Monday, February 21, 2011

Men and Women: Dressing the Part & Suitably Attired

by Anne Grant

Men and Women: Dressing the Part

This text is an excerpt from J.B Paoletti and C.B. Kidwell’s analytical book on the history of fashion and how the medium relates to gender, class and morality. Their work explores the relationship between fashion and the notions surrounding masculinity and femininity in society. Published in 1989, the book was written at a time when women were gaining more prominence in a work environment traditionally dominated by men. The authors aim to address the question of how fashion expresses gender, or masculinity and femininity. They suggest that dress reflects social nuances between the sexes. Feminine dress has traditionally reflected women’s more restricted public presence, while masculine dress has traditionally reflected men’s more authoritative role in society. While women have adopted more masculine styles in recent years—with the advancing of women’s rights—there still remain distinguishing features between the two sexes.

The authors discuss the gender symbols in men and women’s dress. These symbols are tightly bound to either masculinity or femininity and convey meaning for distinguishing between the sexes. At certain points in time, these symbols are adopted fromone sex to the other—most often female dress adopts male style, as is seen with the trouser. The period from 1880 to 1920 saw a significant change in gender images. Lighter weight women’s clothing in the 1920s allowed more physical freedom. This fashion trend was preceded by the increased importance of the woman’s role in society.

Paoletti and Kidwell question if differences between men and women’s dress suggest a sexual inequality. They reference avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich, whose clothing is devoid of gender symbolism—androgynous style—as a possible solution to this apparent inequality. However, the authors contend that this “androgynous style” will not come to fruition anytime in the near future.

Today, we still see obvious distinctions between male and female dress, and clothing for the two sexes is certainly not interchangeable. That being said, women are gaining more status in the workplace and in society at a whole. However, it seems that there will always exist distinguishing features between male and female fashion for reasons outside of gender symbolism.

Suitably Attired

This text was printed in The Atlantic Monthly’s September 2001 issue. The Atlantic is a monthly American publication (magazine) founded in Boston, MA in 1857. The magazine features news and analysis on national and international politics, business and cultural trends. Published in 2001, this article addresses the recent dot-com bubble (1995-2000) and the accompanying casual business attire that came to a forefront in the nineties. The author, William Hamilton, gives a brief history of the men’s suit and it’s evolution over the past 100+ years.

Hamilton traces the evolution of the men’s suit with its origins in functionality as “the old horseback-bred suit and tie” then its transition into vogue in Yale classrooms and the urban boardrooms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He credits photography—particularly a photograph featuring a leisurely Prince of Wales in tailored trousers, a buttoned jacket, and a necktie—with launching the traditional suit into international prominence in the late 19th century. In the 1950s, television regenerated the allure and aura of the suit, and so it remained an essential in every business man’s wardrobe.

Hamilton, however, addresses that in the 1990s, a new dot-come casual emerged. Young cyberspace CEOs were not wearing traditional suits to board meetings, but rather comfortable cottons, shorts and sneakers. The author questions whether men’s suits are here to stay, suggesting that this wardrobe staple might soon be replaced by the newly materialized dot-com casual.

This article certainly still seems relevant, as we continue to see a struggle between casual comfort and conventional conservatism in the workplace. However, the traditional men’s suit undoubtedly continues to hold a prominent place in the urban boardroom.


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