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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Body Fashions
by Jason Mills
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As the vehicle for the invisible self, the body has, from the earliest glimmerings of civilisation, been the elementary forum for all modes of expression and interaction, a medium for the conveying of personal narratives and the playing out of ritual practises. The past two decades have seen a meteoric rise in the emphasis placed on the physical body within social theory, in contrast to classical sociology which has tended to focus primarily on the mind as that which more clearly defines humans as social beings. Interestingly enough, this has coincided with a similarly significant escalation in the decoration of the body in contemporary Western society, which has drawn heavily on the 'primitive' body modification practises of ancient cultures.
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The two most commonly identified strands of body modification, tattooing and body piercing, have their origins in ancient Egypt, the former having been normally associated with the erotic, sensual aspect of life, and the latter a baroque signifier of social status. From there, such practises traversed countless cultural epochs and geographical boundaries, and were adapted and embued with widely varying meanings as they went. For example, while the Greeks and Romans used tattoo marks as a means of branding spies, criminals and slaves, the intricate curves and spirals on the faces of Maori tribesmen were used to subtly convey deeply visceral experiences tied up with religious and magical beliefs. Likewise, piercing has also been brought to serve many purposes, from aesthetic ornamentation (such as the Aztec's use of nose and ear plugs) to rite-of-passage initiation into adulthood (Indian ceremonies incorporating fleshhooks and suspensions). It has also been used for purely pragmatic reasons, such as the currently fashionable 'Prince Albert' urethra piercing used by Victorian men to secure the penis to the pant leg during that era's penchant for dangerously tight trousers. Legend has it that Prince Albert himself sported such a ring in order to retract his foreskin and thus kept his member sweet-smelling so as not to offend the Queen. Obviously, when one holds such a position of grandeur, one doesn't have the time or inclination to attend to such undesirable concerns as the glandular secretions of one's husband.
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The current Western renaissance in body art, although containing its own distortions and ambiguities, holds fast to principles of non-verbal communication, presenting the proprietor as a form of visual metaphor. The semiotics of social life dictate that, on some level, we are all guilty of judging books by their covers, and the embellishment of the body itself is simply another facet of this in that it uses a particular iconography to express individual identity and create a surface impression. Of course, there are as many reasons why people today choose to alter their bodies as there have ever been, and it is nigh on impossible to apply a cohesive, all-encompassing theory to what is essentially an individualistic act. However, one distinguishing element appears to be the idea of sovereignty, the claiming or reclaiming of the body as the one thing over which its owner has supreme authority. People's disaffection with their governing narrative systems, whether political, religious, parental or otherwise, appears to have fostered widespread attempts to build upon and sustain a sense of self-identity, which has often been made manifest on the blank canvas of the body. The body therefore becomes a site for social alternatives and individual empowerment, a malleable and unfinished biological entity which can be used to convey ideas of what the beholder perceives themselves to be.
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This presents an interesting paradox with the cultures and traditions from which modern society has appropriated body modification practices. What was initially a means of connection and socialisation amongst tribal peoples has mutated into an expression of exclusion and separation from conventional Western systems. Indeed, such acts of self-alienation amongst a significant number of people suggests a fragmentation of structures which are generally regarded as more advanced and coalescent than those of 'primitive' societies. However, this gives way to another innate contradiction if we are to give due consideration to the commodification and co-optation of such practices. Although piercing and tattooing still carry residual connotations of deviance, their absorption into mainstream fashion culture has led to the steady erosion of much of their shock value and rebellious sentiment. In the domain of the popular, they are part of a regulated, competitive service industry which also comprises of various offshoots including everything from mass-produced cosmetics to plastic surgery.
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This in turn has led elements within the body modification 'community' into more extreme realms of experience, often veering close to the consciousness-altering procedures undertaken by various tribal sects. The Body Modification Ezine (www.bmezine.com) includes several galleries depicting everything from scarification, where designs are cut or burnt into the skin, to penile bifurcation, literally a splitting of the penis down the middle. Here, shock value is boldly reinstated, with much of the content consisting of bodily alterations which mainstream society would almost certainly recoil from and deride as some form of ornamental illness, a reaction which would no-doubt please its practitioners no end. Amongst those who have pushed back the boundaries of body art are the infamous Lizardman, Erik Sprague, who has had his face and body tattooed extensively with reptilian scales, his tongue forked (literally a 'snip' at $250 if you're interested), and subdermal teflon implants inserted above each eye to form a horned ridge. There is also the rather ordinarily named Dennis Smith, a San Diego computer programmer, who has set himself apart from the other Dennis Smiths of the world by virtually turning himself into a tiger. His appearance is characterised by orange-and-black-stripe tattoos, latex whiskers, sharpened teeth, and surgery to the mouth which gives him a permanent snarl. He is currently awaiting a fur graft.
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Although Belfast around this time of year does commonly witness unusual gatherings of orange-striped herds, it is highly unlikely that you will bump into an actual human tiger. Innate conservatism and sometimes aggressively brandished conformity mean that potential tigers on the way home from their local watering hole are, at best, likely to be subjected to a tirade of derision, and, at worst, a severe kicking from the nearest indigenous tribe. However, not wishing to end on a sour note, hope was recently given shape through the spawn of the recently endorsed King of the Jungle himself. In an unexpectedly benign act, Ian Paisley's cub leapt to the defence of a local woman who wished to join the PSNI but was prevented from doing so due to a 'garish' tattoo on her upper arm. Paisley Jnr then promptly turned up outside Skullduggery Tattoo Studio on the Dublin Road with a BBC cameraman in tow and roared his indignation into a strategically placed microphone 'This is supposed to be a modern society. These people are good people, sound people, capable people and they're being prevented from joining the police because of a tattoo?! That is not on!'. So, now you know, a vote for the DUP is a vote for freedom of artistic expression, not to mention physical and spiritual liberation. Just don't mention Satan.
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