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Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s
Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s
Betty Luther Hillman
University of Nebraska Press, 2015
278 pp., $40.00

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B. D. McClay


You Are (Not) What You Wear

Clothes and the culture wars.

In Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, idealistic Isabel Archer gets into an argument with her more worldly companion, Madame Merle, about clothes. Madame Merle is of the opinion that, when you get down to it, people are their clothes. This doesn't sit well with Isabel, who objects: "I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me." When Madame Merle points out that Isabel takes some care over her appearance, Isabel says she is living under a standard imposed on her by society. Madame Merle asks Isabel if she'd prefer to walk around naked. So ends the conversation.

Madame Merle turns out to be a conniving backstabber, but her opinion has mostly carried the day: fashion as self-creation sells products on websites from Ask Men to Man Repeller. The last two sweaters I've purchased were called "The Audrey" and "The French Girl." Dress for the waif-like self you want! But though I bought the sweaters, I don't buy the argument. Clothes may hold many meanings, but they signal membership (whether real or aspirational) more than they express or generate a self. In this sense, dress is always political. Your black turtleneck indicates that you consider yourself an intellectual; that suit is a lawyer's; this is the habit of a nun; my long wool skirts told my classmates in college that I was "like, super-religious." Or, if I were a young man in the '60s with long hair, you could reasonably assume that I opposed the Vietnam War.

For dress can be political in the partisan sense too, though it hasn't functioned this way in American politics for some time. Documenting some of its political past is Betty Luther Hillman's task in Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Representation. As Hillman records, for some, clothes could be a way of embodying opposition to societal norms. But for others, clothes were a way of reassuring political opponents. ...

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