Monday, April 14, 2003

Fashion represents the social and political climate of a given period. The type of garments that are worn and the presentation of sex and gender through published photograph’s exist as a result of cultural tensions. The very nature of relationships between men and women are demonstrated by the clothes that they wear.

Fashion is so clearly related to outward appearance that its association with gender is readily apparent. The construction of the body has been manipulated through the use of corsets, surgery and other methods over the last hundred years and this is particularly true for women. This construction of the feminine is presented to the observer in magazines and through the use of advertising. Primarily a masculine trait, the active observation of the other gender is becoming increasingly ambiguous, especially in relation to the sex of both observer and the observed subject. Prior to the understanding of relationships between fashion, gender, the body and the gaze must come knowledge of the clothing industry, as it now exists. There are currently two modes of fashion: Couture and Confection that contribute towards the figure of the human being. Manipulation of the body appears to take place in a similar form on analysis of these two modes.

Couture is designed and created by the fashion houses. Designer labels at the top end of the clothing market such as Chanel and Gucci turn out designs twice a year for the different seasons, Spring Summer and Autumn Winter. Both Haute Couture and the ready to wear collections are handmade and extremely expensive but the latter are mass produced and not specifically created for the individual. Couture relies on a manner of advertising, commonly exhibiting clothes through the pages of magazines, that has contributed to the emergence and increased gender ambiguity of the active gaze but more importantly it has provided a means for male fashion to gain strength thus allowing such ambiguity to grow.

While Couture has leant itself to subtly increasing gender ambiguity it is the second mode of production that has overwhelmingly changed our view of masculinity and femininity. Confection is ever present in the media. Magazines, billboard posters, the television and many other forms are used to advertise High Street clothing. Confection covers a number of different types of store; any clothes that are industrially mass produced come under the heading.

Gilles Lipovetsky recognises the obvious distinction between the two modes and cites this ‘bipolar’ system as having ‘emerged during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ (p.55). Previously clothes were made at home or by Couturier’s for those who could afford the price. The larger industrialisation of the western world allowed clothes to be produced on such a scale that they were affordable to the lower classes. This new system rewrote the face of advertising and thus magazines such as Vogue came in to existence giving designers a wider audience and allowing the female to widen her choice of garment. This, in turn, became part of the emancipation of women and has contributed towards the ambiguity that is now present in all facets of fashion. The implications of industrialisation are clear in British culture and quite positive for women. They have the choice to wear trousers and clothes that were deemed masculine in the nineteenth century. In fashion their position has equalised and, to some extent, surpassed that of men.

Women are seen, certainly on the High Street, as the target consumer of clothes. This is evident not only through the quantity of garments that are available to them but also through the presentation of shops. The majority will house the female lines on the ground floor, allowing the consumer to walk in and examine the product. Men often have to walk up or down a flight of stairs in order to access the clothes. Only a small number of shops deviate from this rule. Couture does not necessarily make this assumption because it has outgrown the attitude of the higher classes towards clothes. While the High Street caters to the worker clothes were a status symbol to those who could afford the lavish and thus many designer labels exist primarily to manufacture men’s wear. Above all this demonstrates a difference between Couture and Confection, the history behind them relating to the attitude maintained towards gender, the bias towards women is less fundamental in fashion houses.

The focus on female fashion stretches to include the various types of advertisement. There are many magazines dedicated purely to women’s fashion and fewer that provide this service to men. While Vogue has a long history that almost embraces a century, male literature on the subject has existed for little more than twenty years. Thus the opportunity for women to become the active observer and adopt this masculine trait is only now forthcoming