Friday, February 24, 2012

A thought on young girls and fashion's influence

"Girls are treading a fine line between being seen as victims of media and fashion industries, which position them as too sexualised too early, and being agents of "girl power" - confident, opinionated, and about to embrace their entrance to womanhood."- Rebekah Willett, "Consuming Fashion and Producing Meaning through Online Paper Dolls."

I just read the sentence above. The sentiment expressed is fairly common to studies on girls and young women and their relation to fashion, but this time something jarred. "Too sexualised too early." As if there is ever an appropriate age to be sexualised? The emphasis I read here is not that it is 'negative' to be sexual, but to be 'sexualised'- a turn of phrase that places power of definition of you as a sexual subject in the hands of another person.

Fashion is not necessarily about being sexual, anyway. As the Man Repeller cheekily demonstrates, there is a network of complex motivations that inspire and propel people towards fashionable dress, and attracting a member of the opposite sex is low on the list of priorities. Obviously images of young girls being dressed as adults is deeply problematic, both for the message it sends to adult women- younger, thinner, flatter, more innocent is more desirable- and the knowingness it attributes to the girls who are modelling themselves, often still growing up yet rendered by the styling and our gaze as consenting adults. (See Vogue Paris December 2010 for an illustration of this. Or better yet, don't.) 

But what else is there? What other discomfort seethes underneath fashion's glossy exterior, alongside the dismay about sexualisation? I suspect that it is bound with what fashion does- it emphasises the exterior, it draws and plays over the skin of the wearer, inviting the eye and perceptions someone might make upon seeing you. So fashion, turning its burning gaze to young people (some boys like fashion too. I am going to write about that in my work but I feel like it goes unsaid too often. Girls are not the only people who like fashion! All right then.) Anyway, fashion turning its burning gaze to young people inculcates them as consumers, presenting them with established social codes (as expressed through clothing) or promoting an image for them to adopt- a premature occurrence for a group who are in the process of figuring out who and how they want to be perceived. At a formative time in their development, they are being presented with images of what they should be, who they could be, a process which orients them towards appearances as one of the most important ways to be in the world. 

For me, fashion should be enjoyed amongst a variety of other ways of thinking, appreciating and expressing- to enjoy it alongside art is to see the mutual influence of the two on one another, to link it with literature is to see how characters and historical times inspire, and how dressing in certain garments or styles can evoke a sense of the past- or the fictional- in the everyday. To see fashion as an outworking of human society, reflecting both beneficial and horrific aspects of humanity, our collective fears and desires- this goes well beyond the purview of looking "fashionable." Perhaps some young people are not yet ready to hold fashion in this context among other things, but are being incrementally taught that it is important they should be consumers and that to be significant they must be skilled at branding themselves with a particular style. I think it is this anxiety, as much as that they will be looked as as sexual beings "before their time", that is at work in the attitude of people towards fashion and young people (namely girls). Just a thought.

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