Friday, March 14, 2008

Dress Sense

"A society whose material needs are met is one that turns its focus to individuation."
– Tom Wolfe, The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening, 1976.
As I work on the Dangerous Career Babe studies, the concept of the series continues to evolve. The paintings work individually but they have much more meaning as a collection.
When I first drew the figure, I planned for the torso and legs to remain the same and to adapt the arms according to the props. But with each new study, I have been able to use exactly the same pose. The images are a lot stronger this way. I've realised that it's because it makes the figure seem more like a combination of a boy's action figure and a barbie doll. One hand is designed for holding, and props can be slid into it. The other is gestural, indicating some kind of communication or action that can be interpreted according to the qualities associated with each costume the figure wears Mostly, the props are barely necessary. I just think it's fun to include them.
The costumes are the key. The figure is a dress-up doll. The career the figure assumes in each painting is identifiable because of the clothes.
As female children, we create an extension of ourselves by dressing up dolls. In a similar way, I think women dress for different roles now as adults. It's different to actually pursuing the career. No skills are needed, and the career can change every day. Feminism made a broader range of female career characters believable. Post-feminism, we not only see imagery of women posing in various uniforms and career-outfits. We watch them enacted in mainstream films – Angelina Jolie as tomb-raider Lara Croft or a sexy assassin in Mr & Mrs Smith, Charlize Theron as Aeon Flux, or Salma Hayek as vampire Santanico Pandemonium in From Dusk Till Dawn.
Seeing a real woman embody a fantasy that had previously only been imagined makes the role-playing of dress-up more enticing. We know how to act as the character – we have a whole narrative, including a soundtrack, to accompany the fantasy and bring it into the 'real world'. Even better, other people recognise the character that our outfits makes us. Their conditioned responses make the experience more real, more fun, more stimulating. But it's not real. It's just a costume. We are playing make-believe.
I've often wondered why some women dress in outfits befitting careers they don't have instead of just pursuing the careers – as if for them, dressing the part is as important (maybe more so) than developing the skills. I think it's because social reaction creates such a satisfying experience, without demanding any hard work or commitment. Maybe it's a form of escapism. Maybe it's about a lack of self-confidence. Maybe, like wearing the visible labels of luxury brands, the outfit can take the aspirational wearer to a place they’ve never been, a place where they perhaps feel they don’t belong, but of which they still want to pretend they're part.
I don't really have a problem with women playing dress-up. But it only really works when one's young. What happens when a woman is older and still hasn't developed the skills of any of the career babes she has been playing? No longer able to carry off the act, she dooms herself to desperate disappointment and very little sense of her real self.

1 comment:

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Are your images just paper dolls?Ah, but you get to choose the props.