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Essay: Fashioning Dissent

by Alison Clarke on 23 July 2008

Fashion Historian Alison Clarke ponders the intimate impact of fashion on the everyday lives of women.

Fashion Historian Alison Clarke ponders the intimate impact of fashion on the everyday lives of women.

Students at Madame C. J. Walker’s Beauty School

Among primitive peoples, it is reported, women’s private property generally develops later than that of men, and, originally, and often exclusively, refers to adornment. By contrast, the personal property of the male usually begins with weapons.
- Georg Simmel, ‘Adornment’ (1904)

From sexual assertiveness of the ‘red hot’ lipstick that came to define the New Woman of the 1920s, to the pro-African American hair and beauty treatments of early 20th century black entrepreneur Madam C J Walker, fashion has wielded a politics at the forefront of women’s everyday lives. Fashion is not just an industry peddling rarefied clothes. At its most basic it is a process incorporated into daily practices and rituals, traditions, knowledges and bodily habits. We are all familiar with the self-aggrandising claims of individual fashion geniuses, from avant-garde designers to fashion investors, over their contribution to aesthetic economy and ‘culture’ per se. But fashion is actually lived and politicised in more intimate and mundane terms. In Carolyn Steadman’s now classic feminist history/ autobiography, Landscape for a Good Woman (1987), she describes how the post-WW II working class culture of longing, embodied in her own mother’s desire for the fashionable glamour of a Christian Dior New Look dress, was far from trivial; rather it was at the core of an emerging class and gender politics that would transform society.

The furore over celebrity emulation, $5,000 handbags, size zero models and ‘It’ shoes provides us with an endless circus of controversy over fashion’s escalating degeneracy and absurdity; and women’s complicity in its futile antics. But this tends to obscure the fact that fashion, and its anti-fashion movements and counter dispositions, is more accessible today than at any other period in history; likewise the definitions of its practice. Within fashion, connoisseurship and elitism are as rife as in the upper echelons of any art market. However, the devolution of style knowledge through the accelerated and heterogeneous forum of the internet has already generated the possibility of a whole new relation between politics, fashion and everyday lives; one that might even render its original power-brokers, from hard-copy editors to celebrity stylists, ultimately redundant.

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