This is a wardrobe investigation paper written under the guidance of fashion professor Ben Barry, who teaches diversity and sociology in fashion theories and concepts at Ryerson University.
Banner image: Charles James Ballgowns for Vogue, by Cecil Beaton, 1948.
The Ageless Body Conscience
Introduction & Close Reading: Wardrobe Interview
Choosing the wardrobe for close reading and inventory was to choose a closet that inspired one’s personal sense of style, or at least sparked my appreciation for clothing. I have chosen a wardrobe that I have known all my life: a closet that has been worn to countless birthdays every year, and one that has seen the world over, more than once. This closet is a reflection of its wearer; it is clean, hyper organized, and specific not in its sources, but in sentiments. The garments are intelligently arranged next to each other. Each piece is still here because it compliments the next. Brands do not matter, but class does - this is the wardrobe of my grandmother.
Her life as an intellectual woman -growing up and paying for her own university at a time when women were the minority in post-secondary studies- is a personal inspiration. She was one of three in a geology class at the University of Manitoba in 1956. She married a fellow geologist, my grandfather, and together they started their relationship in New Jersey while my grandfather studied further at Princeton. Together they embarked on geological explorations and global conferences, from which one specific item still preserved caught my attention.
The International Geological Congress takes place every four years, to collaborate with fellow geological scientists in North America and Europe (“The International Geological Congress,” n.d.). My grandmother has a scarf in her collection gifted from Hermès to her and all other “Wives of the Geologists” from a Geological Congress meeting, held in Paris in 1980 (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014). The signature Hermès orange packaging that opens like a long rectangular envelope cradles the scarf between white tissue paper.
The scarf measures 88.9cm by 88.9cm, with prints of brown, beige, blue, and grey shells and fossils, on a geometric orange, green, brown, and white background. A tag measuring 2.54cm folds in half with ends sewn to the hem of the scarf, declaring “100% soie” (100% silk). The hem is rolled and hand stitched. Also printed on opposite ends, in the center of the brown boarder in white lettering are “Hermès – Paris ©” and “Geologie”, authenticating the name of the scarf with its packaging and origin (see Figure 1).
As per guidelines to conducting a close reading of an object, I follow select rules in an article by Valerie Steele: identification, evaluation, and interpretation (1998). I observe that the scarf is soft; it feels like a thin leaf between the fingers. The weightlessness omits a sound of scratching wind over a flag when lifted and laid back down by one’s hand. When comparing the accessory to others of its kind, one can see that the scarf is typical of Hermès. A blue silk Hermès scarf “L’arbre de Vie”, from my own closet, conforms to the typical weight of the object, similar in fullness to the “Geologie” scarf when folded over. Both are smooth in texture. Overall, the scarf is a decent example typical of Hermès style, however not typical to the style of my grandmother.
According to Joanne Entwistle, “The function of the clothes is to make the body acceptable in the different social situations in which we find ourselves” (2000). The social performance of my grandmother 34 years ago was as the wife of a geology professor attending the Geological Congress. In this stage, she altered her role to conform to a more feminine attitude and identity as a Wife, thus conforming to a woman who would be subject to a party favour, like a silk scarf accessory. Although my grandmother affirmed her femininity in the social role she played at this time, her wardrobe today reflects a style much more self-aware of her body image, which is why she never wore the scarf: it was not her “colour”.
Critical Analysis and Conclusion
A small study has found that an increase in age equals an increase in body satisfaction, especially of aging women (Öberg and Tornstam, 1999). However, The Journal of General Psychology acknowledged that more research on body image for the aged populations is needed; it is speculated that these issues do exist as strongly in the elderly as for the younger and middle age populations (2008).
My grandmother has a wardrobe packed with shades, and few colours: red, pastel pink, soft blue, and yellow (see Figure 3). Shirts do not contain organic floral patterns, but rather geometric floral designs. Articles of clothing are dashed with lines: small to large checks, vertical stripes, plaids, and a predominant number of A-line blouses, dresses, skirts and blazers.
When I inquire about the number of black items and an obvious admiration for the vertical cut, my grandmother says she likes the way it fits her body (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014). The fit and the “slimming effect of black” is a direct reflection of her personal body image.
This first-hand knowledge of her body image awareness coincides with knowledge of optical illusion and dress. “An optically slimming effect is achieved by establishing vertical lines, avoiding horizontal lines, and by erasing contours.” (Klepp, 2011). My grandmother has an obvious understanding of how to manipulate what she wears to “work” with her shape. The only lacking accessory is the belt (see figure 4). I enquire about the three belts she has, speculating that she finds them too revealing of her shape. “I don’t wear belts very often because I haven’t got a waist anymore. […] They’re not comfortable.” According to Price, physical comfort has to be present when she wears and purchases clothing (personal communication, March 17, 2014). Optically dividing her body is a physical and psychological discomfort to her body image. The alteration over time of her once shapely torso is a disturbance of her positive body image, as her body proceeds through a natural aging process (Ferraro, Muehlenkap, et. al., 2008).
My grandmother strives to achieve a positive body image in her current wardrobe by choosing pieces that compliment her shape. In order to emphasize desirable attributes of her shape, she favours pieces cut on the bias that drape over her hips and thus slim the appearance of her waist (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014). Her favourite summer piece is a rayon over-the-head, ankle length dress, cut on the bias, (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014), diverting attention from her self-conscious perception of wide hips. Her body conscious dressing in this example is a result of her desire to “hide and distract” what she saw as “big” (Klepp, 2011).
The most predominant quality of the wardrobe is the overwhelming number of clothes in shades, usually black. Although my grandmother proclaims she admired the shade- as she feels “dressed in black” (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014)-I speculate that she also acquired numerous dark pieces to disguise herself and her body. According to a lecture on “Values, Vulnerability and Disruption [In Fashion]” by Dr. Barry at Ryerson University, black sells because “consumers feel safer and blend in” (January, 2014). The number of black articles in the wardrobe enables my grandmother to accentuate her other qualities, such as personality and beauty, rather than to be thought of for the colourful attire covering her body shape.
The specificity of colour and shade in the wardrobe mature questions about the psychological choices behind light colour selection. Are the blues and pinks and lack of reds a personal choice, or a subconscious decision by my grandmother? The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture clarified that appearing slim could be easier achieved if one avoids bright colour (Klepp, 2011). Hence I conclude that my grandmother subconsciously gravitates to black first and foremost for the slimming effect, and the comfort -an important factor for her when purchasing clothing. Few other colours in her wardrobe include soft blues, pinks, and butter yellows, avoiding and even despising lime green (Price, personal communication, March 17, 2014). She has an understanding that bright colours draw too much attention to her figure. However, her confidence in the conscious understanding of her colour palette is also evident. She subscribes to the cool-soft palette and avoids bright colours, not just because of their attention-grabbing attributes but because she knew what “looked good” with her skin and hair (Price, personal communication, March 1, 2014), and what looks best on her figure as she is also plagued with body consciousness.
In further exploration of the wardrobe, my grandmother and I move beyond the closet and into a chest of jewelry. Necklaces, bangles, rings, pins, and earrings scramble together in their own boxes. Her copious stacks of scarves are folded, one on top of the other, at which point we arrived to the object of close reading. The Hermès scarf is separated from the others by predominant tints of orange and green, colours previously sworn away from the wardrobe of my grandmother. She recalls how the Geological Congress was giving either orange or pink – she regrets not choosing pink, a mistake she learned from as her wardrobe was flushed with mauve when I visit. The era of the scarf, the start of the working woman with working men, falls at a time when the décolletage of female dress is almost equal with the modesty of today (see Figure 4).
According to documented clothing designs by Mulcahy, Sherman, et al, a 1965 décolletage was at the lowest point, especially to that of 1981 (2009). I concurred the length of the décolletage is equivalent with modesty (a longer décolletage infers a lower garment waist, in response infers less emphasis on the waist). A lower waistline implies less focus on the entire torso. Judging from this speculation, I concluded that the lower décolletage is a response to the previous decades and their interest in body shaping, thus swinging the pendulum of body consciousness far away from the previously desired feminine shape as possible, to equalize the woman with the man. Thus, a scarf gifted in 1980 was a must-have accessory, to hide the body, in juxtaposition to an over-emphasized body image.
I am proud to study the wardrobe of my grandmother. Not only is she a large influence in my life, but also lens me her traits of style awareness. Although the Hermès scarf is not closely related to the wardrobe of my grandmother because of the colours, it does correlate with the topic of body consciousness. The subtlety of her black wardrobe and the sparseness of hue subscribes to the characteristic of a body conscious individual. The scarf was an object to accessorize and cover up the body. The orange, beige, and brown tones do not bode well with my grandmother, as she preferred to flatter her colouring with subtle pink and blues. However the orange, beige, and brown tones also do not bode well with her because the colour draws attention to the body, thus discomforting the psychology behind her body image. As the biggest rule of dress for my grandmother is comfort, an object that does not compliment her colouring and therefore tampers with her body image has to be discarded. Now, the scarf hangs in my wardrobe, as a flag of generational style.
The inventory was overstocked with articles of black clothing, an obvious preference to graphic designs and vertical lines, and to A-line clothing. All clothing was organized by category of Summer, Winter, Dressy, and Evening wear. Subcategories were organized by colour and cut.
Few items were gifted. Furthermore, not one item was second-hand or hand made. Sourcing of the objects to places of purchase was limited as tags were cut off due to skin irritation, however my grandmother was able to recount the significance of almost every single item.
Barry, B. (2014, January). Values, Vulnerability and Disruption. Fashion Concepts and Theories. Lecture conducted from Ryerson University, Toronto, ON.
This lecture addressed how fashion conducts itself in one’s world and the world around oneself. The information was provided in spoken lecture form. The information provided spoke of the importance of black in fashion and its impact on societal awareness of being slim and conforming to a slimming body image through black. The comfort of wearing black correlated with my grandmother’s preference of comfortable clothing in her wardrobe.
Entwistle, Joanne. 2000. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press
Entwistle addresses the history of identity in cultures through body identity, concluding that social acceptance is sought after by appearance, and dress. These factors are directly related to the origins of the gifted scarf in the close reading. It addresses the social role of my grandmother at the time and the relevance of such a gift due to her social situation. The book studies sociology and history of cultures and body image. It was a source of conformation of my theory behind the relevance of the gift, and gave me a way to express my grandmother’s situation and thus the reason she possessed the object of close reading.
Ferraro, F. Richard, et al. "Aging, Body Image, and Body Shape." The Journal of general psychology 135.4 (2008): 379-92. Web. 25 Mar. 2014
This article explores in depth body image and the awareness of body shape manipulation, with a focus on the senior populations of the Western world. The article clearly demonstrated a comprehension of the presence body awareness throughout the last century.
They acknowledged the emphasis of research exploring body images of youth generations today and focused on body awareness of an older generation. This article explored history and sociology behind body image. The exploration of body image and the senior population directly concluded my theme of body image in my grandmother’s wardrobe. All authors subscribe to the University of North Dakota, USA. This was an excellent article on body awareness in the senior population of the Western world and Europe.
The International Geological Congress (A Brief History). iugs.org. Retrieved from http://iugs.org/uploads/images/PDF/A%20Brief%20History.pdf.
This PDF clarified the history of the Geological Congress whom had gifted the object of close reading to my grandmother, in 1980. I used the history of the congress provided by the charts and dates on the file to determine the exact year the scarf came to the possession of the Hermès scarf. My grandparents were not positive on the exact year of the conference, as they have attended many others as well; the information from the Geological Congress clarified the year they attended the meeting in Paris.
Klepp, Ingun Grimstad. “Slimming Lines.” The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 15.4 (2011): 451-480. Web. 25 Mar. 2014
This article explores an emphasis on “norms” in society and dress between 1960 – 2000. It refers to past articles on shaping the body through optical illusions in the past and touches on body illusions today. The article reinforces my grandmother’s choice of A-line cuts as a slimming garment. The exploration relates to body ideals, fashion history, anthropology, the social acceptance or rejection of body figures, and sociology overall. References to dated fashion magazines were referred to in the article. The author is a Norwegian anthropologist. The article was a resource that confirmed the possibility that my grandmother was consciously aware of body slimming illusions in dress in order to conform to a body norm.
Mulcahy, F. D., Sherman, H., & Liang, J. x. (2009). Underneath the glittering maze: Decorum and décolletage in high fashion, 1937–2004. Technology in Society, 31(4), 350-355.
This article explores the ever-changing fashions as part of complex evolutionary patterns that have remained the same since ancient man. The rise and fall of the length and width of the décolletage from 1937 – 2004 are closely documented in form and allow for precise conclusions of modesty throughout the 67-year period. The article concludes that décolletage dropped dramatically in the 1960s after a modest period 20 years prior, and has steadily risen since its low point in 1965. The exploration relates to human evolution, anthropology, social sciences, clothing psychology, and patterns in fashion. The authors are associated with other works of sociology, research of sociology, and history. This source was an excellent demonstration of the correlation between body image and body consciousness in fashions of the past that helped demonstrate the significance of the Hermès scarf as an ideal party favour in 1980.
Öberg, P., & Tornstam, L. (1999). Body images among men and women of different ages.
Ageing & Society, 19, 629–644.
This article explores aging in society as stated in the title. The exploration clearly summarizes the studies conducted on a senior population in Sweden in the form of analysis and conclusions. The exploration of the aging senior population complimented the study of my grandma’s wardrobe, as the awareness of body image from this generation were confirmed in this article. This enabled me to confirm that an aging woman has not forgotten her bodily appearance.
Steele, V. “A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag.” The Journal of Dress, Body &Culture 2:4 (1998): 327 -335(9). Web. 22 Mar. 2014
This article by Steele illustrates the process of description, deduction, and speculation of an object in order to develop a thesis. The piece is written in article format, in first person.
The value of this article was that it provided me with the guidelines on how to evaluate the scarf. It also helped me create ideas on a theme and thesis behind my grandmother’s wardrobe.