Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 2 No. 1, May 1984

Fashion, clothes, sexuality

Jennifer Craik

Australians ... can often be recognised by their fondness for garments suggesting the pursuit of kangaroos across the outback: khaki shirts and jackets, clumsy sheepskin vests, high leather boots and the famous bush hat. These clothes may be worn by women as well as by men ... It is presumably not just a desire for comfort that prompts these outfits, but ... that ... every Aussie is essentially a manly bushwhacker. (Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes, 1981:105-6).

This article addresses the relations between clothes and sexuality as represented in promotion, fashion magazines and in its theorisation. It arises out of various interests in feminist theory—in questions of representation; in social and anthropological theory; and in media and cultural studies. As such, it can be placed somewhere in those intersecting domains, and in so doing, it attempts a more radical analysis than that offered by, for example, Barthes in his Systeme de la mode (1967) (van Leeuwen, 1983).

As Lurie's quotation illustrates, the way in which clothes are written about and analysed is a highly structured activity. In this passage, Australian clothing is isolated as an entity for analysis, akin to an ethnic costume, and treated as instantiating a notion of Australian-ness and of dependent relations between the sexes.

This approach is an example of accounts which stress the interconnections between the representation of sexuality in clothing on the one hand, and in theory on the other. Such connections raise the broader questions of how the complex—clothes, body, sexuality—has been formed and analysed, and the impact of feminist debates on the concept of representation on which that complex turns. The arguments are illustrated in terms of Australian clothing, contrasting the costume approach of Lurie to accounts of recently promoted fashions with Australiana themes.

The central argument is that sexuality is not a given, and neither is sexual difference. This is not to say that biological differences between men and women do not exist or that they are not important, but rather to argue that the effects of gender are not given by, and cannot be reduced to, biology. Rather, they are social differences which are constructed around certain specific plays of concepts and practices: natural markers which refer to sexual difference may form


the basis of that grid as cross-cutting inscriptions on that social construction of difference.

Following from this, the body and its clothing may be implicated in constructions of sexuality but there is not an automatic association; the specific way in which the body may be "marked" is given by the discourse of sexuality not by some intrinsic "sexuality". Rosalind Coward (1978: 15) has written of the way in which advertisers have marketed parts of the body not previously available to marketing by constructing a sexuality for particular bodily parts:

It is the sexualisation of eyes, lips, ears, wrists, legs, feet, hair, mouths, teeth, smells, skin, etc. It is not a matter of exploiting a pre-existent, naturally sensitive body, but the actual construction of parts of the body as sensitive and sexual, as capable of stimulation and excitation, and therefore demanding care and attention if women are to be sexual and sexually desirable to men.

Thus, for Coward, individual bodily parts are potentially available for sexual valorisation so that sexuality traverses the body through the highlighting of selected components. Sexual difference, and relations between men and women, are given by this discursive practice as an articulated set of relations that are historically located and subject to transformation.

This article pays particular attention to this in its consideration of the impact of the Victorian concept of sexuality on social theory and derivative analyses of clothing/bodies; and on the current transformations of that terrain of sexual difference under the impact of certain feminist and political debates.

It is argued that the very term, sexuality, is a Victorian creation which has underlined in a significant way the bases of dominant twentieth century social and anthropological theories. As I have argued elsewhere (Craik, 1982), these are distinctive in two respects:

1. they exclude the category of women from the body of social theory, treating them as adjuncts or appendages in phrases like "Women and Religion" or, indeed, the term "Women's Studies"; this is a theoretical strategy not a representation of some existing state of affairs.

2. the concern with the rise of capitalism and industrialisation makes notions of social change, evolution and a dichotomy between "the primitive" and "the modern" become key terms with particular effects for the forms of explanation that such theories offer.

These features of social theories determine how explanations of social phenomena are set up and conclusions drawn. For example, the dominant analyses of clothes/bodies/sexuality indicate the structure of those theoretical tools rather than why and how fashion is interrogated as something "significant". Indeed, researching the area


of fashion is tedious and unenlightening: two explanations of fashion are endlessly repeated. Fashion either has the function of adornment and/or decoration, or promotes and registers identity (whether as individual expression or group membership). The "adornment" explanation is ordered around a notion of "the body" and its manipulation as the site of the sexual; while the "identity" explanation demarcates a concept of "the social" by the mechanism of difference.

Further, a particular designation is given to what constitutes fashion as opposed to merely clothing or adornment: fashion involves clothes or adornment which changes rapidly and arbitrarily. This seems uncontentious: however, it is also linked to certain economic characterisations and specifically those of a capitalist social formation, hence "primitive" and "folk" societies are excluded from indulging in fashion. Rather, they wear costumes, folk dresses and adorn themselves. The opening quotation is an example of this explanation. Edward Sapir (1931: 140-141) provides another:

Bare legs among modern women in summer do not psychologically or historically create at all the same fashion as bare legs and bare feet among primitives living in the tropics.

Why not, we might well ask? Sapir tells us it is because "in custom bound creatures ... of the primitive world there are slow non reversible changes of style rather than the often reversible forms of fashion found in modern cultures" (141). Despite prolific evidence to the contrary, this analysis has remained virtually uncontested.

And yet, "primitive" and "folk" people are allowed serious and deep-seated explanations of their garb—in terms of kinship organisation and rules, religious and cultural significance. Those who indulge in fashion are permitted only ephemeral and idiosyncratic explanations—such as wishing to belong to, or identify with, a particular group; referencing sexual desire; and reflecting shifts in social practices (eg. working women and the Jackie Kennedy look cited by Fox Genovese, [1978]; or mods and motor scooters cited by Hebdige, [1981]).

Fashion becomes the analogue, indeed, the mechanism for, capitalist endeavours. Fashion is both the measure of the stage and form of capitalism, and the means for transformation to, or within, capitalism. Such explanations elide fashion with the concept of the individual and the individual's capacity to express him/herself. For example, Sapir defines fashion as a means for the individual to break out of the tyranny of social conformity (Sapir: 140).

This characterisation accords with a certain conceptualisation of capitalism in which "the individual" is constructed as a figure and is pitted against "the social". "The social", as a rule-bound structure, is conceived as the end-product of an evolutionary sequence to better things, in which industrial capital is conceived as the pinnacle of


human civilisation, and, as such, has a "naturalised", eternal and unchallengeable status. All that can change under capitalism is the "whim" of the individual through expressive modes such as fashion/clothing.

Two elements of how the figure of capitalism is constructed need to be distinguished. On the one hand, capitalism refers to a particular mode of production, while, on the other, it is treated as a metaphor for life itself, the instantiation of an evolutionary concept of history.

The emphasis here is on the latter concept, though this is not to dismiss the former concern. Clearly, fashion production, distribution and circulation have clear connections with economic production, particularly under capitalism; however, since the object "fashion" is largely treated as "whim", the mechanisms of the production process are either excluded or dealt with very harshly, on the grounds that the conditions of production of fashion contrast severely with the "whim" and transience of the commodities which are produced.

Accounts of the production of fashion under capitalism include an emphasis on populist interventions in haute couture (eg. Fox Genovese, 11978J, Hebdige, 11981~), the process of predicting and mounting collections (Cameron, 1978), and the nature of the sweat shop, piece work production process of the Rag Trade (Reilly, 1982). A highly dispersed and uneven kind of production process is most evident, where the "high risk multi-million pound business" is only tempered by such inhibitions as the fact "that Norwegians and the Japanese never wear purple", or that "people cannot afford to buy themselves completely new wardrobes every year so that they demand a degree of continuity" (Cameron, 1978). Fashion prediction is a long-range gamble, for example:

"[Colour consultants'] first task is to look back over the two preceding seasons to sec which colours sold well and to try to identify coming trends. It is thought that most high fashion colours had a sales life of about three years, beginning often in a small way, reaching a peak in year two and then tailing off. The job of the forecasters is to assess how much vitality is left in the shades that are already popular and to decide which of the new, up and coming colours is ripe for further exploitation. " (Cameron, 1978) .

This initial process alone is estimated to cost at least $200,000 for each company. Little wonder, then, that economies are made elsewhere, historically at the expense of workers either in large-scale factories or through small or home-based labour. Textile/fashion workers are generally women, with a high percentage of ethnic and marginal women, who are not well-organised, have a low status in inter-union struggles, and consequently earn significantly less than male workers (Reilly, 1982).


These accounts, then, are concerned with the consolidation of the fashion industry into the mass production of commodities, a process marked by the need to satisfy both the economic logic of mass production and the shifting and unpredictable activity of consumer choice. The contrast posited here is between standardisation and individualisation, between the fashion-conscious consumers all wearing mini-skirts and the difference between individual wearers' combinations and juxtapositions of items (Barthes 11967J, van Leeuwin 119831). (Fig. 1). This distinction is false since the item only exists as fashion in the way in which it is worn, and it is the identification of such patterns of wearing that seems a more productive avenue of re search than the pondering of the couplet false individualisation versus the "bourgeoisification" of a society.

The unevenness of the production process, however, is not reflected in the concept of capitalism as the evolutionary life force, a concept which has particular underpinnings and consequences. Fashion becomes the mechanism of capitalism and its maintenance; and given the eternal status which is accorded to capitalism, fashion further constitutes the very means of civilisation and hence of the continuance of the human species itself. Fashion displaces the sexual urge as the "social" and "civilised" analogue. For example, Rene Konig (1973: 74-75) argues that:


Fashion-oriented behaviour is thus embedded in the complex necessary for the preservation of the species, and the urge to dress up as the fashion decrees accordingly acts with the same elementary force as any other urge serving the continuation of the human race.

Fashion is essentialised as a stimulus, ultimately to sexual activity, as a necessary step towards species generation and preservation, as the central, a-historical condition of human life:

The character of fashion increasingly proves to be a universal formative principle of society acquiring a downright tyrannical control over social development, with modern economy an ally of truly inexhaustible resources. (146)

In this curious but common account, fashion is cast as a major social force and as a replacement for/displacement of "sex" itself; "sex" is fragmented into a game played through clothes and display, a game dissociated from sexual activity, influenced more by the aesthetic than the erotic. In this move, "the body" of sexual practices is subjugated to the social order of the aesthetic. Sexuality is no longer the province of "the body" but of "the social".

Fashion, in its explanations, becomes merely the instantiation of the theories by which it is examined, theories themselves derivative of certain concepts. In the case of fashion, the key concept is that of sexuality.

Stephen Heath has argued in The Sexual Fix that the very concept of sexuality is a recent category which emerged as late as 1889 (Heath, 1982: 11). It is a category, a concept, which refers to a discursive field consequent upon a particular play or conjunction of other discourses circulating in the late nineteenth century.

He suggests that the importance ascribed to sexuality in post Victorian society arises from conditions in which the concept emerged, such that the concept itself had/has attached to it a saliency and sensitivity which does not adhere to the concept of sex itself. Indeed, the concept of "sexuality" has been fabricated:

through a set of representations—images, discourses, ways of picturing and describing—that propose and confirm, that make up this sexuality to which we are then referred and held in our lives, a whole sexual fix precisely. (3)

The specific feature of the concept is not Victorian morality, per se, but its site within industrial capitalism as the inscription of the relationship between individuals and that mode of production. Shifts in that productive sphere to commodity capitalism, have been registered in the so-called sexual liberation:

'the much-vaunted 'liberation' of sexuality, our triumphant emergence from the 'dark ages is thus not a liberation but a myth, an ideology,


the definition of a new mode of conformity (that can be understood, moreover, in relation to the capitalist system, the production of a commodity 'sexuality'). (3)

This suggests that the category of sexuality is central to a capitalist mode of production; sexuality is the modern belief, "the secret of the nature of human being, a kind of metaphysics of the individual condition" (53). It concerns how we represent the sexual through the entity 'sex', which was consequently problematised as "the doubt, the problem, the new awareness". Moreover, as the site of "the sexual" is in the individual, the sexual became the central problem of human "being".

This category of sexuality involves four elements: representation, the body, the category "women", and problems/doubts. It is a specific category of capitalist relations derived from its language, not from nature:

Desire is bound up with meaning, representation... Sexual relations are relations through language, not to a given other sex; the body is not a direct immediacy, it is dressed, marked out, intrinsically involved with meanings. (154)

Clothing, then, may allude to sexuality but this allusion is in fact to a specific language, a set of systems, and terms of representation, the assumed "natural-ness" of sexuality is always already constructed.

If clothing is treated as a discursive mode, its specific articulation can be designated without the need to classify it as fashion or not. Patterns of clothing occur systematically, varying and changing over time. The point is not that clothes since the industrial revolution constitute a different order, but that they are part of a specific discursive struggle, a struggle organised around the concept of sexuality. Systems of clothing must then be considered in terms of other discursive systems within a social group, in terms of that specificity. Western clothing constitutes a particular set of statements which articulate a discourse about "sexuality" which is specific to capitalism.

In the case of Australia, I want to argue that the recent shift to the Australian production, design and promotion of clothes overtly tagged as "Australian", relates not merely to a jingoistic nationalism but to the effects of a sexual-political debate which has displaced the representation of Australia in terms of "mateship". (fig. 2) .

The "myth of mateship" has been the dominant representation of Australian capitalism and social order; in this myth, the concept of sexuality is constructed around the idea of male bonding. The emphasis on mateship has been regarded as a uniquely Australian phenomenon, and one with the unique consequence of excluding women from accounts to the point of their invisibility. Men are accorded a uniquely sympathetic and intimate relationship with their


environment (the bush and the city) and their work (the rural and city forms of Australian capitalism). This discourse of nationalism thus embodies a discourse of sexuality in which the body is displaced as a site of sexuality in favour of relations between men, and between (male) bodies and their environment.

The effects of this myth and its associated discourse of sexuality which is the transposition and transformation of the Victorian concept into a "colonial consciousness", can be seen in the Lurie quotation. In this, Australian dress is characterised in the "primitive" or "folk" class as costume, as an unchanging statement of national essence—the eternal pursuit of kangaroos across the outback. Moreover, women figure merely as adjuncts or shadows of men. Lurie (105-6) expands on this apparent relation between bodies and spatial location as "Australia":

Another peculiarity of visitors from Down Under is their fondness for shorts, which is not only visible abroad but, according to travellers, gives the urban landscape of Australia a unique appearance. Both businessmen and working men may go to their jobs bare-kneed during the summer months, and informants have reported seeing doctors in white coats and shorts, and lawyers formally dressed in dark jacket, stiff collar and regimental tie, bowler hat and shorts. Below the area of brown, hairy, muscled Australian leg these men wore conventional black oxfords, socks and sometimes even garters.

This characterisation is distinctive in many respects. It reads as an anthropology, as a decontextualised dissection of features of social organisation which are then explained by reference to that "unique" social group which these dressers inhabit. They are "Aussies"; that is, men who inhabit a hostile, tough environment. This special identification of Aussies with the bush means that city life becomes a weird transformation of that space, a disjunctive environment of bowler hats, shorts and hairy, muscly legs. Climate, custom and women scarcely feature in this organisation of body and space: sexuality is also absent in deference to the implicit male bonding exuded through bush whackers and urban bare legs. It depicts a concept of sexuality in which the problem of the body and the repression of "sex" from language is radical (Fig. 3).

The recent questioning of "mateship" in debates both about nationalism and feminism is no coincidence but due to a common set of concerns: on the one hand, there has been a revival in popular culture of the establishing of Australian essence in terms of a bush-city spatial grid. This has been part of a wider concern with the validity of the very designation "Australia" as a set of unique features that are somehow held and related by this tag. On the other hand, serious debate about the relations between the sexes and the challenging of historical accounts of those relations in Australian histories has intensified in the last decade. These debates—both academic and


popular—have entailed a partial re-working of the dominant concept of sexuality. Recent fashion is a refraction of, an allusion to, that re-working.

The Lurie example highlights the specificity of how Australian fashion has been represented: as with accounts of cinema in Australia, a disjunction between a previous golden age and a current


boom is made. The concept of the bush costume (cf. the wardrobe/clothing in the recent film, (The Man from Snowy River) is a mythic construction (Fig. 4): it was not everyday garb for all Australians but has merely come to represent "the past"—colonial Australia. The current fashion is not a new phenomenon in terms of industry, though it is a particular re-organisation of a long-term development of the industry in Australia. This has involved the establishment of local designers, production houses, and the concomitant confidence in those activities, especially in local design, in contrast to the traditional adoption and translation of the overseas seasonal collections. The Australiana vogue, then, is a manifestation of a confidence in the industry and in design, exemplified in the increasing prominence of local radical and young designers as important figures in the fashion stakes.

These Australian fashions have entailed embodying recognised and novel themes of "Australian-ness" into distinctive casual and multi-purpose clothing. Crucially this has involved re-working the elements of "mateship" by transforming those mythic body-space relations. The themes so central to that myth, namely themes of the bush—fauna and flora, aboriginal designs and styles, distinctive sites—have been juxtaposed with themes of the city—skyscapes, place names, known sites/buildings. These themes have been attached to fashion items for female wearers. Through this metaphor of representation, the mythic polarity between bush and city is denied and an assertive identification between female bodies and space established. (Fig. 5).


Such clothing is distinctive in the stamping or literal imprinting of those motifs onto the already-constituted garment, as an overlay or an undermining of its basic form. This inscription or marking of already-circulating types of clothing emphasises this re-working process. The body itself may play two roles: it is disguised or over whelmed by the type of clothes themselves, frequently T-shirts or


simple, practical, loose-fitting garments, commonly regarded as typical Australian clothing, which play down the bodily component of sexual difference and national identity. Alternatively the body becomes the organising factor of that space. (Fig. 6).


Australian fashion can then seen as the metaphorical re claiming of certain symbols in order to undermine and re-draw that language of group identity and thereby intervene in its associated discourse of "sexuality". In this, national symbols imprinted on mundane, understated clothes establish a site of identity for female wearers outside the family and mateship, substituting a mythology of


symbolic objects, freeing "sexuality" from a particular relation to mateship (from support and dependence) to sites of female activities, primarily the workplace, but also as self-supporting homemakers and travellers. (Fig. 7).


In short, the Australiana vogue could be said to constitute an interventionist discourse which seeks to escape "the sexual fix" and to articulate a shifted "sexuality" and its derivative social relations. In this construct of sexuality, the bodily parts are still marketed but the Australiana stamp is literally imprinted to allude to this re-worked discourse. Through fashion the "sexual fix'' is symbolically under mined by "un-fixing" those categories of representation, body, "women" and "problem". Discourses of power, social activities and gender relations are referenced by displacing the gaze from the fix of fashion to a statement about "Australian women". This is not to argue that such clothes "liberate" women, merely that the fashion is a discursive and representational response to, and intervention in, an ongoing struggle. Australian fashion seems to constitute an allusion to a sexual-political debate which endeavours to displace both the concepts of "sexuality" and "fashion" that have been dominant in the society. (Fig. 8).

Jennifer Craik teaches at Griffith University



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