Pak: Skirts and Slacks

Fashion is a driver for body diversity acceptance and respect.

by Eowyn Pak | 3/5/19 2:00am

 At the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24, stage performer and singer Billy Porter waltzed onto the red carpet donning a resplendent, head-turning black velvet gown skirt with a tuxedo-like top half and a black bowtie to match. News headlines raved about the celebrity, praising him as an “icon” and his outfit as “remarkable.” Oscar viewers fired up Twitter in energetic support. Vogue called the dress a “play on masculinity and femininity” that “challenged the rigid Hollywood dress code and was boundary-pushing in all the right ways.”

Google defines the avant-garde as “new and unusual or experimental ideas.” The term has French origins that mean “vanguard” or “advance guard” to signify people and ideas that reject cultural conventions and are willing to go to the front lines. The avant-garde manifests itself in architecture, literature, theatre, film and most conspicuously in fashion. Avant-garde fashion can trace its roots to the 1960s with Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Junja Watanabe leading the movement during its beginnings. 

Given its long history and pervasiveness in the industry, avant-garde fashion makes certain types of wear perfectly acceptable even though some others might consider them outrageous in any other context. Just think about some of the wearable art and odd forms models wear on the runway — would you be as comfortable seeing that in the street or at the workplace? And yet viewers don’t bat an eye. If anything, the more daring, the more praise the piece warrants. Because of this peculiar widespread acceptance for the eccentric and unique, avant-garde fashion is the perfect medium to challenge and question existing societal norms like standards and stigmas surrounding masculinity, femininity and nonbinary genders. It introduces a controversial concept through clothing in a space that is first most willing to accept it and as it becomes increasingly more exposed to the general public, the idea takes root and becomes the norm. Fashion can put an idea into perspective through a different outlet that can make people more self-aware in the same way a movie with fictional characters and made-up exposition can parallel world issues and foster the critical questions needed to help solve the real-world issues at hand. 

And while fashion admires all kinds of forms, ironically, it only includes an extremely small subset of the population. Female models are usually between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-11 while men are 5-foot-11 and taller. Females typically weigh 90 to 120 pounds with men weighing 120 to 160 pounds. Models all share more or less the same body type, notably excluding those who are “too” tall, short, curvy and heavy. These standards can be incredibly damaging to not only adults but impressionable teenagers who feel they must have the body of a super model to look beautiful, encouraging unhealthy eating disorders and low self-esteem. It strikes me as odd — hypocritical, really — that an industry with the most tolerance for different ideas to pass as beauty has such little tolerance for the types of people that showcase them. 

However, there has been a growing awareness of this issue, and body positive movements have been on the rise. Common clothing brands like American Eagle have released inclusivity campaigns like #AerieREAL clothing lines with un-touched women proudly showing off their scars, birthmarks, cellulite and stretchmarks, while pushing the boundary farther with models who have disabilities and illnesses. Many American Eagle ads feature real people smiling as they lean on their crutches, sit in their wheel chairs and wear insulin pumps and colostomy bags on their belt loops. Society needs more Billy Porters and American Eagles. 

With his statement gown, Billy Porter hoped “to challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean? Women show up every day in pants, but the minute a man wears a dress, the seas part.” Porter says it made him feel alive, free, open, radiant and beautiful. So wear what you want! If there’s any way to break societal taboos and feel unapologetically yourself, it would be fashion. I can’t say you won’t get any stares, but you are guaranteed to have people who support you vocally or otherwise.