This Jumpsuit Won’t Save Your Life

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The logo of RDS

Sometime last year I stumbled across the “Rational Dress Society“—a Chicago-based fashion/art duo, whose claim to fame is the production of a jumpsuit that promises to help “reject the signs of class, race and gender that are inscribed onto our daily interactions”. Their successful 2014 Kickstarter sported a Wes-Anderson-ish explainer video of a jumpsuit clad model who asks the audience, “What stands between you and revolution?” and answers, “Nothing.” The video implores viewers to reject other fashion in favour of the jumpsuit (“available in 48 sizes”), as an exercise in counter-fashion designed to unite everyone under the same style.

 

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An image from the Rational Dress Kickstarter page

As an academic in gender studies, naturally I wanted in on this so-called “ungendered monogarment“. I bit the bullet with the American exchange rate and shipping(!), ordered one, and promised myself I’d wear it for a full month to see how liberating wearing a practical, daily uniform could be. I’d record the process, do a study of my experiences. I imagined how I’d explain it at work, to my students. Maybe I really would feel liberated. My girlfriend kept asking me how and when I’d wash it, but I’d just smile. I imagined the Rational Dress Society would say You don’t need to wash clothes when you’re free from all that social malarky.

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Me in the moments prior to trying on the jumpsuit (I was trying to capture the supposed tyranny of “non-rational” dressing)

Twelve weeks later—and after sending in some measurements—my hipster singlesuit arrived in the mail. I feverishly stripped off to jump into it. Despite my extreme skepticism that a single garment could free me from oppression, I was genuinely excited to try something on that was made specifically for my body, that would finally fit, unlike all those sad things I’d previously ordered off the Internet (you know how it is: the too-small shoes, the dress that you have to squeeze into like a sausage, the pants that fall down around your bum).

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Moments later in the sad sad jumpsuit

But alas. I had never been in a more ill-fitting piece of clothing in my life. It was precisely all of the measurements that I didn’t have to record that were the problem—the width of my calves, for example. I was intensely confronted with the fact that my body was “ill-proportioned”, that is, that even with 48 sizes on offer finding something that fit long but thick legs and wide hips but a tiny waist and chest, was impossible.

Ironically it was the one piece of clothing that promised freedom from gender that made me feel the non-conformity of my body on a visceral level. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for some time that clothing wasn’t the key to gender liberation, and this seemed to be some proof in the pudding.

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Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games: femme-ing it up in the revolutionary compound

Cards on the table: my whole PhD was basically an extremely long-winded answer to the question “will feminine styles exist after the revolution?”, and my vehement answer was yes.

Of course we could debate what “feminine styles” means. But my main point was that people have attachments to gendered ways of presenting themselves, and that even though feminine beauty regimes and ways of dressing aren’t biologically-inherent (girls don’t naturally like pink and indeed, norms of gender are social), that doesn’t mean makeup and dresses and glitter and all those things would just wither away if we finally managed to smash capitalism. In the liberated world of gender that I hope for, your biology wouldn’t determine your gender or how you had to present yourself, but, there’d be a hell of a lot of room for experimentation, switching between many genders, and playing with presentation and costumes (much like when you’re a child, and you get to play dress ups).

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Me before I got “schooled”

Part of my attitude on this question, is that I’m just so damn obsessed with and attached to femininity. For me it certainly wasn’t a “natural” inclination—until I went to school, I was pretty androgynous, with a home-made haircut, adorned in skivvies and flannelette. As the child of a radical single mother, I was discouraged against buying into traditional femininity. But once I got to school, it was on. I wanted to fit in as a “girl”.

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I missed the memo that said how big bows were meant to be

So my relationship to femininity started from a difficult place. But as I became obsessed with plastic jewels and wearing tutus over my track pants, god, it was fun. I started dressing by theme—my favourite of which was my “licorice allsorts” outfit, which was just me in all the neon clothes I had from the op shop, punctuated by black socks and a black hair tie. I would also cut the waist ties off my dresses and get my mum to sew them into headbands for me so I could match from head to toe. And, I held not one but three makeup parties, where the aim was to use the eyeshadows and pencils to draw as many cool things on each other’s faces as possible. Sure, I missed the mark on conventional femininity, but it was those elements of feminine style—the campy, glittery, over-the-top aspects of femininity—that won my heart. So, when I think of a liberated future, I tend not to think of monochrome jumpsuits that eliminate difference.

But I’ve had to debate my perspective with a lot of people.

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At the Miss America Protest

Indeed, the history of feminism has been haunted by the conundrum of fashion and self-presentation. Infamously, women in the USA in 1968 protested the Miss America pageant, which included (among other things) throwing items of women’s clothing, makeup and magazines into a “freedom trash can”. Some say that this is where the myth of the “bra-burning” feminist began, though it must be noted that despite the desire of protesters to burn the contents of the bin, the fire department refused a permit. While the stunt was great for getting attention on the burgeoning women’s movement, one of the downsides of the event was that the protestors targeted the Miss America contestants themselves, not just the pageant organising body. They held signs which called the women sheep, and, actually paraded sheep—again, pretty cool, but a bad message.

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Sheep at the Miss America Protest

This focus on the bodily and stylistic pursuits of women themselves reached fever pitch in the 1980s, with radical feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys claiming that wearing makeup was akin to self-harm as per the United Nations guidelines on torture. The story had morphed from the kind of points earlier feminists made about the negative expectations placed on women around social roles and bodily maintenance, to one where women themselves were really the problem, for being such dummies about their oppression. As Ariel Levy’s best-selling book of 2005 argued, in a surprise twist it turned out that women were really the worst sexists of them all, the “female chauvinist pigs”.

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Who could forget the Spice Girls in this story of femininity 

However, in response to these particular strands of feminism, so too was there a concerted effort (mostly in the 1990s, but let’s be real, we’re still living with the aftermath) to argue for the empowering and liberatory effects of “girl power“. The problem with this version of feminism wasn’t just that it was instantly recuperated into a market that sold it back to us, but that it claimed that femininity was empowering. This form of feminism has insidiously morphed into the celebrity feminism that we are pummelled with today, that suggests feminism means basically anything to anyone, as if it’s just another beautiful choice under neoliberal capitalism.

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From the Rational Dress Society Instagram page

I don’t think we have to get into this binary way of thinking about feminine styles, to make such big claims about it being The Worst Thing Since Torture, or flipping right over and saying it is The Best Thing Ever. At the very least, it’s interesting. Gender expectations are painful, but gender, in more general terms, doesn’t have to be.

So I returned the jumpsuit, and felt all the better for having that tyrannical object of sameness out of my life.

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Why Nipples are not the Test of Freedom

An image from the campaign

An image of a Free the Nipple campaign t-shirt

Nudity was a big part of my life growing up and combined with the weight of the body-shaming Western world I have developed a difficult attitude toward nakedness. While others seem to relish in nude adventures as a mark of rebellion, it merely brings me back to angst over being out of place as the child of a hippy mother. When I came across the “Free the Nipple” campaign that seems to be growing on social media, it brought back childhood memories. Free the Nipple emerged as a response to both laws across America which make it illegal for women to be topless, and rules enforced by a number of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which prevent nipple pics from being shared. A lot of celebrities and other folk seem to be jumping at the chance to rebel against the rules and flaunt as much flesh as possible.

A lot of statues in our house looked like this

A lot of statues in our house were inspired by this Venus

But before I get into Free the Nipple, what of my history of nudity? Well, I was raised by my single mother – an artist at the time – who was really into celebrating female bodies, particularly curvy ones. She was always sketching nudes, and given that I was a child who feared anything to do with “sport” or “the outdoors” I was always drawing and painting, and given ample opportunity to do life drawing with her. She always had strange art projects going. One particularly notable one involved painting vaginas in the bottom of a series of wooden boxes. To my eight year old horror, a rather conservative-seeming mother dropped off her daughter – a friend from school – while my mum was painting them. When my mum explained what she was doing, the other mother’s reaction was unexpected: “Oh!…Can you paint mine?”. Another time, my mum was really into ceramics and she made large statues of fat women, all breasts and thighs, in a nod to Venus of Willendorf. There were also flying breasts (a tribute to women who had them removed in cancer treatment), and most shockingly for me as a teen, our doorstep was graced with a giant ceramic vagina dentata and a penis covered in thorns. Yes, it’s fair to say that nudity was ubiquitous in my youth.

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

Our house was full of life drawings like this (image from kristinagaz.blogspot.com.au)

But, despite my mother’s best efforts at teaching me body-positivity, the shame of the outside world crept in. I constantly feared having friends over, after a series of parents found my mother’s art too provocative (not everyone wanted their vagina painted). And as my awkward teenage body began to form, I became more self-conscious of all things bodily, which was a terrible mismatch to my mother’s all-out embrace of the female form. I became resentful of the art she would create. In year 11 a friend showed me her own mother’s “secret shame” which was a room full of nude portraits that she had done. I felt embarrassed because all this time our house had been full of life drawings and I had always thought these were the least offensive (to be fair, they were tame compared to the enormous vagina with teeth on our front step). This, and many experiences like it, was all part of learning that in the “normal” world nudity is not really okay. As an adult, I had internalised the self-consciousness of the bodily so deep that I could barely be naked in front of myself, let alone partners and it’s been a slow process to become more comfortable with my flesh.

Another popular image from the campaign

Another popular image from the campaign

All of this means that I find it odd when people gush about walking around naked at home, because it’s just something I could never really get in to. But perhaps because of my experiences I can understand slightly more when people are so adamant to expose their nipples on social media as an act of freedom, because there sure is a lot of shame around nudity to be felt in the Western world (which we can see is actually enforced), and I myself have felt the weight of it. It’s a strange thing when you see that in advertising and popular culture sexiness can be ever-present, but nudity is barely allowed, unless filtered through the production values of Game of Thrones. But while I agree that social attitudes toward female bodies deserve critique, I don’t think we should be going and putting all of our political eggs in the show-your-boobs basket. As a form of rebellion I think it’s very limited, particularly because it can so readily be absorbed under a larger regime of “normalcy”, and end up perpetuating existing standards of beauty, race, size and so on.

Free the Nipple makes fashion

While the core group who started Free the Nipple originally aimed for some diversity of bodies in their images, their main campaign materials involve slim white bodies with perfectly round breasts. Celebrities have jumped at the chance to endorse #FreetheNipple, with models and pop stars alike wearing the t-shirts and getting on social media to flash some skin. Fashion houses have also responded, with “sheer” making a timely comeback. On the runways this season breasts have been pert but unobtrusive. When your tactics are so readily absorbed into the mainstream, so easily sexualised or used to sell products, you’ve got to wonder if you’re on the right track. It seems the nipple reform tactics of Free the Nipple haven’t quite smashed female body norms as hoped.

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

An image from FEMEN supporting free the nipple

In addition, within a context where Muslim women are constantly being targeted for covering up too much, Free the Nipple’s investment in nudity as the marker of equality par excellence almost reads as an advertisement for a certain form of Western Imperialism. A notable and similarly problematic example can be seen with the antics of Ukrainian group FEMEN. Self-described as “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion”, this raison d’être has amounted to topless protests out the front of mosques and other similar institutions, with flag-burnings and the use of all kinds of anti-Islam propaganda. A group called Muslim Women Against FEMEN has even formed in response, to call the group out on the racism implicit in their actions. You may be thinking, well Free the Nipple is obviously a different campaign to FEMEN. For one thing, it’s not targeting religious and cultural institutions per say. But it does similarly invest in the idea of revealing your body as a mark of freedom and rebellion. Here the whiteness of this cause is a related issue, as women of colour have historically been marked out culturally as always already more sexual and bodily – arguing that revealing the body is an act of liberation might not ring true for all women.

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

An image from the Free the Nipple documentary

Perhaps one of the reasons that this kind of activity can so readily become problematic, is that it is very narrow in focus, in what it is attempting to change and how. Unfortunately sexism is a much bigger fish than absent nipples on Facebook, though this may be symptomatic of the larger issue and I’m definitely not saying that it’s okay (I once tried to post a link to an artist whose work celebrates breast diversity and Facebook wouldn’t let me, which I found deeply disturbing).

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Image from the Free the Nipple fundraiser

A whole heap of social change with regard to how we see gender in society is needed  – how we talk about and understand gender, how we raise and gender children, how we learn about sex and our bodies. Fundamentally what needs to be targeted are the expectations of gender that are enforced to keep people divided from each other in society. At best, posting nipple pictures online as part of this protest might raise awareness about sexism and double standards in society. At worst, it might promote a whole range of other problems and in fact reinforce beauty, body and cultural norms – issues which deserve more space and consideration than a picture of a model’s breasts on Instagram.

 

 

Oh to be a Teddy Girl!

Teddy Girl: you're doing it right

Today I came across the term “Teddy Girl” which – as I discovered typing into Google images – is a completely stylish subculture that had its heyday in the United Kingdom post World War II. Apparently there is almost nothing written about this youth culture that formed around a shared sense of disenchantment and malaise with society at the time. There is only slightly more written about Teddy Boys.

Some of the fashions associated with Teddy Girls include: men’s suits, drape jackets, shirts with high collars, black velvet ties, pointed collars, hobble skirts, pencil skirts, cameo brooches, rolled up jeans, short “mannish” haircuts, coolie hats, boat shoes, headscarves, pony tails and plastic earrings. Considering this list and looking at teenagers here and now, it seems that maybe the Teddy rage is back.

After all, maybe Teddy Girls were the original hipsters?