Best Dressed/Worst Dressed and the Tyranny of Fashion

It is, as we all know, awards season. I follow awards season loosely, in the sense that if a site I read has a feature on it, I will read it, but I don’t breathlessly wait for results or glue myself to the screen for red carpet events. I am often woefully behind on what’s going on in movies and music so a lot of this stuff goes right over my  head anyway.

But there is one aspect of awards season which interests me very deeply. And that is the inevitable best dressed/worst dressed slideshows which pop up online the day after major events (and which show up in magazines). We’ve always been interested with the outfits of the rich and famous, as a culture, as evidenced by numerous features dating back to the time when people had to make engravings of fashion because there were no cameras handy. And let’s not forget that newspapers continue to report on the gowns worn by women at social events!

I am not, as we know, a big fashion person. I follow the industry tangentially. But I am interested in the social framing of fashion because I think it provides a lot of insight into our culture as a whole. And there are a number of notable things about these slideshows which I think are worth discussing.

I’m honestly a little bit uncomfortable with the whole premise to begin with because I think of fashion as an outlet for personal expression. So I don’t really like harshing on people who dress in ways which are not to my personal taste because to me it feels like I am harshing on someone’s identity and personal presentation. And, when you come down to it, fashion is about personal taste and it’s about the personal tastes of a handful of “tastemakers” being imposed on us as a collective.

Policing of fashion also usually comes very, very close to policing of bodies and often integrates a fair amount of bodyshaming, as I will discuss in more detail below, and I am, as we know, not such a fan of this particular activity.

So, what is it about these slideshows?

1. It’s always women.

The focus of best/worst dressed things is always women. We may see men, but only when they are escorting women or when they are wearing something truly outlandish. The subtext here is clear; women’s bodies are owned by the public and are a matter of open discussion, especially at events like this where women are obliged to display themselves. Women who choose to ignore the “rules” of such events and not wear fancy gowns will still end up in these slideshows, in the “worst dressed” for failing to perform as demanded.

2. There is a direct correlation between amount of skin shown and which list a woman ends up on.

Women who wear clothes deemed “revealing” pretty much always end up on the worst dressed list. We’re told that it’s because they are tacky, or the gowns are just ugly, or they are “poorly fitting” or whatever, but what it really comes down to is “this woman dressed like a total slut, EW!” You can see the language in the best dressed; “demure,” “tasteful,” “flattering.” For which read “covers up an appropriate amount of skin.”

Women who do wear gowns with cutouts, short skirts, netting, lace, and other things which could potentially be revealing can end up on the best dressed list if they wear just the right amount. After all, editors don’t want to seem prudish, so they’re willing to draw attention to a nice pair of legs or what have you. Naturally, the fatter/older you get, the less likely you are to be allowed on the best dressed list if you show a little skin.

3. Fashion editors hate fatties.

No matter what she wears, a fat woman is highly likely to experience criticism. Something form-fitting is going to be too tight, usually with disgusted comments about flab and belly rolls. Something loose and perhaps more comfortable is going to be “a sack” and she’s going to be criticized for not showing more of her body. Every now and then a fat woman manages to claw her way onto the best dressed list, but it’s important to note that she is usually Hollywood fat.

And, of course, if you’re Gabby Sidibe Mo’Nique and you’re fat and have hairy legs, you will be firmly stuck on the worst dressed list no matter how lovely your frock is because ew leg hair.

4. Fashion editors hate thin women.

Just because you’re not fat doesn’t mean that you will escape the bodysnarking. Thin women are “coathangers” or “gross” and their “collarbones stick out too much” and they should just “eat a sandwich.” Their breasts are too small to fill out their gowns or they’re wearing things with an “unflattering cut” or they look like “stick figures.” All sorts of speculations are made about their health (“anorexic”).

5. Outliers will be mocked.

Lady Gaga at the Grammies. Bjork at the Oscars.

Women who opt to wear garments which are totally outside the fashion paradigm will be subjected to  mockery. Sometimes it’s couched in a “oh, you rebel you” kind of way, and other times it is outright mean. But in all cases, it’s designed to reinforce the fact that these women broke the rules, did not costume themselves as required by the invisible bylaws, and need to be shamed and punished for it. It’s “performance art” when a woman wears something “different” and we can’t have that. It may be “individuality” but it can’t be rewarded, even at events which are theoretically about presenting awards to creative professionals (yes, these women are professionals, did you forget that?) for their distinguished work.

It’s all about finding as many ways as possible to remind women that their bodies are part of the public commons, and that they are not allowed to exert control or autonomy.

6 Replies to “Best Dressed/Worst Dressed and the Tyranny of Fashion”

  1. This post is right on. Just one disagreement: I’m pretty sure the “hairy legs” complaint was about Mo’Nique, not Gabby Sidibie. The point, however, remains. The whole what they wore is more important than what they do/did aspect of fashion critique really irks me.

  2. Oh, you are right! I am editing to fix that, and thank you for bringing it to my attention. I had Gabby on the brain when I wrote this post and only followed the hairy legs controversy tangentially, so…conflation of two totally different and equally talented and lovely ladies.

  3. If you’re not white you can expect a good deal more shaming than people who are in these things too. (In the USian racial dynamic they will even occasionally call black women ‘too ghetto.’ Boom goes my head.) Sri Lankan-UKian singer M.I.A. has been dressing pretty damn creatively (and putting out good material) for a while now. She was pilloried pretty hard for daring to wear something unusual while being non-white and very visibly pregnant at an awards show. It was disgusting the way she displayed herself! What was the child going to think when ou saw pictures later blah blah racism misogyny shaming whatever.

  4. I am not into fashion at all precisely because of this: if your body or your clothes are “wrong” by the satandards of whoever dictates the fashion world, it will be used as a way to shame your entire being.

  5. Ever since I read Backlash, I totally blame capitalism for it.
    The fashion/beauty industry tries to aggressively protect their market share and confident women just aren’t good consumers.

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