Reebok Field Trip Response

Spring 2018

 

The biggest moment of the Reebok trip was Shaq’s right shoe.

Shaq wears a size 22.5. I assume he gets all of his shoes custom made; most companies stop manufacturing at a far smaller size, as it’s not every day an actual human giant is your customer. Reebok made these for Shaq and other pairs for other famous athletes and celebrities. It was a talking point. “These we made for Venus Williams,” “Pharrell wore these Reeboks before he switched to Adidas.” Name dropping was a major component of the introductory powerpoint, given by a peppy senior staff member in a professional sweatshirt (that should sum up the Reebok aesthetic) who referred to the company as “we” even when describing things that had been done decades earlier. When there were only two English men running the business and maybe one type of sneaker, a drastically different logo, and no customers, “we” picked this colorway based on available material, etc.

The weird stuff I saw at Reebok lingered on my mind more than the expected. I was ready to see sneakers, I was ready to hear a lecture on the company history. I was not ready for “we” or for the incessant name-dropping or the 50% off discount in the in-house retail store. I left with the impression that they were selling us Reebok, as potential future employees, or at the very least, potential customers (this last effort was actually totally transparent. Someone ended the presentation with a smile that seemed to beg forgiveness and this trailing sentence: “We are a for-profit company, so if you’d please follow me down to the store…”). Everyone had white teeth and wireless apple products, probably trying really hard to leave a good impression and doing so. I liked it there, it’s easy to like it there. It’s weirdly clean and no one seemed rushed (in fact, no one seemed to be doing anything. The question I really wanted to ask, but which would have been wildly inappropriate, was simply, “what are you guys actually doing all day?” Or even better, I would have liked to poke my head into one of the communal spaces filled with people in tight jeans holding laptops and smoothies, and asked them what EXACTLY they were doing AT THAT VERY MOMENT because it was ALL SO VAGUE OH MY GODDDDD).  In the store I bought a pair of black and white striped leggings that I am so in love with I may be wearing them tomorrow in class though I wore them all of today and yesterday. It was funny to see all my classmates shopping with reckless abandon. I had a vision of us all buying matching Reeboks and having them become the official shoe of apparel, and subsequently the official shoe of the RISD student body, completely arbitrarily. That 50% discount was no joke and this group of fashion students knew to capitalize!! I guess all the weirdness that rubbed off on me about our little day trip to Reebok boils down to capitalism (doesn’t everything always!). It was just strange to sit through a presentation about the company history and rifle through the archives with the idea that economic growth was the sole goal, and to have that be glaringly obvious in everything they were saying but not directly articulated. When a company is that gigantic, it’s hard to care about their “mission,” or whatever. If they were to present something about a sustainability initiative I’d have been skeptical, but they didn’t go near the environmental stuff (which also leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. You can’t win when you’re worth $1.2 billion! A number I just googled and threw in here, I totally didn’t do thorough research). I’m really in the sweet spot of being a student and not an actual fashion industry contributor. I don’t know anything about the psychology of working for an enormous corporation. I can critique a huuuuuuge for-profit company to my heart’s content. I can have a lovely day in Boston and be blown away by the design work that went into those sneaks and then go home and write a paper that doesn’t even touch the concept of design. I get to choose what is interesting to me, and since these TWIST papers are for expressing my point of view, I don’t have to stress too much that I’m painting an ugly picture of something way bigger than me and in doing so, I’m painting an ugly picture of myself as somewhat cynical or slightly arrogant. Um. Anyway. The field trip was interesting. I will remember that big shoe for a long time. As we were leaving a classmate posed the question “Would you work here?” and I was quick to respond: “What? If they just offered me a job? Yes. It’s a job. And did you see the gym?”


 

It’s So Transparent But I’m Still Confused:

Something About Attiring a Sexualized Female Body

Fashion Theory Response Paper

Fall 2018

 

 

 

 

 

“… women artists like Tracey Emin, who constantly use themselves as the subject of their work (say), ‘we have come to expect access to the most intimate details of women’s lives, to a degree that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago.’ The dominance of transparent fashions has been a symptom of this. The wearer reveals her body as an emblem of her femininity, making the onlooker believe they know more about than they really do about her. An outfit from Prada’s second line, Miu Miu, of spring/summer 1997, reflects this. Layers of transparent white clothe and yet reveal the body, hinting at innocence and artlessness in their childish vest-and-gym-knickers shaping. However, the high fashion status of the label and ‘nude’ coloured ankle boots belie such a straightforward reading. The wearer is at once transparent in her intentions and yet knowing and opaque, her silhouette blurred, her femininity made hazy. She has gained another kind of power, to add to the erotic allure of the previous decade, the playful layered references in her dress a disingenuous nod at the desire for openness; however, we seem to know everything, yet nothing about her” (page 70-71, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety by Rebecca Arnold).
 

            This passage offers a couple points of interest for me. Most transparently (no pun intended), it presents a way of comprehending the ambiguous concept of femininity. It questions the genuineness or accuracy of revealing clothing as a tool for revealing the self, prefaced by the notion that dressing the body is an integral part of the process of becoming (Mario Perinola, page 64, In Fashion, Desire and Anxiety). As I embark on a thesis collection I am looking back through the progression of my personal style, reflecting on what aspects of my life have influenced my taste (however innate it feels to me) and where the line lies between garments I clothe myself in and those I attempt to create. Designing clothing for others can’t come from a neutral position. The emotional residue of my experiences dressing my own body is definitely an active influence in my work creating clothing for others. As a cisgendered female person the imprecise notion of “femininity” has been a constant piece of my identity + fashion equation. In my personal style examination, I’ve processed my inclination towards oversized silhouettes and vibrant contrasting colors as an intuitive self-defense mechanism I picked up in high school, where I first experienced the kind of steady observation (by others of me, and by me of me) that Berger describes in his 1972 essay, “Ways of Seeing.” Clothing that is big, boxy, and bright, utterly contrary to Miu Miu’s muted transparent look in the image above, was my personal refuge from and reaction to the seering male gaze that followed me around campus. The passage above is fruitful for me because of a memorable conversation I had with my best friend Chiara from high school. Sitting alone at her kitchen table sophomore, maybe junior year (we’re fifteen, say) we debated notions of vulnerability and clothing. This jaunt down memory lane is hopefully a useful opening into the subject of femininity, fashion, and transparency, but if it isn’t, I’m sorry, thesis just has me in this super self-reflective mood all the damn time.


          We’re fifteen and our styles are diverging -- Chiara’s gravitating more towards tight and conventionally sexy garments while I’m donating all my clothes that fit and cloaking myself in layers. We both appreciate humor in dress, but for her, it comes in wearing children’s sized t-shirts, tight, for me it’s anything that looks like a tent in a loud print. My impression at this age was that dressing in a revealing nature, either by exposing skin or wearing anything that fit snuggly to the female body, was expected and desired of girls and women from boys and men, and therefore a less “courageous” or subversive approach to dress in the dramatic-feeling patriarchy (lol). Please keep in mind I was a really naive budding feminist. Femininity was absolutely tied to the exposure of the female form, and femininity meant anti-masculinity, and masculinity meant power. While I felt a greater sense of control over what exactly was observed (knowing I’d be observed regardless) in my boxy oversized ensembles, I also felt acutely vulnerable because I imagined my femininity to be threatened, and knew it made me less viable as the object of male sexual attention (and more so the object of joking, sometimes kind of mean? outfit commentary). Despite that being the initial (subconscious) intent in my choice of clothing, it didn’t necessarily feel like I’d come up with a winning solution to the pressing issue of the male gaze. My best friend Chiara avoided rocking the boat with her wardrobe of tight skirts and crop tops, and no one questioned her staunch femininity based on her appearance, but she felt vulnerable in her clothes as they actually revealed so much of her physical body, and the tone of her vulnerability was more literal: all these boys had better access, visually and tangibly, to her flesh. Our conversation was tense, circuitous, and ultimately unresolved. Basically, we both dressed to feel less vulnerable, we both still felt vulnerable, and we were both irked that the other claimed to feel vulnerable in what we imagined was the less-vulnerability-inducing option of dress. The double-edged sword of ~attiring an objectified body~ had struck!
 

            The term “femininity” in Arnold’s passage translates to the depiction of the female body as an object of male desire and interest: “The wearer reveals her body as an emblem of her femininity.” I am inferring that this notion of  femininity is poised as relative to masculinity (in its opposition), since a bodily definition for a character trait or quality doesn’t really make sense (to me-- maybe someone can talk me through this, though?) in the scenario of a women quantifying another woman’s femininity. In other words, a woman probably wouldn’t look for another woman’s quality of “selfhood” in her physicality, she herself understanding that her body exists in its female form without her input. This is supported by understanding gender as a social construct and not a biologically determined authentic truth! Of course, one can alter one’s body, and these alterations (dieting, exercise, surgery, makeup) can play into how femininity/masculinity is read, but this is to do with how successful one is at achieving a traditionally feminine or masculine physique, according to conventional beauty standards. To see the body as an emblem of femininity I think requires understanding femininity as a way of being which is relative to masculinity; it’s the conventionally masculine (large/tall, muscular) form’s antithesis, and not much else. It’s of course referring to a very specific body type: young, white, thin, the standards of modern, conventional female beauty. “The wearer reveals her body as an emblem of her femininity..” If the body under that transparent dress were “othered” in any way, the message here would be so different. It’s a flimsy definition, but perhaps Arnold realizes that herself, as she imagines this femininity to be somehow false or incomplete: despite getting a nearly full view of the female form, the viewer (presumably male) “believes they know more than they really do about her.” The body, the emblem of femininity, doesn’t tell the whole story, but interestingly, it makes the onlooker believe he is fully informed. I actually think this imagined audience should include males and any one who doesn’t have this body type. This model’s form is idealized to the point of near impossibility -- the vast majority of women really don’t look like her! I think that’s a pretty significant obstacle to the potential for understanding femininity through a lens incumbent on the body. The idea that the onlookers believe they get it, when they don’t, is reminiscent of legibility in coded gay fashion pre-Stonewall. There’s a defined insider group, who can read the subtleties in the fashion of their fellow group members and identify them, but everyone else is oblivious to the existence of this secret language. In the case of the Miu Miu look, the insider group is comprised only of the wearer herself. It’s such a small community. The effect is that she is widely misunderstood, viewed as “accessible” to her misguided audience. They think they know her, and only she knows that they don’t, not really. What a bizarre situation. Is there comfort in that little insulated bubble of knowledge? Is there power?

 

           The Miu Miu outfit strives to be empowering, deliberately revealing the body of the wearer on her own terms: “The wearer is at once transparent in her intentions and yet knowing and opaque, her silhouette blurred, her femininity made hazy. She has gained another kind of power, to add to the erotic allure of the previous decade, the playful layered references in her dress a disingenuous nod at the desire for openness; however, we seem to know everything, yet nothing about her.” She knows what she’s showing off, and she also knows that the thin layer of fabric separating herself from her voyeurs is symbolic of her actual distance from them. The outfit is a tease, a declaration of sexuality (this extent of undress is inherently sexualized, despite the granny panties and youthfully shaped bra visible through the transparent layer) that is inaccessible. It’s sexy simply because the body is a sexual thing and it’s exposed, but it’s exposed incompletely. The veil is a reminder that you don’t actually have a naked woman in front of you (on the runway, or in your bedroom). Can this look offer genuine empowerment? I’ve wavered on this stance my whole life! To nourish yourself on the “if- I-feel-good-then-I feel-good” kind of power that comes from adhering to a socially constructed ideal.. is it legitimate? Isn’t empowerment dependent on existing power structures? I can’t get any kind of headway on this question, it’s the debate between the anti-porn feminists of a previous generation and the porno-style enthusiasts they abominate.. It’s a circuitous debate that goes nowhere for me. I find it helpful to think about empowerment as counter to vulnerability. Is this woman vulnerable? Chiara and I, at fifteen, might differ in opinion. In a literal sense, sure, she’s practically naked and she’s exposed to the elements and she doesn’t have pockets. This look was made for the runway, though, and the question of vulnerability/empowerment must be analyzed in that context. Her proximity to nakedness is rife with intent, and that subverts her literal vulnerability to the elements. The thin layer of transparent fabric serves to exaggerate her proximity nakedness, probably more so than if she were just naked, because it demonstrates her consciousness about her reveal. Actual nudity might look accidental and therefore embarrassing, sexual as opposed to her removed “look-don’t-touch” attitude. Totally naked = you stumbled upon her pre-dressed, visibly naked but with a thin layer of transparent fabric over her = she’s dressed. This is the outfit. “She is transparent in her intentions (she knows you’re looking at her body, she’s granting you access) and yet knowing and opaque, her silhouette blurred, her femininity made hazy (you can’t see everything you are now extra curious about).

 

            What I ultimately get from this passage is the fallable notion that to see a woman’s body is to know the woman. A woman = her body, according to men. Despite how grim that feels, it offers women an interesting opportunity to play with the perceptions of their audiences. The Miu Miu look buys into this inaccurate, false, simplified definition of womanhood or femininity, held by the imagined onlooker, and toys with it. It says, yes, do, look at me. The transparent layer does nothing more than remind her audience to look through it. Thus the wearer is quite intentionally welcoming the voyeuristic gaze she’d already be attracting by being conventionally attractive, and in doing so, she makes the onlooker address their own stare. In that reading, her look empowers in the same way that wearing a mirrored bra might.

 


 

Relevant quotes from the article, not used in my essay but they should have been:

 

“And here is the double bind: it is acceptable to wear underwear styles as long as they are delicate, feminine and not too revealing, styles which evoke images of the high-class models of the 1950’s clad in neat, sophisticated waspies by couturiers Fath and Dior. Hower, garments which smack of explicit sexuality present greater problems as these relate directly to our hidden desires, to the act of sex itself, not things one should parade in public. The message put across to women reflects the eternal conflict between the need to appear sexually attractive and being condemned for adopting too obvious an approach to achieve this goal.”

 

“The modern woman was at once strengthened by a developing sense of her own sexuality and allure through notions of beauty as power, sensuality and independence, but also exposed to the conflicting anxieties surrounding this appeal to the senses, this need to create and perfect a modern physique. While the natural body became revered as authentic, to be toned and revealed in fashionably short skirts and figure-skimming bias-cuts, its naturalness was a fallacy. It was to be constructed as a cultural commodity, through cosmetics…”

 

Undress as dress threatens a boundary between public and private- the female body being held in contempt for its constant exposure:

“Mario Perniola wrote in an essay entitled ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’ of 1989, that clothing creates ‘being’, with nudity representing a loss of this and that the danger of blurring this division produces great unease… The ambiguity of underwear as outerwear, caught forever between dress and undress, has a disturbing yet fascinating erotic effect, playing upon our fear of the uncertain. We are unsure how to respond to the sight of women seemingly dressed to go out and yet clad only in transparent fabrics or items of lingerie. Such styles are usually the preserve of the young, who are both more willing to expose their bodies and whose bodies are inevitably more in line with fashionable ideals of youthful slenderness. Each successive permutation of this trend is therefore regarded as ‘new,’ and often as yet another example of declining standards of social behaviour.”