Breaking the Binds of Sexuality and Gender: Male to Female Crossdressing.

“From the time I get off work on Friday, I become a woman and I dress as a woman for the entire weekend and I live my life as a woman for the entire weekend,” William, a mechanic who goes by “Megan Smith” during his two-day transformations into a female, told Huffington Post Live in an interview last year. From this statement we are lead to believe that William is a transgender, a drag queen, a gay man, a sexual deviant or very, very confused. But, what if he wasn’t? What if William were a straight man, who loved being a man, who was sexually attracted to women and perhaps even had a wife and children? To many, his life would be an enigma at best and a failure at worst; and to many it is. For William and many other straight, male to female cross dressers, self-fashioning has little to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with creating identity or commenting on its construction.

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William as “Megan Smith”

Unfortunately, this kind of cross-dressing is met with a lot of misunderstanding. Most of the discomfort with it is likely due to the long-learned and well-accepted notion that gender and sexuality are inextricably linked. This notion is rooted so deeply in the social and cultural structures that guide our behavior, that a rupture of it may seem conceptually unfathomable. Yet, for these cross-dressers it is a reality.

While identity is arguably something intrinsic and deeply personal it also cannot exist outside of a social and public domain. It is a performance and an act of presentation. It involves the fashioning of oneself with some understanding of what fashioning oneself in such a way will mean to others. Identity, therefore, may be best understood as the construction of a social subject based on an awareness of the self. It may manifest in rejection or defiance of social norms or in conformity to them. A major way in which individuals can construct and present their identity is through aesthetics, adornment and specifically fashion. For male to female cross dressers, fashion (along with demeanor) is a way of negotiating their identity.

Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher discuss fashion as a language in the way it is imbued with codes and meanings that help communicate things to others. “For many people, dressing oneself can be an aesthetic act, and all aesthetic acts are acts of speaking, through which an individual may speak as an individual…Aesthetic acts do not grow out of a vacuum, but from what is learned from others” (Roach and Eicher 109). They suggest that, like spoken language, fashion requires certain literacy in order for it to be understood. Often this literacy comes from social, political, economic and cultural systems that have shaped certain norms.

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Daniel Hillard dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire in the film, Mrs. Doubtfire

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Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill

So how does one make meaning of a man in women’s clothing? Much of the decoding that occurs here is based on those norms, which have long been reinforced through powerful vehicles of influence. Major films that feature male to female cross dressers portray them as sexual deviants or psychopaths like Buffalo Bill’s character in the 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs, or as clowns like Daniel Hillard in the 1993 film, Mrs. Doubtfire. Any wholesome representation of this identity is relatively non-existent to the masses. These associations with cross dressers are only supplementary to the long withstanding stereotypes that women should like and adorn themselves in “female” fashion and men should like and adorn themselves in “male” fashion.

In many cases, deviation from gender identity norms through dress can cause uproar. This is as true today as it has been historically. Jennifer Ladd Nelson discusses the ideology of separate spheres for men and women and the binary definition of gender, which imprisoned women to the domestic domain. This definition largely manifested itself in dress. In the mid-nineteenth century women began to defy these constraints through wearing bloomers. They were met with disgust and often considered immodest or perverted. This is an issue close to heart for male to female cross dressers.

In Huffington Post Live’s interview with William, he insists that he has to “keep it classy” referring to the way he dresses and presents himself. He cautions that overt sexual display is what stigmatizes and perverts this act of self-presentation. Many websites that sell of cross-dressing clothing show men in silky lingerie in provocative stances. William argues that this perpetuates the idea that gender and sexuality are synonymous.

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XDress is a website with male to female cross dressing clothing and accessories.

What is interesting about William’s case and for many other cross dressers alike is that their female identity is temporary. It is not that they would become a woman if they could but rather that they enjoy the freedom to present themselves as women whenever they want, until they don’t anymore. This may suggest that the act is a form of relief from the constraints of their biological gender and its social and sexual implications. In a conversation about the nature of Carnival, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue “…carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order” (294). A man wearing a bra, a dress and heels may satisfy the very desires exhibited during Carnival. At the same time, it is important to recognize that in the same way that Carnival is licensed and policed, cross dressing is as well. This is exhibited in William’s very requirement of upholding a standard of ‘classiness.’

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Some outfit posts by Michael Spookshow

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Some outfit posts by Michael Spookshow

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Some outfit posts by Michael Spookshow

His Black Dress is a blog written by a male to female cross dresser named Michael Spookshow who is also married to a woman with children. In his “About” page he explains, “This blog exists to sabotage social perceptions about what men should and shouldn’t wear.” His approach to cross-dressing has little to do with his sexual orientation and suggests that the ties between sexuality and gender are far too unstable to accept. In many of his blog posts he is wearing high heels, dresses, tights, booties, skirts, and frilly blouses. In a blog post entitled Boys in Dresses: But isn’t that Gay? Spookshow explains that he is working towards “a redefinition of what certain sartorial choices say. Putting on a dress doesn’t make you gay, and being gay doesn’t make you want to put on a dress.”

There is a fundamental need to recognize the distinction between sexuality and gender and decouple the two. When a presented identity does not align with what has been normalized in a social context it is extremely difficult to understand. With fashion and dressing being a significant marker of identity and categories being a way to make meaning of those markers, male to female cross dressers risk being wrongfully categorized or further marginalized. In order for the male to female cross dresser to be recognized as a meaningful identity it’s visual and aesthetic style must be recognized as potentially independent and completely separate from the sexualized associations with dress.

 

Roach, Mary Ellen & Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment”. Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Nelson, Jennifer Ladd. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 23: 21–25. Print.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. “From Carnival To Transgression.” The Subcultures Reader: Second Edition. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 293-301. Print.

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Back to #Basic (Bitches)

 

Society has been ascribing labels for centuries. Though it is true that a large amount of assumption, blank filling and experiential knowledge influences the way we perceive the people and world around us. The newly popularized label of “basic,” also commonly specified as “basic bitch” generally refers to young women (most commonly) who adopt style and social trends without attention to meaning or active selection. Being basic refers to opting for what is popular on the most primary sense. Conceivably these basic individuals realize that they are judged based on the self expression of their personal style and don’t have the character content to personalize what they wear.

Representation refers to the act of choosing commodities based on the connotations and signs attached to them with the goal of emulating meanings of those garments which one projects to themselves and the world around them. For most of us, the clothes we wear don’t just happen to us, we make a series of choices that lead to the ensembles we leave the house wearing. Our clothing is an expression of who we are and what we want to project about ourselves.

Items of clothing have inherently no meaning except the practical purposes of protection from the elements. As consumers and cultural participants, we ascribe meaning to clothes based on the connotations, personality and signifiers they represent.

I would describe Basic as a label and not a stereotype because to a varying degree the majority of society follows the mainstream trends, knowingly or unknowingly, even those of us who belong to trends for reasons other than for the sake of following a trend. Along that vein, it is difficult to find someone who is the picture of a basic bitch because many people, young women especially who tend to be identified with basic bitch behavior, have certain practices or elements of their style that are personally cultivated and meaningful but also pieces or aspects they adopt blindly from trends.

Conspicuous consumption is definitely present in Basic behavior. A lot of Basic behavior and the spread of the label itself has take place on social media where these Basic Bitches present and showcase their Basic-ness. In “The Theory of the Leisure Class” Veblen states, “Motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation.” This statement is true for everyone from the most Basic Bitch to the most “Real” bitch. However for many who cultivate their personal style and image based on representation of the content of garments such as stylistic aspects, and even ethical ones, the “emulating” is a result of personal choice and not a motivation. For all of though, Veblen is correct that what an object or garment represents is at the heart of what and why we purchase. To purchase something because it represents the mainstream and is in line with what the mainstream is emulating, is Basic.

Though it often does, Basic may not always mean emulating the mainstream. Cultivating a representation of a subculture is also Basic in that it is trying to signal the subculture itself and not emulating the characteristic or principal (substance) of that subculture which develop the images/style associated with it.

 

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The Basic label has also been associated with a sense of superiority. Because Basic Bitches are consumed with representing the right, the “in” thing, it creates a sense of exclusivity as far as who you associate with.

 

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Though it often does, Basic may not always mean emulating the mainstream. Cultivating a representation of a subculture is also Basic in that it is trying to signal the subculture itself and not emulating the characteristic or principal (substance) of that subculture which develop the images/style associated with it. In the image above the women is being photographed sporting multiple trends. Both hats a glasses are most tangibly intended to be worn for practical reasons. Hats are intended to be worn to protect the head and face and glasses are intended for vision correction. The cosmetic use and appropriation of glasses and hats, in addition to pictures of coffee cups are all associated with the subculture of Hipsters. This label, dissimilar to the Basic label, identifies as deviating from the mainstream. However when these trends are provoked in a Basic crowd, it proves that Basic Bitches, who do not want to deviate from the mainstream, are trying to represent the attention of the subculture and not the content of the subculture. In the above photograph especially, with the effect of the most generic example of each trend, on a generic looking model, the Basic-ness is highlighted.

“Going on a Run!”

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In recent years the commodification of athleticism and health has rapidly grown. Brands like LuLu Lemon, Athleta, Lucy and Nike have integrated athletic wear into every women’s wardrobe. Wearing athletic clothes represents athleticism, health and sexuality. Workout classes have become social outings and yoga pants are the new denim. A typically ascribed Basic behavior is to post a picture of your workout outfit on social media. By making the post about your neon Nikes and not about fitness or why you actually put the Nikes on (if for exercise at all) you are representing the fit girl without actually representing what the fit girl is all about.

Sex and the City

Basic Behavior can also involve emulating cultural archetypes. This practice is very much in line with Basic-ness because television characters for example provide a great example of personality which can be easily commodified and mimicked. Especially in cases like Sex in the City where each of the four main female characters is supposed to represent different female stereotypes, none of them are meant to seem mainstream.

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The more the label of Basic is digested and probed the more it seems that it may be a reason synonym for fake. The closest and most popularized antonym for Basic is most likely “Real.” While it is true that all consumption is an adoption and representation of meaning, perhaps the more you contemplate and cultivate meaning in your image and actions the more “Real” you are and conversely the more you adopt the image of others, without the curation of meaning, the more Basic someone is.

CITATIONS

 

Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Modern Library, 1934

Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 74.4 (2010)

Khaled, Heidi, PhD. “The Enduring, Insufferable Hipster: Popular Critiques of Art, Commerce, and Authenticity Through the Ages.”  University of Pennsylvania (2012)

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Aspirational Lifestyle Representation – Uniform & Upkeep

Lets take a peak into the world of society’s most elite members. Welcome to a world where budgets are big, daily activities are glamorous, and one’s looks are everything. The social elites are marked by excess capital and the fulfillment of a lifestyle that most people could only aspire to. Social membership to this group comes at a high price and requires constant maintenance. Power is obtained through possessions and wardrobe holds great symbolic value. At its core, in the world of the socially elite, fashion can be a tool by which these individuals illustrate their social standing on a visible platform and obtain power within the social group.

Taking a step back, one can see that fashion possesses a demarcating quality that communicates membership to a variety of social groups and lifestyles. As Thorstein Veblen suggests in his The Theory of the Leisure Class, social status is awarded based on possessions and possessions demarcate wealth. Veblen explains that desire for possession stems from a desire to represent a specific social class.

According to Veblen, apparel is one of the easiest distinguishers of wealth. Apparel is visible to all and often easily distinguished. As one seeks entry into a specific social class, wardrobe becomes the admission ticket. As we look to Image One, one can see what Veblen is referring to. Image One depicts Leyla Khoshbin, wife of multi-millionaire real estate investor and entrepreneur Manny Khoshbin, and a group of her friends after a day of shopping. Each of the women in Leyla’s photo uses fashion to display their wealth and membership to their elite social class. Each is donned in fur caplets – disregarding their California settings – dripping in diamonds, and carrying handbags ranging from $2,000 to $12,000. Interestingly enough, the group looks extremely similar in fashion, their outfits almost taking on a uniform like quality.

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Examining the photo through the lens of Veblen, the similarities between the women’s fashion can be explained by two theories – conspicuous consumption and social class emulation. Veblen suggests that some people purchase and display specific prominent goods as a means of conveying wealth. He coins the term conspicuous consumption to describe this consumption trend. The women’s fur is an excellent example of conspicuous consumption. In today’s day and age, fur is seen as a luxury item and being that the ladies live in California, fur is certainly not a necessity for warmth. The fur becomes a representation of a social class.

Secondly, the similarities between their fashions speaks to Veblen’s idea that members of the same social class attempt to maintain a standard amongst each other as opposed to coming across as superior to their peers. Veblen writes, “(t)he accepted standard of expenditure in the community or in the class to which a person belongs largely determines what his standard of living will be.” (Veblen 68) No one woman uses her fashion to appear of a higher status than the others, but rather uses it to demarcate her association with the said group.

As suggested in Veblen’s text, consumption patterns become an important point of conversation when looking at the relationship between one’s apparel and the message it conveys in the social landscape. Exploring consumption patterns futher, in Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Dreze’s comprehensive study Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence, consumer are broken down into four categories – Patricians, parvenus, poseurs and proletarians. Patricians are identified as consumers who consumer not to distinguish themselves from others, but rather to make themselves recognizable to other patricians. Their definitions of similar are reminiscent of Veblen’s theory on “the accepted standard of expenditure” as mentioned above.

One could argue that Leyla Khoshbin and her friends are patricians, in that their consumption practices are driven by upkeep and maintenance with each other. Pushing the theory of the patrician further, we look to Image Two and see how this idea plays out. In Image Two, wardrobe demarcates membership to the aspirational ‘prep’ lifestyle. Rugby shirts, crisp chino pants, and classic structured blazer convey the message of social membership. The subjects of the photo authentically embrace the ‘prep’ lifestyle and would consume in a way to fit in with other members of that lifestyle. Comparing a patrician to another group of consumers, the parvenu, a parvenu consumes with the intent to obtain status. Parvenus are concerned with distinguishing themselves from others and wish to be seen in an elevated light from the masses.

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Image Three depicts three girls dressed in black, wearing the famed red-bottom Christian Louboutin shoes. Being that Louboutins have the iconic red sole, the status associated with these high-end pumps lies within the red sole. While some Louboutin owners could purchase the shoes with the pure intent of keeping up with the standard of dress of their peers – i.e. patricians – the bold, easily distinguishable red sole makes Louboutins the perfect example of a highly coveted product for parvenus, attempting to distinguish themselves as of a higher social class than others. This idea is constant with one of the findings of Han, Nunes and Dreze’s study – that patricians are able to distinguish value and appreciate quite luxury goods, where as non-patricians – i.e. parvenus – can not. Non-patricians need the easily visible status demarcations.

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As a whole, Han, Nunes and Dreze’s consumer classifications speak to a very important point that Velblen’s text as alludes to – apparel and accessories become a language by which individuals represent their social standing and social membership. People understand the other, and themselves for that matter through the communicative quality that fashion affords. Going by this theory, one can see that maintaining social status requires a great deal of effort and upkeep. Elizabeth Wissigner suggests in her article Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society that models are obligated to live their lives in a certain way to attract consumers to the brands and products they are marketing. Wissigner suggests that the models partake in “aesthetic labor,” which encompasses leisure activities that are required to portray a specific image to the public. Wissinger write, “ (i)n labor markets that demand an aesthetic body, the onus is on workers to perform the necessary aesthetic labor… in time not officially defined as ‘work’, such as going to the gym or doing anything required to maintain one’s body for this work.” (Wissinger 283)

Extracting Wissinger’s concept and attaching it to society’s elite, one can see the striking parallels. If material goods and aesthetic upkeep afford social membership to an exclusive class of people, presentation becomes a full-time job. For example, patricians must engage in aesthetic labor in the form of consumption to maintain social membership amongst the other patricians. Wissinger’s concept extends beyond just clothing, including the importance of where one is seen and who they are seen with. Image Four depicts a group of men, all in attendance at the 2010 opening of Serafina restaurant in East Hampton. This picture exemplifies efforts of aesthetic labor. The men are all dressed similarly, in a style that distinguishes them collectively as of a certain class and in a location that is known to be the playground of the social elite. In order to fit in in an environment like the Hamptons, a certain wardrobe is expected. In the same light, some of the status and social capital that the Hamptons fosters can be attributed to the clothing and leisure activities of its dwellers. In this instance, locale and personal presentation have an ebb and flow type relationship. The aesthetic labor of the men in the photo is traced to their attention to wardrobe, effort to spend time in the Hamptons, and presence, with each other, at the social event.

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Through careful analysis of these texts and application of their theories to real world scenarios, one comes to see the way in which fashion becomes a means of lifestyle representation. Fashion is used as a language and dress becomes the social uniform. Social capital, or power as some would say, is afforded to those who put in the efforts of this aesthetic labor and understand the fine line between maintenance and showing off. Power comes in the form of social acceptance in the group and need to be emulated by one’s peers. Society’s elite use fashion to both tangibly and visibly represent their lifestyle and obtain acceptance, respect, and eventually power within a social group.

At last, we look to Image Five to see Victoria Beckham, fashion designer and pop icon, with a series of her coveted Hermes Birkin handbags. Beckham exemplifies the link between fashion and power in relation to representation. Beckham has used fashion to distinguish herself as of a certain, influential circle within society; so much so that she has gone from a Spice girl to having her own line. She emulated members of this social group, who are fashion conscious designers, tastemakers, etc, through dress and with time, became the one to be emulated. Beckham has curated a collection of status bearing goods – i.e. her Birkin bags – that represent that power she holds within her social realm.

Image Five

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Black is the New Black: How the Resistance to Colorful Dress Mirrors Societal, Behavioural, and Political Resistance

While visions of picketers, rallies and rioting might have some synonymous association with term resistance, the word itself is can be applied far more liberally within many facets of culture and society. A resistance is any kind of action in which the intended response is to oppose an expected culturally reinforced norm, and allow a repressed notion of what is societal acceptability to enter, and perhaps aggravate, that social consciousness. Therefore, choosing to display a certain type of garment which counters the societal expectancy of dress, such as the tendency of various social groups who choose to wear all black, than can itself be a form of resistance. Clothing oneself in all black can serve as social marker, indicating some sort of difference and thus resistance from the mainstream of society, on varying subcultural, behavioral, or political levels.

Although clothing is often trivialized for a perceived level of frivolity, the ways in which dress is chosen, worn, and interacted with can speak volumes about culture and society as a whole. As said by Elizabeth Wilson in her work Adorned in Dreams, dress “links the biological body to the social being, and public to private” (Wilson 2). Human bodies are more than just biological bodies, and as they allow us to connect and interact with the social world, they become cultural entities within themselves. As cultural entities, humans are all effected by the culture within society. The clothing serves as a cultural artifact for everyone within society to instill or infer a sharable yet changeable set of meanings. To be in a society is to attach and infer meanings to clothing, however potentially different contextually the meanings may be.

Certain clothing can signify what has been ascertained in the cultural conscious as normal, good, or worthy of status. However, if there are certain clothing which indicate achievable worthiness, certain clothing must binaurally serve as an indication of what society wants to distance itself from. Dress which contradicts what is reinforced by the cultural conscious may indicate the non-ideals which have been repressed from the cultural conscious and as a result, by society. Wearing clothing not culturally signified as normal opposes the underlying doctrine, enforcing what is good or worthy for society, therefore resisting societal standards through non-participation. All black dress is noticeable change in normative dress and by wearing all black it brings attention to some form of distance or resistance from a societal notion. Wearing all black serves almost the same purpose as a team jersey, visually indicating who is for the cultural conscious and those whose ideals have been repressed and are therefore resisting. As Wilson said, the function of fashion “is to resolve formally, at the imaginary level, social contradictions that cannot be solved”(Wilson 9). Through wearing all black, those repressed by cultural norms are able to combat societal ideals through choosing resistance and manifesting some level of social control, even if this control is only on “imaginary” or aesthetic grounds.

All black dress can act as a resistance towards many aspects of the main culture within society, including perhaps the most obvious, political resistance. It is easy to see why anarchists, following a social philosophy built upon the ideal of a society non-regulated by a publicly enforced government, would favor dress resistant to those of the cultural ideals. Anarchists have for a long time been associated with all black dress, partially a symbolic referent to “the color scheme of a flag used by anarcho-syndicalists in early twentieth-century Europe” (Portwood-Stacer 55). As Laura Stacer-Portwood describes in I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation:

In fact, all bodies are “spectacular” in this sense— the ways that humans present themselves are always culturally shaped and are thus communicative of social meaning. What makes anarchist style an illustrative case is that it is often spectacular in both this technical sense and in a more colloquial sense: by styling themselves in non-mainstream ways, some anarchists make a spectacle of themselves.

The anarchist way of dress stylistically illustrated a cultural different in aesthetic than that in the mainstream. By challenging the dress of the mainstream, the anarchist became more visible for disrupting the cultural norms of aesthetics, and highlighted their distance mainstream, mirroring and further exaggerating their politically views which were outside the societal mainstream.

The mainstream cultural norms can also be challenged and resisted when a subcultural group decides to wear all black. Anarchists’ dress not only conveyed a political message but allowed them to practice what they preached. Wearing all black was an easy, cheap, and dirt hiding dress to maintain, allowing them to resist the consumerist practices of washing and treating clothing. As discussed by Laura Stacer-Portwood, this could “serve as valuable proof of one’s ideological commitment. Often, the tastes coded as most valuable within anarchist subcultures are in direct contradiction to mainstream norms” (Stacer-Portwood 60). Other subcultures, such as the Goths (of the fashion variety) wear all black to signify a perceived displacement they feel amongst main culture, and in this case, a reliability to what is dark and morbid. As Hebdige points out, some subcultures create viewable spectacle in their dress and are thus spectacular, “express[ing] forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms” (Hebdige 91). Goths feel different from the mainstream and mark themselves visibly through an all black spectacle of dress towards the forbidden and the different. This allows their personal inclination towards a socially oppressed non-norm to be viewed by all, highlighting their difference and resisting to suppress their cultural distinctions.

City dwellers who wear all black are a unique situation that they are the social group whom generally create the social norms embedded in the social consciousness. Trends are taken from the city and distilled to the masses, coming both a part of the conscious and out of trend. Wearing all black however, is perceived as subcultural, resistant, and strange to the mainstream, the only trend untainted by the normal and ‘good’ cultural conscious. When city dwellers wear a cloak of all black, they create a visible barrier of separation between the “chic,” black-dressed city-self and the normally, colorfully-dressed suburban others. Through wearing black, city elite can invoke ideals of class, modernity and chicness, created through the context of metropolitan life and a distance from the suburban.

Dressing in all black can also be resistant from the mainstream social behaviors and emotions. Historically in western culture, a phase of mourning following the death of a loved one is usually represented through all black dress. While today, all black dress is usually expected only during the funeral service of the deceased, years ago it was not uncommon for the family to dress in black clothing during a full period of mourning. Those whom are in mourning and wearing all black, indicate through their dress they are not emotionally able to practice normal tasks, attend celebratory functions, or convey normative emotional responses. All black dress in the instance of mourning demonstrates a resistance from normally acceptable behaviors and emotions in the public sphere.

The complexity of dress is partially due to the limitless signifiable meanings encoded in each and every garment. Although possible meanings of dress are limitless, their appears to be a culturally reinforced idea of which codes convey meanings suitable to fit in with the mainstream societal consciousness. When dress, such as wearing all black, opposes the socially acceptable norms, a forbidden notion of what acceptable enters the public sphere, disrupts the culturally expected and creates a resistance through difference.

Works Cited:

Hebdige, Dick . Subculture: The Meaning of Style. . Reprint. England : Routledge, 1779. Print.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism Bloomsbury: 51-73. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. 1-154. ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.

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You Look Like A Million Bucks: How Celebrities Model Luxury

Their names are recognized around the world and their lives illustrated by media through magazines and TV shows, which we wholeheartedly devour, consistently begging for more. They star in multi-million dollar productions, dine at five-star restaurants in every metropolis and travel by private jet to remote, extravagant destinations where paparazzi perch behind tropical greenery to click away dozens of photos. They also dress in cutting-edge creations swept right off international runways and carry accessories your average person would need months of savings for. With these extracurricular hobbies, it’s no surprise the words “celebrities” and “luxury” go hand in hand. Within the realm of fashion, the connection of celebrities’ identities to luxury goods has been constructed through the clothing they wear.

Celebrities receive recognition for their talents; whether they sing, act or model, there’s generally some sort of performance that warrants their high earnings. However, according to Thorstein Veblen, “In order to gain and hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power…[it] must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (Veblen, 24). People know celebrities are wealthy because of their careers, but they are explicitly connected to luxury and a leisurely lifestyle through activities and appearances. The necessity of keeping up appearances is both to clarify their importance to the public, as well as reinforce their identities to themselves. It is through what Veblen coins conspicuous consumption, that “as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity,” those of elite, or in this case, celebrity status, purchase the most desirable things (Veblen, 44). From diamonds to Celine bags, celebrities consistently exclaim I am someone special with their consumption of these highly sought-after goods.

Karolina Kurkova stuns in a gorgeous gown at the 2014 Met Gala.

Karolina Kurkova stuns in a gorgeous gown at the 2014 Met Gala.

The messages linked to specific occasion outfits also divulge information on the life of a celebrity. As Fred Davis claims, “different combinations of apparel with their attendant qualities are capable of registering sufficiently consistent meanings for wearers and their viewers” (154). This means evening-wear is, as the name implies, specifically for formal occasions and registers in the majority of people’s minds as so. Thus, when celebrities are so frequently photographed wearing such denotative clothing for particular activities—gowns for award shows, bikinis for vacations, and trendy, one-use outfits for a night on the town or dinner at Cipriani’s—they’re signaling to the public that they can not only afford these outfits, but partake in a particular lifestyle these styles are indicative of. This ties into Veblen’s concept of conspicuous leisure, a lifestyle which, “is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and therefore of superior force” (Veblen, 25).

Kim Krdashian reclines in a bikini on a sunny vacation.

Kim Kardashian reclines in a bikini on a sunny vacation.

On the topic of one-time use garments and apparel particular to a single function, or even, lack thereof, one may consider the celebrity award show. Highly publicized, glamorous events requiring over-the-top gowns, are also a prime time for designers to showcase their best work, utilizing celebrities as their mannequins. Supermodel Karolina Kurkova’s breathtaking Marchesa gown, worn just the other night to the Met Gala, demonstrates a breathtaking, albeit entirely profligate, characteristic of luxury consumption. The gown certainly shall never see the light of day again, as rewear in the public eye would cause a public relations catastrophe. Her affordance of wearing such a frivolous item once, demonstrates what Veblen calls conspicuous waste: “Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure…runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually meet the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries’ of life…” (60). While celebrities often do not pay for the attire they wear to these events and find themselves clad in gifts from designers begging to dress them, an average person would never attend this event as an honoree. Subsequently, without the status to acquire loans from designers for this type of event, they could not engage in extreme waste, emphasizing celebrities’ status as extravagant figures.

Society’s obsession with celebrity fashion is perhaps fueled and explained by Georg Simmel’s belief, “naturally the lower classes look and strive towards the upper, and they encounter the least resistance in those fields which are subject to the whims of fashion; for it is here that mere external imitation is most readily applied” (545). While most people realistically come to terms with the fact these luxe lifestyles will probably not be in their own futures, they are aware they may adopt certain fashions to appear as if they do. What celebrities wear showcases their personality and affects their reputations, so upholding their style in an appropriate manner is crucial to maintaining their identities. Similarly, an ordinary person trying to represent this identity may not be able to fake the vacation home in Monaco or the Bentley, but she may attempt to alter her perceived identity by dressing to parallel current celebrity trends.

 

Olivia Palermo provides outfit inspiration.

Olivia Palermo provides outfit inspiration.

That is to say, perhaps the real outfit inspiration celebrities provide comes from their casual caught-buying-groceries outfits documented by paparazzi. It’s the Chloe bag Jessica Biel and the Olsens are caught carrying in their “regular” everyday routines, which the public would find authentic and appealing. This one-time splurge of a lifetime, which differs from the more frivolous gowns and whatnot, would receive multiple uses as a person’s “excursion into luxury” (Han, Nunes & Dreze).

When someone such as Kate Middleton rewears an item, in this case her L.K. Benett nude heels, the public recognizes them as an item worth splurging on.

When someone such as Kate Middleton rewears an item, in this case her L.K. Bennett nude heels, the public recognizes them as an item worth splurging on.

Those who attempt to present themselves as possessive of brand status would fall under the category of “poseurs,” as they desire the image of the more affluent “parvenus,” celebrities (Han, Nunes & Dreze, 17). Consider the “Shop the Look” posts by Harper’s BAZAAR, in which models, actresses, tastemakers and It-girls inspire the site’s editors to provide readers with shopping guides to mimic these looks. Olivia Palermo, a wealthy New York socialite, is frequently regarded as a stylish trendsetter. With a focus on how to get her look, attention, once again, is drawn on the reader’s desire to copycat and emanate the identity of the rich and famous. Additionally, when celebrity trends truly catch on, fakes and cheap versions become swept up by mass production, making items accessible to the lower classes. Once this occurs, celebrities must pick up new trends in order to always maintain this identity of exclusivity because, as Simmel knows all too well, “As fashion spreads it gradually goes to its doom” (Simmel, 547.)

Charlize Theron embodies the sensual, ultra-femme Dior woman.

Charlize Theron embodies the sensual, ultra-femme Dior woman.

The relationship between designers and celebrities also aid in the cultivation of the latter’s identity. Designers may feel drawn to certain celebrities based on the messages they disperse with their appearances. They can function as valuable commodities, as Dr. Alice Marwick explains, since “their endorsement can create trends and spur sales” (4). Charlize Theron, for example, always boasted a sparkling reputation as a beautiful, award-winning actress. Her sensual, strong identity was exactly what Dior wished to embody in their “J’Adore Dior” perfume advertisement. Designers are also no strangers to naming items of their collections after VIP figures. The once lithe, British icon of the 60’s known for her sensual nature, Jane Birkin, inspired the Hermes “Birkin” bag, while the brand’s eponymous “Kelly” bag directly speaks of elegant actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. One may assume there is serious debate and thought that goes into associating a company’s product with a celebrity and, naturally, would aim to find a match fitting to the image they want. Princess Grace’s classic, tasteful public identity therefore resonates with the Hermes brand.

Princess Grace with the infamous bag.

Princess Grace with the infamous bag.

Couture-savvy lyrical geniuses also commonly endorse luxurious lifestyles by dropping designer names in their songs. Rapper Theophilus London mentions both Givenchy and Lanvin within the first verse of his song “Big Spender,” while Jay-Z notoriously named an entire single after American designer Tom Ford. These mentions are entirely intentional, seeking to associate the lifestyle they rap about, as well as their personal identities, to that of luxury and quality.

Rapper Jay-Z sports a Tom Ford shirt on tour.

Rapper Jay-Z sports a Tom Ford shirt on tour.

The luxurious image of “celebrity” has been constructed over the course of time, but has roots in a century as early as the 19th, with Thorstein Veblen’s writings. Celebrity culture has, and always will be, an obsession of society, but it’s pertinent to understand where and how this construct of luxury came to be so interweaved with their characters. They have proven luxury to be more than just a simple handbag, but rather an entire wardrobe, lifestyle and identity by which they oblige.

– Victoria O.

 

References

Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?

Simmel, Georg. Fashion

Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of the Leisure Class (excerpts)

Han, Young Jee. Nunes, Joseph C. Dreze, Xavier. Signaling Status with Luxury Goods

Marwick, Alice. Conspicuous and Authentic

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#Blessed: The Representation of Wealth on Instagram

Representation is defined as the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way or as being of a certain nature. In other words, representation is a means of communicating likeness or distinction through objects and images. As social media platforms have become a legitimate expression of identity, a group of wealthy youth known as Rich Kids of Instagram has put the spotlight on the collection of luxuries that exist in their day-to-day lives. From Private jets to Hermes Birkin bags, the Rich Kids of Instagram will stop at nothing to mediate the opulence of their lifestyles. For these kids, perceived status is everything… It is often said, if you fly private and don’t Instagram the interior of the plane, did it actually happen? This is to say that objects and experiences seem more valuable when everyone knows about them. Consequently, Instagram has become a space where people represent their wealth and status through the images that they post.

#ArmParty

A little opera and Oscar night and I'd be perfect! #sweetdreams

A post shared by EJW (@ezrajwilliam) on

As Instagram becomes increasingly trafficked with snapshots of extravagant items, it becomes clear that certain users are intent upon mediating their social status by representing their wealth. This being said, it is important to note the nature and style of the images that I selected for this curation. These images are all product shots, and their purpose is to publicly showcase the owner’s material possessions. As both celebrities  and Rich Kids of Instagram give new meaning to conspicuous consumption, their practices shed light on the work of various theorists.

#ShoeGame

#WatchWednesdays

Miami vibe.

A post shared by Scott Disick (@letthelordbewithyou) on

The apparent trend in product shots speaks directly to Thorstein Veblen’s claim that conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure signify wealth (Veblen 53). For Veblen, this representative consumption is marked by waste, as people splurge on objects that “[do] not serve human-life or human well-being on the whole” (60). While it is understood that everyone needs shoes to cover their feet, Floyd Mayweather’s Christian Louboutin collection over compensates the purpose of footwear. Similarly, Scott Disick’s plethora of fine watches are doing a lot more than just telling time… This is to say that Mayweather’s red bottoms and Disick’s wrist-wear provoke “invidious pecuniary comparison” (62). In essence, these items  indicate social standing and wealth by differentiating the owners from other consumers. Yet these celebrities are concerned with differentiating themselves from the larger public body, and thus turn to Instagram. On a smaller scale Rich Kids of Instagram also work to define their virtual identities by blatantly declaring the extravagance of their lifestyles. As both celebrities and Rich Kids of Instagram pictorially represent their wealth, they draw questionable attention to their consumption.

#GoHardOrGoHome

In wake of sumptuary laws, which predetermined limits of consumption based on social class, individuals will go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from others (Han 15). The consumer taxonomy defines the relationship between specific goods and levels of consumers. In terms of this discussion, the distinction between patricians and parvenus is quite relevant. As the top level of consumers, patricians are characterized by their interest in “inconspicuously branded products that serve as a horizontal signal to other patricians.” On the other hand, parvenus are primarily concerned with differentiating themselves from consumers of the lower classes (17). Despite the fact that many of the photos on Rich Kids of Instagram exhibit an extraordinary level of refinement and taste, the act of posting these photos is rather detestable. Given that these images serve no purpose other than differentiation, the act of posting product shots is rather parvenu. Nonetheless, the content of these images still represents high-social standing and wealth.

#BagsForDays

Cutie baby Kelly pouchie

A post shared by EJW (@ezrajwilliam) on

In a sense, adornment is a narrative of identity. As we purchase specific items, we are choosing to represent our selves with the implicit meanings of our adornments.  According to Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher “evaluations of social worth are often made on the basis of personal adornment” (Roach 113). The power of the Birkin exemplifies the unspoken language of adornment. Given the rumored wait-list for a Birkin, we assume that the owner of such a bag is not only wealthy, but also socially prominent. The sanctity of this bag highlights the cultural appropriation of meaning. Hermes as a brand is understood as the epitome of luxury, which comes as a result of expert branding and visibility. When taken out of context, a Birkin is just a simple leather bag with metal hardware. Yet, the bags value rests upon its’ culturally appropriated meaning. This speaks to the commoditization of identity; the idea that we can purchase specific items in order to represent a given identity. As of right now, if you want to look like a wealthy, Upper East Side lady, you better get your hands on a Birkin… In essence, Birkins will maintain their social value for as long as they are the chosen bag of the elite.

The commoditization of identity makes fashion powerful because it gives us the means to physically represent our social identity. This form of distinction can be seen as both expressive and restrictive. While there are seemingly endless options for personal adornment, there are also countless unspoken disciplines that guide consumption and self-presentation. For celebrities and Rich Kids of Instagram alike wealth comes with the confines of high-society. For starters: you have to dress a certain way and eat at specific restaurants at specific times… When you add Instagram into the mix, you face the challenge of representation. As you attempt to portray your fabulous life, you are met with yet another set of disciplines. What do you do when you want to upload a picture of your new Chanel lego clutch, but you just posted a picture of  your #ArmParty yesterday? Everyone knows you have to space out the pictures, but what if your friend beats you to the punch? You wouldn’t want anyone to think you bought the same bag as someone else… Oh, and if you want to post a picture of your salad at Fred’s it better happen between 12:30pm and 2pm otherwise everyone will know that you had to wait for a table…  This being said, it is clear that Instagram is not only a space for representation, but also a space for discipline. The saying holds true – more money, more problems.

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You’re Either In or You’re #OOTD: Community or Competition?

It is no secret that Instagram is one of the most influential social platforms among fashionable young women. A recent survey revealed “Instagram inspires [buying] decisions in at least one fashion category for 42 percent of women in the 18 to 29 age group” (Netbase). Additionally, apparel brands make up for 46 percent of those included in Nitrogram’s ranking of over 2,500 brands on Instagram (Nitorgram).

The symbiotic relationship between the fashion industry and the Facebook-owned social platform is in no small part due to Instagram’s visual and instantaneous nature, which not only allows users to upload photographs in just a few seconds, but also offers several “filters” designed to enhance the aesthetic quality of uploads. With a range of other features for adjusting focus, increasing sharpness and adding borders, it is evident that Instagram encourages users to post photos that are visually pleasing—something that has undeniably contributed to its wildfire growth among women who consider themselves “fashionistas” or “social shoppers” (Netbase).

As image-conscious, technology savvy users continue to use Instagram as tool for grooming their online identities and “connecting” with others, “selfies” have become one of the most popular types of uploads made to the platform. Many of these selfies showcase users’ outfit and grooming decisions in photos often taken through the mirror—a technique that allows a user to capture the entirety of her look without the help of an outside photographer. The “outfit selfies” that appear on Instagram have become key to the way users represent themselves on social media, a process that involves consciously crafting and consistently broadcasting an often-idealized version of themselves online. By uploading flattering photos of carefully styled looks accompanied by related captions and hashtags, some users a) create online selves that inaccurately reflect their real-life identities and b) perpetuate beauty norms that are unrealistic and unattainable without the help of digital enhancement.

Many young women on Instagram have adopted the practice of uploading outfit selfies from famed fashion bloggers who, most outwardly, use them to represent their personal style and promote the brand names they choose to wear. Because they have the most influence, as determined by the amount of followers and the level of engagement they command, top bloggers and celebrities have created and reinforced norms regarding not only what is fashionable to wear, but also how to showcase on the social platform. In turn, many women conform to these norms in order to garner the most likes and comments from their peers on their own selfies.

Before Instagram even existed, bloggers created posts featuring photos of the looks they styled for themselves several times a week. Although many of their photos were taken using a self-timer on a digital camera or by other photographers, they were still careful to adhere to poses and expressions that best showcased the clothing, their figures, and their surroundings—just as Instagram users do in their selfies. Fashion bloggers were also the first group of people to document their outfits online on a regular basis, establishing norms for which looks are “worthy” of being photographed.

Running a successful blog not only requires that someone have the financial means and personal taste to pick out appropriate outfits, but also demands an incredible amount of time between shopping for apparel, photographing looks, and attending fashion shows and events. In this way, bloggers are partaking in what Thornstein Veblen calls “conspicuous leisure.” In chapter three of his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen explains this concept as a signifier of wealth and claims that “productive labor is a mark of poverty and subjection, and [is therefore] inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community” (Veblen 25). Although his language and examples are outmoded, Veblen’s theory is still relevant as it pertains to fashion blogging, which is arguably a “non-productive consumption of time” (28). The majority of bloggers, save the top talents, make little to no income from their blogs, especially when they are just starting out; yet, one would be hard pressed to find any mention of another profession on most fashion blogs. Outfit selfies, too, are non-productive in nature and are largely frivolous.

In her essay “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption,” Dr. Alice Marwick offers a slightly differing opinion, claiming that “fashion blogging exemplifies a type of ‘conspicuous consumption’ which is less about signaling free time and more about signifying ‘style’ which is presumed authentic and personal” (Marwick 1). She argues that “most bloggers are not signaling wealth (or free time, although blogging is time-consuming), but creative expression and originality.” This theory may be partially true, but Marwick seems to overvalue the “ethos of social media, which [she asserts] emphasizes ‘authenticity’ above all” (3). Through her ethnography and survey of the fashion blogging industry, Marwick ultimately finds that bloggers with the most “cultural capital” are those who are the most successful both financially and popularly. Although authenticity may be the ideal for which many bloggers strive, social media has many layers, not the least significant of which is its rapid commoditization by fashion brands. The lack of originality and authenticity in fashion blogging becomes painfully apparent when several bloggers band around one particular product, all at the same time, as was the case with Armani’s social media push surrounding the launch of the fragrance Si by Armani (Nitrogram).

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Figure 1.

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Figure 3.

Furthermore, the very nature of staged outfit selfies challenges Marwick’s theory of authenticity since the updates we see from top bloggers and celebrities are usually those in which they are carefully groomed and fashionably dressed. Kim Kardashian, the most popular female user on the platform with 14 million followers, is known for mirror selfies that showcase her daily looks accompanied by captions noting the designer brands she wears in the form of hyperlinked tags called hashtags (Figures 1, 2, and 3). While the content of the caption suggests that Kardashian’s outward intention is to showcase her outfit, it is clear that she is also trying to communicate other qualities about herself, including her taste, wealth, and beauty. She takes care to pose her body at a flattering angle for the clothing she wears. A performance of online identity, these images are an example of how users discipline themselves to take selfies that communicate more than just outward appearances, often exaggerating personal attributes they may or may not posses in real-life. Note Kardashian posing on the tips of her toes, as if she were wearing heels, in order to model her figure and outfit in an idealized way (Figure 1).

Also in her study, Marwick asserts that “it is impossible to know what a celebrity’s motivation is for wearing a particular outfit without candid interview data” (4), a valid point, but then she claims that fashion bloggers differ from celebrities in the way that they “are available to an audience and interact with their readers” (5), presumably allowing, even encouraging, them to be more authentic. As fashion blogging has grown into something of a bubble, many of the more relevant bloggers have developed personas that more closely match those of celebrities than they do those of their readers. In fact, they can be seen sitting front row at fashion week and posing with top designers alongside some of these celebrities and canoodling with them at after parties (Figures 4-6).

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Figure 4. Instagram’s most popular fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad poses with celebrity photographer (and professional pervert) Terry Richardson, cementing her status as an influential figure.

Leandra+Medine+Front+Row+Diane+Von+Furstenberg+y_9qdd__C6Nl

Figure 5. Leandra Medine of fashion blog The Man Repeller sits front row at Diane von Furstenberg at New York Fashion Week alongside Paris and Nicky Hilton.

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Figure 6. Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast with celebrity favorite Alexander Wang at his NYFW after party.

Another component of the outfit selfie is the accompanying caption, which often indicates brand names via mentions (@) or hashtags (#). Kardashian always includes the names of the designers she is wearing, while bloggers, like Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, for instance, do so more sparingly. Ferragni, who has the largest online following of any fashion blogger, seems to only mention brands she has partnered with or has taken a person interest in, though as Marwick points out, intentions and motivations are rarely clear.

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Figure 7.

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Figure 8.

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Figure 9.

How conspicuously a user indicates or incorporates brand names into their outfit selfies is a key theme. In the article “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence,” authors Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze categorize consumers based on research that “assigns consumers to one of four groups according to their wealth and need for status, and they demonstrate how each group’s preference for conspicuously or inconspicuously branded luxury goods corresponds predictably with their desire to associate or dissociate with members of their own and other groups” (Han 15).

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Figure 10.

While the three researchers define “brand prominence” a “a construct reflecting the conspicuousness of a brand’s mark or logo on a product” (15), this same criteria can be applied to how obvious brand names are made either in the content of the photo or the caption. If one were to view the photos posted by Kardashian and Ferragni (Figures 7-9)—strictly in the context of what appears on screen, disregarding preexisting knowledge about each figure—and rank them according to the team’s system of the “four Ps of luxury,” the former might fall into the “parvenu” category while the latter is decidedly more “patrician” in her practices (Figure 10). Because Kardashian explicitly lists the designer items she wears in the captions, but only wears looks from the most exclusive designers, one might consider her the digital version or someone who only wears logoed pieces. Of course, this is a hypothetical exercise, but one can garner from Ferragni’s more subtle or sparing use of designer mentions that she favors “quieter signals”—one must already know that the handbag the blogger wears (Figure 8) is from 3.1 Philip Lim’s latest collection because there is no evident “logo” (hashtag) to indicate that information.

With some of Instagram’s most popular and influential users recycling the same stereotypes for how female selfies should look, they are also reflecting the already prevalent and limited qualities society deems “beautiful” or “desirable” for women.

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Figure 13.

Furthermore, the consistency of the uploads perpetuate this unrealistic notion that one must always look put together and “selfie ready.” Neither Kardashian, Instagram’s most prominent female celebrity, nor Ferragni, the most prominent fashion blogger, post photos in which they look disheveled, undesirable, or otherwise unpresentable to their millions of followers. Longtime followers of these accounts and similar ones have been taught, perhaps subconsciously, to appreciate and replicate the same practices exhibited in such staged selfies through the process of viewing and liking these photos. Because the very act of crafting selfies like these are aspirational or unattainable for many, the Instagram environment is arguably more conducive to encouraging competition than it is to forging a community. Somewhat counterintuitvely, the platform becomes a place that encourages individuality, but only in the context of conformist practices.

Figure 14. Ferragni claims to "blur the lines between the real in the fake" in this series of selfies, but because she has taken and uploaded them herself, she still exercises a great deal of control over the image she is putting out.

Figure 14. Ferragni claims to be “blurrin’ the lines between the real and the fake” in this series of selfies, but because she has taken and uploaded them herself, she still exercises a great deal of control over the image she is putting out.

Works Cited

Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 74.4 (2010): 15-30. Print.

Marwick, Alice. (2011). “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA.

Veblen, Thorstein, and Stuart Chase. The Theory of the Leisure Class; an Economic Study of Institutions. New York: Modern Library, 1934. Print.

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