Why fash­ion is an un­com­fort­able fit

Out of Shape: De­bunk­ing Myths about Fash­ion and Fit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gil­lian Terzis Gil­lian Terzis

By Mel Camp­bell Af­firm Press, 198pp, $24.95

WEAR­ING clothes — a la mode or oth­er­wise — can of­ten be an in­vi­ta­tion for un­so­licited judg­ment. Hip­ster bi­ble Vice mag­a­zine be­came renowned for its un-PC ar­bi­tra­tion be­tween trends that are hot and those that are not; most women’s mag­a­zines pro­vide po­liter in­struc­tion in the art of dress­ing di­rec­tion­ally. To be outed as a fash­ion vic­tim is to be sub­ject to dis­pro­por­tion­ate lev­els of ridicule; the phrase con­notes not only em­bar­rass­ment but suf­fer­ing. Fash­ion writ­ers and sales as­sis­tants are of­ten on hand to pre-empt our fash­ion mis­takes by pro­vid­ing us with a raft of cor­rec­tive so­lu­tions.

It has al­ways been this way. At the heart of the thriv­ing fash­ion-in­dus­trial com­plex are ten­sions be­tween our so­cial and cul­tural val­ues and our bod­ies, ar­gues Mel Camp­bell in her thought-pro­vok­ing de­but book Out of Shape. Th­ese ten­sions stoke our as­pi­ra­tions as well as frus­tra­tions — par­tic­u­larly over is­sues of siz­ing and fit. Th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences are not new, as Camp­bell il­lus­trates in her witty ex­plo­ration of fash­ion through the ages as well as its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture. The wardrobe mal­func­tion and its link to moral las­si­tude, for in­stance, is not with­out prece­dent. We learn French so­cialite Vir­ginie Gautreau — a 19th-cen­tury pre­de­ces­sor to Paris Hil­ton — caused a stir while pos­ing for John Singer Sar­gent’s Madame X. The rea­son for the fuss? In the paint­ing’s ini­tial ver­sion, one of the straps on Gautreau’s ‘‘ se­vere, fig­ure-hug­ging black velvet dress’’ was ‘‘ slipped in­so­lently off her shoul­der’’.

More than a cen­tury later, plus ca change. So­ci­ety’s ca­pac­ity for out­rage re­mains a bot­tom­less pit. Last year, the Nine Net­work’s A Cur­rent Af­fair broad­cast a story called Girls on Show, where Ita But­trose and model Char­lotte Daw­son tut-tut­ted at the sar­to­rial crimes com­mit­ted by teenage girls on a night out: th­ese in­cluded ‘‘ clingy, strap­less and low-cut tops, miniskirts, hot­pants with their buttcheeks hang­ing out’’. The pro­gram served to re­in­force the old-fash­ioned no­tion that, in ad­di­tion to ad­her­ing to mag­a­zine-sanc­tioned ideals of sar­to­rial self-em­bel­lish­ment, women must also ‘‘ ap­pease other peo­ple’s moral judg­ment’’. Us­ing the ex­am­ples of Pretty Woman, Pyg­malion and Strictly Ball­room, Camp­bell shows the makeover func­tions in a sim­i­lar way, al­beit un­der the guise of self­im­prove­ment.

Is it pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile the de­sire to win the ap­proval of out­siders with our in­di­vid­ual tastes? Fash­ion is home to many con­flict­ing ten­sions: the styles we see in stores are a com­pro­mise be­tween a de­signer’s aes­thetic val­ues and mar­ket de­mand. If your de­mands (phys­i­cal or aes­thetic) aren’t met, it be­comes a stress­ful pur­suit. ‘‘ Wear­ing clothes shouldn’t be a chore,’’ Camp­bell writes. ‘‘ It should be play­ful and ex­cit­ing, the way it once was when we were kids grow­ing up.’’ As adults, that sense of play­ful­ness is re­placed by cal­cu­lated risk-tak­ing. The life­style me­dia likes to des­ig­nate rules for body types: Camp­bell notes that given her ‘‘ rec­tan­gu­lar en­do­mor­phic body’’, ‘‘ high-waisted jeans with small back pock­ets will make [her] bum look big’’ and ‘‘ calflength skirts will make [her] look ‘ stumpy’ ’’.

But the mes­sage that goes with body shape di­ag­nos­tics — that peo­ple should dress ac­cord­ing to their shape — is use­less. Camp­bell mounts a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment by point­ing to the mean­ing­less ter­mi­nol­ogy used to iden­tify body types. It hardly mat­ters if we are able to as­sign our bod­ies to cer­tain ‘‘ sciency’’ phys­iog­nomic cat­e­gories (ec­to­morph, en­do­morph) or to de­scrip­tive nouns (ap­ple, cello, brick, skit­tle); the im­pli­ca­tion is our phys­i­cal flaws can be fixed by the cor­rect choices in at­tire.

That ap­proach to a per­son’s phys­i­cal­ity can prove dam­ag­ing. Through­out Out of Shape, Camp­bell uses in­ter­views with con­sumers and fash­ion de­sign­ers as well as per­sonal anec­dotes and ex­am­ples from pop cul­ture to high­light the angst of what she calls or­thoves­tia: the idea we must ‘‘ con­stantly tend to and re­vise our ap­pear­ance’’ to be so­cially suc­cess­ful. Her per­sonal re­flec­tions are poignant and at times hu­mor­ous. We feel for her when she at­tempts to em­u­late the glam­our of garconne chic as a teenager, only to be mis­taken for a boy, or puts on a miniskirt that makes her feel great — un­til she catches her re­flec­tion in a shop win­dow. By ar­tic­u­lat­ing her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties with such hon­esty, Camp­bell re­as­sures us such cul­tural anx­i­eties are nor­mal, which makes her ar­gu­ment more com­pelling.

Out of Shape is an en­gross­ing read, not only be­cause Camp­bell puts her body on the line, but be­cause of her in­tel­li­gent and con­ver­sa­tional style. She’s at ease dis­tin­guish­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween vin­tage and retro, riff­ing on his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism, or cri­tiquing beauty ideals put for­ward by the me­dia. And while there are no easy an­swers for our quan­daries, Camp­bell gives us a place to start. In an in­dus­try that is all about ‘‘ the look’’, there’s noth­ing more stul­ti­fy­ing (or ba­nal) than the de­sire to dress ap­pro­pri­ately.

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