Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Messages on women's clothing: what is the fashion industry trying to tell us?

For the past several years, I have observed an increase in the amount of women's clothing items imprinted with the word "love". Victoria’s Secret, chain stores, budget lines, and high-end brands alike are plastering their casual wear and t-shirts with the word. A chain retailer called Love Culture emerged, and there is even a fashion magazine titled with the misnomer Love. Of course, men’s clothing is devoid of any love, caring, or romance messages.

My initial reaction to the love messaging was disappointment at society’s attempt to keep women in the role of nurturer. Women are imposed with a duty to provide unwavering love to men, who are supposed to be the recipients of women's love and devotion. A woman is taught to always prioritize her love for her family, children, and pets. If a woman fails to exhibit this characteristic signifying femininity, she could be labeled cold or a misfit. Oppressive dismissal of women is often justified on associating them with love and other supposedly distracting emotions.

I realize my opinion is subjective, and another woman could like wearing the message and be completely empowered in her choice. The large quantity of “love” items for sale is what puzzles me. Why is this a trend that refuses to die? Instead it has spread, despite no discernible increase in profits from adding the word onto more items. Any attempts to emulate the well-known Victoria’s Secret’s “love pink” trademark are no longer savvy because the word “love” and its placement have been genericized. Thus, companies are probably not trying to boost sales by capitalizing on consumer preference.

Although overusing “love” is better than pushing other blatantly gendered or sexist messages on clothes, it reminds me that the clothing industry and our culture are irresponsible and lazy towards women in a way that frequently sabotages them. The Photoshopped and sexualized marketing images that women view can be damaging to self-esteem. Furthermore, inconsistent and often arbitrary sizing of women’s attire can do further damage to women's self-assessments. Sizing and the way clothing is cut can fool uninformed young women into thinking their bodies are somehow not normal. Confusion sometimes exists over bra fitting because manufacturers “size out” women above and below the small standard range carried in most stores, and might not have updated measuring guides to account for modern stretch fabric. This strategy allows companies to save money and fit as many women as possible into the standard range. With all of the cost-cutting that manufacturers and retailers do, women may begin to feel inadequate. Women are already scrutinized more than men for their wardrobe choices. Many attempts to help women create their own versions of power dressing without over-thinking seem resigned to the fact that sexuality must necessarily be read into every choice. When many women are finally content with a few fashion styles they determine work best for them, conservative sections of the country attempt to punish them.

While many of us realize that others’ negative perceptions can be harming us, what about the feeling of discomfort in our own minds? Embodied cognition studies confirm that we can manifest thinking and behaviors in line with our perception of the roles our clothing puts us in. Perhaps this is one underlying motivation behind reviving skirts and feminine details at times when women are seen as stepping outside traditional roles. The “love” messaging could be a reminder to prioritize romance and interpersonal relationships in an age when more women are choosing casual relationships and attempting to step down from constant care-taking.

Everyone has observations about women's clothing. What kinds of fashion trends or messages have subtly bothered you lately?


Sara said...

I especially appreciated your point that sizing for women is entirely inconsistent and arbitrary, in turn sizing some women out of the market. I have been shocked recently that many retail stores sell items listed as a size Large, but the clothing item is absolutely tiny. The average woman in the U.S. is a size 14, which the mainstream media considers plus size. However, maybe there is some hope that companies and marketers are coming to terms with women's real sizes. For example, in February, Sports Illustrated featured an ad campaign with a plus sized woman for the first time ever. While I am by no means a fan of Sports Illustrated, maybe this signifies the start of an important change in recognizing the real shapes and clothing needs of women in the United States.

Jessica S. said...

Yeah, Sara, I agree- they need to study real women. I've gone shopping before with my plus-size friends, guy friends, and petite friends. Both men and women can lack options in a huge sea of clothing when they don't live up to what the fashion industry puts out there. And I've had to explain to a (quite thin) woman who was feeling bad that the size chart doesn't match up with most real proportions (34-24-32, D&G), and it got worse when she couldn't seem to accept it and continued to perceive herself as heavier than she really was. So, while some could view this post as hyper-sensitive, I think we just should get a message out there that internalizing horrible cost-cutting, random sizing is a losing game.

Lately, things are running very small, as Sara pointed out. While that's good for the petite and thin market (who rightly state that they cannot wear kids' clothes and need adult options as they already experience not being taken seriously at work), it's cutting off options for everyone else and skewing perceptions. It seems that retailers want to get more of the entire market, so they need to be consistent and expand sizes in all directions. In some countries, there's a higher number of breast reductions because bras are small sizes there. I don't even want to go into the topic of mutilation to fit into things. Controversial, so people can look it up if they wish.

Another note: my online shopping turned up 12 makeup items, 15 clothing item names at just 2 stores with "love" in the color/style name. These folks need to give it a rest. If guys wants to be surprised, go to or and look at women's makeup. Sex/romance color names all over the place.

Heather said...

Jessica, your comment about "power clothing" made me think of the new trend towards female menswear. That is a trend that infuriates me. I don't understand the message behind it. Are we attempting to have women dress like men? You often hear it described as powerful. Can't a women be powerful in a dress? What makes the situation worse is that the outfits are often a bit "sexed" up, so to speak. A tuxedo jacket with nothing worn underneath, for example. To me, that sends a bad message that to look powerful you need to be in a suit or tuxedo, like a man, but woman also need add a racy element so it's clear you are a woman. As you mentioned, women have enough problems in the clothing department, like gendered colors and messages, and unrealistic sizing, we don't also need clothes to make women look like men.