Dressing up: Woman

I have explored those remarkable icons whose styles and traits resonate even in modern culture for both women, cross dressers and drag artists (refer to previous post here: Everything Is Parody). I have also explored items which are strongly associated to femininity, sexuality and the erotic, reinforcing further Butler’s theory that gender is a series of acts, gestures and items. For Butler the act of drag highlights the unnaturalness of femininity by revealing how constructed femininity is, just as I have come to find. Femininity is reduced to mere parts: a look, heels and sparkles. By over accentuating feminine styles, acts and gestures, the drag artist reveals how fictictious hegemonic norms are for women. Femininity becomes a mere imitation of an “ideal” which is nothing more than “illusion”.

This for many is disturbing but one I delightfully revel in. In short what is considered “feminine” usually includes: flowers, pink, fussiness, long flowing hair, breasts, lingerie, corsets, high heels, suspenders, make-up, long eye-lashes, plump lips, clear skin, minute features, grace, elegance and glamour. The appearance of a drag queen takes on all of these things which may be deemed as over exaggerating as much as over conforming. I feel more women should embrace all things feminine and perhaps even imitate the look of drag artists. Why shouldn’t we be aggressively feminine? I’m sure it would destroy many of men! In fact the drag appearance and other gay subcultures have long influenced the mainstream fashion world, thus everything (gay or straight) becomes a parody (please refer to previous post entitled “Revived Icons: Everything Is Parody”)

According to Rebecca Arnold in “Fashion, Desire and Anxiety” fashion had been growing more playful in its appropriation of references to gay culture since the 1980’s. As fashion shows become more grandiose and theatrical, they drew upon the tenets of camp, revelling in the freedom of exaggerate and dramatized femininity in a manner that was self-conscious in its post modernity. The role of fashion as entertainment, brought overstatement and parody to the industry. Arnold writes, “Pastiche had become a major motif; designers were increasingly looking to the past for inspiration, not just for style, but also for references, for example, Hollywood icons, to provide their collections with instantly recognisable glamour”. Thus, fashion to a degree is also like the act of drag, relying heavily on re-enactment and imitation. In fact fashion was and still is a cycle that regurgitates and re-invents styles and looks that we’ve seen thousands of times already.

Claudia Schiffer v Bridgette Bardot

Claudia Schiffer v Bridgette Bardot

Even supermodels and icons themselves are mimics (see previous posts on Elvis and Marilyn where I argue they too were mimics like drag performers). Claudia Schiffer “did” Bridgette Bardot; Linda Evangelista “did” everyone from Sophia Loren to Marilyn Monroe, in the same way drag queens “did” femininity paying homage to the same stars. It was no longer necessary to pretend that fashion, or that femininity was natural. Something I too want to prove in my images of my gender bending beauties.

Madonna is a great example of the changing fashions of the 1980’s and 1990’s and how ultra-femininity could be as intimidating as it is seductive. Emulation became an increasingly significant part of her own star persona, reinforcing the fluidity of gender identities and taking control of their own construction. In her 1990 video for the song “Vogue” she paid tribute to the Gay subcultural roots of this spectacle, featuring black dancers from the New York ghettos that had hot-housed “vogueing”. She also wore designs by Jean Paul Gaultier who is also gay. By Madonna being ultra-feminine like the appearance of drag queens, evidenced the constructive nature and fluidity of gender. But that’s what exactly drag does. The drag artists over accentuates all things feminine which could easily be deemed as over conforming.

Arnold writes, “Drag, with its obsession with the details of traditional femininity, the make-up, grooming and accessories, the gestures of the models that populate the glossy world of Vogue, also highlights the contradictory nature of fashion. While it allows for the possibility of new moralities, for the formulation of new identities, it is also conservative, reinforcing ideas of femininity at the same time as highlighting their fakery”. (p.109) And that’s what is so delicious about the drag appearance, it’s overstated but conforms to everything that is considered traditionally feminine so is it really overstated. As Judith Butler stated in her book entitled, “Gender Trouble” (1999), “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself-as well as its contingency” (p. 137)

 

In 1991, Galliano drew directly upon drag style, with models dressed in marabou trimmed bras and lacy knickers, their elaborate hair-dos and false eyelashes bringing the nostalgia of 1970’s disco back into the mix. This look was entirely different and ultra-femininity was out in full force for all of society to see. However, some commentators were concerned about the implications of this overt style. Lisa Armstrong wrote at the time, “It’s sad news for women. The womanly ideal is one of the strongest ideals in fashion. But do we really want to go around in six-inch heels with padded hips and tits hanging out? If you think about it carefully, it’s alarming”. But why should it be so alarming? Why can’t women be ultra-feminine and be empowered in doing so? I think the ideas that such styles were forcing women into the mould of glamourized sex object were too short sighted. I think it simple highlights the constructed nature of femininity and reinforces the stereotypes we associate with it. I think this attests to my notion that we are in fact all drag artists and designers have reinforced this for a long time.

 

An interesting idea that comes out of this though, is the ideas that by over-conforming to an ultra-feminine image, even a biological female can seem masculine. A woman who acts in exaggerated feminine fashion is sometimes referred to as “homoeovestite”: a “manly” woman who covers her tracks with a quintessentially feminine performance. Women who might fall into this category include Pamela Anderson or Dolly Parton who exaggerate, almost parody femininity.

Taking this all into consideration for my images, I hope to photograph drag queens in all their extravagance, wigs, heels, corsets and so on then slowly strip away each feminine item. This will show the constructed nature of femininity and how gender can be reduced to detachable parts. I believe that drag artists over conform to feminine “ideals” and in doing so show how femininity is easily “performative”, a mere construction. To add a twist to this notion, I may photograph a biological female in an aggressive drag appearance as the designers mentioned above also did. This will challenge and make people question femininity from a slightly different perspective. Will this make this biological female seem more mannish by being so extravagantly feminine like Dolly Parton? We realise that sex, gender and sexuality do not link, more and more in modern society. By having a female appear in drag it could be interesting to see whether my audience, due to the mainstream exposure drag queens have received in recent years, will automatically think she is in fact a man. We’ll see but this could add something a little different to my project and further challenge people’s perceptions of masculinity and femininity.

References:

Arnold, R (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

Parkins, W (2002) Fashioning the body politic : dress, gender, citizenship. Oxford : Berg

Entwistle, J (2000) The Fashioned Body. USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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