Freshman orientation week at most colleges can wreak havoc upon students as they leave behind familiar environments and embark journey of new experiences. Jeanine Mentavlos, one of the four women entering the Citadel this fall as a member of the Class of 2000, clearly remembered the male cadets' cheers as Shannon Faulkner, the woman to brave the all‑male South Carolina military academy, cried at the press conference announcing her decision to withdraw last August, citing insurmountable pressures after less than a week. Afterrward, dressed in proper heather‑gray uniforms with a large black stripe running down the pantlegs, the cadets threw their starched white caps in the air to celebrate a temporary victory which prevented the invasion by women of one of America's last all‑male institutions.
The front page of the New York Times, as well as televised reports on CNN and the network news outlets, showed Jeannie wearing a simple khaki knee‑length skirt with a white short‑sleeved T‑shirt while her brother, Michael, currently a senior, sported gray pants, a white short‑sleeved shirt, a white cap, and a long black sash around his waist. On his shoulders were elaborate white and gold epaulets identifying upperclassman status. Another media image featured a group of young men wearing the same uniforms while the four girls were dressed with stark simplicity. Instead of sharing the "uniforms" with their distaff counterparts, the men coveted their tools of self‑representation.
A similar scene played out at the Virginia Military Institute. While agreeing to coeducation in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling, the institute's board of directors insisted on requiring women to wear crew cuts and to perform the same rigorous physical and psychological exercises as the men, to build them into "citizen‑soldiers." The military uniforms, the various rules for bonding, and the physical‑strength requirements would reinforce the specific "dress codes" to preserve a culturally defined hyper‑male identity. The only barrier erected at the Institute would be in the bathrooms, but this too was primarily a "barrier to the faint of heart," a shield against the weak, the feminine.
The movie Pumping Iron II‑ The Women created a scandal upon its release over a decade ago. Never meant to be a sequel to the movie that put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map, the film explored the little-known world of women's body‑building competitions. Nowadays muscular women routinely grace the covers of fitness magazines, but at the time female body building was a tiny subculture in the world of sports. The film centered on Bev Francis, whose 180 pounds of super muscularity presented new dilemmas in an arena typically centered around the idea of a sculpted rather than developed female physique. In shower‑room discussions among the participants and judges, Ms. Francis's challenge to the conventional notion that muscles belonged only to the male sex was regarded as a transgression that should not be allowed to change the basics of the competition. She ultimately lost the championship‑or, perhaps more accurately, she did not prevail over the cultural contention that muscles make the man, not the woman.
"Strike a pose!" proclaimed Madonna as she shifted her body and face into different freeze‑frame attitudes in the hyper‑stylized "Vogue" video. Wearing pinstripe suits and ball gowns, Madonna reflected real voguers, those whose heightened moments were played out in elaborate imitative performances. The perfect makeup complemented the correct angular slant of the face; the clothes were identical to those worn by the characters being mimicked; the lighting was specifically designed to show the photo finishing touch‑all had to be in perfect sequence to construct the tableaux of absolute elegance reminiscent of "Greta Garbo," "Dietrich," and "Monroe."
Yet at the height of this rigid juxtaposition of poses and processions, Madonna announced succinctly, "There's nothing to it." 'What could be the implication of a statement so contradictory to the visual articulations? The song's lyrics suggest that the tremendous efforts we put on to "vogue," to "live," and to "escape the pain of life" with our imaginations and yearnings are mere masquerades. Beneath the surface of the clothes, the makeup, and the multiple, rehearsed‑daily gestures to define ourselves, there is no given identity‑particularly gender identity. The suits or the dresses, the eyelashes or the wigs, are mere accouterments of a cultural definition of being a man or a woman.
Two by Two, an exhibition this fall at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, exposed the fluidity of male and female costumes and gender representations with a series of 50 mannequins dressed in men's and women's clothes from the 18th century to the present. The mannequin couples narrated the story of our constantly changing ideals of self-presentation through the different ages. Both sexes shared the same flamboyance in the 1800s; only a century later, men's wear developed a stark silhouette while women's wear continued its flashy tones until its adoption of male wardrobe characteristics in the 1920s. What was viewed as male elegance in one period, such as big hair and decorated clothes, became female in another. Such is the artifice of male and female gender differentiation.
As the examples above suggest, our dress codes are not permanent representations, but rather artifactual constructions of our gender identity. By dress "codes," I mean everything that shapes our perception of self‑all the ingredients we summon to create an ambiance for our image, and not just references to clothes. The Citadel and VMI cadets acted to safeguard what has been reinforced to them as male symbols against the invasion of women. Bev Francis was condemned for the transgression of appropriating the outward display of strength believed to belong exclusively to men.
This month's fashion portfolio illustrates these different masquerades. "Evening Shades" explores the act of "putting on" different types of gender‑specific garments (pantsuits for men/dresses for women) to exhibit diverse gender characteristics associated with clothes on the same biological body. "Trunkshow," inspired by a sequence from the movie Some Like It Hot, plays with the irony and bareness of what actually "makes the man"‑the signs of his body. "Moving Couture" meditates on the softness of femininity as well as its impermanence. And "Double Jeopardy," featuring two women wearing transparent outfits from the latest offerings from European designers for Spring '97, transforms the traditionally male qualities of brute aggression and raw strength into the traditionally female attribute of beauty.
Fashion is an essential component of our human heritage and is always changing according to the shifting notions of our sexuality. How, why, and with what we clothe ourselves must be examined attentively within this context of individual experiences, whether they be physical, psychological, or cultural. If clothes make the man or the woman, then the "making of gender identity" is pure fabrication. Masculinity and femininity are effects of the masquerades that each of us chooses, either with comfort or great anxiety‑a performance we put on for others to witness every day.
Black wool and velvet striped suit and white cotton shirt by Matsuda. Black and white gingham silk tie by XMI.
Black velvet dress by Giorgio Armani.
Black and white striped silk strapless gowns by Giorgio Armani.
Gold beaded silk slip dress by Badgley Mischka.
Purple lace and blue velvet slip dress by Valentino Boutique.
Mustard beaded velvet slip dress by Badgley Mischka.
Black wool tuxedo, white cotton shirt, and silk bow tie by Emporio Armani. Black wool and rayon tuxedo and white cotton shirt by Yohji Yamamoto.
Navy velvet single-breasted suit and white cotton shirt by Gucci. Navy velvet double-breasted suit and white cotton shirt by Gucci.