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Nothing Trivial About Fashion

Published: May 1, 2014

The nation’s fashion industry makes an average of $400 billion a year yet it faces dismissal from serious discussion as trivial. Shira Tarrant disagrees.

“Fashion is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” said the member of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies since 2006. ”It is easy for most people to dismiss fashion as something that is frivolous. But it affects everything from advertising to sweat shops. Look at the role of fashion in feminism. ‘I’m not wearing white gloves so I’m not your idea of a lady.’ ‘I wear a miniskirt but I refuse to be objectified.’ ‘A miniskirt does not imply consent.’ These are political issues embodied by fashion.”

Tarrant is the editor of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style (SUNY Press), a collection of essays on lifestyle Lolitas, Hollywood baby bumps, haute couture hijab, gender fluidity, steam punk and stripper shoes. Tarrant’s goal with co-editor Marjorie Jolles 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.”

Nothing Trivial About Fashion

“It is easy to hear ‘haute couture’ and think of women models and women consumers but men get dressed every morning, too,” she said. “Masculinity is not exempt from fashion. Even though there are many of us who say we don’t pay attention to fashion, we all present ourselves to the world in the way we dress. We all make decisions about how we want to present ourselves. Fashion can be used to reinforce certain ideas about hyper masculinity and its essential cowboy toughness. But fashion also can be used to play with those ideas. It can push against the restraints of gender.”

Fashion can express global political issues such as the April 23 Global Denim Day focused on educating the community at large on the legal definition of consent. Tarrant pointed to a 1998 decision by the Italian Supreme Court to overturn a rape conviction because the victim wore tight jeans. The court overturned their findings in 2008 and there is no longer a “denim” defense to the charge of rape. Yet at the time of the original decision, women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans. The California Senate and Assembly followed suit. As of 2011 at least 20 U.S. states officially recognize Denim Day.

Every rite of passage, including pregnancy, is expressed by fashion. In Tarrant’s book, author Renee Cramer’s chapter titled “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin” explores how the media both accepts and exploits pregnancy while reinforcing race-based stereotypes about motherhood and sexuality in its portrayal of celebrity pregnancies.

“We’re talking about high-profile public figures who are pregnant. These are women who own production companies or command salaries for their films in the millions. Yet, it is the bump the media discusses,” said Tarrant.

Nothing Trivial About Fashion-Shira Tarrant
PHOTO COURTESTY OF SHIRA TARRANT
Shira Tarrant

Fashion Talks includes “Japanese Lolita: Challenging Sexualized Style and the Little-Girl Look” by Kathryn A. Hardy Bernal that analyzes tension between sexual exploitation and self-awareness. “That chapter is one of the book’s most troubling for my students,” said Tarrant. “It testifies to the fashion constraints in our lives. For instance, where do we draw the line between self-exploitation and self-expression? Is it up to us to tell the Lolitas of the world that they are operating under false consciousness? We do this on purpose, say the Lolitas. They know how grown men see them, yet claim the power lies in dressing how they want to, anyway. What bothers my students is the question of whether the GothLolis, who dress in little-girl, sexualized fashion, are really as in charge of things as they claim.”

Tarrant believes that fashion is one aspect of how we express our identity. “It declares who we are on a particular day,” she said. “Humans always have adorned ourselves. We express ourselves in terms of fashion and style. We are creative and expressive, and that freedom and pleasure are part of the joyful aspect of fashion.”

She hopes the readers of Fashion Talks will take with them the message that fashion is legitimate and a component of so much of our cultural politics. “I would hope that my readers feel invited to participate in the expression of fashion. We like things to fit into neat little boxes, but as a political theorist, I hope my readers conclude that they can grapple with the simultaneous tension between expression and constraint.”

Tarrant also 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. She 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.