It’s not that I want to live in the nineteenth century, Gentle Reader. I am rather well-educated, so I know the issues and dangers of the time for anyone who is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual, not-rich, not-vaccinated. But, O, how I want to visit the nineteenth century!
I have always been a bit of an Anglophile, obsessed since I was very young with nineteenth-century (and, let us all be honest, any century) England. But the nineteenth century, with its parade of gowns and bustles, its dark underbelly and its bright exterior, there was a dichotomy to be explored there. It is no accident I ended up receiving a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century literature, but perhaps the fashion part was a bit of a surprise to everyone, including myself.
In past blogs, I’ve discussed how fashion is often considered to be anti-feminist. To be girly is to be a bad woman. Yet what we should see is how fashion empowers the people who wear it, and how it should empower the people who create it, from design to textile to execution to accessorizing. It is, and always has been, an enormously powerful and lucrative industry, from the nouveau riche cotton industrialists (see North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell) to the plight of the seamstress (see Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell) to those who create and decorate the hats for women to wear (see The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton). The industry controls us in ways we cannot even fathom (see The Devil Wears Prada, or, if you’re in the mood for something heavier, Roland Barthes’s The Fashion System): we market ourselves, and our ideology, through the clothing we put on our body. When we pay any sort of attention to what that clothing is–show me anyone over the age of twelve who really does not choose his or her own clothing, or pays no attention to that clothing he or she puts on, and I will Renounce Bacon For A Year–we find ourselves within the Fashion System. And when we decide to pay more than a little bit of attention to our clothing?
We participate in what I’d like to call The Fashionable System.
Roland Barthes might pooh-pooh my play on his title, and perhaps, Gentle Reader, I am not the first to say such. But I discovered I look adorable in bootcut jeans because sometime in the past few years, someone, somewhere, made them fashionable (again) and available (again). Notice I stress again. Fashion is cyclical; one of my favorite in-class exercises to perform with students is to point out the historical moment their clothing is inspired by. Double-stranded headband? Welcome to the Regency Era, itself inspired by Grecian and Roman dress. One shoulder dress? See the 1970s, or the Greco-Roman influence once more. Carwash skirts, and sharkbite hems? We’ve seen it all before, and we will see it all again.
Rue the day, Friends, RUE THE DAY when They bring back neon.
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