About a year ago, I became aware of something called the Desire Project, an initiative that interviews women about what they want and posts videos of the interviews online. The clips are put up in groups based on theme- in one set all the women will be talking about life goals, the next about their their first crush, or what desire means. I was stoked to find this because I haven’t seen many positive representations of female desire in pop culture (Often female desire is either limited or evil, in my experience of fiction. A quick jaunt on TV Tropes led me to several common examples of tropes that show this including Vain Sorceress, Tomboy and Girly Girl, and the Madonna Whore Complex). It’s encouraging to see something contrasting.
Anyways, every few months I will remember that the Desire Project exists and binge on the archives. That happened recently, and to my delight I found that one of the more recent video themes was fashion. Kind of uncannily timely, since I’m taking this course.
As a disclaimer: There are only about seven interviews per topic, so clearly, they hardly give a comprehensive view of what women want. Still, they’re interesting to analyse.
The interviews on fashion are fascinating, intimate, and well constructed, and I’d highly recommend watching them through simply for those reasons. But here, I want to focus on the motivations women gave for interacting with clothing the way they do, which often manifested as cultural. Mostly, they seem to subscribe to the school of thought that to be too fashionable is somehow bad, whether they are talking about attention to adornment in themselves or others. They say things like “I have a really girly desire for jewels. It’s not… a nice thing to want,”1 and, when talking about being attracted to fashionable women, “I want to say that I am more evolved than that.”2 “For many women, it is inconceivable that a commitment to feminism could ever be reconciled with an interest in fashion,” and perhaps, even if these women don’t profess to be feminists, they have trouble reconciling fashion with feminist ideals like female independence.3
Another woman talks about looking at clothes she would never seriously consider buying and yearning for them anyways because they fit into lifestyles she daydreams about having. She has cultivated a style that she likes and that she thinks suits her life, but is perhaps picking up on the twentieth century idea that different kinds of beauty are associated with different moods or identities. Appearance has become “a tool for women to explore and portray their individuality.”4 Similarly relating fashion to lifestyle, one of the interviewees talks about how “you spend a ton of time… trying to make your desires achievable or right or virtuous,”5 reflecting the idea that we associate beauty with morality. Theorist Mimi Thi Nguyen discusses this in her article The Biopower of Beauty, pointing out that “discourses of beauty as coextensive with humanity… [and] morality… are not entirely new”6 and have, in fact, informed our recent politics as well as our culture. Again, it’s interesting seeing a woman draw that conclusion from personal experience.
Not all of the interactions with fashion were easily understood as being produced by culture, though. Like the woman who is attracted to women who are stylish- she personally avoids fashion. Or there is another woman who loves jewelry meant “to remind [you] that you’re going to die.”7 Clearly not a cultural phenomena, though it may have been influenced by culture. Still, it suggests some room for the personal in fashion, even if finding that room is difficult and if culture plays a heavy role in personal style, as we’ve seen. It’s interesting that the Desire Project shows both nature and nurture at work in style. It’s proving fertile ground for exploring the relationship between them.
1 Anjuli Fatima, “Wanting Jewelry,” Fashion Fetish, The Desire Project video, 4:50, 25 April 2013, http://desireproject.com/2012/07/ill-always-want-jewelry/
3 Linda M. Scott, Fresh Lipstick (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 2.
4 Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 144.
5 Anjuli Fatima
6 Mimi Thi Nguyen, ” The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” Signs volume 36 number 2 (Winter 2011): 365, accessed 25 April 2013.
7 Edith Zimmerman, “Momento Mori,” Fashion Fetish, The Desire Project video, 4:07, 25 April 2013, http://desireproject.com/2012/08/love-death-and-antique-jewelry/