Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass) by Édouard Manet. 208 cm × 265.5 cm. Located at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
“You are what you wear”, we’ve all heard this before. The clothes that you choose to wear send a message out to those around you. What you wear affects others perception of you and also affects how you feel. This sounds agreeable right? Of course it does. It happens all the time in the movies. The main actress in a romantic comedy has just lost her job or broken up with her boyfriend. She’s dressed in jeans and a grey college sweatshirt, sporting the “natural look” (a polite way of saying that she is wearing no make-up), sitting on her couch on a Friday night looking rather sad and miserable eating ice cream straight out of the box. In front of her is a coffee table full of junk food to make it seem like she’s reached an all time low. Her clothing is stained, she hasn’t left the house for at least a day. She looks like she’s in desperate need of a shower and a makeover.
Surprise! There is a knock on her door. In comes her upbeat best friend who encourages her to get all dressed up to out, promising her that she’ll feel better if she does. In the following scene the heart broken women has showered, is out of her sweats and looks almost unrecognizable. She’s wearing a fitted red dress with black high heels, carrying a small gold clutch. She struts into into a club, talking and giggling with her girlfriends as she scans the room to feel the vibe. A cute guy notices her. He can’t take his eyes of her and approaches her with a clever introduction. She brushes him off at first (only because it’s almost expected, she’s got game) and then caves. Bam! She has a date. What does that tell us? Sweatshirt and jeans does not send he message that you’re sexy and c onfident as a red dress and 6 inch heels. Sweats are associated with being sloppy, it sends the message that you have just given up whereas wearing a brightly coloured dress, heels and carrying a fancy purse sends the message that you are elegant and confident. If you wear a red dress you’re a hottie, if you wear sweats you’re a nottie. How can clothes make us feel this way?
I hate to admit that I’ve leafed through some fashion magazines. I’ve even bought some Vogues in India. There are usually a couple lying around on the lunch table at work showcasing the latest season trends. “Purple is the new black this autumn” it reads. I often catch myself thinking I like what the model is wearing. I can see myself wearing that egg plant coloured top paired with a medium light denim and a mustard coloured black stripped scarf I think to myself. That top would hang loosely off me and the jeans would hug my legs in all the right place and the scarf would give just the right dash of bold colour to tie my outfit together. I’ll look sophisticated yet fun. Smart and also flirty. When I walk down the street carrying my brown bag over my shoulders people will think I’m a graduate student working on her PhD in existential phenomenology. If I wear my glasses someone might think I am a lawyer rushing to meet a client at a fair trade coffee shop. Or maybe, someone will think that I am ready to go out on a first date with a cute guy with the wits of Jean-Paul Sartre and nose of Adrienne Brody! This is definitely a first date outfit. No one will ever never know that I am just a bank teller who is overqualified for her job and spends a lot of her time watching How I Met Your Mother and blogging from her bed.
Why am I picturing myself in these clothes in this magazine? I don’t even like shopping. And I only have 30 minutes to eat my lunch. Who is this telling me to see myself in these clothes? Furthermore who put this model here? He sees me looking at this magazine but I can’t see him. I think he has me where he wants me. I am picturing myself in that outfit convinced that purple is the new black, already thinking of the message my clothes are sending out. I can’t see myself without seeing myself be seen by him. But he hasn’t seen me yet, or has he? Whoever he is, I need him. I need him to there to gain a better understanding of myself, I need him here to unite me and the image I have of myself wearing those fashionable clothes. Make my imagined me a reality. What is going on here! Who am I? Who does he think I am?
I am not whole. I am a divided self. Split. I have two ways of seeing myself. I see myself and I see myself being seen. I am a subject and simultaneously I see myself as an object. I assume the position of the other (the person who sees me) and stand away from my physical self. I try to gain a better understanding of myself through my objectification. The divided self is not particular to how women experience themselves. We all experience ourselves through a split self to build our self and identity. I am not one but two perspectives. The perspective of myself and the other. Who is the other? Whose perspective am I using to judge myself? It isn’t mine. Though it becomes mine.
Why is it that when I am wearing red lingerie I feel sexy and confident? What makes me feel pretty and happy in a long flowy skirt and a simple black tank top? Bold and daring when I am wearing jeans and my sunglasses? What about womens clothing and accessories affect my mood? Or rather, how do I experience my clothing?
In her book titled “Seeing Through Our Clothes” Ann Hollander argues that the meaning we give to our clothes is influenced by pictorial images. From the beginning of time artists have depicted women wearing clothing (when they weren’t busy painting them naked at their bath *ahem ahem Degas* or naked in the park in the accompany of clothed men (*ahem ahem Manet*) or naked holding creepy looking white babies *ahem ahem European Renaissance painters*). Artists from many countries and time periods have captured women and their attire in art thereby anointing these clothing images. Artists have associated clothes with certain situations and personages (Iris Marion Young). “The representation of clothes freezes the conventional into the natural, and people measure women in their clothes in relation to the natural aesthetic created by clothing images” (Ann Hollander). With the invention of the printing press and the popularity of print media which gave rise to mail order catalogues and fashion and beauty magazines, by the 20th century women began experiencing themselves in clothing through the images they saw of women in clothing. Women in print have always been portrayed as taking up minimal space, standing straight like statues, often these women have small body frames to indicate their “femininity”. Women in advertisements have been shown them on the move, walking to work, taking a walk, driving, running, at their office, leaping and their clothing has not caused them any restriction but allowed them the freedom to move around. These images have the narrative of the “average women” performing her daily public and private routine while looking amazing.
We women, Hollander suggests “seek to fashion ourselves in the mode of the dominant pictorial aesthetic”. The models in print advertisements, television commercials and actresses in movies all project images and ideas of how we look, they serve as our mirror and allow us the opportunity to see how we are while also exposing new fashion looks, trends and beauty ideas. When I’m all dressed up walking down the streets of Toronto I love catching my reflection in the window.. I intentionally glance at myself while trying to act nonchalant about seeing my reflection by making myself seem like I am not intentionally looking at myself. I feel like a superstar in a movie with perfect hair and makeup. Sometimes I hope that while I know I look good but act like I have no awareness of myself that a tall, dark and handsome guy bumps into me and the contents of my purse spill! Oh yes, and we both bend down at the same time trying to gather all my belongings and then we both look up at each other and smile. He’ll ask me if I’m okay and I’ll tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and say “of course”. He’ll apologize and comment on how pretty I look and then ask me for my number. Yes, I am ashamed to admit it but scenarios like these play through my head all the time. Why are my clothes giving me these ideas? From movies of course. Where the well dressed and intelligent woman is rushing to get somewhere but it sidetracked because a stranger walks into her. She is now they beautiful damsel in distress.
Now for the serious question. Is this my imagination that is making up these images and scenarios? Is it my imagination that is giving these meanings to pictures?
Although it is my imagination that is entertaining these thoughts and imaging these scenarios, it is not me that is giving meaning to these images that bombard women in society. My imagination is controlled within a patriarchal order which seeks pleasure in the objectified female body. My experience of the clothes I wear, the pleasure I take in wearing certain clothing and the pleasure I derive from looking at clothing and of being seen in clothing is the consequence of the narratives of clothing that are portrayed in dominant print and moving picture such as movies. I am receptive of the stories that are being told in print and movies.
When women watch movies or flip through magazines they do so as subjects who stand at a distance to themselves and objectify what they are viewing, passing judgement on the female bodies in front of them. “Her hair is nice, her lips form the perfect pout, her thighs are too big. Her butt is too flat. I don’t like what she is wearing. Who does she think she is?” Women gain pleasure from both hating and liking what they say. At the very same time women look at magazines and movies as subjects who identify themselves from passively watching without passing any judgement. The gaze in which women view advertisements and movies is not the female gaze but the male gaze argues Young. “If women are to achieve any subjectivity it can only be through adopting the position of the male subject who takes pleasure in the objectification of women”.
So to answer my question that I posed in the above paragraph. Whose perspective am I using to judge myself? The answer is the male perspective, the dominant perspective in our patriarchal culture which creates a certain female ideal and re-creates it in popular media and culture.
Sandra Bartky argues that women internalize the objectifying gaze. She coined this the the “fashion beauty complex”. Women’s subjectivity is masculine, their gaze is masculine and it is through this masculine gaze that women evaluate a woman’s body and their own in comparison. This means that women always permanently stand at a distant from themselves and with the male gaze either approve or disapprove of women’s bodies and clothing, including their own
The reason I feel sexy and confident wearing red lingerie is because I always seen women in print and movies wear red lingerie in bedroom scenes when they are seducing their male lover. Their bodies are toned and fit and their breasts and butts are perfectly held into place in their underwear. These women in red underwear have their man’s attention and the man is willing to do anything for her and both parties seem to be enjoying themselves and each other. Women wearing oversized pajamas and house slippers do not entice men. They bore them to sleep. I desire to be that sexy woman that entices the man. Women want to be that sexy vixen and as a result respond to these images with desire to have female power and develop a willingness to dress in that manner. When I wear red lingerie I feel like that woman on screen that drips sex and confidence. How women experience their clothing and how we experience ourselves in clothing is a consequence of the male gaze that we view the world and ourselves with. I only feel hot in red lingerie because red lingerie is associated with being hot and powerful. When I see men respond to it in the way I imagined it confirms my experience even more. Rarely are women seen sad and miserable dressed up like that! Unless of course they have lost miserable at a game of Strip Scrabble on a Friday Night.
A black fitted blazer worn with a crisp men’s shirt worn over sexy matching underwear makes women feel on top of the world and powerful. She’ll walk with her head held high. We can all relate to her because we’ve seen this moving image before. Man! I feel like a woman sings Shania Twain. This image of the corporate independent woman dressed in masculine clothing is constructed in movies and print ads. I want to be like her! Women often think this or say this as they look at print ads or watch movies not keeping in mind that she is a construction by the male mind.
Men have constructed the narratives of clothing, and of women in clothing. After all men are behind the beauty and fashion industry and are their number one driving force. Therefore women’s relationship to the clothing that they wear or what they choose to wear is intertwined with how men perceive women through her objectification. This consequently affects how we women see ourselves and experience our clothing. I am not suggesting that women lack subjectivity. Not at all. What I am arguing is our subjectivity is developed not with our viewpoint but always assuming the masculine position, always stepping outside of us and looking in.