Author of the Month: Shira TarrantPublished: September 17, 2012
Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style
Shira Tarrant, associate professor, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Published in September by SUNY Press, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style is a collection of essays on such topics as lifestyle Lolitas, Hollywood baby bumps, haute couture hijab, gender fluidity, steampunk and stripper shoes. Shira Tarrant’s goal with co-editor Marjorie Jolles at Chicago’s Roosevelt University was to explore whether style can expand the limits of race, class, gender and sexuality while avoiding the traps with which fashion can simultaneously rein us in. Tarrant not only edited the 274-page text, she authored a chapter titled “Dressing Left: Conforming, Transforming and Shifting Masculine Style.” “The chapter considers how fashion constructs our ideas about masculinity,” said the member of the university since 2006. “For instance, when a man dresses in ‘skinny’ jeans, it sends a message of non-threatening masculinity. But when a man ‘sags’ that’s often meant to convey the opposite. Overall, this chapter is about the mutability of masculinity and the ways by which fashion reflects this instability.” Tarrant argues against dismissing fashion out of hand as unintellectual. “This is a multi-billion-dollar global industry,” she said. “That alone makes it pretty important. We can address through fashion such issues as sweatshop labor, marketing and mass production. The idea that is central to this book is the importance of race, sexuality and gender to all these issues. Whether the subject is capitalism or religion, fashion plays a part.” The central theme in the book is the continual tension between fashion as an avenue for expression and a tool of constraint. As the co-authored introduction states, “Fashion is symbolic, expressive, creative and coercive. It is a powerful way to convey politics, personalities and preferences for whom and how we love. Fashion encourages profound rebellion and defiant self-definition. Yet fashion can simultaneously repress freedom by controlling or disciplining the body and by encouraging a problematic consumer culture.” Tarrant asks, “There is a political and philosophical tension between liberty and constraint that we live with every day. Why shouldn’t that tension extend to fashion?” Tarrant and Jolles avoided simple answers about whether fashion promotes social expression or social control. “We didn’t try to tell our readers what side they ought to come down on,” she said. “The issues are laid out for the reader to decide.” Sample chapters include “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin” by Renee Cramer, dealing with how the media both accepts and exploits pregnancy while also reinforcing race-based stereotypes in its portrayal of celebrity pregnancies. “Japanese Lolita: Challenging Sexualized Style and the Little-Girl Look” by Kathryn A. Hardy Bernal explores the
tension between sexual exploitation and self-awareness. “There are those who say they cannot be bothered by fashion. But what some people call a ‘natural’ look is an intentional sartorial choice about how we present ourselves to the world,” Tarrant said. “I always tell my students that if I walked into class the first day wearing Birkenstocks or Jimmy Choos, it’s likely they would assume wildly different things about my politics or my sexuality (all of which might be wrong).” Tarrant is satisfied with the text. “I’m particularly pleased about two things,” she said. “I’m pleased with how contemporary our topics remain and I’m really happy with the book cover.” She is the author of Men and Feminism from Seal Press in 2009, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power from Routledge Press in 2008 and When Sex Became Gender from Routledge in 2006. The second edition of Men Speak Out appears in January. Tarrant earned her B.A. in Political Science in 1989 from CSULB and her M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from UCLA in 2001.