Friday, January 11, 2013

Fashion Is a Foreign language

No fewer than three people alerted me to this article. A spider dress is of course an amazing idea, beautifully executed, and represents a really inspiring instance of wearable technology. Technology however is far from the only exciting fashion thing happening in the world today (Sonia Rykiel’s Pre-Fall 2013 collection, anyone?) Yet this is the only thing my friends on the geekier side noted – it was on io9, but the interesting thing here is really the whole geeks and fashion interaction.

Sure, there is the SF/tech aspect to the spider dress, and this is obvious. But besides the clearly techy things, nerd fashion statements do veer decidedly into less-than-subtle territory – behold the preponderance of corsets. And historical garb. And basically every fashion statement is a dress-up, clearly delineated from the daily uniforms of jeans and tees.

Part of it is probably because fashion is still at its root perceived as deeply feminine, and geeks are notorious for despising al things traditionally feminine – from the cult of technology to women often trying to be “one of the guys” (of which I wrote before, like here); in that regard they are not different from the rest of the society, but traditionally feminine women are often less visible in geekdoms, and I won’t even start on the whole “fake nerd girl” thing because ugh. There is also of course contempt for the mainstream, and fashion is a very mainstream form of non-verbal communication. So out of this confluence, we get a group of people who are not simply uninterested in fashion but contemptuous of it.

And then there is another thing: “social ineptness”, at least self-professed, is almost a point of pride or at least identity in much of geek culture (just how many times the whole “But geeks are socially inept! He was just flirting!” thing gets trotted out during various con sexual harassment dust-ups?) Attempting to be an isolated culture, mainstream language (verbal and not; I was actually called a “mundane” at my first World fantasy Con, which was funny) is treated as an imposition, and people just can’t be bothered with mundane rules and communication etc. Yet, they do recognize the importance of communication – but most are not particularly fluent in many of its forms.

Fashion is such a language – many geeks don’t speak it, yet they need some of its tools. And trying to speak a language one is not fluent in of course ensures that there is no subtlety in it. “Sexy” becomes corsets – as exaggerated a statement as one can make, while a subtle statement to the same effect could involve  a lace collar peeking from under a masculine jacket. Fashion statements become the loud and the obvious, because it is impossible to speak the language you don’t know with any finesse. Even gender-identity related fannish events, which could be an interesting exploration of gender presentation, often end up as a bunch of men in dresses and women in badly fitted suits borrowed from male relatives – that is, campy cross-dressing using the most obvious markers of binary gender, instead of a range of gender identities and accompanying presentations. The commentary on fluidity of gender and androgynous dressing is, ironically, much more nuanced and interesting in actual fashion magazines (see here, here and here.)

One can of course argue that all sorts of costuming are ways of dressing up without looking like you’re taking any of this seriously – personally, I never liked costuming and find RenFaires puzzling; but I can see how for people who reject mainstream fashion, costuming can be a way of playing with clothes without looking like they’re buying into the cultural narrative. It does however serve a function different from the everyday dressing, which is about communicating with other people. Costuming is kind of the opposite of that – a refusal to enter a conversation, an attempt to delineate that you are not interested in talking to anyone in this century or this reality. I am however mostly intrigued by dressing as communication – and this is where many geeks have to resort to over-the-top gestures in order to be understood. So corsets, which are a fashion staple at many  cons are just that – an attempt to speak in a foreign language. Whatever sense of the empowerment experienced by the wearer likely comes from the realization that they are communicating rather than any inherent power of sexy dressing.

I am of course not arguing that geekdom should immediately transform itself into a buffet of fashion plates – merely, that realizing that dressing is a form of communication is worthwhile, and recognizing the common signifiers could be a way of exerting control over this communication. And as cool as spider dresses are, mastering another language is pretty amazing too.


Alasdair said...

As someone with no interest in fashion (but some interest in costuming), I found this a thought-provoking read.

I hadn't really given much thought before to clothing as a means of communiciation; I rarely think much about my own clothes except when going to a job interview or something similar. I expect that this language is one that women are usually more familiar with than men, due to the conventions of our society. It seems that women's clothing is more often designed to make some sort of 'statement' one way or another than men's, which tends to be more neutral; and from an early age women are taught more about the importance of their appearance.

With regards to the lack of interest in fashion in geek culture, you noted what is probably the main reason - that geek culture is (still) very masculine, while the fashion world is overwhelmingly female/feminine. But I think you also hit on another explanation.

You note that clothing among geeks tends to be loud and obvious (with the popularity of corsets and costumes as examples), while clothing in fashion is much more subtle. It seems to me that subtlety is generally somewhat alien to geek culture. Geeky stuff tends to be all about superlatives: the biggest, the longest, the most complex, the cleverest, the sexiest, the most expensive. Look at video games and comics: in general, everything's over the top. The ideas that you can say more with less, and that the devil's in the details, are not widely found in geek culture; but they're essential to fashion. Obviously I'm massively generalising here, but there does seem to be a significant difference in attitudes.

Anonymous said...

I think you bring out very well those aspects of geekdom that not many geeks are willing to subject to a conscious, considered, and uncomfortable interrogation--that geekdom relies on mainstream culture to give shape to its identity, and that geekdom is not always shorthand for subversive and/or aesthetically pleasing thinking and practise.

What I'd like to add to your points about fashion being a foreign language for geeks is this: the wearing (and sometimes appropriation) of Japanese street fashion by Western geeks. For full disclosure, I wear Japanese street fashion myself, specifically classical lolita, and I am a Thai person born and raised in England. I've been a part of the lolita fashion community for about 8 years; I wouldn't say it is a definite part of my identity, but it is certainly a fashion I greatly enjoy, i.e. I am not a loli but I sometimes wear lolita clothes. (I am not sure if that makes me a self-hating weeaboo or not.) I entered the fashion because I was a bit of a baby bat in my teen years, and I just couldn't find many images of POC--particularly Asian people--wearing gothic fashion. Finding Japanese gothic lolita was oddly self-affirming, though I now question my participation in the fashion.

Although loli is partly drawn from various sources of Western European fashion, it is not actual historical costume. It does not seek to accurately reconstruct period costume but instead aims to give a general impression of old-fashioned frilly clothes. With its layered petticoats and tight bodices, it is coded as overwhelmingly, exaggeratedly feminine. There is boy-style but even this has shapes and textures associated with femininity, all curves and frills. Note that in the West, cross-dressing men, trans women, and trans feminine people who wear this fashion are sometimes colloquially all lumped together under the category of "brolita"; a questionable practise, and an extension of unsatisfactorily conventional attitudes towards binary gender identities and presentations.

Not all wearers of lolis identify as geeks, though I notice quite a few do. Some wearers of loli are unwilling to admit their weeaboo tendencies. Either way, for these people, this fashion is lent extra charm because it hails from Japan, often resulting in pretty disgusting exoticising attitudes towards the country. Worn in the west, lolis can remain outside the mainstream while making several very obvious statement about it, the loudest of which is, 'I reject high street fashion for ridiculously expensive Japanese clothes I found while spending too much time on the internet.' The fashion's strongly coded femininity can be, depending on the wearer, self-consciously treated as an amusing contrast to their otherwise "un-girly" disposition (the internalised "exceptional geek girl" attitude), an expression of their truly princess-like selves, and so on. Somehow they have found satisfaction through neither elaborate costuming nor the frillier trends of high street fashion, but this particular iteration of Japanese street fashion.

I also note the similarities between styles of consumption, though obviously this holds for plenty of other things--many lolis quickly learn the lingo, how to tap into the second-hand market, to collect as many items as possible, to lust after coveted prints, and to be very resilient towards questioning why they like what they like. Loli becomes not a fashion, a pattern of consumption, but a whole identity.

Fish Monkey said...

Hi Furious pear Pie!

First of all, thanks for linking your blog. Amazing stuff.

And yes, you are absolutely right; I kind of vacillated about whether to define what I mean by geeks, since there are so many, but basically my experience as a fantasy writer lies primarily with SF/F fandoms; while otaku and cos-players, for example, certainly would also qualify, I didn't include them as clothing is actually a part of their identity more often than not; the same goes for a variety of fashion geeks, of course.

I also left out steampunk, since this is one of the geek subcultures very much centered on the clothing, and embodies several of the points you bring up -- such as creating a feel with the costume rather than being specifically representative of a particular time, invisibility of PoCs, and rampant Orientalism and appropriation.

Thanks so much for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Oh, thank you for your kind words, and indeed for writing this post in the first place! :-{D I felt I could add stuff about lolita fashion because it seemed you'd left a space for other people to talk about their experiences.

There's also another thread in your post I want to pick up and expand upon, which is social ineptitude and how it relates to self-fashioning. Firstly, let me say that my own awkwardness definitely isn't the same kind of behaviour that enables male geeks to harrass women at conventions (and, arguably, write women in really creepy ways, because oh these men, especially male geeks, are especially incapable of understanding "mysterious" women and their seasons!). But it is kind of a point of identity for me as it does shape how I inhabit and relate to the world. I'll spare you all the stories; suffice to say that I am both extremely shy and introverted with few friends and avoid large parties as much as possible. I have made basically all of my friends via the internet. The people closest to me understand how to help me manage myself when I need to be functional in social situations. I don't think I am sad or anything, it's just how I am.

One of my dear friends, Mary, also sometimes wears loli and generally dresses in extraordinarily fabulous clothes. She has interests which might also be described as geeky, but I don't know if she in any way identifies as a geek. We are definitely also both shy and introverted. Our reasons for wearing outlandish clothing overlap--she describes it perfectly in her writing: '...wearing over-the-top fashion is like creating an extrovert self that people can make friends with.' (She also writes with great intelligence, humour, and wit about the intersection of fashion with many other interesting topics, like body size and gender.) Our clothes say: I can't always be outwardly interesting through verbal conversations, but hey, my garms are pretty awesome. Oh, and I hate eye-contact, lift your peepers and check out my unexceptionably smart hat instead.

For me, the clothing performs several functions: 1) to provide a talking point and visual point of interest to people I want to talk to; 2) to build up my own self-confidence by inhabiting a particular image that inspired my outfit that day; 3) to insulate myself against the conversation of people I do not want to talk to. I like layers; they are warm and stylish, and I can draw them haughtily around myself as I quit the room.

So, yes, just thought I'd add a bit more about how fashion can be used to communicate to others as a complement to shyness and/or introversion. In case it's interesting. Or something.

Fish Monkey said...

Oh totally! For shy/introverted people, fashion is such a great tool. I always believed that refusing fashion because OMG GIRLY AND SHALLOW is often short-sighted (I understand some people may have no interest in it, but I am talking about rejection) because it means surrendering a good portion of self presentation to the world. I edited an anthology of UF about fashion recently, and here's the introduction to it where I talked about fashion as identity-tool:

I will check out your friend's posts! This blog is also about intersection of fashion with feminism and labor movement and body politics, so I hope you poke around and maybe find something else.