Saturday, August 21, 2010

The womanly experience of dressing sexily

Note: this is a companion piece to The manly experience of being shaved and, like it, is incorrect in some ways.

American Apparel is no no more. Well, probably. Their debts greatly exceed their ability to pay.

Let's all stop for a split second of silence.

Okay, the only real issue if you are a man is that we will no longer get those pornographic ads. These were shot in a way that suggested amateurishness. There is a picture of a girl wearing a body suit on a billboard near the pub down the street, for example, that looks more like something a girl took of herself for her boyfriend than the work of a professional photographer.

And there we have, I think, one of the reasons for the failure of American Apparel*.

Abercrombie and Fitch used to run a similar ad campaign and so did Calvin Klein. Both have dropped these. You get pornographic images of young men from Abercrombie and Fitch nowadays that are obviously aimed at the gay market. Calvin Klein have a great little voyeuristic film on their website but, and this is important, that film makes it clear that you  are the vulnerable voyeur peaking and model you are peaking at is the one with the power. You get quick little peeks at her and never the chance to hold her in your gaze.

The young women in the American Apparel ads, on the other hand, looked distinctly nailable. Those ads weren't about the sexual power of women but about the sexual power of men looking at them. It's not that women don't sometimes crave that experience of seeing a guy looking at them knowing he can do ... I don't have to actually explain this do I? It's just that women don't dress sexily to get that experience. When a woman dresses sexily, she gets a mixture of power and vulnerability and you have to do understand both to sell them clothing. The American Apparel look has been all vulnerability and no power.

The important thing to grasp is that sexual display for a women is an experience of vulnerability not unlike exposing his throat to a sharp blade to be shaved is for a man. And there isn't a thirteen-year-old girl alive that needs that explained to her. Even if she couldn't articulate what she is feeling, she knows what she is feeling. Every girl is looked at and evaluated sexually from an early age.

This leaves her vulnerable because, well, she is a girl and things could happen and the experience of sex is different for women. There is also the possibility that things might not happen, that she might be evaluated and summarily dismissed. And, perhaps, most importantly, there is the certainty that her status as a woman will be assessed by other women based on how she looks in sexy clothing.

Okay, okay, there are many out there who are now screaming it should not be that way. Perhaps but it is that way and, again, there isn't a pre-teen girl anywhere on the face of the planet who needs this explained to her.

And, as I discussed in a previous post, the biggest threat is other women. No, I'm not dismissing sexual assault or the hundred other ways that quite a few, but not all, men set about diminishing women. But only a tiny percentage of women will be sexually assaulted whereas other women are an active threat that is there every second of every woman's life; it is the efforts of other women to raise their own sexual status and to diminish her sexual status that she always feels. And the sexual energy women fear in other women is mostly their potential energy and not their kinetic energy. It's not what other women are actually doing but what they could do that worries her.

Once a woman is actually available to another man, or even other men, she loses most of her power to threaten another woman's status. The obvious exception here is a love triangle.

The real threat, the power women seek in dressing sexually, is potential power. It's not that she is aroused but that others will be aroused by her. It's more what this other woman could do at any time that is the threat. And thus the need to control her actual sexual vulnerability.

(Fans of Jane Austen will remember the moment when Frank Churchill thinks it is okay to flirt with Emma because he has already declared his love to Jane Fairfax by way of a  secret engagement. Frank thinks, Jane is in on the secret with me and will know she has nothing to fear. But poor sickly, impoverished Jane confronted with the sheer sexual and social power of Emma is terrified and hurt. It doesn't matter that nothing will happen, just the thought that Emma can use her vastly greater powers on Frank crushes poor Jane.)

You can see this most clearly when you hear women complain about what they see as excess in other women. Just a few weeks ago a woman I know said to me of a woman she'd seen while using the bank machine, "I'm sorry but letting your electric blue bra straps show is not sexy to me." I can confess here what I did not tell her that my first thought was, Can I credibly now announce that I just realized I need to get some more money so I could go check out the chick letting her electric blue bra straps show?

Trust me: you can, as it were, take this one to the bank: nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand times you hear a woman says I'm sorry but X is not sexy to me, she will have narrowed down on exactly the thing that is sexy about how another woman is dressed. Let me explain it for anyone who can't see it. A bra goes against a woman's breast skin and her nipples. It is an intimate choice and the fact that she chose this outrageously assertive colour to put her breasts into is sexy. It's pure sexual power.

And here we come to one of the odd things about sexy clothes. Women do this as much for other women as they do it for men. As I've blogged somewhere here before, one of the more nonsensical complaints about fashion is to say that a particular fashion is stupid because most women couldn't wear it without looking ridiculous. That is precisely the attraction. The woman with power proves it to other women by wearing something they could not wear without looking weaker than her. (Or she tries to do this and fails.)

Yesterday, I walked by a television showing some fashion show in France. The particular collection was all bits of black fabric looking as if the dresses were about to fall apart. There were no neat hemlines anywhere on these dresses. Anyone who is halfway observant will know that uneven hemlines look sloppy and unkempt on ninety-eight percent of women. Only a woman who knows that absolutely everything else is exactly in place can carry the look off. (She also has to have very narrow, boyish hips.)

But there is more than just power at work here. There is also a knife-edge balance that women put themselves on when they dress sexily. Power intoxicates and that feeling of power that comes from putting her sexual power to the test will get a woman aroused. And, paradoxically, every time that power works on a man in the way she hopes it it will she herself gets aroused and, therefore, a little more vulnerable. 

That phenomena is exactly what the American Apparel ads were trying to highlight (but failed because they only got one side of it). It's something we all like seeing. Contrary to popular belief, women actually respond more readily to this sort of visual stimulus than men but that is a topic for another day. But the crucial thing is that as important as that experience may be to women, it rapidly gets trumped by social concerns. You only need to spend ten seconds in an office environment to understand this. Women compete for sexual status not for actual sex and if you want to sell clothing to women you shouldn't use porn to do it. Women will buy clothes that get them power, especially power over other women, long before they'll buy clothes likely to get them sex.

* The other reason, of course, is that they had their garments manufactured in America by Americans (i.e. not by illegal immigrants working in a sweatshop somewhere). This made their clothing more expensive.

This is also the reason I say they are "probably" gone above. The possibility always exists that someone will now buy the name and have clothes made in some third-world country.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good analysis Jules. I'm dating myself, but this brings to mind the ads Brooke Shields did for Calvin Klein jeans--"nothing comes between me and my Calvins"--the implication being that she wasn't wearing anything underneath. Fashion is....well many things I guess. I remember back in the '80s during the "dress for success" period, women in business were told to wear "power red" in order to command respect and authority. The talking head attorney Gloria Allred I think still always wears red when she's interviewed on CNN about high profile cases (I normally just switch to another channel when she's on).

    Many believe that fashion is no more because of gay male designers using pencil-thin runway models who resemble pre-pubescent boys rather than sexually mature women, and design clothes that "real women" won't or can wear. I honestly don't know if that's true or not, I would imagine that the great designers of the past were gay too, yet they created works of art worn by beautiful women who looked like women. Your comment about the fashion show in France indicates that those clothes with the uneven hemlines can only be worn--at least tastefully--by pencil-thin women. I think that fashion has been influenced not only by social concerns but also today's lifestyles. Many young women of today "bristle" when they have to put on a skirt or dress, and only do so if its absolutely de rigeur, e.g., wedding, funeral, some business settings. The social concerns are definitely there too as far as how women want to present themselves. Some equate femininity with weakness and today's woman is ambivalent about that. I think you help explain why that is the case.