Category Archives: Fashion

“Unquiet Women” and the Act of Subversion

by Dorie Perez

The subtle differences between the terms inversion, subversion and perversion, presented by seminar discussant Matthew Kaiser, are usually glossed over in speech, terms used interchangeably to mean “othering” or change as a process of fragmentation. The idea of inversion as a movement, often smaller-scale acts than violent political upheaval, is an interesting take on social change and something Susan Amussen presented in her analysis of Early Modern historical works in late September 2014.

Amussen presented what will be one chapter of a book tentatively called “Turning the World Upside Down: Gender, Culture and Politics in Early Modern England,” which builds on the work of her late husband, the historian David Underdown. Continuing the topsy-turvy theme of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities series for Fall semester 2014, she writes of “unruly women” and other deviants who dared to challenge convention in Elizabethan England. “Mannish-women and womanish-men,” patriarchs that failed to uphold their place as lord and master, among other kinds of usurpation of male authority were targets of John Swetnam, a pamphleteer in 1640s England whose social critique often morphed into full-scale misogyny. Pamphlets were the blog post of their era, read and responded to by intellectuals of all stripes; Swetnam’s back and forth argument with other writers, including quite a few female intellectuals, has held up as an example of the transhistorical tension between idealized expectations of womanhood and the subversive play of gender politics in an increasingly changing world, continuing today unabated.

The global social politics of the Early Modern era were present in the Shakespearean play The Taming of The Shrew (1592), a prime example used in Amussen’s analysis of subtle inversions of gender roles that fueled a discourse of inversion from within a dichotomized world of male/female, rich/poor, and young/old – dichotomies first discussed by Mikhail Bahktin in Rabelais and His World (1965). A royal (or rather, royal-adjacent) sex scandal involving the dissolution of Frances Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex in 1613 and subsequent remarriage to the Earl of Somerset fueled fears of subversive female comportment, especially when the perversions of witchcraft were said to be involved. Witchcraft, excessive interest in fashion and makeup, as well as sexual desire, were acts by women to subvert their roles at home, in the streets and at Court. Dress was the process by which identity was encoded, and through that signification, the inscription of idealized roles and behaviors. Any subversive activities strayed into the grey area between the normative and empirical Woman, according to a Foucauldian analysis, destabilizing social norms by way of inversion, perversion and subversion.

Dress, and therefore, womanhood, came under intense scrutiny in the Jacobean literary landscape, where any sense of otherness – foreign silks, mystical allusions, ostentatious luxury- was regulated by social stratification. Yellow hoods, and the color itself, were the sign of prostitutes and other fallen women, using the identifiers of the day as an inverted ladder to another social role available to them. The gender boundaries Amussen analyzes are clearly bounded entities regulated by social interaction and royal decree, yet somehow simultaneously inverted on a daily basis in regular acts of autonomy. They, in turn, set the stage for social relationships and tensions that then spill into the geopolitical arena. Amussen’s analysis ultimately concerns these genre-crossing “disorderly women” and their “failed patriarchs,” by whom social norms were transgressed, even as they worked to upkeep them.

Disrupting the Urban-Rural Hierarchy in Fashion and Television

by Omotayo Jolaosho

Fashion matters. As does television. Attention to these areas of popular culture reveal the spatial workings of power. Susan Kaiser and Bernstein’s research examines “rurality” in fashion and television. Through their analysis of CBS’s programming choices in 1970, we see that within television, representations of the rural were disparaged, with a move towards the urban. In fashion, on the other hand, as we see in Vogue, the rural was embraced as an authenticating element in sartorial expression. Although both instances were discussed as hegemonic moves that proved unsuccessful, what draws them together is that the urban remains a normative humanizing standard. Whether embraced or disparaged, the rural remains cast as an “other”—another space, time, people existing in a timeless “eternal present”—for urban consumption.

For myself, as an anthropologist, these discussions of spatial hierarchy in the making of a rural “other” are all too familiar—the casting of the rural as primordial, eternally present, a space to be valued as instructive for the modern malaise or cast aside as backwards in a denial of coevalness has taken place historically and on a global scale that describes so- called primitive societies or third world and underdeveloped countries.

Television and fashion are not equivalent mediums, so in responding to Kaiser and Bernstein’s work, I pondered the justification for drawing these spheres together in analysis. While we see how the rural is approached differently in each medium, I wondered if some of these outcomes were not due to distinctions in the mediums themselves. What are the representational frameworks of how television operates as distinct from how fashion operates? Can we say that fashion consumes without differentiation? Is this drive to be “in fashion” ever forward thinking whereas TV is present-affirming? Once we articulate these distinctions, what then serves as the basis of comparison across mediums? In the article, we see instances in which both spheres overlap in the sense that the costuming of characters in the rural TV shows influenced fashion designs. What further interactions and overlapping exist between the two?

Engaging television further, what representational difference does a change in genre make? Kaiser and Bernstein point out the prevalence of situational comedies and variety shows among the rural programming that was cancelled. The CBS executives’ move to cancel a number of rural-based sitcoms confirmed that rurality was no laughing matter. Rural-themed programs that did re-emerge following this purge were not comedic but dramas. What representational difference does a change in format make? What is it about comedy, as opposed to drama, that generates the critiques of representation we see here? Or alternatively, what is happening with the dramatic engagement of rural spaces that possibly escapes the representational dynamics and demographic burdens of comedy?

Finally, I want to ask, what is happening when popular culture turns toward and away from the rural? The “rural turn” of the 1960s occurred at a time when rural populations were diminishing. How do we attend to the proliferation of rural-based programming in our contemporary moment? And in fashion as well? What does a current turn to the rural indicate of our ambivalences and contradictions?