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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Never Get Dressed, Never Use Language.
by Leontia Flynn
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You can 'pull your socks up' and 'get your skates on'; you can 'roll up your sleeves' and 'tighten your belt'. Clothing metaphors often express a state of readiness; articles of dress might get their name from the action involved in putting them on : slip, belt and, in turn, become verbs to express what purpose they can be put to, so you can 'boot', 'cuff' or 'collar' someone. Some verbs, though, have no relationship with the clothing whose name they share: 'socking' someone in the jaw (or asking them to 'sock it to you') is not related to the sock of 'put a sock in it' or 'knocking your socks off'. Different social relationships are also signified through clothes : 'riding on another person's coat-tails' or being 'tied to their apron strings'. Notably 'vest' is both 'an undergarment worn on the upper half of the body' and means 'to bestow or confer' - as in the power or authority invested in a person. The verb is from the Latin vestire, vesit, 'to clothe', and reflects the historical centrality of dress to social identity; reminding us that what you are wearing once denoted more clearly who you are and what you can do.
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You might for instance, in reprimanding someone, give them a 'dressing down'. You can 'set your cap at someone' or, in deference or respect, 'take your hat off to someone' or, further down the pecking order, approach them 'cap in hand'. Likewise, equally archaically, you might 'throw down the gauntlet', or treat someone roughly with 'gloves off'. Two people might work together hand-in-glove, and something might 'fit like a glove', but this is not the same as saying 'if the shoe fits, wear it!', since shoe expressions (with the exception, perhaps, of 'the shoe is on the other foot', which I've never really understood) appear to work on the idea that stepping into your shoes you assume your unalterable role in life as an individual. Thus the injunction not to get 'too big for your boots', or your question 'what would you do in my shoes?'. It is also said that 'before you judge someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes' (because then, of course, you'll be a mile away; and you'll have their shoes). On a slightly different note, if a woman is said to have 'round heels' it means she's a bit easy. This at first appears to be a forgotten reference to the round-heeled shoes worn by floozies in some historical period though, in fact having round heels just means she's more likely to fall over on her back: to be, literally, a pushover. As such 'heel' here has less to do with shoes than with feet in a more general way, like 'turning on your heel', 'taking to your heels', 'kicking your heels', and 'following at the heels of something'.
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When clothing is specific to women, it tends to be used very differently in turns of phrase. Take, for example, the adjectives 'shirty' and 'blousy'. 'Shirty' means, roughly, 'a bit riled', and seems to relate to the wish that someone should 'keep their shirt on' which, like 'rolling up your sleeves' (or getting the 'gloves off'), suggests a disturbance of civilised dress for the purposes of intense activity: industry or brawling. It is, then, clothing as related to doing, action and readiness. 'Blousy', by contrast suggests 'a bit trampy', in faded sort of way. Yet if you look it up in the dictionary it turns out that blouses were originally 'workmen's shirts', revealing the inherent emptiness of the shirty/blousy opposition. That is, only the feminisation of blouses have lead to their connotations of 'round heels'. Likewise with the term 'blue-stocking'. Though associated with intellectual women, it first applied to the less formal blue stockings worn by some men at literary assemblies. Again, the female association with intellectual pursuits, and thus the stockings, appear to have crowded out all other associations, and earned the dictionary's usu.(ally) derog.(gatory) tag. Exhibits B and C are the connotations of 'gymslip' and 'bodice'. 'Gymslip' is 'a sleeveless tunic, usu belted' and, as I recall, fairly repellent. It has, however, none of the military, Roman associations of 'tunic' (see 'gymslip bride'). Again, note that 'bodice' (see 'Bodice-ripper: a sexually explicit romantic novel or film'), though 'a woman's undergarment like a vest', has no such secondary meaning implying the conferring of authority.
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The prime offenders, however, are metaphorical skirts and trousers. While 'skirt', in fact, is derived from the same root as 'shirt' (Middle English from Old Norse, and related to the word 'short'), it has none of 'shirts' associations with industry restrained by civility. Instead, these are appropriated by 'trousers', which stand both for 'action' (when someone is 'all mouth and no trousers'), and a kind of 'vested' authority (so a dominant partner 'wears the trousers'). 'Skirt's' function is to operate as a foil to this so someone is 'a bit of skirt'. 'Skirt', nevertheless, actually gets off more lightly than 'petticoat', as used in the terms 'petticoat government', 'petticoat pedantry', and in rubbish post-war films 'The Iron Petticoat', 'Operation Petticoat' and 'The Gun's of Fort Petticoat'. The word here denotes women's presence in public spheres or engaged in traditionally unfeminine activities: the handful of female airforce officers of World War One were 'petticoat pilots'; 'The Iron Petticoat' concerns 'a Russian lady flier', 'Operation Petticoat' a party of navy nurses taken aboard submarine, and 'The Guns of Fort Petticoat' townswomen trained into a fighting force. Given the improbability of nurses, pilots or politicians publicly dressed only in petticoats, 'petticoat' functions, in response to changing social roles, to suggest that whatever women do, no one will be able to stop thinking about their drawers, which are, in turn, irretrievably female.
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This, them is the crux of the matter. Where clothing is specifically men's clothing, desirable masculine qualities, authority, action have been projected on to it. This means that even its metaphorical removal doesn't threaten exposure or vulnerability; 'gloves' and 'shirts' taken off all gesture towards verb and activity; in the use of the term 'belt and braces' to suggest twofold security, little frisson is provoked by the thought of these trousers falling down and expressions about having the pants bored or scared off you are also curiously unisexual. When clothing is specifically women's clothing, however, it is always thought to hint at what's beneath it (bodices ripping; skirts lifting etc.) and the body in turn infects every item of dress with femininity and passivity. Thus women's clothing constitutes fewer verbs or images of activity and 'skirting the issue' and 'hemming someone in' don't count. The only logical conclusion of all this, then, is never to use language and never to get dressed since, metaphorically speaking, you never really are.
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