Sep 13, 2011

Womens' Fashion, Mens' Sport, Goods -- but how good?

Prospero, one of the blog batches of commentators for the Economist, recently brought up several interesting points, in A Man’s Guide to a Woman’s Wardrobe.  One of these is that, although many would be tempted to write off sport and fashion as mere fluff, unworthy of the serious person, perhaps also vestiges of  gender roles and their assigned provinces, they are indeed goods — or really, whole ranges of interconnected and distinctive goods:
…  fashion is to many women what sport is to many men: a pastime, a passion, a shared language, a form of self-definition, and a temporary escape from the opposite sex, all rolled into one deeply satisfying whole.
Now, of course, one could find fault with Prospero for expressing such a clearly unenlightened perspective on the divisions between the sexes.  One could point out — factually —that these days, participation in the realm of sports or that of fashion does not necessarily preclude interaction with the opposite sex (or gender, or what have you… ) To the figure of the female jock, weekend watcher, sportscaster corresponds the fashion obsessed and knowledgeable man, the metrosexual for instance.  One could also point out — evaluatively — that in good society, right thinking people do not draw or reinforce “gender stereotypes” of those sorts.

Fortunately, there are so many other people ready and willing to make those sorts of criticisms that I can set them aside with a clear sense of not-having-yet-again-failed in my duties as an academic and philosopher.  Instead, I can focus on the much more interesting issue:  What kind of goods are possible, enjoyed, realized in these activities?  And, the broader issue:  How should they be ordered in relation to other goods?

Prospero — in this case Luke Leitch — rightly names and values some of the goods involved in following fashion, and particularly in doing so with others:  a passion or desire, really a whole set of desires, some perhaps not so good, inflated by industries that devote their time to shaping and enflaming desires to buy, to possess, to wear, to appear in, to thereby both provoke and satisfy desires — done by showing, by describing, by praising or criticizing — but what does all of this play off of?
Human beings have always involved themselves in and appreciated adornment.  You find the desire to create, to wear, to look at — both at rest and in motion around a body — to create comparisons — often based on the most marginal, subtle differences — clothing and accessories.  you discover this in every society or culture, ever age and epoch. It would be bizarre for 21st century people to differ from other human beings in this respect.

The capacity — developed over time — to successfully distinguish different elements and permutations of fashion, the capacity itself to differentiate, evaluate, appreciate also comes to be seen and understood as a good.

Fashion also involves “a shared language” as well as a more or less successful “temporary escape from the opposite sex,” occasions for bonding, collaboration, or competition (often these three coincide) — like sport, it provides the time and space for the development and living out of friendships, relationships, getting to know other persons and to express oneself with them — all goods worthy of pursuit and incorporation into a good life, a life of happiness, a life of flourishing.

Of course, such camaraderie is possible within many other spheres of culture and many other types of activity.  Sport and fashion are not unique sites for friendship — God help us if they were!  It also bears pointing out that — something many people discover painfully  — if the basis for a friendship starts and, and remains largely confined to, sports or fashion — areas almost ready-made in which people can quickly relate to each other — as people change, as their lives deepen, such friendships easily wither.

There are also, at least according to the author, key differences which he discovered:
… .women don’t consume fashion in quite the same way that men consume sport. Although women may follow fashion, only a few victims succumb entirely to its decrees. Whereas men who follow a particular team will continue to follow that team however heart-rendingly bad its performance, albeit with a few grumbles, many women will reject fashion-led trends if the levels of ridiculousness are too high.
Quite true, although this does overlook the phenomenon of fair-weather sports fans.

Something else gets overlooked as well.  Not going along with a fashion trend does not mean that one devotes any less time, attention, effort — all of which are limited amounts for any human being, all of which have to be allocated to various goods in each person’s life — to fashion, the preoccupation with which — just as with sports — can easily distract one from consideration of greater, more satisfying goods, of the condition of one’s life, one’s values, one’s relationships.

In the culture we inhabit, is very easy to never ask key questions about one’s own moral life, even while feeling a vague, often unexpressed, dissatisfaction  — or to ask them quickly, find oneself at a loss, and then move back to what is easier, what is more immediately satisfying, restricting oneself to, say, sport, or fashion… or for that matter an academic career, or a certain way of parenting (some ways are rather superficial, others deeply develop and engage a person), or . .  the list can go on.

Sport or fashion — as areas in which we consume and enjoy, even bond with others (I’m not thinking here of those creatively, productively involved in these ares — a different matter) — can have a significant place in a full, well-ordered life, but definitely not the premiere place, which, unfortunately they do assume in the lives of many.

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