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Fashion as Rejection, Fashion as Submission: A History of Opposing Trends

Posted by Deb Callaghan on

Every generation struggles to reject the culture of the previous generation and create its own unique style of music, art, literature, politics and even food. Although some aspects of culture change permanently, there is also a sense that everything comes full circle. The swing music of the 40's became popular again in the late 90's. Nostalgia for the past prompted auto manufacturers to build cars reminiscent of styles from the 40's and 50's. There has even been a resurgence of fondue parties, a throwback to the 70's. Reflections on these defiant changes and inevitable returns to the past can be found nowhere more prominently than in fashion. Like a rebellious teenager, fashion continually defies old styles, yet ultimately revisits its roots.

This is evident in the flow of fashion styles over the last half-century. Inhibition leads to rebellion, which leads to a longing for the good old days. The starched repression of the 50's giving way to the flowing looseness of the 60's, the flashiness of the 70's paved the way for the elitist preppy look of the early 80's, angry punk succumbed to grungy slacker in the 90's. Today in the early 21st century, when we should be wearing shiny space-age fabrics cut in utilitarian styles, our fashions seem to encompass the gamut. Anything that is old is worthy of respect.

Fashion is a statement of rebellion against many aspects of our culture. We are constantly crossing ethnic, gender and economic boundaries, but after a while, we rebound back to our true heritage. In searching for their cultural and personal identities, teenagers often find it necessary to cross that ethnic fashion bridge. We romanticize what is not right in front of us, whether it is the past or the future, another group of people, or another environment. Malcolm X wrote about his experience "conking" his hair to make it straighter and more like the white man's ideal. He later realized that these efforts were more than a fashion statement-they were a rejection of his ethnic identity. As the civil rights movement progressed, more and more blacks began to reclaim that identity, celebrating traditional African customs, food and dress.

Fashion tells us that it is all right to cross boundaries, as long as you are doing it at the right time when the right people are crossing them as well. Years ago, a man who wore an earring in his left ear would have been sneered at. Today, it is socially acceptable. The same is true with tattoos-whereas they were once reserved for men only (and tough, weapon-toting men at that)-women from all types of backgrounds now freely get tattoos.
Fashion is often used as a form of expression: of values, beliefs, protest. Women suffragists in the mid-nineteenth century shocked society by wearing bloomers instead of dresses. These garments served two purposes: they were practical and comfortable, as well as a symbol of the women's rights movement.

A similar trend occurred over a century later in the 1980's, as more and more women were attempting to break into the male-dominated corporate world. In order to be taken seriously, women's attire became more masculine. Feminine colours and lines were traded for mannish suits, shoulder pads and even ties.

In current times, as women have established themselves in the business world, their fashion styles have softened. Women are encouraged to use their femininity to their advantage. It is encouraged, even trendy. Corporate professional females are depicted on television shows as constantly wearing short skirts and revealing blouses. Pop singers in tight jeans and revealing tops climb the music charts. Girls wear t-shirts emblazoned with self-descriptive words like "princess" and "cutie" (and even more suggestive phrases). We boomerang from one fad to the next, and back again once the mission has been accomplished. We remain complacent until the next uprising.

So who decides what the next trend will be? Designers may create the clothing, but the people who take those trends and turn them into fashion crazes are our cultural leaders-film stars, pop singers and athletes. Millions of Americans tune into celebrity awards shows, where the primary focus seems not to be on the quality of the art produced, but on what everyone is wearing. Red-carpet pre-shows consist of interviewers inquiring about designers and styles. Entertainment magazine articles either admire or attack the best and worst dressed celebrities.

There is also an underground fashion world, made up of those who resist whatever is considered by the mainstream to be trendy, not modelled on the runway, but just as popular. In a world of six billion people, it is difficult to be unique, to stand out from the rest of the crowd. The leaders of the underground strive to be different, whereas their followers just want to fit in. It seems that as soon as something becomes fashionable, it goes out of style and even becomes the subject of ridicule. And so the underground style works its way into the mainstream, resulting in the need for a new movement.

Fashion runs in circles. It is a continual give and takes the trendy defiance of a select few and inevitable surrender to the masses. If everyone is wearing conservative clothes, a select few will be outrageous and provocative. We go from baggy to skintight, from neon to monochrome, from ear piercings to ear, nose and mouth piercings. Just as a virus mutates to stay alive, fashion styles must change in order to stay cool and hip. And although it seems sometimes that fashion is dead, that there is nothing left to regurgitate, something either new or twisted will always come along.

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