From an early age, women of all backgrounds have heard the same word: no. Don’t say that, it’s crude. Don’t wear that, it’s too revealing. Don’t sit like that, it’s not ladylike. The list goes on. The cycle repeats. In the end, women are left with only one question: why?
The way women present themselves has been scrutinized throughout history. Those who dared to step outside the norm were called crude, raunchy, and vulgar. “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” an art exhibition at the Barbican from October 2016 to last February, “is the first exhibition to consider this inherently challenging but utterly compelling territory of taste” according to the Barbican.
The definition of what’s vulgar is subjective: something that was vulgar 50 years ago is probably not considered vulgar today. Judith Clark and Adam Phillips, the creators of The Vulgar, question this complex phenomenon in their exhibition. The Barbican says “the exhibition exposes ‘the vulgar’, like its counterpoint ‘good taste’, to be ultimately all about perspective – something to fear and something to enjoy.” The Barbican also says the exhibit considers how “what was once associated with vulgarity is re-conjured by designers to become the height of fashion.” Perhaps vulgarity and fashion are more closely linked than people think.
Vulgarity may be fluid, but society is still rigid. Those who choose to step outside the norm are taking a fashion risk. Today’s fashion magazines are filled with articles that list fashion risks for women to test out, subtly telling women what they’re not “supposed” to do. An article from Bustle titled “11 Fashion Risks Every Woman & Feminine Person Should Take In Their Lifetime” tells its readers to “wear a crop top, no matter your body type,” “try an intense lip color,” and “go sans bra.” Who knows: in 50 years, these “risks” may seem as absurd as having to wear tight corsets and skirts that go past the knee.
Fashion is often full of restrictions and arbitrary expectations. NY Mag editorial director Stella Bugbee says “women are under so much more scrutiny and so much more self-imposed pressure to look their best and to translate that through clothing” than men are. Society’s fashion rules are constantly changing, so perfecting the supposedly ideal look can be exhausting. It’s time for society to give women a break.
Ironically, fashion can be used to defy its own limiting rules. In a 2014 Vogue article, Maya Singer quotes writer Lucy Grealy, who says “”having a sense of style is not selling out the sisterhood.” A sense of style can be empowering for women. In 1993, Senator Barbara Mikulski and Senator Nancy Kassebaum protested the fashion rule that prohibited female senators from wearing pants. According to The Washington Post, the two senators simply “wore pants and told female staffers to do the same,” but that’s all it took to create change.
Getting dressed in the morning is stressful for many women, but that’s not how things should be: the need to be cute and pretty is learned, not inherent. It’s time we stop teaching little girls to be self conscious about their bodies and start empowering them. At Little Hands Design, we teach our students to develop their personal sense of style and self confidence. We encourage our younger students to express themselves through fashion and leave negativity behind. Girls who come to class at Little Hands can make anything, whether it be a mermaid tail or a customized Judo outfit.
Slowly but surely, women are tired of hearing the word no. Women are taking advantage of fashion’s unpredictable nature to stand up for themselves. The once rock solid foundation of vulgarity is starting to crack. Hopefully, one day, the concept will completely fade away.