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Welcome to this, my first blog. As a deeply interested observer of all things dress and fashion, several things attracted my attention this week including nudity, glamour, and stripes.

Naked

Last week we saw four naked men in one afternoon.

Late Friday afternoon somebody in our office shrieked and in a moment everybody in the office was at the window. A group of young men were spotted cavorting on the campus lawn, stark naked in the weak Dunedin sunshine. These nude male bodies frolicked in front of the gothic stone backdrop of Otago University clock tower, performing for a small camera crew. Their slim young bodies were pale against the green, no tanning lotion to be seen. Their gestures were at first protective, either modest or cold or both, but soon they dropped all attempts to cover themselves and they ran about exuberantly, their dark triangles of public hair clearly visible to our naked eyes. Some were amused, some were embarrassed, some were just grateful they were young.

Everybody wanted to explain it. Was it International Naked Day? Some of the office silverbacks thought they were making a film clip for a TV sports show, an explanation that seemed most likely. But it made me wonder. Nudists can join a club, but where is the fun if nobody minds? Surely the intoxicating pleasure of nudity comes through doing something bravely unconventional, something socially shocking yet really harmless, and the liberating acceptance of your own body which follows, born of the absolute necessity of carrying it off. Maybe this is Gok’s trick too.

Nudity in a public place is a state of undress, a display of the absence of clothes. We are naked in the shower, but nudity is the display of it. This we rarely do. The TV show based on the idea of looking good naked (thank you, Gok Wan) relies on this extreme, where it is all about confidence and making the most of what you’ve got, about accepting your own body as it is. Once you have done this there are only two reasons left to hide: respect for authority or consideration for the aesthetic sensibilities of others.

‘Looking good naked’ thankfully doesn’t have anything to do with the appearance of those bits which anyway remain hidden in these shows and let’s leave it that way, thank you. A little mystery is a great mercy, and anyway it is good to keep something up your sleeve, as it were.

Coinciding with World Loud Shirt Day, World Nudity Day on Friday seemed like the perfect opportunity for more displays, but I saw only one small bunch of nude boys. Some local student pubs were offering cheap (not free) drinks for anyone taking their kit off, but I had better things to do on Friday night. Nobody I spoke to saw even one naked girl.

Now why is that?

Glamour, not
Glamour meanwhile was sadly lacking in the glamour event of the Spring Social Season: the Qantas film and television awards last weekend. A bit like their planes perhaps, this show failed to fly. Unwatchable really. All I could manage was a quick flick across to see what they were wearing. Dreadful! They were either trying too hard to be someone else or they didn’t try at all.

Is New Zealand just culturally too far from the Red Carpet Queens of Emmy and Oscar to do glamour? With the notable exception of Robyn Malcomb, there was zero style and zero glamour. Worse, a certain heavy handedness was evident. I sensed not murder but Auckland stylists behind this disaster: what were they thinking? That grey petal dress! Antonia’s ghastly gangster baby doll look! Wake up, New Zealand celebs! Famousness and money are not enough, honey. Fashion leadership takes flair and imagination yes, but also skill and knowledge. I mean self knowledge, fashion knowledge, dress knowledge. Forget about looking good naked, these people can’t even look good dressed up.

Stripes
Meanwhile, the Sunday Star Times has overturned the world as we know it, yet I almost missed this vital news item, hidden as it was on the bottom of page 10. We were given the shocking suggestion that science is not only willing but able to take over the task of telling us what to wear.
How did we manage for so long without them? Why did we ever imagine dress to be an art, often ambiguous, always context dependent, and only ever partly in the eye of the beholder? Science brings Rationalism to fashion, freeing us poor deluded women from fashion tyranny and lies. (Why did nobody think of this before?)
A so-called perception expert in the UK (with the conveniently common name of Dr Peter Thompson) has exposed ‘the myth’ of slimming vertical stripes and fattening horizontal ones. He claims it works the other way round, that horizontal stripe scan actually slim you by 6%!
He goes on to describe women as slaves to ‘fashionistas who don’t know what they are talking about’. Talk about the kettle calling the pot black. Anybody here ever worn a wide stripe around their largest circumference and not felt like they looked kilos heavier? And felt and looked slimmer wearing that other dress with the long straight lines? Is this because we are just stupid? I say show me your experimental design, Dr Thompson, and I will show you where you totally messed up. I expect it was somewhere in your definition of perception. Or maybe your definition of fashion. Or women. Or fashionistas. Or all of the above.
Science has joined the ranks of missionary liberators of women from stupidity, a mission as absurd as it is familiar. Quick, give that man a needle and thread! What will he come up with? And let us see what he is wearing.

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3 responses »

  1. Hi

    I was reading the overview of your research into uniforms in schools. Were you able to investigate the effects on boys and girls of gender based uniform requirements? If you were, i would love to know your findings and conclusions so I can compare these with those of other researchers.

    Thanks

    Carol Bartlett, Henderson High School, Auckalnd.

  2. School uniforms and gender
    Gender is one of the most important distinctions uniforms make, a distinction imposed by the uniform itself as an expression of values by society and the school, and also one maintained by students by other means. Although age distinctions have also been a strong theme in New Zealand secondary schools, distinguishing juniors and seniors into clear hierarchies, the most enduring and evocative distinctions have been in gender – and this is one of the functions of dress, to communicate identities. Yet dress is both a communicator and a producer of gender norms. Secondary schools have played their part using school uniforms to express, maintain or change gender perceptions and expectations, notably in fashion concessions to girls but not to boys, and in efforts to promote equality for girls through unisex dress from the 1970s. Alongside school efforts to diminish or define gender norms, as can be seen in the actual uniforms, many school girls and school boys use wear style to increase the appearance of gender differences in both single sex and co-educational schools.
    Fashion participation as gender distinction
    Girls
    Through much of the twentieth century, girls’ uniform styles changed regularly in delayed but explicit response to fashion. Great variety in wear styles also testifies to girls’ own fashion participation, especially hem length, position of the waistline, and hairstyles. Many girls’ schools supported girls’ participation in fashion. Some schools updated radically, adopting modern styles which also date very quickly and need to be modified within a short time. Some of these fashion responses in school uniform have been quite startling. Other schools made small but regular changes: their uniforms were never fashionable but they managed to avoid looking so old fashioned that either girls or the school were too embarrassed. This incremental change is realistic in terms of what uniforms are and how they function – in delayed parallel to fashion.
    While girls’ fashion participation is often explicitly supported by uniform changes, this does not extend to extreme styles such as piercings, dyed hair or too much skin. These expressions are likely to be interpreted as subcultural or sexually provocative. Extremes are defined in detailed school rules which operate for some as instructions.

    Boys
    Boys’ uniforms styles were established early in the twentieth century and for junior boys, didn’t change much at all. Senior boys’ uniforms did change, with adult and business-like styles adopted and suits updated to fashionable silhouette and fit.
    The junior boys’ uniform gives an impression of profound uniformity among boys, and almost sets them apart from fashion. This can be read as a comment on the place of boys in NZ culture and society. Yet regardless of the limits imposed by the uniform, boys themselves have always participated in fashion, as can easily be seen in wear styles and hairstyles. Schools did allow boys some expression although the ubiquitous ‘neat and tidy’ set limits on fashion and behavioural extremes.
    In the 1960s and 70s, boys might be expelled from school for having long hair . Long hair was defined as falling below or touching the collar and was considered an unacceptable extreme by some schools, sometimes interpreted as defiance of school authority. Long hair contrasted with the military ‘short back and sides’ and was a radical definition of the new generation and its changed ideals. This was in total conflict with militarist values of total obedience, conformity, and team work, values widely held by the war-time generation who by the late 1960s were senior teachers and principals. School uniforms are an implicit technique of military power, and the issue of long hair forced schools to declare themselves as expecting to control appearances beyond the school day, as being in the business of making men – producing gender, usually an invisible and unquestionable function of the education system. To these schools and to many of the older generation, the real problem of boys with long hair is that it made boys look like girls: a radical breach of social norms.
    Such extreme responses by schools are worth exploring further, especially as issues around boys hair have recently resurfaced. Schools also create gender differences by defining which appearance behaviours are most threatening to school authority – clearly it ok for girls to look more like boys (the tie, trousers) but absolutely not ok for boys to look like girls. This pattern of gender reversal and pursuit is not confined to school uniform.
    Boys and girls always participate in fashion and so do teachers. It is an important way of belonging in the world and to your own generation, and eventually long hair became acceptable among boys and men in schools – or in other words, fashion caught up.
    Unisex uniforms
    From the early days of secondary schools both girls and boys have worn ties and blazers, so that there have nearly always been elements of unisex dress in school wear. This practice of limited unisex wear continued alongside equally clear gender distinctions, right through until the 1970s. Then the use of unisex items in uniform increased, reflected changes in education policy to promote gender equality in education, and a clear generational shift.

    Dress defines gender in separate categories as different, which it is. In their efforts to improve the prospects for girls, schools used the uniform to try to reduce these differences. This is based on the assumption that reducing the appearance of difference will actually reduce the impact of differences, at least on girls. This approach was probably instrumental in breaking old patterns as radical change can usefully do. However that time has passed, and unisex dress now means something else. It’s become almost a renunciation of gender through dress, as if gender itself is something to dispense with.
    One effect is that dress which is explicitly girls’ dress is becoming entrenched as lacking seriousness or aspiration to intellectual and worldly fulfilment, and encouraging an overt sexuality in dress, as if sexual attraction is the only gender expression which counts. This leaves no room for gendered difference aside from sexualised or trivialised expression. Should you have to look gender neutral to be a non-sexualised girl?

    Appropriation and miscalculation
    Dress styles called ‘unisex’ are always an appropriation, a version of male attire. They are recognisably male in both form, fit, and plainness: jersey or polar fleece, polo shirts, regulation trousers or shorts, socks and lace-up shoes. The widespread adoption of unisex school uniform has had two unanticipated but profound effects – one was a reduced formality and therefore diminished aspirational value; the other a renewed focus on gender difference as arising from the body. Back to biology!

    The effect on formality was partly a consequence of physical differences since unisex clothing by definition must fit a greatly extended range of body shapes. To accomplish fit without tailoring requires the uniform style to be a looser fitting style, which by virtue of its looseness reduces overall formality and very easily looks shapeless and sloppy. The overall effect of unisex clothing is not equality but a reduced formality for everyone. This is a loss, since formality (rather than masculinity) can still convey seriousness, aspiration, and success in the world. For girls, formality is almost impossible to achieve without allowing skirts, fitted blazers and shirts. In this way, gender distinction in dress is now preferable, especially as it reflects the wider social reality while reclaiming positive gender differences.
    Uniformity/not
    The other consequence is the problem of uniformity, a principle of uniforms established and upheld by regulated, narrow options. Girls began to call for the right to wear trousers to school in the 1970s, and gradually schools adopted the option in line with fashion, practicality around sports, and linked to shifting gender expectations. However, a dilemma was immediately confronted: schools requiring high levels of uniformity permit just one style of trousers. This inevitably results in unflattering fit for all but a minority of girls. Flattering fit is a requirement of all dress if it is to contribute to self-esteem – clothes should always make you look better. Trouser fit for girls is notoriously complex, and to achieve a good appearance demands multiple options, more options than are practical in terms of both regulation and supply.

    Some schools respond by reducing uniformity, instead stipulating the more generic such as “plain black trousers” allowing girls to select a style to fit. And the irony is that given the chance to select trousers from all available trousers, girls (and boys) tend to reinstate gender differences through both fit and wear style. For girls this often translates as accentuated body shape, bringing the expression of gender difference much closer to the body. This contrasts with previously, when gender was symbolically defined as a social form via another social form – the skirt. And many girls have continued to insist on a skirt option, in those schools which limit trouser styles and where options exist. It would seem many girls like wearing skirts.

    Conclusion
    Skirts per se do not mean unequal gender roles or realities, just as trousers do not mean unisex, or unisex mean equal. The gender equality claimed in unisex school uniforms has instead come to uphold more difficult gender distinctions, partly because the meanings and functions of appearance and fashion have not been understood. Uniforms which offer options allow formality and fit alongside informality and looseness. By giving some choice, students are encouraged to understand and manage their own appearances. Learning how to dress, how to manage appearance, is part of an education. They need to be learning this alongside learning what gender means, both to the schools they attend and to themselves as members of their own generation. Learning to manage gender expression seems like a good place to start.

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