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The Hierarchical Structure of Fashion

[Guess what, dudes and ladies? It is still The Week of Brackets That Will Not End: Or, our monthly Tiger Beatdown Pledge Drive, for those familiar with the process. Hey: Have I mentioned that Pledge Driving is how we pay our fine bloggers, around here? Yep! Value for labor! This is how we roll! And since today is Wednesday, it is time for the exciting contributions of Silvana. Enjoy clicking on the Donate button, shortly before being en-wowed by her words!]

I am getting married in 10 days. I am not freaking out! Although, there has been some drama, related to the officiating of the wedding. I have religion problems, people. I have big religion problems. But I don’t want to talk about them today, and I don’t even want to talk about all the Really Serious Things that are going on in my life, including a wonderful and exciting new job that is so good I may want to stay in DC forever just so I can keep working here, or my freaking out about money, or my wedding, or the fact that really, things are changing for me.

Today, I gotta get something off my chest that I’ve been thinking about for days, on a rather frivolous-seeming subject. But it’s not really frivolous at all. Last Friday night I was out with some good friends, and we were talking about clothes, and I can’t remember who, but someone, expressed the common opinion that tights are not pants. This may seem pretty uncontroversial. There are leagues of commentators willing to deride the scourge of tights-as-pants, and they get resounding Amens.

I don’t care about tights. Not really. Even though I think it’s perfectly fine to wear tights as pants, it would take a lot of mental work for me to do it. I say, more power to the people who feel confident enough to have it all hangin’ out.

No, my problem is more structural. See, I like fashion. I like it a lot. I’m not a clothes horse by any means, but I do have a well-defined personal style and I enjoy admiring clothes, shoes, accessories, and jewelry. I wish I had way more money and time to spend on my wardrobe. Someday I’d love to make my own stuff. Fashion is a huge part of my personal aesthetic expression and engagement with the world. But. Always the but. I am a fat woman. And thus, fashion is Fraught for me. Capital-Fraught. Because for a huge portion of my life, shopping was hell. Shopping was always worrying what the largest size in stock was going to be, and wondering if I would be able to squeeze into it. Shopping was shame. Shopping was wishing my body was different. Shopping was wanting someone with me to tell me I looked alright, but wanting to be alone so no one could share in my private shame of feeling like my body was irreparably broken.

For fat women, clothes are supposed to be about making people forget that you’re fat. “Hiding” “flaws.” “Smoothing out” your “shape” (i.e. your fat). “Emphasizing” your “assets” (at least you have big boobs, fatty). “Defining” your waist (because, hey, at least you can make one part of you look smaller than the other parts). It’s all code for: Don’t look fat. The advice isn’t too different for thin or average women. You also want — surprise, surprise! — to not look fat. And for a long, long time, I bought into that. I bought the idea that my body wasn’t acceptable and I had to use clothing as best I could to try to make it acceptable.

You know what that’s not? Fun.

But fashion is fun. Color, style, pattern, playing around with era, with anachronism, being creative, re-purposing items, layering, doing things for shock value, using your attire as a costume, psyching yourself up using clothes, and the power of surprise. I struggle with the enterprise of fashion. What is it? Is it art? Or is the purpose of fashion to make you look good? And by what standards do we determine whether or not you have, in fact, succeeded in looking good?

I used to watch What not to Wear. At first, I loved it. People were made so happy by new clothes. Some of the pieces featured were truly great. But slowly, I started to hate it. It was always the same. You are a woman, you need to look more feminine. This defines your waist. This makes you look taller, thinner. This makes your neck look good (i.e. thin). You are an adult now. You need to grow up and stop wearing weird overalls/checkered pants/gross ugly hightops/hawaiian shirts/baggy things. You need to buy a few dresses and skirts. Here are some heels that are wearable.

Fashion is, at its core, about Rules. A complex, random, dynamic, unpredictable set of rules that are always established by someone other than you. Whether its fashion magazines, fashion designers, newspapers, movies, music videos, the popular girls at school, or your boss. There are rules. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how to do what you want and still abide by the rules. Or decide when to break them. But they’re almost always arbitrary and the strong social prescription to follow them is about falling in line, and about warning you that you better not stand out too much. There’s a reason that dress code violations are considered disrespectful: Modern Fashion is based on respect. You are supposed to respect all those powerful people, living and dead, who have made these fashion rules about the propriety of open-toed shoes or how tight is too tight.

And so when I hear, tights are not pants, or you should wear pantyhose to court, or I wouldn’t wear X cut of a shirt because it doesn’t look good on me, I think, who made these rules? Why are we following them? Why do we passively subscribe to an aesthetic system that requires us to daily fulfill the twin obligations of being “respectful” by not doing anything out of the ordinary and looking as thin and “feminine” as we can muster? I want fashion to be less about making other people comfortable, and more about personal expression and art. There is too much hierarchy. It is too top-down, from a murky top with too many leaders with too many conflicting messages.

The more I throw off my fat-girl hatred of fashion and realize that I love adorning my body in interesting and artistic ways, the more I get into a world of rules. This goes with that. This kind of garment only for this body shape. This is in this season, that is not hot right now.

Can we have a new fashion? A new theory? A new regime?

[In the new regime, you should still pay Silvana, for she is amazing. Enjoy this handsome donate button, for the purpose!]


  1. Sophie wrote:

    There have been times when I’ve actually been glad that I’m fat, because I would spend too much money on clothes if I weren’t. If I were thin, I’ve thought, how would I ever decide what style to wear? There are so many choices! As it is, my style only has to be “Will it fit?” New trends come out that I don’t even look at, because they’re not for fat girls. I don’t have to go through all the cute bikinis at swimsuit season. I find what hides and minimizes and shadows me the most, and then I get out.

    I’ve wished, too, that I were obese, instead of pinging around the size 12-16 range. Just being large seems preferable sometimes to this endless hiding game, where one little roll poking out of your carefully smoothed-over shape is death.

    I’ve started wearing brighter colors recently, which is fun, but I still freak out every time my cleavage is at all visible (which as a flat-chested fattie, is rarely), because there’s still that “respect” thing, and also that “hide all the interesting parts” dictum that’s especially important for fat women. No one wants to see your legs! Put those breasts away!

    On a similar note, I just got my hair cut short and all the old highlights are gone now, which means I’m walking around with hair that’s the same ash-brown that you see peeking out at the roots of anyone who’s had their hair dyed. Having no dye in my hair at all, even grown-out highlights, makes me feel shockingly naked, like only people with naturally strong-colored hair are allowed to just let it out there. Seriously, it’s like having no mascara on, or a skirt with two weeks of stubble on your legs. When did certain shades of hair color become inappropriate for fashion?

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  2. CelloShots wrote:

    Everything that you write just makes me so happy. Even when it is about something that, like fashion, so often makes me angry.

    I have nothing substantive to add to the discussion, just this fan mail. Sorry.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  3. anna wrote:

    alas, i do not have money to donate or a different point of view to add, but I do have a book recommendation! It is called “It’s So You,” published by Seal, consisting of 30 essays about clothes (including contributions by Kim Gordon, Diane Di Prima and Kate Bornstein) –

    There was one excerpt in particular that reminded me of this post, from Cookie Wollner’s essay “a Torrid Affair”

    “Ready? Get one of those ‘What not to Wear’ books and rock every “Fashion Don’t” in it. Yes, it’s that easy! Horizontal stripes? Clingy tops? Exposed upper arms? The muffin top special? Bring it. Just think about it: Every fashion tip you’ve ever learned is to help ‘flatter’ your body, which tranlates to ‘make you look thinner.’ Thinner equals smaller. Smaller equals taking up less space in the world.”

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  4. Robert wrote:

    This reminded me of something my younger sister told me years ago, when she started making her own clothes. “To heck with fashion,” she said, “I’m going for STYLE.”

    She eventually branched out to selling clothes she made at local RenFaires, which tells you something both about her sense of style and her personal oomph. I have a nice shirt she made, that I still wear to Faires; my own personal style is more ‘dowdy househusband’.

    That said, rockin’ columnn!

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  5. thecaitd wrote:

    Fantastic fantastic! I wholeheartedly agree, particularly about What Not to Wear.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Kate wrote:

    This was a pleasure to read. Lately I’ve felt uncomfortable about going shopping, because I feel unsure about my body. I keep feeling like I need to lose some weight, but I like shopping and need more clothes.

    Thank you for reminding me that rules get in the way and to not let anyone box me up.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  7. firefly wrote:

    Will I buy a pair of jeans that are too tight but possibly flattering? No. Will I buy a pair of Dr. Martens that are a size too big, chunky as heck, and wear them in a sunny, Mediterranean climate? Yes.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
  8. RMJ wrote:

    Great post. This is something I’ve really struggled with as I’ve gotten into clothing as a means of personal expression, rather than something to constantly avoid. I’m big – tall, with thick thighs and hips – and I never know how to respond to “I could never pull that off”. It’s self-deprecating, to start, which contributes to the hierarchy you write of. But it’s also a comment on my fatness and my courage for showing it – implicitly, I shouldn’t be wearing whatever short skirt because I am too fat, but somehow I’ve managed to “get away with it”.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  9. scrumby wrote:

    I was more of a fan of Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style. It was a much nicer show than What Not to Wear and the women got actual lessons on how to build a wardrobe according to their needs and personal taste. And they never threw out an entire wardrobe which I always hated.

    (and I know you didn’t want to walk about wedding stuff but you mentioned it and I wondered if you considered having a friend perform the ceremony? all it takes is an online ordination and it’s a lot more personal than a judge or religious figure you’ve never met before.)

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Brennan wrote:

    I can relate to falling out of love with WNtW. I really enjoyed the show when I was younger. I guess I was buying into the Makeover Story–that changing something as simple as clothes could change your whole life. As a misfit middle/high schooler, I think part of me needed that story, or thought I needed it.

    Looking back on it years later with a slightly more mature, significantly more critical eye, all the show’s flaws are much more apparent, the biggest of which is shaming. I’m not just talking about weight shaming, though that is their most serious transgression. They use similar tactics on every participant who doesn’t closely conform to a very narrow definition of the perfect body, including older women, female athletes and bodybuilders, women who consciously avoid the “feminine” look, the list goes on.

    So, thanks for this post. You put into words something that had been bothering me for a while.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  11. CJ wrote:

    Is there a difference between tights and pantyhose? Am I right in thinking that tights=leggings and pantyhose=tights when translating to UKian?

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 2:59 am | Permalink
  12. Michelle wrote:

    So, I have nothing to say here except “thank you”, and also that I have a close friend who “offered” to sign me up for What Not To Wear when I told her that I felt unattractive 90% of the time.

    For some reason she was surprised that I did not view this as a big favor. She kept telling me about how it was all about making women feel more confident about themselves, wear clothes that “flatter” their bodies, blah blah blah. I’ve never seen the show, but this confirms what I suspected.

    Also, I hope this doesn’t come off as creepy, but if you do want to write about the Religion Problems regarding your wedding, I would… kind of really like to read about it. I expect Religion Problems at my own wedding, if and when I have one (I’m in a long-term relationship that will probably go that way eventually). It would be nice to read about people who have had to navigate similar problems.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink
  13. k not K wrote:

    This is pretty much how I’ve come to feel about fashion, too. I do have a lot of basics that are simple and “flattering to my curves” just because it’s easy to throw them on and go, but I also love all kinds of weirdly cut, very structural clothes.

    For example, I have one tulip shaped empire waist dress that my mom once said makes me look pregnant. Well, OH WELL! I love the way the stiff pleats look around my hips and thighs – yes the dress poofs out, it’s supposed to do that.

    Back in the day I used to think I couldn’t wear that type of clothing until I lost another 10 pounds, or until my abs were more defined, or some other stupid shit. But at some point I just thought, uh, if not now, when are you going to actually wear what you want? So now I rock the hell out of my weird-shaped dresses, blouses with bizarre details, and short tunics. The world can deal with my thick pale thighs or the fact that my waist looks undefined when I layer a wide blouse over a wide dress. I mean, damn, nobody even looks at me as often as I catch myself in the mirror. So why not dress for myself?

    Wow this was a lot of words about clothes…

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 7:53 am | Permalink
  14. Kathy wrote:

    I used to watch What not to Wear. At first, I loved it. People were made so happy by new clothes. Some of the pieces featured were truly great. But slowly, I started to hate it. It was always the same. You are a woman, you need to look more feminine.

    This, exactly. I used to watch this show regularly, first the original British version, then the American with Stacy and Clinton. The original allowed for more personal style rather than following some arbitrary fashion “rules.” (Well, maybe not all the time, but it’s become a very different show.) As a woman who never wears typically “girl” clothes, the emphasis on looking feminine has always bothered me. There was an episode a few years back where they practically forced a woman into wearing skirts and dressed who was clearly uncomfortable in them. That pretty much turned me off for good.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  15. Emily wrote:

    CJ –

    In order from least thick/heavy to most thick/heavy, US terminology is pantyhose -> tights -> leggings.

    Pantyhose could easily be torn end to end by a ragged fingernail and a small hole can spread to a huge hole in a single day. Tights would require something a bit sharper to puncture and pull at them, and a small hole will mostly stay a small hole and only spread over a long time. Leggings will not rip unless you take scissors to them.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  16. Shinobi wrote:

    Can I just take a minute here to talk about how much I fucking hate fashion trends? Because it is a lot. Every time there is something I like it is only cool for about a week and then no. And then when there are things I absolutely hate with the fire of a thousand suns they have become the only thing one could ever purchase ever.

    Especially when the trend is something as deeply appalling as skinny jeans. I don’t like how skinny jeans look on ANYONE EVER. I remember when Gap put out that ad with Audrey Hepburn and I was like “Crap, if she can’t make these pants look attractive I am in for a whole lot of ugly over the next 10 years.”

    But it was one thing when it was a bunch of people I might have at one time found attractive now wearing pants that make me want to gouge out my eyes. That’s fine, it helps me remain monogamous, no complaints.

    However, now it is nearly impossible to buy jeans I would actually want to wear. There is 1 store that sells jeans that actually fit me, and they are phasing in tapered leg skinny hideous horribleness.

    Soon I will have to just stop wearing jeans because I wont be able to get jeans that fit me period.

    What I don’t understand is why some misguided fool who decided skinny leg pants were a great idea should get to determine whether or not I ever wear pants again?

    I mean, can someone give me a ballpark on how long this trend will last? Maybe I can buy enough pants to get me through to the resurgence of pants I would ever remotely consider putting on my body.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  17. Celeloriel wrote:

    This post was so awesome I donated.

    Thank you.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  18. Jean wrote:

    Shinobi, quit your whining. Compared to the ultra-low-rise flares that were ubiquitous during my formative years (1998-2002), skinny jeans are not so bad. At least you won’t have to think, “Is my ass crack exposed? Did I wear cute underwear today?” every time you sit down.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  19. emjaybee wrote:

    How about problems within the fat-girl fashions that do exist? You know, the ones that assume I’m pear shaped, love exposing my cleavage, and enjoy wearing circus clown colors at all times, and have the nerve to charge me out the ass for it (cough, Lane Bryant, cough).

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  20. assassin wrote:

    loved this post and i too increasingly frowned at WNTW. i was happy for the women who seemed like they just needed to feel good about themselves–the dowdy moms, the harried IT girl who just didn’t understand or care about clothes but felt good with a new look. but i felt bad for the zany, “inappropriate” gals–the ones who clearly LIKED shopping and felt good in their embellished jeans and ripped-up tank tops. stacy and clinton just made those women feel bad about themselves for not following the Rules and i was just like LEAVE THEM ALONE! as much as i might find excessive ruching and uggs offensive to my eyes, i will defend to the death your right to wear them, WNTW people!

    also, what is their obsession with wide-legged jeans? they do not look good on everyone, like every other kind of jeans. they put EVERYONE in them, it’s so boring/awful.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  21. AnthroK8 wrote:

    If you haven’t yet, go have a gander at “you don’t have to be pretty” by Erin McKean at A Dress A Day. It will make you happy, I hope, and it began with a discussion of… leggings. The great prompter of style philosophy, I guess.

    Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  22. cathy wrote:

    Excellent post! I find it frustrating that not only are all of these “rules” thrusted on us – but designers make it extremely difficult to find clothing that follows the rules!

    On a side note, I recently moved to DC and I would love to talk to you about this job that you love, if you are willing.

    Friday, July 16, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  23. Dora wrote:

    Fashion rules exist so the people who Know can feel better than the people who don’t Know — wearing the “right” shoes is a status symbol and a signal of class, like speaking in the right idiom. In other words, fuck that.

    I really love clothes, though.

    Thanks for this post! It made me donate, too. Well, that and I finally have a few extra bucks this month.

    Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink
  24. Lasciel wrote:

    I always hated What Not to Wear. It seemed like the whole point was taking people that clearly loved how they dressed, and forcing them into bland crap.

    My problem with the whole “Tights are not pants!” BS is that everyone that takes that stance is usually whining about having to see something they don’t want to see. I’m not going to drop dead from seeing too much of a woman’s behind.

    We need a new word to separate fashion in it’s natural form from the rigid system that dominates. When I say I love fashion I mean I love clothes, not the ageist, sexist, racist BS system that dominates everywhere.

    Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  25. @Jean ahhhhh I’d forgotten about the ultra low rise trend; I think I’d repressed it. I’m all tall and skinny and long-legged and shit like ladies are “supposed” to be, in a way where ALL pants ride really low on me ANYWAY, so when I was thirteen fucking years old and the only pants available were ultra-low-rise it was just like I could not pull a pair of pants all the way on for three years in middle school and it was TRAUMATIZING. Then I went Goth and wore big skirts for ever instead. o.O

    Monday, July 19, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  26. Andrea wrote:

    Dora, “Fashion rules exist so the people who Know can feel better than the people who don’t Know — wearing the “right” shoes is a status symbol and a signal of class, like speaking in the right idiom. In other words, fuck that.”

    Yes. I completely agree. I had a ‘friend’ in college who constantly used clothes against me. No matter what I wore it wasn’t cute enough, wasn’t current enough, wasn’t good enough. Fuck that to hell.

    Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  27. Manda wrote:

    This post reminds me of my General Theory of Fashion, which is: Fashion designers hate women.

    They really do. I don’t care if the designer is male or female, straight or not, they seem to be trying to get revenge against the people who buy their things. I’m talking primarily about haute couture now, but I think it filters down — the guiding principle seems to be that the person is only there to make the clothes look good, and eff you if you think it should work the other way. Seriously, take a look at shots from any runway show basically ever, and tell me if they ever have actual women in mind when they design that crap. I think they’d be happiest if we were all just shaped like coathangers.

    On the plus side, I have seen improvement of a sort in this area in recent years. Men’s fashions have become so idiotic that I’m nearly ready to expand my theory. Soon I’ll feel 100% confident in saying that fashion designers hate people.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  28. Cate wrote:

    YES YES YES, thank you for writing this xoxoxo

    Friday, August 6, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

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  2. […] Silvana at Tiger Beatdown on the fun and frivolity of fashion! Unless you’re fat: For fat women, clothes are supposed to be about making people forget that you’re fat. […]