Term Paper: Men's Fashion in His Book

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[. . .] The history of men's fashion outlined above demonstrates how Flugel's theory of the Great Masculine Renunciation fails to accurately describe the changing standards for men in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but it does not explain why this change occurred, or how men might have benefited from a standard of dress that made them "hot, uncomfortable, tired, and bad-tempered" (Bourke 1996, p. 23). To begin filling in these blanks, one may note that the question must be how men might have benefited from this arrangement, because in the nineteenth century, like now, and indeed, like almost all of human history, men retained a stranglehold on official and unofficial power, including everything from the government on down to the standards of dress. Thus, any change in those standards of dress would likely have to have benefited men, because otherwise they would not have assented to it, and indeed, when considered alongside other more obvious mode of oppression, the reason becomes clear.

In short, by claiming to disavow fashion as frivolous and feminine, men were able to claim that their "alternative fashion system" was not a system at all, but rather an inherent, utilitarian, and inarguable matter (Breward 1999, p. 60). In reality, it was a "system of representation by which signs and their meanings" were arranged in order to glorify masculinity (Barker 2008, p. 436). In doing so, the Great Masculine Renunciation followed the same tack as nearly every other form of discrimination and bias, which depends upon one group orienting itself as the neutral against which all other groups must be considered different, and thus secondary. This serves to integrate and internalize the power inequality, such that it becomes an "internalized, 'embodied' social structure" (Bourdieu 1984, p. 468). For example, white racism depends upon the notion of white as a kind of neutral, non-race, against which all other skin colors are measured. Thus, white culture is simply called "culture," whereas the culture of any other ethnic group is explicitly identified. The same is the case with the sexes, and in fact it is so obvious that one may see it in the language itself; male and man are the neutral base, whereas female and woman represent something extra and different. One may take another example from Freudian psychoanalysis, wherein the male body is considered the neutral norm and the female body is defined by a perceived lack due to the absence of a penis.

In precisely the same way, the renunciation of fashion while engaging in fashion must be seen as an attempt to neutralize men's clothing, thus further perpetuating the notion that men are the neutral basis against which women must be judged. In this way, The Great Male Renunciation is simply another example of ideology's inherent, eternal attempt to portray itself as anything other than ideology by proposing for itself an objective cause or justification. This is why in the nineteenth century men's clothing was associated with health, and in particular, and "pre-war commentators stressed the relationship between warmth and health," such that "a well-dressed man should wear a flannel vest and drawers next to his skin, an upper shirt, as well as a complete suit of clothes" (Bourke 1996, p. 24). By couching men's fashion in the language of science and health, subjective, ideological decisions could be portrayed as objective, utilitarian ones, thus perpetuating the notion that men are somehow more logical or serious than women, who engage in supposedly frivolous displays of fashion. This is one reason why the standards for male dress relaxed over the same period of time that women demanded a more equitable share of political and social power; the strict dress standards for men in the nineteenth century were not a comfortable display of male power, but rather a last gasp of the dying ideology that has defined much of human history. Of course, male hegemony remains the norm despite serious advancements over the last century and a half, but this control is rapidly decreasing to the point that one can only regard displays of masculine cultural dominance as the panicked spasms of a dying creature.

Fashion, as a concept distinct from clothing, has always had a utilitarian purpose, but this purpose has been mischaracterized and hidden by those who might benefit from denying that it exists. In particular, the so-called Great Masculine Renunciation of the nineteenth century served to hide the fact that men's fashion existed as a means of expressing meaning in precisely the same way as women's fashion. This reality has been mischaracterized in much academic scholarship due to the fact that fashion was interpreted only as the expression of beauty or extravagance and not merely any meaningful expression through clothing, but examining the history of men's fashion from the nineteenth century all the way up to the twenty-first reveals how menswear served to convey power, expertise, sexual prowess, and male hegemony. This history allows one to appreciate not only how the discourse surrounding men's fashion has changed over the last two centuries, but also how this discourse represents a single instance of a larger phenomenon related to the ways in which dominant groups attempt to shield and perpetuate their power.

References

Barker, C. (2008), Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, SAGE, New York.

Bennett, A. (2005), Culture and Everyday Life, SAGE, New York.

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction, Routledge, New York.

Bourke, J. (1996), "The Great Male Renunciation: Men's Dress Reform in Inter-War Britain,"

Journal of Design History, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 23-33.

Breward, C. (1999), "Renouncing Consumption: Men, Fashion and Luxury, 1870-1914.." In De

La Waye, A. &… [END OF PREVIEW]

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