At the Cannes Film Festival in May, a minor scandal occurred when a number of women reported being barred from the red carpet for not wearing high-heeled shoes. The women in question were mostly over the age of fifty, reports suggested, and were there for a screening of Todd Haynes’s Carol, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, a story about a romantic relationship between two women. The incident reached peak embarrassment when Danish film producer Valeria Richter reported being stopped by officials on four separate occasions during the premiere of The Sea of Trees. Richter, who has a partly amputated left foot, could not keep her balance in high heels, but while she was eventually granted entry, many of her colleagues weren’t. ‘We put on the dress and make an effort to be formal and festive,’ Richter said. ‘But to demand heels is not right.’
What are the politics of the visual? Of the clothes we wear or how we paint our faces? How we wear our hair? Do stilettos and shoulder pads wield power? Or are they the unofficial uniform of corporate conformity for the strong and weak alike?
High heels, after all, are tricky and cruel. They push your chest and lower back forward, forcing your hips and spine out of alignment, placing excess pressure on your knees, and forcing the majority of your weight onto the balls of your feet, making you feel like you’re constantly walking up a hill. They shorten your calf muscles, flatten your spine, force you to stick your buttocks out, to teeter, totter, tumble. They can also make your legs appear longer, shift the hem of a dress, or turn a Saturday afternoon outfit into something suitable for Saturday night.
The Cannes incident demonstrates the kind of irony inherent in contemporary culture: insistence on presentation that is fundamentally conservative in one sense and entirely exhibitionist in another. Consider the Met Gala, formally known as the Costume Institute Gala, a fundraising benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, and the most exclusive society and fashion event of the year. The Gala is themed to a particular exhibition – this year, the theme was China: Through the Looking Glass, which saw Kim Kardashian West in a Roberto Cavalli dress consisting of little more than jewels and feathers, and Beyoncé in an even more revealing Givenchy. (The red carpet is one thing, but I can’t help wondering – did they also sit down to dinner in those clothes?) It is an event in which guests are expected to embrace the theatrical – a privilege for which they pay upwards of US$25,000 – and yet rumours abound that everyone’s outfit is personally vetted by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
It seems to me the politics of dress has a lot in common with the politics of art, forever grappling with the tension between aesthetics and functionality, innovation and social expectation, presentation and representation. Celebrities, for example, are walking product endorsements: designers pay a lot of money to film stars or pop singers to simply go for a walk around New York City wearing their new season’s dress or handbag or overcoat. Exposure and brand alignment creates recognition, influence, and sales. These days, Vivienne Westwood is worth millions, but does the mohawk-sporting kid in the Sex Pistols T-shirt sitting on the train station steps know that the relationship between haute couture and his chosen markers of rebellion is less straightforward than he might expect? Did punk create Vivienne Westwood, or did Westwood create punk? Would it change what that kid’s appearance means to him if he knew?
Earlier this year, Harper’s Bazaar featured a story about a young art director called Matilda Kahl who worked advertising in New York, and decided to make life easier for herself by wearing exactly the same thing to work every day. ‘To state the obvious,’ Kahl wrote, ‘a work uniform is not an original idea. There’s a group of people that have embraced this way of dressing for years – they call it a suit.’ The fact that men routinely engage in repetitive dress didn’t stop her colleagues from commenting, asking Kahl if she’d joined a cult or was trying to win a bet. The story about Kahl’s self-imposed uniform was widely read around the world, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is that it came as a revelation to many women, who shared their own stories about being stuck in front of their wardrobe every morning not simply in idle indecision, but recognising that what they wore communicated something about them, whether they wanted it to or not, and that getting the narrative right played a large role in whether or not they were taken seriously.
We are compelled to reshape our bodies, to restructure and adorn them, to commit to a visual identity – a set of markers indicating to those we come in contact with who we are and what we do. It is communication but it is also, often, self-actualisation. To argue that it shouldn’t matter how we look is honourable but fails to deal with the fact that how we look carries meaning, often internally devised, other times imposed. When women change their hair, for example – when they cut it short for the first time, or shave it off entirely – we gasp, or grimace, or take it personally, such is the cultural value we place on female hair. And yet, why? It seems so arbitrary, but the public and peer response that women receive in these situations is frighteningly fierce. It is one of the sharpest reminders that women’s bodies are still not their own, and that no matter how flexible twenty-first-century standards may be compared to the past, we deviate from cultural standards of femininity at our peril.
Has it always been this way? Is it possible for the stories we tell with our appearances to avoid a necessary parlance with narratives provided by marketers? There is a difference between presentation for the purposes of shaping oneself as a marketable product, and representation of the self: as a way of saying to the people we meet, ‘This is who I am, this is how I engage with the world.’ But the relationship between the two is in permanent tension. If we sometimes feel a long way from the days when Naomi Wolf was raging against the beauty myth, it is perhaps because we have lost sight of the locus of the problem: that is, in the corporations which have a vested interest in developing such a myth, promoting it, selling it to women around the world. We see a product but not a global conglomerate. We are encouraged to relate to an item on a personal level – as if it is a kind of potential friend, or a weapon with which to wage war against the world. We don’t see the factories full of women hunched over sewing machines, or the rainforests being cleared at a rapid rate, or the animals with chemicals in their eyes. We’re too caught up in whether or not it goes with our shoes to ask ourselves, ‘What will it take to change this?’