Women, Fashion & Pleasure

There’s an excellent lecture available online: “The Crinoline Cage” by Professor Lynda Nead. Speaking to the Victorian era, Nead says that fashion “gave women access to a bodily language that involved imaginative projection and fantasy […] Like the layers of clothes and folds of fabric, the pleasures of fashionable dress for the women who wore it and the women who write about it today, are multiple and sensual, involving sight, sound and above all, touch.”

The lecture is particularly enjoyable and elucidates an aspect of feminine fashion that simply isn’t discussed enough: pleasure. High heels, corsets and crinolines are often interpreted as patriarchal constructs with which to restrict, confine and contain women. Moreover, there is often a perception that feminine fashion is designed for normative masculine pleasure: pleasure being in the viewing rather than the wearing. Such interpretations often contribute to the understanding of feminine fashion in fairy tales. Take for instance “Donkeyskin.” The heroine is in disguise, wearing her filthy donkeyskin as she labours. However, in her free time, she takes out her princess finery and dresses up in her lowly room. Perrault, however, disrupts her personal pleasure by having the prince play peeping tom and, moreover, intimates that the princess is aware of the gaze and performs to it. Consequently, Perrault makes it appear that she is dressing for the prince’s gaze. However, there are those few moments before the prince arrives when the princess is choosing to dress only to please herself. In those few moments, she is clearly dressing for her own, personal pleasure.

In this image from "Peau d'Âne" (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

In this image from “Peau d’Âne” (1970), the princess sets up a mirror to admire herself in private.

Many fairy tales contain scenes in which the heroine dresses for her own pleasure. In Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the heroine is provided with an extensive wardrobe: “As the slightest desires of Beauty appeared to be anticipated, she bestowed more care upon her toilet, although certain that no one could see her. But she owed this attention to herself, and it was a pleasure to her to dress herself in the habits of all the various nations on the face of the earth” (Planché, Four and Twenty Fairy Tales, 258). In this passage, Villeneuve quite clearly addresses the pleasure the heroine attains from experimenting with fashion. Indeed, Villeneuve insists that she owes this to herself.

For further reading on the topic, Sharon Marcus’s Between Women is a fascinating insight into fashion magazines and their appeal to the female gaze and is just one of many good starting points.

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