It has been quite a while since I posted. This is because of a combination of extensive travel and the consequences thereof, but I am on the mend, and ready to blog again.
One of the events that I went to was a Summer Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University which had sessions on a number of contemporary social theorists and philosophers. As I could only hear out of one ear at this point, I was not well-placed to develop much insight, but I did realise that there was a whole body of theory which will be extremely useful for my Laura Ashley project. This is the New Materialism. Essentially it is a response to what social scientists call the Linguistic Turn. This posits that all our experience is mediated and constituted through language. The way we experience the world is dependent on the language we use. Where this language is manipulated for political reasons it is usually called discourse. A fairly trivial example of this would be putting -ette on the end of a word to make it feminine, but also thereby making it sound less significant that the masculine version, hence the preference of many women to be called actors rather than actresses (think of the old as the actress said to the bishop jokes). The New Materialism agrees that discourse is vital but it insists that there is more than words making the world. Things matter too. And things can have agency. We treasure objects passed on from our forbears, for example.
There are a number of theorists in this area, and I have a solid reading programme lined up for the summer, but following on from my (D)rag Dolls, I want to write a piece about the New Materialism and men’s suits (as you do). My argument will be if you are going to write about objects and our bodily responses to them you will need a new sort of embodied writing. This is a piece of my writing attempting to do some of this new sort of (academic) writing:
My hand on the shoulder of a well-turned jacket feels the solidity of masculinity, feels how it has endured all these years, and how it will endure into our granddaughters’ days and probably beyond. That shoulder with its carefully turned seam has the grainline of its dull woolen cloth running in parallel with the musculature beneath. As he moves, it moves. As he becomes still, it becomes still. It remains forever smooth, forever unwrinkled, uncreased. The shoulder of a bespoke man’s jacket tells us everything. My hand on it touches smooth expertly steamed and formed cloth, but it also touches something permeated with the erotic: power. The masculine hegemony rests upon those broad, perfectly level shoulders, tapering down to the slim waist and narrow hips. Where these do not exist, the exquisite craft of Saville Row can conjure them, ordinary magic, everyday of the week. By layering all those stuffs with arcane names: melton, boxcloth, lappet cloth, keysermere, nankeen, domette, perfection can slip effortlessly onto those uneven shoulders, stooped backs, pigeon chests. Everyman can ape the Apollo Belvedere. Every man can, with enough cash to pay his tailor, slide into the torso that always has and always will rule the world.
When I smell that matte wool cloth I am momentarily infantilised. I am back being carried on my father’s shoulder with my cheek pressed against one of his tailor-made suits. Whatever else had to be sacrificed, the dandy that was my father never gave up his carapace, his armour against a hostile world. And he was a dandy in the true sense, the Beau Brummell sense: restrained, elegant, unshowy, concerned with fit, detail, taste and quality. The sight, touch and smell of a well-made and well-fitted woolen suit can turn me into a little girl again.
If it can turn me into a little girl again at a wedding, or a black tie dinner or in a superior men’s outfitters, how much more of a transformation can it perform in an office? Masculine power and privilege is stitched into the seams, turned into the lapels, eased into the shoulder roll, pressed into the neck dart, couched down into the buttonholes and pocket flaps. Sobriety. Restraint. Austerity. Strength. Nobility. Discretion. Perfection.
When my hand rests on the promontory of the tailored shoulder, it rests on a whole genealogy of male perfection and beauty. I breathe in, along with the warm and slightly thyme-y smell of the wool, bodily power. This look, which echoes the Greek hero, every ready for battle, is tailored to and for men. The proportions of the suit, the cloth cut to move freely and and then drape back again, the details, fossilised forms of military uniforms with their buttons and their epaulette aping shoulders, all speak silently of and show hidden in plain view masculine entitlement: power, privilege, prestige, and place at the top. And that suit, modelled on the perfect male silhouette and proportions, will never sit properly on a woman, and she will never be asked by her tailor, ‘And which side does madam dress on?’. And so the drag will never convince. Belle can never become a Beau.
This is a bit of a visit to Academic Quilting territory, butI have some exciting things coming up, including the Festival of Quilts and a trip to the David Bowie and Zandra Rhodes exhibitions in London, so the blog should be back to normal shortly.