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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Incognito: Role of Fashion in Sleep No More

The McKrittick hotel is nothing like you would expect a New York establishment to be. If you’re so lucky to arrive before night fall, the plain black brick-stone building, with symmetrical overhang and ominous dark carpet leading to a sign-less black door with two big men dressed in black suits at either side, will seem just a little less eerie than it does to those arrive in the evening. Upon entering the “hotel”, a receptionist “checks you in” by stripping you of all your belongings and handing you a playing card she calls your “room key”. After leaving all your possessions behind your only choice is to follow a dark hallway up an ever darker stairwell with sound of live jazz playing in the distance as your only guide. As the music begins to get louder and the lights begin to get lighter, you find yourself reaching a 1930’s style bar. This is where the its all begins… an MC on stage is calling out card numbers “4 and 5 you’re up…6 on deck…7and 8 have a drink your time has not yet come”. The numbers refer to your “room key” a lady whispers in my and my sisters ear. A number…#4 that was my entrance into one of New Yorks most talked about shows: Sleep No More, and so following those who also had “lucky” #4, I was herded through a pair of black curtains into a freight elevator, handed a Venetian-carnival style mask and told that the only two rules were: NEVER take off the mask and NEVER speak, to ANYONE!.

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You may be wondering how could fashion have any kind of role in Sleep No More, and at first I thought the same, I saw the connection between Fashion and Sleep No More as a challenge and did not know how the power structures and underlying ideologies that exist in fashion today, were in the show, but I knew they HAD to be. The more I thought about the show however, the more I began to see Sleep No More as an analogy to the world we know as fashion. Bear with me…

Like fashion, Sleep No More, is created from an experience and participation of a live performance. However, unlike the streets on New York where fashion is the interaction and mutual awareness of both the viewer and the viewed (Davis), Sleep No More reduces the interaction to a world where the viewed is blissfully unaware of the viewer, in most cases at least. In essence behaving more like a movie in which the actors are unfamiliar with the individuals of their audience, Sleep No More, allows the audience to become a silent spectator into its private world. But, similar to fashion and somewhat distinct from a movie, Sleep No More invites and encourages exploration from the viewer especially through hands on experience: challenging the audience to actively question, follow, and go against what you are experiencing, pushing the boundaries of the body through use of space and participation, but with a twist: NO TALKING.

Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams introduces the idea of dress as being capable of speaking for a person, and can thus be used a tool for distinctions between one another through means of dress. A concept that Sleep No More arguably was created upon, prohibiting any use of speech as communication from both the cast and audience throughout the show, leaving communication mechanisms confined to the body and its uses. Unlike a typical performance where the experience of the audience is in many ways guided through narration, Sleep No More, sets itself apart through a visual narration that relies on the audience just as much as the actor. It is up to you (the audience) to create meaning from what you are experiencing. Attempting to surface and challenge Fred Davis’ understanding of meaning in fashion as an unconscious act, Sleep No More forces the audience to consciously become aware of their environment through aesthetic elements, including dress. Unlike in our realties, however, where there are indicators and signifiers of what we should follow and like, Sleep No More liberates its audience from a world of restrictions and confinement. Similar to the experience of what being part of a carnival is to the world of fashion, Sleep No More acts upon the oppressive qualities of society by allowing its audience to challenge them as they may please.

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Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, the authors of From Carnival to Transgression, analyze the creation of a carnival as a challenge to the social boundaries set in place, particularly through fashion. They refer to carnivals and events alike as a celebration or “temporary liberation” (295) of an established order or hierarchy of power. I like to think of carnivals as a “get out of jail free card” where even the most basic rules don’t have to be followed, I encourage you to think of Sleep No More as essentially the same. Not only does the show allow its audience to become a member of a world where sex, power, gender, movement, and boundaries are continually being challenged, it allows you to do so as an anonymous guest, incognito, and without fear of being held accountable for your actions, including what you have decided to wear that night. Living up to the idea presented by Pierre Bourdieu in A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste where he states “the body…which is the only tangible manifestation of the ‘person’, is commonly perceived as the most natural expression of innermost nature” (192), Sleep No More allows the body to be the only object visible during the show, by providing and enforcing the wear of a white Venetian carnival-style mask, by every member of the audience. A tool that can be thought to homogenize the audience in order to avoid the formation of any power structures based on audience interactions with one another.

Whether you are the passive member shyly following behind the crowd or the member pushing your way through every closed door, no one in the audience seems to be interested in what you do or what you are wearing, because like them you are wearing a mask, and are for that reason symbolize “nothing” or “no-one”. Instead, every member of the audience is busy exploring the world of Sleep No More, by following the mask-less actors, shadowing their movements and actions, and experiencing the world through their eyes. What calls the audiences attention is the not the hundreds of white masks they run by or are running next to, instead it is those who are not wearing masks and are wearing “drop-dead, Deco-era evening clothes, scanty lingerie or nothing at all…” that entice the audience through their body movement and incredible control of an unknown space(N.Y. Times) In his article Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion? Fred Davis mentions, “Even more so that the utterances produced in everyday face-to-face interactions, the clothing fashion code is highly context dependent” (151), a statement, which could not be anymore true for the world of Sleep No More. We are forced to rely purely on context (in a space where we are essentially aliens) that can be interpreted infinite amount of ways depending on the experience of the viewer.

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Thinking about fashion and the creation of dress and Sleep No More, and its unorthodox character, there seems to be an authentic connection between the two. Dress is constructed by a person or group of people who are intending to deliver a message to someone else, they are trying to convey some idea they have, whether of themselves or of the world, for others to interpret. Sleep No More is doing just the same. By constructing a five-story alternate world the creators of Sleep No More are urging their viewers to push the limits and boundaries that constrict their everyday lives, even if its just for two and a half hours. Like Punk, Rastafarian, Hipster, and other subcultural fashion styles, Sleep No More is attempting to counter the culture that dominates our society today. Like all other aspects of mainstream culture, fashion has come to be understood as a powerful tool of communication (if done the right way) or a marginalizing one (if done the wrong way). Sleep No More is trying to break the binary that cultural hierarchies have created by showing us a world in which we are not judged by our actions and decisions, i.e. how we dress and represent ourselves to the world. Unlike the world of fashion where every choice is scrutinized by what is “in” or “out”, creating a transparent self for society, Sleep No More literally masks the self, encouraging silent and therefor inner exploration from its comment-less spectators that are forced to focused on discovery rather than conformity.

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Work Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Introduction and Chapter 1: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.” Distinction: A Social  Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. 1-209

Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully.” Nytimes.com. N.p., 3 Apr. 2011. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/theater/reviews/sleep-no-more-is-a-macbeth-in-a-hotel-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gt;

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

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-71.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Chapter 7: Fashion and City Life.” Adorned In Dreams Fashion and Modernity. United Kingdom: I.B. Taurus and Co, 2003. 134-289.

White, Allon. “From Carnival to Transgression (1986).” By Peter Stallybrass.293-301.