Tom (boy)… did you mean to represent girl?

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If you were asked to describe a tomboy in terms of whom they represent what would you say?

Would you say they represent a subcultural act of style?

Are they representing someone who is going against the standardized gender norms? Would you say they represent the style of the lesbian community? Would you consider them a representation of feminism? Have you ever thought about asking them what they believe they represent?

Although rhetorical, the questions above help ground representation within the world of fashion, and its function in comprehensively understanding how crucial the value and role we assign to representations is in the modern world of fashion. Depending on how you look at it, representation can take on one of two roles when thinking about its definition and the functions it serves. The first has to do with the interaction between the person wearing a certain style and the way an observer is going to interpret what that style represents. The second involves the validation of the style based on a set of standards and stereotypes circulating mainstream ideologies that we have been taught to blindly follow. Neither is independent of the other however, and the representation of an individuals style is ultimately determined by those who they surround themselves with, and their perceptions based on the standards set by society.

One of the most powerful roles the creation of representations has in fashion is the ability to redefine and manipulate the meaning of a style that is attempting to challenge mainstream ideologies.

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For the purpose of this post, emphasis is placed on the creation of a commercially accepted forms of representation that are products of mainstream ideologies, and, many times, manipulations of subcultural styles that challenge the norms. Placing significant amounts of importance on the interaction between the wearer of a style and their observer in the formation of a particular representation, we can come to understand how and why styles take on particular representations.

In order to ground this dense and complicated concept, tomboy style will act as an example of a style whose representation has been standardized by its observers, arguably as an attempt to control and weaken the power the subcultural style may have had in redefining the gender and sexuality standards governing male and female way of dress within the world of fashion.

Throughout this course we have come to establish the meaning of fashion and style within a framework of fluctuating ideologies and standards that govern what people choose to wear in order to fit in. A choice that is only validated upon interaction with others around us, i.e. observers, who interpret what we wear and give meaning to who we represent in the greater scheme of our society. Within this society there exist two realms of fashion and acceptance: on one end we have mainstream fashion, or the commercialized, ideologically acceptable and reinforced practices of style; on the other we have subcultural styles, or as John Fiske in The Jeaning of America refers to them “symbolic challenge(s) to a symbolic order” (Fiske 154). The set of question at the top are there to help you think about how representation functions within the power structure we know to be the fashion industry, no longer soley placing an emphasis on an individuals creation of meaning in how they choose to dress, but giving equal, or arguably more, importance to the observers interpretation of what the style represents.

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As Elizabeth Wilson mentions in Adorned in Dreams “Dress is the frontier between the self and the not self” (Wilson 3), proving that what we wear is no longer just a way to communicate something about ourselves, but an invitation for others to create their own meanings of who we are according to what our style represents to them. In other words, you may wear a shirt because you think you are telling something about yourself to others, but the meaning it comes to have is dependent on the way the observer see the shirt, and what THEY think its represents about your style.

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Tomboy style and its introduction into mainstream forms of fashion just how crucial a role the observer plays when validating a representation, or manipulating it to their liking. Originally considered a subcultural style, tomboy was created with the intention of challenging the mainstreams creation of men’s wear as being strictly confined to men. However, tomboy style has now recently come to take its place in an ever-growing gender-neutral world of fashion where commercialization has left the assignment of the styles representation to the main stream, middle class consumer; a process also referred to as “co-optation by Heidi Khaled (Davis 151 / Khaled 5). A mechanism of introducing a subcultural way of conceptualizing style, and incorporating it into the world of consumerism, which according to Khaled in The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce, and Authenticity Through the Ages, “has seemingly prompted a ‘moral panic’ of its own, with the contemporary fashion industry being seen as a major threat to a thriving subcultural identity” (Khaled 5).

By attempting to weaken the subcultural style, mainstream fashion appropriates tomboy style, by simplifying and reducing it to a consumable style for the mainstream fashion market. Attempting to weaken the subcultures potential power to expose difference and change, while at the same time making the style appealing and consumable within the framework of fashion. According to Judith Butler in Imitation and Gender Insubordination, the idea of taking a subcultural style and introducing it into the mainstream world of fashion renders it unable to produce any form source of controversy it may have potentially been aiming to do. Referring specifically to sexuality and the effects mainstream ideologies play in its representation Butler question whether “sexuality (can) even remain sexuality once it submits to a criterion of transparency and disclosure, or does it perhaps cease to be sexuality precisely when the semblance of full explicitness is achieved?” (Butler 310).

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If we refer to the Merriam Webster dictionary, which defines tomboy as “a girl who enjoys things that people think are more suited for boys // a girl who behaves in a manner usually considered boyish”, we can see that this definition, or “representation” of tomboy, is nothing more than a construction of meaning based on the perception of the other. The inclusion of the words “people think” and usually considered” not only point to the importance of the observer in the creation of meaning, but also successfully prove a de-contextualization of sexuality, which is based upon nothing more than ideas of sexuality and how it should be interpreted through style. What tomboy is thought to represent within a mainstream and commercialized framework is nothing more than a girl who tries, but does not necessarily succeed, in breaking the gender binaries by dressing like a boy. Answering Butlers aforementioned question about the loss of meaning that occurs when representation is interpreted within the framework of mainstream, stereotyped fashion ideologies.

The idea of representation, as a product of the observer’s interpretation of a person’s style, arguably negates any sense of individuality one can consider to exist in the world of fashion. The scope of what is an “acceptable representation” in fashion is extremely limited, based on the circulating ideologies that exist because of the power structures that keep it in order. To think of representations as components that comprise an individual’s character simply no longer suffices as a suitable understanding of representations as being primarily self conscious, individualistic acts. All representations of style, whether subcultural or not, will eventually become products of manipulation by mainstream ideologies, in order to keep standards from being challenged.

Today tomboy style is considered anything but a subcultural form of dress. The idea of dressing in men’s clothes is no longer a taboo to women, but a chic way to further show off their femininity. Through the female representation of what it means to dress like a man, women have been able to appropriate male form of dress into their own closets, while still remaining “true” to the ideology, which governs female sexuality. As Marilyn Frye mentions in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory, “The mastery of the feminine is not feminine. It is masculine. It is not a manifestation… Someone with such mastery may have the first claim to manhood” (Frye 138). However, the representation of tomboy and the meaning it has taken on in the world of fashion today is far from the original representation for which it was made. Although women have been able to incorporate themselves into the realm of male fashion, the expectation is that they do so through a feminine aesthetic. Today, tomboy is not the original subcultural style created for women who wanted to challenge the dress codes set by men, but instead is a style that women have “borrowed from men”. When we think of tomboys today, we think of women in “boyfriend jeans”, “boyfriend tees”, “trousers” etc. all signifiers of a continual male presence, and a reminder that although wearing their styles, women must always in some way show their feminity in order to avoid representing themselves as anything else than a feminized woman. Borrowing clothes from her male counterpart, the female does nothing more than further push the representation of female dress into a different, yet at the same time mainstreamed, realm of style.

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When google-ing images of tomboy the majority that come up are of women in male-like clothing, yet still evoking a feeling of feminity and feminine appearance and in the eye of the beholder, in this case myself and my readers. If seen on the street, a woman dressed similar to those seen below, may be considered a tomboy by some, but may not be regarded by others. No longer having the ability to shock their observer’s ideological beliefs, in order to push the boundaries of gender confines within fashion, the purpose and representation of the style begins to lack any form of substance. Further complicating the idea of how we view a style and the representation it is trying to evoke, as Butler argues, maybe it is the very acceptance or surfacing of a style into the mainstream realm of fashion that renders it incapable of accurately “representing” anything other than an observer’s misguided interpretation.

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Work Cited

Butler, Judith. “Chapter 20: Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. By Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-20

Davis, Fred. “Chapter 13: Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. 147-58.

Fiske, John. “Chapter 1 The Jeaning of America.” Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 1-21.

Frye, Marilyn. “Lesbian Feminism and Gay Rights.” The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1983. 136-41

Khaled, Heidi. “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce, and Authenticity Through the Ages.” 1-16.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. 1-15.

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