the market after being briefly introduced and then abandoned in the 1960s. From 1990s the miniskirts grew popular and then in 2000, they graduated to micro-miniskirts. Where pant suits had been used preferably by working women, miniskirts and minis-dresses became incorporated into business wear and this has remained to date. Legging and tights are worn as means of avoiding revealing too much where miniskirts and mini-dresses are worn. Very short miniskirts are now part of the school uniform in many schools and even for older women. Extremities have graduated to Kogal (a micro-mini that reveals the panties of the wearer) Slim-fit pants are also a product of post-feminism, and they glory in the revealing the curvature of women.
Habitus romanticism is a product of the western culture and it contrasts with habitus prudence that is practiced in the East. The first and the second wave of feminist fashion faded away quickly as they failed to erode the habitus of femininity; romanticism. Behind the feminist movements, the decisive key was the male gaze. ‘A woman who is unable or unwilling to submit herself to the appropriate body discipline…faces a very severe sanction indeed in a world dominated by men in the West. (Bartky 1990: 76) Feminism was started by individuals in the West who wanted to change the perception of women in society and went as far as creating a shade of mystery that did nothing to dissociate women from romanticism. Habitus romanticism is a culture born of social interactions, which become structured, making people to associate the female with romanticism even in the least of the contexts that are seeable.
‘Romanticism in fashion through practices of the self, are not something invented by the individual people. Past dispositions and structures have ended up shaping present structures and practices. Result is the formation of a pattern that grows into a habitus. For instance, the habitus of micro-mini and kogal were born in Japan high schools. High school drop-outs used to wear extremely short skirts as emulation to the western American culture. The high school students adapted this fashion and with time, it became a school uniform in a matter of a decade. This is a reinforcement of the fact that people learn how to think and act through their social group and the process may seem natural until it becomes a culture. In this case, the ‘fashion habitus’ is a product of the tastes, opinions and practices of the youth in the high schools. (Entwistle & Rocamora, 2006) Just like these students, every female subject has found herself in a culture that is proposed, suggested, imposed upon them by this habitus of romanticism.’ (Foucault 2000b: 291) Male subject is the omnipresent observer and a woman has to make herself into a symbol of romanticism for the male in his presence or his absence. Women have ended up placing themselves under a form of self-surveillance by adopting the Romanticism in their bodily forms.’ (Naomi, 1991) Subconsciously, women have come to live their body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal other.’ (Bartky 1990: 72) What is observed in post-feminism is a continuous evolution of fashion that continues to reinforce the habitus of romanticism.
The East has more emphasis and desire to promote female, preventing female from male gaze. Heavy veils and constitutional modesty in clothes have over time created a culture that hides the woman from the male gaze. Their focus is inner beauty and the sanctity of the spiritual world. The huge populations of Muslims in the East, and other conservative nations are famous for modest habitus. The veils that are worn by women leave little or nothing for the imagination. Spiritual world more accessible to the East than the west as the focus has been removed from the selves.
The classic film Wizard of Oz could tell the story of feminism as it has been in the three stages of its evolution. The film begins with a girl; Dorothy who is scared and lost and with no hope about finding peace and happiness. She meets likeminded girls who are equally lost with each one of them seeking something to make them complete. The girls embark on a journey to look for a wizard that may help them to locate what they feel deficient in. On the way, they meet obstacles that challenges them, and they somehow manage to get past them. Through the film the audience gets clues that the girls did posses at least a little of what they were seeking, though they characters in the film are not aware of it. When they finally, meet the wizard, they discover he is an ordinary guy with no special power but who inspires people to realize that what they were seeking to get is already inside them. This illustration exemplifies the struggle of feminism through fashion. Feminists have tried to manipulate fashion to gain leverage on power and masculinity. Post feminism has shown that the woman has liberated herself from the romanticism associated with dressing and seen herself as a separate entity whose sexuality is a non issue.
In the quest for gender equality, feminism has put a spirited fight against the habitus of romanticism in the society through fashion. The result has been the birth of new fashions like female tuxedo, flannel blazers, straight linen skirts, sailor tops, long jersey sweaters, skirt jackets, unisex clothes among others. Historically, the body has been a definite form of identify for women and this is why they used fashion as a means of propagating their objectives. These fashions were supposed to eliminate the habitus of romanticism about women. However, they all failed in doing so by expressing the habitus of romanticism in other forms that have been discussed. Post feminism is a reinforcement of habitus romanticism and all that it stands for. This habitus has continued to manifest from the period when it started to this day. From its modest forms, it has continually grown to more explicit forms. There are still some scattered traces of the efforts of feminism that are traceable today. However, the female figure has become a permanent symbol of romanticized habitus. Feminists have to accept that the female figure is has been romanticized since the early ages and there is nothing that they can do about it. Fashion will therefore remain catalyst for the intrinsic romanticism habitus in women and its development that are to come.
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