In Defence of Codes

Did the latest Paris Fashion Show suggest that ‘power dressing’ for women suffers from a lack of variety, as Robin Givhan suggested in her Washington Post article (see my previous blog entry), or an excess of variety, as Vanessa Friedman argues in her recent NYT piece?

Both arguments seem to agree on the absence of a generally acceptable sartorial code through which to express the social, political or institutional power of women. But while Givhan suggest that this has yet to be fully developed, Friedman’s seems to describe, indeed celebrate, the current demise of such a code.

What does female power dressing look like today? … The struggle to provide an answer formed the subtext of the recent fashion season, which ended last week in Paris. Many proposals were made, but few conclusions reached.

As the main driving force behind this development she identifies the still increasing individualisation (and atomisation) of late modern society.

We are in a convulsive moment of change, one in which the old order and the new coexist in uneasy alliance; one in which received notions of presentation are increasingly being rejected in favor of individual identity. A person’s experience and history are worn as badges of pride, not disguised so as to better blend in.

Consequently, the disappearance of professional and institutional dress codes, Friedman suggests, is to be welcomed, and we should celebrate a

loosening of bounds, … an expression of the reality that diversity of all kinds (thought, aesthetic, opinion) is on the rise, and that the uniform is no longer an object of desire. An acknowledgment that there are many different kinds of power and ways to design for them.

And so we are encouraged to slip the surly bonds of dress codes and to assert our freedom of choice, to dress creatively and expressively, when we shall have ‘to decide what all of this means for [ourselves]. Because right now, there are so very many, many possibilities’.

But we already know where this ends. Because ‘individual style’ is actually an oxymoron – all style refers to a socially recognised (if sometimes implicitly) code, and individuality is only possible in contrast with, and as a playful engagement with, the code – this ‘liberation’ will end in sartorial anomie. To refer to Andrew Hill’s caustic argument one more time, if we can all dress as we like, we’ll all end up looking the same. In the absence of a code for power dressing, no sense of power and identity can be discerned. The same colleague who defiantly proclaims that she does not want to waste too much thought on the way she dresses also complains to me that she regularly gets mistaken for a postgraduate student in our department.

To relax the power dress code simply means to hide power. Universities, political institutions and private companies are no less hierarchical for letting their staff and employees ‘dress down’. In fact, as a recent article in, interestingly enough, the Business section of the Washington Post demonstrates, the recent decision of Goldman Sachs to relax their professional dress code only benefits men, and puts female employees under additional pressure. While ‘all the men are psyched’, for women the question now becomes again how to dress for respect. The enforcement of a general corporate dress code gave them a clear reference point to express professional status via sartorial performance. The relaxation of this code once again makes this difficult as men do not depend on their sartorial skills as much as women to be taken seriously and considered successful professionals.

Women at work who feel pressure to prove they deserve to be in the room might be wary of ditching their blazers and pumps.

“We’ve just achieved the parity of the pantsuit, and suddenly we’re told the standard pantsuit is no longer standard workforce attire,” Scafidi said. “Women will need to find another way to achieve parity in attire at business casual or some other lower level of formality.”

While dressing down might carry the danger of being once again disregarded, insisting on proper dress code might now insinuate that female employees are uptight and stiff. Moreover, while men have a fairly wide range of ‘casualwear’ such as polos and khakis, ‘women don’t have a business casual uniform in the same way’.

So the ‘liberation’ from the ‘power dress code’ is anything but. It re-confirms gendered power structures and only facilitates personal choices for men. For women, it simply redefines sartorial imperatives, now less clearly established and more ambiguous than before. The solution to the role of codes of professional and power dressing is therefore not to ignore or dismantle them. Rather, it is to hold men to the same sartorial standards as women, and judge their professional status in similar terms.

And I am not all that opposed to bringing back the academic gown for academic staff…

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Once again: women and sartorial empowerment

In a recent WaPo article, one of my favourite fashion writer Robin Givhan deplores the alleged lack of a sartorial ‘vocabulary’ for expressing the power of women in politics.

The reality is that women don’t need particular garments to make them feel powerful but they still need clothes to help them look the part.The culture hasn’t yet reached the point at which a ruffly, pinafore-style dress with a Peter Pan collar telegraphs power the way that a navy pinstriped suit does. It’s not fair but that’s the reality. Men, at least white men, can wear track pants and hoodies and no one questions their intelligence or whether they are worthy of respect. Bernie Sanders can pound the hustings looking like he slept in his clothes and people equate the wrinkled suit with being an absent-minded professor type rather than just a slovenly mess. Men come draped in an invisible cloak of legitimacy.

While I understand it, I actually have a number of issue with this statement. Firstly, it is based on just the experience of the Paris Fashion show and its emphasis on suits as one of the latest trends in fashion. This seems to me (as a social scientist) a rather small sample from which to draw such sweeping conclusions. After all, Givhan herself has written extensively about the changing fashion choices of women in politics the last few years.

Secondly, the sartorial vocabulary of powerful women has certainly expanded over the last years. To take ‘ruffly pinafore-style’ dresses as the basis of this argument strikes me as a bit misleading. To refer to my all-time favourite example, surely Michelle Obama can be considered to have social and symbolic power even after her tenure as most sartorially savvy FLOTUS ever, and surely she has expanded significantly the vestiary code through which to express, emphasise and project it. Thirdly, I am not sure that men can express their power in track pants and hoodies, unless they do this in the gym. Bernie Sanders does look like a rumpled sociology or philosophy professor from a different era, but this does, I’d argue, make it just that little bit harder to become the President of the USA.

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(C) AFGE

Finally, power is a fiendishly difficult concept to define even for political scientists, and any sweeping statements about it seem to obscure more than they explain. Oh, and then there was that episode with President Obama and the tan suit he wore for a presser…

I was reminded of this discussion again recently when I came across this image of female students at … that are part of the resistance movement against President al-Bashir in Sudan.

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There is something fabulously compelling about these women and their sartorial (self-) empowerment. Firstly, they are proudly wearing the thobe, a traditional garment that invokes Sudanese rather than Arab identity, and, as Linda Bishai explains in her fantastic chapter in The International Politics of Fashion, connotates a form of resistance.

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De-weaponising Fashion

What assumptions support Christopher Wylie’s argument that fashion can be weaponised, that it can be used as an indicator of a person’s characteristics which in turn would allow us to tailor fake news and information in order to manipulate the outcome of political elections? It might very well be the case that, when aggregating a sufficient number of cases (87 million Facebook accounts seems to create a representative n), there is a statistically significant correlation between ‘likes’ and similar positive responses to certain fashion brands and a set of dispositions that can be manipulated for political purposes. Yet the notion that brands give us a direct link to a person’s identity, or an idea ‘who people are’, seems exaggerated. Firstly, a vast majority of people in Western societies actually care very little about their appearances, and secondly, fashion itself has lost much of its inherent symbolic value.

Wylie’s examples during the presentation are supposed to be stark to drive his point home: Crocs vs Chanel and Wrangler vs Abercrombie & Fitch. Apparently, these are supposed to be irreconcilable preferences. Yet the first example simply suggests that he missed the SS 2017 Christopher Kane runway, or the S/S 2018 Balanciaga runway which introduced Croc models as part of that show.

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Similarly, the distinction between A&F and Wrangler might be less stable than Wylie allows for. A similar brand, Fred Perry, has seen its white polo shirts become one of the favourite garments of the alt-right in the USA. There is therefore no inherent brand identity that would protect fashion houses from being appropriated by either side of the political spectrum.

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Weaponising Fashion

A while ago, (social) media were abuzz with the news that Cambridge Analytica (CA), the notorious data mining company that illegally trawled some 50 million Facebook user profiles for political manipulation purposes in the 2016 USA presidential elections (although a first story appeared earlier about CA’s involvement in the Senate campaign by Ted Cruz) also ‘weaponised’ fashion as part of its campaign. CA apparently collected ‘likes’ that referred to fashion brands and design houses on the unsuspecting users’ Facebook pages and recorded responses like these.

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I presume that this is supposed to correspond, from left to right, to a ‘conservative – moderate – liberal’ orientation…

The data that CA gathered from Facebook accounts was mapped unto an OCEAN personality profile measuring the subjects’ respective Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. As Christopher Wylie, CA’s ‘director of research’ claims in his presentation at Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES meeting, fashion correlates strongly with these personality characteristics. More specifically, some brands correlate strongly with ‘liberal’ characteristics such as Openness and Extraversion, other brands point to a more conservative personality, characterised by Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

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For Wylie, ‘fashion is a good entry point to people’s identity’, because we choose what to wear on a daily basis, and brands and styles reflect and reveal personal identities. All this makes it possible, he claims, to weaponise fashion as part of a systematic manipulation of the US electorate, to ‘re-segregate society’ and to lock people into their respective information ghettos. Customised information feeds lead to a ‘hyper-personalisation’ of society, in which people are manipulated according to their psychological profiles (of which their fashion preferences are a part). From a social science perspective it is interesting to note that this process of hyper-personalisation already begins with a methodological choice in which ‘culture’ and by extension fashion is defined as the distribution of attitudes among people. In other words, the very social nature of fashion is erased and reduced to an indicator attached to a target individual. The political ends here define the scientific means.

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The Visuality of Power Re-Visited

I have written about the in\visibility of power and the role of women before an extended holiday break. Now, after the Golden Globes and the opening of the 116thCongress and a couple of interesting debates on social media, which both produced some interesting ‘visuals’, it seems a good idea to visit that topic one more time.

I found the Golden Globes red carpet last December to be fairly predictable and ‘unpolitical’. The latter, however, is an interesting point in itself. A year ago, most actors wore black in support of the ‘Times Up’ movement. This sartorial choice was supposed to indicate a critical distance from fashion and its alleged ‘objectification’ of women. This year, the same women in their vast majority pretty much returned to conventional fashion choices, leading some fashion commentators to wonder what relevance fashion can have as part of political protest and resistance (As Robin Givhan observed, there were a few smatterings of politics here and there). Certainly, seeing one black dress after another made a powerful statement of women’s solidarity and commitment to the cause of fighting for gender equality and against sexual harassment. Yet at the same time, as I argued in an interview with a LA Times journalist, and in a subsequent blog entry,

given fashion’s inherent logic of constant change, how ‘sustainable’ is this sartorial strategy of muting colours and voices? I think this is what I referred to with the argument that fashion can only incite and act as a catalyst. This is not to be underestimated, but we should not expect fashion to be a reliable and steady ally of social causes. Next show, next runway, next fashion.

Political protest is little more than an element in the constantly ever-changing grammar of high fashion. Last year’s sartorial ideas and interventions are just that: so last year. Of course this does not mean that fashion is irrelevant to politics – there are a few blog entries here that should undermine that argument. And perhaps even the routine Golden Globes 2019 brought a harbinger of things to come and men adapting a more fashion-conscious attitude, perhaps as part of a long overdue re-definition of masculinity.

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Female Politicians and the In\Visibility of Power

Few things excite the mind of fashionistas as much as the way female politicians dress. Should they care, do they care, about their sartorial experiences? Does women’s power reside in being ‘invisible’ in terms of fashion choices, or does a well-chosen sartorial strategy give them ‘visibility’, and thereby ‘relatability’, sympathy, attention, perhaps even agency?

Recently, two articles dealt with this question in an interesting fashion, apparently coming to opposed conclusions. Carmen Böker’s essay in the German weekly Die Zeit offers the intriguing argument that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s power is reflected in her sartorial invisibility, in her ability to make people stop judging her by her clothing. The German audience knows what to expect from her, and she always delivers: a pantsuit, combining black trousers and jackets in different colours. In Böker’s words, such dress code ‘rather eliminates than emphasises the body, containing it hermetically so that it is no longer perceived as such’. Her ‘signature silhouette’ is always recognisable: ‘as iconic as the shape of the pedestrian traffic-light figure (Ampelmännchen)’.

If we cut through the snark, there is actually an interesting argument about the role of visibility, fashion and politics here. It suggests that visibility amounts to exposure, inviting the sometimes critical, sometimes derogatory gaze from both men and women. Merkel has clearly escapes this form of publicity by standardising and ‘dulling down’ her sartorial choices. But does this actually mean that she has become ‘invisible’? Does power really reside in this?

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There is something ironic about an essay that forwards this argument but includes a visual introduction of 42 images of chancellor Merkel wearing jackets of literally all the colours of the rainbow. Clearly, choices, however limited, are made by her. Secondly, the argument about her sartorial invisibility is based on five pages (print-out) of keen analysis of a very competent fashion writer, discussing the basic structure of Ms Merkel’s pantsuits, their effect on her physical appearance, citing the assessment of the fashion system of her pantsuits as ‘semi-fashionable’, and approvingly contrasting her fashion choices to other female and male German politicians as offering a distinctive ‘look’. Both female and male politicians, Böker suggests, have to find their own recognisable and appropriate style that escapes the public’s snarky criticism. If, as suggested, Angela Merkel is indeed a role model for this, the surely her personal style is anything but invisible. Much like her reign, people have simply come to accept it.

Which leads me to Robin Givhan’s WaPo article on Stacey Abrams, the Democratic contender for the governorship in Georgia. Regrettably, she did not win the election, but this does not distract from the main argument that Ms Abrams fashion choices were part of a political strategy: to make herself, and to make the unseen people in Georgia visible. In Ms Abrams’ words: ‘In our Georgia, no one would be unseen’. As Givhan notes, ‘Appearance is political’. Indeed, as I argue in The International Politics of Fashion, being visible is a central element of being political, never more so than in our thoroughly ‘mediated’ political reality.

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Source: Barbara Jordan Forum 2012

It’s a pity Ms Abrams lost the gubernatorial elections; her Republican opponent is a lousy dresser.