“Fashion defines women” is certainly not a new concept, but I was surprised to learn that by tracking fashion trends, you can track the modernization process of a society. To put this into practice, I’ll do my best to gain some sort of insight into our society by breaking down the messages in “Accessory.” I am indebted to Professor Susan Hiner for her excellent talk on fashion and modernity given at Tyler School of Art, which inspired and provided the background for this post.
Oh, our love affair with inanimate objects.
No, really, she is about to make out with that mannequin. Do woman (wealthy, white) have so much agency that they can afford to love their luxury accessories instead of- or more than- other people? Clearly, pleasure is tied up in the acquisition and display of “brand name” objects. Now take a moment to appreciate this image.
Here’s where it gets interesting: the handbag did not always carry the meaning we assign to it today. In fact, circa 1801 handbags were seen as ridiculous alternatives to pockets, which were hidden underneath the dress. A handbag, in contrast to the secrecy of the pocket, was promiscuous. The women carrying a handbag openly was immediately “classed down” as vulgar, letting it all hang out. Unless her bag was a sewing bag, because in that case it announced her prowess at home economics and thus potential wifely qualities. Needlework was acceptable, it showed a woman’s moral fiber. Virtuous needlework would keep a woman from the idle vanity of handbags.
Jump forward to the 1880s. Department stores have entered the scene, trampled small businesses underfoot. We can see all too clearly the developing gendered economy, reflected in the literature of the time. Women, as consumers, are idiots. They drive men to bankruptcy. And who is to blame for this trouble? The humble handbag. Because woman get irrational over them. In fact, it’s almost like your wife or fiancee is having an adulterous relationship with these huge stores full of fashion. Isn’t it? Check out 2:52 in the video again. Stores are seduction machines.
Well, the adultery never stopped. By the 1900s, women had moved into the public sphere of activities. Their defiant use of fashion accessories allowed them to transgress traditional boundaries that associated women with privacy and the home. Where does that leave us today? The bigger the better! In the video, our girl dances in front of bags larger than she is. Designer bags are now symbols of wealth and status, to a much greater degree than they were in the past.
See? We’ll even fight for them! How can we go out into the world without an accessory that proclaims our power and marks us as better than the competition?
“He’s my latest accessory. Was he on sale?”
We’re at the point now that we use relationships in the same way we use designer labels: to boost our status. To give us another reason to feel good about ourselves, in the public street and online, through photos and status updates, anywhere. It’s a kind of power trip to be able to claim someone as “your significant other.” “Accessory” is a bit interesting in that it is the women who are making this statement of power, quite blatantly listing men as objects in their collections. I would not call it empowering, however. It comes at the expensive of dehumanizing men, even to the point that men are bought and sold like the shoes and bags. That’s no kind of progress.
We tend to think that quantity makes up for quality. If we own a lot of bags, or boyfriends, our quality of life will increase. Are these things just tools, or are they some fundamental part of our egos? And at that rate, I wonder at what point does ownership transfer? When do we stop owning our accessories, and they start to own us?