Monday, July 14, 2003

Cross dressing

The issue of dress as a means of controlling women has got me thoughtful. The mediaeval text Mirouer aux Dames (Mirror for Ladies) not untypically criticises women for their abberant dress, and especially for dressing up in men's clothes, and therefore blurring the absolute value of male authority. The desire to control female dress is linked to a fear of the language of women, itself closely connected to the fear of female flesh and desire (for a longer disquisition on this, see my essay Specula: Mirrors of the Middle Ages). And while fashion itself has most often been construed as a means of simultaneously controlling women and satisfying a profit-hungry marketplace, Diane Owen Hughes, in her essay Regulating Women's Fashion, makes the point that fashion may also be a means of empowerment. While Renaissance fashion made women the focus of display, their sumptuous dress a means of asserting the patriarchal status of a family, "its costumes also offered women a means of reordering social distinctions and of reenacting the social process.... Fashion might also attach male styles to female dress, not to turn women into men, but to suggest to its wearer (and her critics) a new virile empowerment." That is, women enthusiastically turned to fashion because it was a means of social subversion. "That such transformations were more imaginary than real is a sign of fashion's limitations," says Hughes. "It is also a sign of its power. ... Fashion was fantasy. A fantasy of dreams but also of utopian possibility. That may be why women worshipped it."

Fundamentalist religions of all kinds heavily prescribe the dress and behaviour of women (this is not to say that the dress of men is not equally carefully coded, but in the case of men the dress is to assert male authority, while for women it reinforces a subservient status). As Sophie's email yesterday suggests, the irruption of female or unconventional male sexuality into any traditionally male-dominated sphere is perceived as a transgression. It seems to me only a question of degree, although of course that degree shifts the issue qualitatively: in extreme circumstances, dressing according to code may be a matter of life or death, rather than one of social embarrassment. I was fascinated yesterday to find Ishtar's blog (at ishtartalking.blogspot.com). For Ishtar, a woman writing from Basra in Iraq, the issue of dress is all-consuming: her right to dress as she wishes is the sign of an impermissible freedom, and her decision to dress as required is, as she explicitly says, the result of fear:

Because the things I need are so many it got to the point where it started negatively affecting my mood, and that didn't need another thing bothering it, I finally decided to go to the market. Ignoring, although only superficially, the danger and trouble of going out without veil specially to a place like the market. I wore for the first time a very wide and long skirt….really wide. And a shirt which was as wide and loose fitting as the skirt, it also had long, loose sleeves so the effect was like wearing a long jubah. And I had to put a Hijab on my head although it was so hot my head was almost exploding. But that might have been because I was feeling annoyed with myself for giving in to some else's wishes and maybe also because I believe that by doing as they wish I am helping in propagating their wishes. Anyway this is better than getting harassed by someone and as I have been told this harassment might take the form of a small knife or a razor-sharp tongue.

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