November 28, 2011 by NH
It might be the old apocryphalism that keeps myths chugging, but let’s ponder some moments on this one:
“For everyone went about in robes, except the cavalryman: he wore breeches. And as history passed, the cavalryman became the knight. His arms and armour became the mark of his rank. And so breeches too became the chosen masculine mode – for those without emulate those who have. Banned from war women had no cavalry. No need for breeches. Hence why men wear trousers and women do not. You will see that in cultures that have no tradition of cavalry, there are no trousers.”
And in pondering this, I thought into the modern world. Specifically, what women wear and what men do to their cars.
Let fly at me if I draw too long a bow, but I think this is on the mark (mixing three archery metaphors there): what women wear – their desire to self-display – is bidden by the same drive that fuels men to modify (or at the very least carefully present) their cars. And, by cars, so to extension, their property.
Fashion and the automobile are both social markers.
Each sex desires the approval of an in-group. The largest of these in-groups is, of course, their respective genders. So why are the forms thus?
Speaking only as a male – as you might suspect from the left-most of the six facial profiles above – I posit that property through the industrial revolution was the governor of how the norms have settled thus in our increasingly de-gendered western culture.
A man’s carriage (note the first syllable of that word) is a movable symbol of his means and property. It is a form of armoured calvary that he often exists inside – in some sense, wears.
The car brands and logos et al are the “heraldry” – the designs painted upon his shield. But underneath the fact of the shield itself remains the more potent statement.
Now, why do not mean wear more flamboyant clothes? Well, for a very long time they did – if they could. But when the industrial revolution came along, it flattered the industrious. And no one can work hard befrocked to a fainting-state by powdered wigs, knee stockings.
The dourness and ‘sharpness’ of a man’s appearance became the mode. The successful – the considerable – man was a weapon sharking through the business world. Not a fop with a gift for gossip reposing effetely in Versailles. (BTW: the business suit is a direct great-grandson of mid-19th Century military uniforms.)
So, when the ability to make money governed pre-eminence, clothes that suited such became pre-eminent. This gave rise to rich men commanding assembly lines of regimented workers wearing in the uniform of industry borrowed from the military – the business suit.
However, they had money to spend and a drive to self-display (it is probably no less strong in men than women). This drive manifested in objects purchased. Horses, estates, buildings, ships, cars. Visible markers.
Women, on the other hand, were largely excluded from directly generating wealth from the industrial revolution, and they still needed to self-display. For social capital and indirect enjoyment of the new wealth.
Their foremost audience was other women, the second was male attention. And males directly controlled much of the wealth and prestige. So they simultaneously displayed themselves to each other for approval, and to men for marriageabilit.
Their drive to self-display manifested on the object they inextricably commanded and could use for ambitious purposes : their bodies.
Excluded from work, the clothing of high status women was unhindered by practical concerns. Instead, it only had to satisfy the above primary and secondary audiences. Hence gowns, high heels, jewellery, corsets, make up, etc.
Perhaps, when there is a ‘second sex’ and working assiduously is the path to pre-eminence, the genders polarise into the utilitarian and the flamboyant.
And throughout history, we, the plebs, fell over ourselves to emulate those of prestige.