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Wednesday
Nov142012

4. Dita Von Teese and The Hourglass Silhouette as a Fetishised Gender Sign:

There is nothing new about the implied power of the trained vamp with the hourglass silhouette:  you can see it in classic (pre-feminist) cinema from the 50’s in the figure of the woman who eschews domesticity and motherhood for professional power and sexual freedom and, of course, usually gives it all up or comes to an unhappy end.  You can see it again in the 80’s with Joan Collins’ classic and brilliant caricature of the female mogul and femme fatale, Alexis Carrington. Outside the realm of fictional fantasy, the City in the 80s was when this older image first influenced the way women chose to dress. It was a time when women really began to make their mark in the work place:  with big shoulders, small waists and tights skirts from the likes of designers such as Assedine Alaia,  Ungaro, Armani and Moschino. 

What is happening now exists by virtue of that earlier history and it only works because in this play of image and caricature there is a polite very much post-nineties and noughties unspoken agreement between men and women about the terms of the performance of gender.  The play is knowing and consensual. In other words men have come to understand this visual language through direct experience at the same time as women have actively proved themselves more than capable of pulling their own professional weight . . . .

In this way clothes for both men and women are signs for ideas as well as being things in themselves.  In Freudian terms the ubermadchen  in the figure hugging dress, that is synched in so dramatically at the waist, is the classic ‘phallic woman’ the one that renders the masculine player in the game of gender and sexuality just a little bit powerless, childlike and awestruck. While the ‘dominatrix’ and ‘Jessica Rabbit’ are useful uniforms when used as a strategic tools one has nevertheless to remember that the hourglass is a fetishized fantasy of what a woman is supposed to look like . . .  ; in the same way as the business suit is a drawing out of the rigid lines of what a man is supposed to look like. I am reminded of David Byrne’s massively Broad Shouldered suit on the cover of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense album.

Take a look at the burlesque of Dita Von Tease and you can get the idea of the almost cartoon-like woman playing this fantasy for her audience. Her performance through exaggerated augmented signs of gender is gorgeous, benign and titillating because it hovers on a dangerous  knife edge where pleasure, play and empowerment can swiftly become perversion. This is clearly safe when it remains within the conventions of illusion provided by the stage. It is obviously more problematic when these boundaries are blurred and slip into everyday reality.

So here is the rub: The play with images of sex and gender that I am describing obviously butts up (and I use that term advisedly) against something that is not so polite or even consensual. And now we are back to my note about meat and female agency. There is a point at which polite agreement about the signs of gender all too easily become an abusive relationship and this is a problem always already inherent in the game of image and performance I have been describing. On the ground (as opposed to on the stage) the desiring mode I am describing can drive women’s appearance and men’s responses towards it to ever greater extremes of objectification. An effect of this is that any woman who is seen as over-performing her hotness can be open to sadomasochistic punishment and humiliated for her wiles even if it is only in a symbolic and performative sense.

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