As stated in my theory on how by gendering inanimate objects and then prescribing those genders to individuals in an attempt to better recognize ourselves and one another, an adverse effect has occurred: as no one person conforms through and through to all of the elements that make up one gender over another, people have become limited in their ability to express themselves fully. Likewise, it has become increasingly difficult to understand and accept one another at face value when people do not conform to their prescribed gender (Swank 7). However, this visual division of the male and female genders, as they are called, is not just perpetuated by individuals within the society: rather, it is an element of the systematic division of the sexes within a capitalistic society. And so, the perpetuation of this oppressive behavior works in circles. Companies produce goods geared toward either the male or female “gender” and then individuals buy into this division, so manufacturers continue this type of spilt production, and it goes on.
This unhealthy cycle needs to be broken, and the power to do this lies with the consumer. Consumers need to stop buying into this division of the sexes the works to divide people into “genders.” And they can make strides toward the abolition of this division by shopping all over on-site locations of popular retailers. In other words, men should feel start shopping in the women’s departments and women should start shopping in the men’s department; they should slowly blend the men’s and women’s sections into one. By doing so, people would normalize a more free expression of self, liberating people from their clothing retrains and liberating people from trying to place one another in boxes to understand one another.
The Development of Fashion According to Gender
The current binary system in place is a result of an initial division of labor from a time in the United States when the nuclear family (consisting of white, middle class, Christian man and wife with their two kids) was the only socially accepted norm. In fact, the division of labor between man and wife resulted in a division in male and female dress codes: “the restricted code of post-eighteenth century men’s dress and the elaborated code of women’s are of a piece; together they comprise a coherent sign system, which seeks to ratify and legitimate at the deepest, most taken-for-granted levels of everyday life the culturally endorsed gender division of labor in society” (Davis 40). The division of fashion for men and women followed the division of labor and emulated it: while men dressed to go to work (i.e. in suits), women dressed differently to satisfy the expectations for various daily tasks: cooking and cleaning, going out to the grocery store and picking up the kids, going out to see a movie or to visit friends, and so on. As male and female clothing began to develop according to the differing roles of man and wife, clothing began to become a representative part of an individual, and because clothing is on the surface, it shifted to a defining marker over a representative marker (Davis 18). In other words, what was once representative of the individual beneath (the clothing) shifted to a billboard for an individual to define his or herself.
Because of this division of appearances between the two sexes, men were limited in what they were consuming while women were expected to consume far more. Eventually, this truth began to transcend clothing: women were becoming the primary consumers for their families, as they were often the ones to buy and make food, dress the children, and decorate the house while the man was at work. Recognizing that consumption was becoming a primarily “feminine activity,” marketers shifted their advertisements and products to cater to housewives (Sivulka 44). That being said, the division of labor worked to divide what was being consumed by men and women respectively, and then the manufacturers responded by perpetuating this division, as there was profit to be had in catering to the masculine working dad and his feminine housewife. However, this system rides on an archaic division of labor that no longer exists in the same widespread way. Today, women are in the workforce just as much as men are, and families are moving away from the traditional nuclear family at an exponential rate. Yet the gender binary has survived through these changes as consumers still buy into it (and as a direct result, producers still make money off of perpetuating a gender binary).
One large aspect of the continued perpetuation of this binary in clothing companies is the development of “fashion,” which differs from “clothing.” While clothing serves a practical purpose— to cover oneself— fashion serves a more high brow purpose— to define and put oneself on display. However, as the division of clothing was a result of the social division of the genders, and fashion was born out of this division, “fashion” works as a means of defining oneself within the social confines of either the male or female gender. Therefore, “fashion” works not as a true representation of what is underneath, but instead as a presentation of what should be underneath: “[fashion] comes easily to serve as a kind of visual metaphor for identity,” though it often entails a certain consideration for what should be hidden and what should be emphasized or even completed fabricated (Davis 24-5). So, fashion developed from the division of male and female clothing and therefore was built around gender-normative expectations and consumers looking to be “fashionable” conformed to their prescribed genders.
Moreover, what constitutes as fashionable is completely dependent on the division of genders, as fashion developed from two opposing assumptions about the man’s role and the woman’s role: “The expressive constriction encoded on the male side, therefore, was well compensated for by the license granted women to decorously and artfully proclaim some credible status rank for the family. Women could then permit their dress considerably more symbolic scope and play, which the novelties and ambiguities of fashion were always near at hand to cater to” (Davis 41). In other words, what was considered to be fashionable was a continuation of the male and female binary; although the man of the family was rather restricted in what he could wear, the family boasted their status via the wife. It was therefore expected of the woman to dress elaborately and perhaps never repeat an outfit. We see this same expectation of women and limitation of men in popular retailers today:
“In the men’s department of the Forever 21 where [feminist theorist Allison Swank works], there are about fifteen fixtures of relatively basic clothing, just in fifteen different colors. However, in the women’s department, there are five different sections, all appealing to different popular styles that— no surprise— all conform to some societal standard of femininity: these sections are labelled “Sexy,” “Girly Girl,” “Pastel,” and other gender attributes that lean towards the so-called feminine side. And then within these sections there are multiple different kinds of every article of clothing” (Swank 5).
That being said, both male and female consumers are continuing to buy into this gender binary, and producers are continuing to make large profits off of it, and so it perpetuates, despite all other development suggesting it should not. As aforementioned, the nuclear family is disappearing, and more and more women are surfacing in the workforce. But because popular stores still promote this divide— and people have not yet begun to disregard it— people who would not otherwise conform to their prescribed genders are in fact buying into those same gender norms.
In addition, the consumer market perpetuates this gender binary through trends and fads, as people tend to follow one another, especially when it comes to fashion— that is, after all, how what is considered “fashionable” gets to be regarded in that way. And in this way, the consumer plays the most important role. As professor of sociology Patrick Aspers says in Orderly Fashion, “The formation of the collective identities of consumers, such as skaters and hip-hoppers, can be related to consumption because the consumption of fashion is one way of generating, maintaining, and expressing collective identities” (43). Therefore, the division of different fashions is both created and perpetuated by the people who are consuming them, respectively. This is true of groups of people within the consumer market, but most poignantly, it is true of men and women within the consumer market. In other words, men who go directly to the men’s section and women who go directly to the women’s section are continuing the “need” for men’s and women’s sections, knowingly or not. But by the same logic and through the same means, men and women can alter what is being produced and how by altering the ways in which they are consuming clothing; if both male and female consumers were to buy products catered to both men and women, then mass retailers would be inclined to eliminate the division between men’s and women’s clothing and instead would find it profitable to cater to men and women in every section.
How to Develop Non-Gender-Normative Fashion
In the past, men’s and women’s sections would develop within themselves as the male and female roles changed and expanded, but they would remain in stark contrast with one another. As women began to become more and more prevalent in the workforce, the women’s section in popular retailers would add another section, that while it resembled a man’s suit and jacket, remained feminine: women’s professional attire “called for feminizing an otherwise masculine image— signaled by suit jacket and matching, well-below-the-knee, tailored skirt— through wearing such apparel as silk blouses accented by large, flowing bow ties or ruffled collars and blouse fronts” (Davis 27-8). This development in women’s clothing , whether it be by the power of the consumer or the producer, suggests that either side of this relationship leans on the other to move forward and then continues to perpetuate the current state of things. That being said, a disruption in either side could make waves that would affect the other.
Advertisements, being that they act as a bridge between consumer and producer, reveal much about this interdependency. And it has from the start: “With improved methods of transportation, manufacturers distributed their goods over wider areas and thus required sales promotions that reached beyond their local region” (Sivulka 32). So, as companies were able to send more product to a larger amount of space and people, they needed to back their product up with advertisements that would sell to people of different regions throughout the states. This means that advertising agencies knew to cater different products to different groups, which would of course include male groups and female groups in this gender binary.
As there were different advertisements catering to different classes and different interests of peoples from different regions, there were advertisements catering to men as one group and women as a very different “other.” And this was common practice: “One only has to think of the Happy Homemaker, the Suburban Dad, Junior and Sis” (Sivulka 220). Advertisements did not consider anything beyond this nuclear family. And then people did not consider anything beyond it, so advertisements continued not to look beyond it. And so it goes on. Furthermore, because there was no need to see beyond this heteronormative gender binary (and in fact, it would not have been profitable to) mass retailers continued to promote this gender binary, despite any strides against it. It was not until consumers pursued interests in social change from the consumer standpoint that any alterations in this cycle were made. While in the late 1800s— as advertisements were being catered to that white, middle-class nuclear family— African Americans were often depicted as “dancing minstrels, shuffling servants, polite porters, and cheerful cooks, reinforcing the popular misconception that they were suitable only for menial jobs” (Sivulka 65), following the civil rights movement, “Advertising would become more sensitive to portraying stereotyped images as the civil rights movement began to challenge issues of housing and employment discrimination in the 1960s” (219). So, as African Americans gained access to civil rights and better opportunities (and companies could see profits in expanding to a platform that appealed to African Americans) advertisements began to accept African Americans. That being said, advertising agencies and mass producers change the way they do business only when they see the potential for more revenue.
As both the consumer and producer has a large stake in their relationship, it could be a compelling argument to suggest that the better way to disrupt the current relationship between consumers and producers would be to take the producers head on and tell them to change the way they design their clothing and their on-site distributers. However, as popular retail companies are competing against one another, and all of them are finding money in the perpetuation of the gender division, “If a [clothing manufacturer] has met similar or slightly higher demands from another buyer… it is likely it may be of interest also to other [large clothing retailers] that have similar or less strict demands… [meaning that many of these companies] demands almost the same garments from their manufacturers” (Aspers 112). In other words, large retailers are interested in working with the same clothing manufacturers as other retailers and are therefore all interested in getting very similar clothing. Again, because there is great profit from the system they currently work within, popular retailers see no reason to change unless the see a place where they may lose money or make money. Yet all of that aside, even in sheer numbers, the consumers hold the most power: “The number of branded garment retailers [could be] perhaps ten to twenty, but the number of consumers can be counted in the millions” (Aspers 40). Moreover, changes from the consumers’ side would reach more companies far faster and to each company’s detriment before the same could be said for any change on the other side.
Without the consumer, the retailer is nothing, and that is how the two differ. Historically speaking, the advertiser and the mass producer were going out of their way to be seen by the consumer just to survive. In the early 1800s, “Horse-drawn wagons carrying advertisements paraded along downtown streets” (Sivulka 30). Today, Google tracks your searches and suddenly an advertisement for a pair of boots you were just looking at is staring at you from your Facebook news feed. Similarly, mass retailers observe patterns in what is being purchased and what it being posted through different social media outlets to make more money. In fact, “[they] are seldom fashion leaders, but… they can quickly respond to new ideas and come up with their own versions of fashion, which they offer customers” (Aspers 53). And this is seen everyday in the clothing of mass retailers, but what’s more is that it also manifests in the interior design of their retailing locations:
“beyond just the clothing being sold, the stores will often design the interior to appeal to hyperfeminine and hypermasculine standards: while the women’s sections in Forever 21 often feature light pastel colors and sparkly floors, the men’s department has a black wooden floor, black walls, and a rigid, black sign that is meant to feel ‘manly’” (Swank 5).
But as Aspers reiterates, “design input from manufacturers comes largely from designers who know about the market the manufacturer’s buyers come from” (Aspers 133). And this clearly applies to everything the customers see associated with the company: product, on-site layout and decoration, shopping bags, the company’s online features, and so on. It is apparent that these companies are the followers in the relationship between consumer and retailer, and so the responsibility lies with the consumer. Only the consumer has the power to break the cycle of the perpetuation of a gender binary from both ends, as it is clear that the producers will bend to the consumers’ demand.
While there is undeniably equally oppressive behaviors from both the consumer’s and producer’s standpoints in the current exchange of fashion, the consumer’s standpoint is particularly privileged with the ability to change how goods are bought and sold. The consumer, with its power in numbers, has the most power to make waves that must be responded to, as the producer’s success and well-being rides on the appeasement of the ever-changing consumer market. Therefore, if from the consumer standpoint, we change the ways we consume products to a more “gender-unified” consumption of clothing, producers must respond to our demands. And once the producers appease us, the cycle will have shifted to a market devoid of the restrains of “gender.”
*this was developed by me as an academic paper for a class*
Aspers, Patrik. Orderly Fashion: A Sociology of Markets. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Sivulka, Juliann. Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising. 2nd
ed., Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012.
Swank, Allison. “The Effects of the Gendering of Inanimate Objects.” Working paper.
Stockton University. Galloway, NJ. 2017. Print.