Monday, August 16, 2010

Sartorial Other

(This post is an expansion of my comment at Threadbared -- and I heartily recommend the post that spurred it.)

Sartorial othering -- recognition of people of different religion, ethnicity, nationality, political leanings etc etc by their clothing -- is an old tradition. In more extreme cases, certain groups may be forced to wear certain easily recognizable items of clothing that mark them as others. More commonly, as Threadbared writers so acutely put it, clothing becomes an extension of the person, it becomes epidermalized. They talk about how "ethnic" clothing is often perceived as one with the person who's wearing it, especially if talking about an ethnically distinct other.

Now, in cases when the other happens to look just like the dominant group, their clothing frequently becomes a substitute marker of ethnicity. Take Borat, for example -- oh, how people laughed at his too-short shorts and too-long socks. Neither of those things are of course specifically noteworthy, except when they indicate a person who does not belong -- and too clueless to know it. There's also safety in the belief that the other can be recognized.

It's interesting to see how this otherness is reflected on Eastern Europe, specifically -- since its denizens appear white and yet are not culturally and economically a part of the Western European/Anglophone culture, but rather that curious and unknowable Other. This perception is quite clear, for example, when The Sartorialist talks about Moscow's "Blinged-out Versace-ism" (clearly, he is not aware that most people there can't afford Versace, or, you know, H&M for that matter), or that blogger I referred to in Threadbared comment (the one who said that she recognized that a woman was Russian because of her overbranded clothes). There's certainly a poorly hidden contempt behind those perceptions; the same contempt one can witness in many comment threads of New Your Times blog, where people lament the proliferation of logo-heavy Coach bags. It's not that they mind overpriced bags; it's the people who advertise the ownership that bother them. It's the contempt of old money for the nouveau riche, of upper class for the upward aspirations of lower-middle.

So it's a curious sartorial bind we find ourselves in: dress in short shorts and long socks and be ridiculed for your backward ways, or try to adopt the values of the West and be ridiculed for too many/wrong logos. (There's of course also a possibility of being exoticized, as demonstrated in The Sartorialist.) For Eastern Europeans living abroad, there's a premium on sartorial blending -- if you dress right and keep your mouth shut, you may pass. But it's difficult to forget that one is just one pair of fake Gucci sunglasses or two inches of sock length from being outed.

OTOH, last winter when I was in Moscow it struck me how many people wear fur. Yet another reason many foreigners in Moscow look down at the native ways -- as if they themselves just woke up one day to realize that wearing fur was wrong. No, the realization was due to decades of activism and message bombardment, from PETA, most obviously, but also from other animal rights organizations. Bombardment that is still virtually absent in Russia, so tut-tutting at people for not internalizing the message they haven't been exposed to strikes me as yet one more way of othering and alienating. (Activism for animal rights, on the other hand, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It's the sneering superiority that gets me.) So it really is amazing how quickly cultural norms become distilled down to perceived dress codes, and the perceived dress codes to hierarchical judgments.

I'll leave you with this Russian Vogue cover, May 2010.

The bold text says, "Our pride". And there's certainly that.

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