Femininity as Fashion

My androgyny theory run up against the obvious complication of how you measure androgyny/dimorphism. Height? Hormones? Behavior? The latter is obviously affected by a ton of environmental factors.

Slate Star Codex has an excellent post analyzing fashion (and politics) via cellular automata. Other people have written really insightful things using this same model, so I recommend you shoving it into whatever spare theories you have lying around.

BTW, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should read Scot’s post before finishing mine.

Anyway, does the performance of femininity itself follow this model?
I propose yes.

Let’s go back to 1900 or so. Most people are farmers, and farmers have to work damn hard. The wives of farmers are not delicate wilting flowers, but extremely hard workers themselves, with very little excess time or money to spend on things like closets full of shoes. The traits we associate with femininity and gender role performance were largely luxuries available only to the wealthy, a situation that had probably been largely true for centuries.

Then came industrialization, the shift to the cities, and the rapid growth of the middle class. By the 1920s, the middle class could aspire to ape upper class behaviors, spending their new wealth on clothes and shoes and stay-at-home-motherhood. It is probably no coincidence that at the same time, fashionable women began dressing and acting like men, even aspiring to “boyish” figures.

Then came the Depression and WWII, and people went back to eating spare shoes instead of wearing them. By the fifties, femininity was once again a symbol of luxurious good living, complete with the magical wonders of modern technology like vacuums and Jello.

Of course, as soon as the middle class (and even, god forbid, proles,) started aspiring to vacuum in their pearls, such things became horribly retrograde. Poors might aspire to have enough money that one of them might be able to take off a little time to care for their children, but rich people had much better things to do with their time. No self-respecting career woman would be caught dead in public with a parcel of screaming brats; if they must breed for the sake of some horribly chauvinist husband, the actual care and upkeep of the children must be farmed out to suitably low-class (often non-white) nannies. Nor would she deign to humiliate herself by cooking meals or doing laundry. (Such work can also be done by low-class non-white women, to allow rich white women to keep up their masculine lifestyles.)

(Note: it’s not employing people that’s problematic. It’s believing that certain types of work are beneath you, but perfectly acceptable for other sorts of people. If you think women shouldn’t cook and clean, then don’t hire other women to cook and clean.)

Of course, poors and proles never quite got the message and continued buying their daughters Barbies and Bratz and whatnot, despite all of their betters’ constant harangues about the dire moral dangers of such toys.

As the economy continues to suck and the middle class shrinks, will femininity become again the domain of the super-rich?

3 thoughts on “Femininity as Fashion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s