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BERLIN — Critiquing style is a rather inexact science, a field of study that falls somewhere, perhaps, between astrology and anthropology. Observers try to interpret every new development, no matter how tiny, and figure out how it fits into the bigger picture of fashion, culture and life.
Sometimes changes are just trends, things that become popular for no particular reason, that don't have a deeper meaning. And yet even in those situations, critics can be counted on to assign meaning and thus render the inherent meaninglessness of the trend irrelevant.
In some cases, though, changes in style really do signal significant cultural shifts. A case in point is the changing image of women in pop culture, an image that is removed from male understandings of what a woman should be and is emerging, not by coincidence, at the same time as the "no means no" debate in Germany and elsewhere.
On the silver screen, female characters now fight men until at least one nose has been broken. Women in the latest "Star Wars" film, and in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Hunger Games" — the kind of action blockbusters that are usually aimed at a young male audiences — wear costumes that still look feminine but don't hold them back from delivering the occasional smack-down.
Even female pop music icons (with the exception of Miley Cyrus) have moved away from the porn-star look sported "in the good old days" by performers like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.
Lady Gaga’s appearance at the 2010 MTV Awards, where she wore a dress made of fresh meat, seemed to mark a turning point, helping spawn the concept — popular in cultural criticism circles — of "sexiness refusal." Since then, artist have enjoyed a more diverse range of options for expressing themselves, from Adele’s corpulent peculiarity to Sia's sexiness satire, which involves the use of alluring red lipstick, but also wigs that cover her face all the way down to those red-red lips.
There have been similar shifts of late in the fashion world. The fashion collective Vetements featured gigantic, square jackets and large hoodies that cover up more than they reveal. They may seem unattractive at first glance, but they're also selling. That's because over the past year, female clothing behavior has changed. Women don’t want to see the shortest of dresses at fashion shows. They don't want to serve male ideals and clichés.
Or am I perhaps reading too much into this, attaching meaning to what is just a passing trend? The Italian systematic theorist and sociologist Elena Esposito notes how strange it is that we perceive fashion — which is, by its very nature, fleeting and time-sensitive — as a constant point of reference for societal change. But she also states that "for all its overt banality, the validity of fashion is irrefutable."
It is the fleetingness of fashion, after all, that people rely on to express their ever changing individuality as it depends on mood, surroundings, occasion and expectations. The paradox is that as styles come in, everyone, in their quest to be different, gravitates toward a similar look.That is how trends emerge.
The current fashion trend tells us that the mood of womanhood has taken a darker, angrier, smarter, more brutal and empathetic turn. Women who wear unusual styles want to be perceived as unusual but also beautiful, albeit in a non-standard sense. Think Charlize Theron sporting a shaved head in "Mad Max" and Sia with her wild wigs.
These choices don't represent a refusal of sexiness but rather a way to clearly communicate signals. They also enable women to escape their own objectification, though that is only a side effect rather than a planned end goal.
Fashion is a way of communicating without words. Jil Sander’s clean-cut designs, in the 1990s, enabled women to look professional without looking too sexy or too provincial. Gucci wearing women had a more aggressive undertone that spoke volumes about their monetary expectations. Since then, though, things have become a bit more complicated. Nowadays, a woman is able to be manager of a large company and still let herself be tied up in a bodice if she wants to. She is allowed to be an object but only if she wants to be one.
Still, women cannot not be stylish. Take the case of Angela Merkel, whose style statements are never empty statements. Her short and often colorful blazers are sometimes ridiculed for being too boring, too colorful, too short. Other women —most notably Angelica Blechschmid, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue — get worked up over Merkel’s lack of female finesse.
But when the chancellor decided to adhere to a classic feminine look by wearing a ball gown with a definite décolletage at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, the rainbow press went into a titter. "She is a woman!" they marveled. No other badly dressed politician — and there are a good number of them — ever had to endure such comments.
Women can't simply be dressed; they have to be dressed the way they want to be perceived. And that is why women are usually right when they stand in front of their wardrobes and say, "I don’t have anything to wear." The woman who utters this sentence is not referring to the number of garments in her possession. She's talking about her inability to express herself for that particular occasion, or in her particular state of mind.
The more unsophisticated among us men may think that the streetwear inspired clothes of Vetements, or a skin-headed Charlize Theron, are meant to "not be attractive to me." But that's not true. The new female role models of the silver screen and pop music industry, who wear unusual vintage pieces, Vetements hoodies and even meat dresses, are simply communicating in a more varied way.
These women want to avoid the obvious fashion expectations and constraints, but also be alluring and unapproachable at the same time. They want to display the entirety of their personality and its various facets. Their style is more than just decoration; it's a statement, one that's worth taking the time to contemplate.