Skirting the issue
by Renee Baert
In one of his earliest papers on fetishism, ‘On the genesis of fetishism (1919) Freud turns from an account centred on male ease studies to direct a glancing attention towards women. ‘Half of humanity must be classed among the clothes fetishists’, he avers. “All women, that is, are clothes fetishists.’ This is to be sure, a passive form of the scopie drive, a desire to be looked at (by men), ‘which is repressed by the clothes, and on account of which clothes are raised to a fetish’.
Of particular concern Freud in this working paper is the splitting process wherein one aspect of the object is repressed and another idealized. This nominal assignation of a second order fetishism to women is later rescinded altogether by Freud’s specification of fetishism as an exclusively masculine perversion by dint of its relation to castration anxiety. If the treat posed by the discovery of the mother’s phallic lack is the predicate of the boy’s entry into ‘normal’ sexuality, fetishism represents a compromise formation through which maternal castration is at once recognized and disavowed via the fetish as stand-in for the missing maternal phallus.
Yet Freud’s offhand comments on women’s unisexually universal narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies, with their correlate of women’s thrall to fashion (even to clothes which ‘do not show them to their best advantage’) might be qualified by a point raised by a number of historians in different fields, whose accounts suggest Freud is very much of his culture in conflating the expression of a cultural system with a gendered symptom. The association of women as a sex with vanity, narcissism and exhibitionism, manifest in a particular preoccupation with display and self-adornment is, according to these accounts, of a historically recent order. It is principally since the rise of the Industrial Revolution that women in western culture have been delegated prime purchases on the realm of sartorial extravagance and bodily exhibitionism which, in tribal and other non-western cultures, as well as in the privileged classes of the West until that time, had been the pleasure of men and women alike – for the aristocratic male often spectacularly so.
In his turn-of-the-century account of the consumerist devotions of the emergent leisure class of early western capitalist culture. Thorstein Veblen famously describes the modes of pecuniary taste as Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Waste – to which Quentin Bell later adds the category of Conspicuous Outrage. Veblen’s emphasis on the articulation of new class values foregrounds women’s role as vicarious stand-ins for men’s consuming passions. The conspicuous display of finery by women of the rising bourgeois class served as an advertisement of their husband’s (or father’s) prosperity, the unwieldiness of the increasingly pumped up and elaborate clothing itself a sign of the freedom of women of this leisure class from the physical requirements even of household labour.
In The Psychology of Clothes (1930), J.C. Flugel also directed particular attention to a new accentuation of sex difference in clothing in the late eighteenth century, but with an emphasis on its psychic dimensions. ‘At about that time there occurred one of the most remarkable events in the whole history of dress’, he announces – an event he terms The Great Masculine Renuniation. This development is men’s relinquishment of luxe and ostentation in dress, together with the inhibition, displacement or sublimation of their sartorial desires. The simplicity of the austere tailored garments adopted by men of the rising bourgeois class was the visible expression of the virtues of industry, self-control and renunciation they advanced; while the greater uniformity of the clothing ‘suited’ the new ideals of brotherhood and fraternity which followed the French Revolution. ‘How have men been able to bear the sacrifice that the new order has imposed on them?’, Flugel asks. ‘What has happened to the psychological tendencies (Narcissistic, exhibitionistic, etc.) which formerly found expression in the decorative aspects of their dress?” In answer, he outlines the compensatory solutions available to men for this great loss: the sublimation into work, the conversion of exhibitionism to scopophilia (or the general desire to see and know), vicarious exhibitionism (projective identification with the bedecked and bejewelled female) and transvestism.
Kaja Silverman has remarked upon the potential for feminist research of Flugel’s analysis of this masculine loss and its compensations, drawing from his account its implication that scopophilia, over and above its critical interest as a masculine defence against castration anxiety, ‘may betray desire that are incompatible with the phallic function – that it may attest to a shared psychic space over and against which sexual difference is constructed.’ She further notes that men’s identification with women-as-spectacle offers promising implications for the destabilization of gender.
The anthropologist Ted Polhemus has likewise attributed men’s ‘corporal striptease’ to the rationalist ethic of the Industrial Revolution:
Western society entered the age of ‘The Invisible Man’ while women, because the need for bodily expression is not a thing which human beings can readily eradicate from their natures, were conscripted to serve as surrogate bodies for their men folk.
This splitting and displacement is also thoroughly codified in the gendered mind/body, substance/surface divides of philosophy. As Karen Hanson has observed, ‘the bulging closet and the cluttered makeup table seem to instantiate…” the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac” that the sublime soul would prefer to ignore. And philosophers do tend to cast their lots with the sublime soul and its superior interests.The repression of men’s expressive narcissism – itself a displacement of the bodily narcissism of the child onto a cultural form – and its further displacement onto women provides a recognizable working system for the unequal gender operations whereby women, culturally assigned a weighted role of dressing up, are then subject to dressing down for their frivolity, superficiality and vanity.
As the tissue that separates the self and the social, clothing is a semioticallv dense and complex social form. But the realm of bodily decoration, clothing and display in western culture carries the freight of its social coding as feminine. The critical intervention by women into these codes thus operates against a doubled set of inscriptions (the figure of Woman, the ground of the feminine). Yet feminist thinking has its own internal divisions on the question of feminine narcissism and self-decoration, within which clothing as signifier is differentially mobilized in a range of registers from reform and critique to play and fantasy.
Elizabeth Wilson his proposed that feminism is riven by an unresolved tension between two mutually inconsistent cultural models, the ‘authentic’ and the ‘modernist’, each of which finds expression in the issue of fashion and clothing. The model of the ‘authentic’ is bound up in ideas of the natural and committed to the expression of identity and the ‘true’ self; it is condemnatory of consumerism, the artifice of fashion and the oppressiveness of beauty culture. As exemplars of the ‘authentic’ model, she cites the dress reform movement of the nineteenth century and the modern-day hippie. Conversely, the ‘modernist’ cultural model privileges dissimulation, fluidity of codes and subversive play with the signifier. Thus the nineteenth-century dandy and contemporary punk are prototypically ‘modernist’. Indeed, by extension, the ‘modernist’ position would challenge the idea that there is such thing as a ‘natural’ form of clothing – or indeed any cultural manifestation – against which to measure ‘artifice’. Wilson come down on the side of the ‘modernist’ paradigm which, unlike what she terms the ‘cult of the authentic’, allows for the ambivalence of fantasy and the ‘contradictory and irreconcilable desires’ that are part and parcel of subjectivity.
The early nineteenth century is a cultural moment within which the importance of clothing as a signifier of class and profession or trade is superseded by its assimilation to the intensive marking of sexual difference. As ‘The Invisible Man’ loses access to his body, it is the female body and its decorative accoutrements that come to stand in for this loss, and she is bound more tightly to biology, body and the ‘private’ domains of domesticity and sexuality, even as she is mythologized, allegorized and demonized as Women. Yet as Karen Hanson points out, the threat to women’s identity ‘posed by the gaze that turns its own limitation into the other’s liability’ cannot be adequately met through a comparable renunciation of the realm of the feminine. Insofar as the nineteenth century bequeathed the realm of adornment and display to women, but within a sexual divide that assigns this ‘shared psychic space’ to the feminine/negative sign, this would seem to leave women who would challenge patriarchal relations with the problem of just what to do with this tainted, yet insistently pleasurable, gift.
Yet if clothing forms a crucial part of the construction of the feminine within a patriarchal order of meaning, clothing also offers women a means by which to subvert and transform these meanings. Whereas Freud’s description of women’s clothing ‘fetishism’ emphasized the passive form of the scopic drive, and the ‘displacement’ theses similarly imply feminine passivity and complicity, it is as active subjects of vision and of dress that women can differently articulate issues of gendered embodiment. The vehicle of clothing offers a partial means by which the woman may, as it were, ‘play her way out of her predicament, the impasse of femininity’.
Feminist film criticism has been an important arena for discussing how the female figure appears in the cinematic image as lure, fetish, spectacle and object of imaginary possession in a relay of looks that does not include her own. She is, in the now classic term, the to-be-looked-at, and what is most particularly on view is her clothing: it is a primary means through which her sexuality is symbolized. Cinema and clothing converge as analogous representational systems composing the feminine images. As Jane Gaines observes,
just as conventional cinematic representation would seem to dissolve without a trace, leaving the distillation ‘woman’, costume delivers gender as self-evident or natural and then recedes as ‘clothing’, leaving the connotation ‘femininity’.
In Laura Mulvey’s famous account of the operations of classical cinema, these serve to resecure the imaginary stability of the masculine spectatorial subject against the spectre of castration represented by the female body via the mastering voyeuristic look or fetishistic defences. From this inaugural analysis have arisen important questions and debate about the identificatory position available to the female spectator within this circuit of looks. To date, however, the object of critical attention has been overwhelmingly mainstream, usually Hollywood, cinema. Mary Ann Doane summed up, some time ago, the basic problem confronting the female spectator of this cinema: ‘There are no images either for her or of her’, a situation scarcely since improved.
In the early 1970s, a proliferation of feminist film festivals brought a neglected heritage of women’s film into wider view, and these events gave inspiration and impetus to a new generation of women filmmakers intent on building upon this legacy. In the ensuing years, as women have stepped behind the cameras in ever greater numbers, so too the depth and breadth of the feminist movement has constituted a ‘critical mass’ of audience well positioned to recognize and receive these images for and of her. Yet he feminist filmmaker, working against the dominant cultural codes by which the borders of gender are mapped, must inevitably confront the problem, as Gaines puts it, of ‘that impossible body carrying the layers of sexual connotation she cannot remove’.
The work of Anne Hollander suggests, however, that in western culture ‘that impossible body’ cannot, to all intents and purposes, be distinguished from its clothed representative. In Seeing Through Clothes, a monumental account of the centuries-long dialogue between the domains of art, fashion and clothing, Hollander argues that, even as representational art depicts clothing, so visual conventions in any given period shape and determine our perception of the dressed and undressed body: our ‘visual self-awareness’ is itself purchased through these representational codes. Hollander distinguishes the western culture if clothing from the’ abstract’ clothing of ethnic dress, folk costume and so forth, forms which reduce the wearer to an interchangeable, often depersonalized, ‘symbol-bearing abstraction’. In western culture, with its long history of figurative art, the function of clothing is ‘to contribute to the making of a self-conscious individual image, an image linked to all other imaginative and idealized visualizations of the human body’.It is this property of clothing in western culture – not a stable symbol but a circulating sign – that enables not only the cyclical overturnings of fashion and of what constitutes the look ‘natural’ to a given period of culture, but also sponsors the potential for subversive play with the clothing signifier. Clothing, never natural, inescapably cultural, partakes of preexistent sets of meanings and conventions. As a social form, its ‘readability’, whether as fashion or critique, is dependent upon certain forms of social consensus which construct that reading. In this sense, feminism itself provides a viable social ground upon which alternative readings can be elaborated. The mobility of signification, its potential for recoding from within these social processes, has important implications for the destabilization of dominant codes of gender which, though embedded in relations of power, have no guarantee.
Yet if dress is a social form, as surrogate for the body it also partakes of the body’s relation to psyche and desire. Clothing is compound medium and critical axis of the social (law), the sexual (fantasy), the figural (representation) and the individual (will and desire). If there is no skirting the issue presented by ‘that impossible body earning the layers of sexual connotation she cannot remove’, one response to this dilemma may be precisely in ‘skirting’ the issue, in subverting gender conventions through clothing itself, thus effecting a disturbance within the (claims to) normativity of the dominant and proffering alternative representations of modalities of being and desire.
Streetwear in contemporary culture has itself been an important vehicle for precisely such operations, and the field of cultural studies has taken particular notice of semiotic battles against dominant culture played out in subcultures through the sign of clothing. The zoot suit, punk wear, the gay ‘clone’ look and gender crossdressing are ‘modernist’ rather than ‘authentic’ articulations of the self, which put into play the ‘shifting relations between being and appearance. seeing and being seen’. In their discussion of women in punk, for example, Caroline Evans and Minnaa Thornton have described how, despite the patriarchal structure of punk subculture, punk women were able to claim their own critical space through the use of oppositional dress. As a street style, their clothes borrowed from the cliches of prostitute street wear and from the private closet of the fetishist. Punk wear separated these signifiers from their signifieds, redirecting and diverting meaning. As the authors note, ‘when punk women appropriate the bad girl look, the separation of the look from its signified, sexual availability, constituted a form of deviance in itself. This was a refusal to submit to the pressure on women to be what they appeared.’ As a street style, women’s punk mangled sexual codes, confounded given meanings, valorized ‘bad taste’, advocated an unpretty look of menace and threat and generally ‘pinpointed the masquerade of femininity, the unholy alliance of femininity, naturalness, good taste and good behaviour’.
Yet streetwear is necessarily constrained as a vehicle for the symbolic recoding of meaning by its function as dress (and with that, as with punk, its potential for commercial recuperation). By contrast, art and the field of visual representation can, through the framing devices particular to each medium, insert or isolate clothing within other discursive settings which in emphasizing ‘meaning’ over ‘being’ produce different effects. This reframing is most apparent in the visual arts, where clothing – unlike in streetwear, performance, theatre, film – may be altogether divorced from the body as bearer: the disembodied garment retains its connotative dimensions, linked to sexuality and gendered bodies, yet without the literalness, or voyeuristic entrapments of the figured body. In this way, it functions not as dress or costume per se but as a culturally coded sign, assimilable to other symbolic operations. Among better known instances of the use of clothing in this expanded frame are the glass museum cases in several works by Annette Messager that entomb to uncanny effect empty childhood dresses; or the images of isolated (fetishized) articles of women’s clothing (shoes, dress, leather jacket, handbag, nightgown) that appear within the Corpus section of Mary Kelly’s Interim, where, in substituting for the female body, they underscore that the referent is the imaginary rather than the biological body.
Within film, costume, naturalized as clothing, has a necessary denotative dimension. But clothing as a constituent element of narrative also has the potential to be surcharged beyond this utilitarian function – as indeed is the case in the fetishized spectacle of the feminine. In her analysis of the role of costume in women filmmaker’s reclamation of the past through historical drama, Stella Bruzzi has drawn attention to two distinct registers of clothing. Bruzzi distinguishes between the ‘liberal’ and the sexual’ models of historical reclamation and points to the role of costume within these. The liberal model is concerned to draw political and ideological links and affinities between women’s lives in the past and the present: these films employ clothing as ‘merely signifiers to carry information about country, class and period’. The sexual model, by contrast, seeks to illuminate the more hidden emotive and sexual elements of past women’s lives. These films, of which The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) is the point of instance in her discussion, ‘imbue the clothes themselves with sensuality, so they become essential components of the sexual dialogue’.
In the discussion which follows. I would like to draw attention to a further approach to costume in women’s film, one which also shifts the denotative dimensions of feminine dress into a second register, doubled over the first. In this move, the double coding establishes two interacting positions, feminine and feminist, enabling a symbolic reinscription of the feminine in feminist terms. This reinscription is not an abjuring of the feminine but a repositioning of it within the stakes of desire. In the three examples that follow, this double register is achieved through stylistic, narrative or structural devices proper to the time-based medium itself rather than directly through the clothes per se, as in oppositional, subcultural style. Each of the films, in ways particular to each, utilizes clothing that is already coded within the feminine; yet simultaneously performs, through the framing devices of film, operations of denaturalization which serve to resituate this signification.
The effectivity of this manoeuvre lies in the first instance in its destabilization of the conventions of cinematic practice through which the figure of the woman is conventionally proffered. But this approach has something more to contribute to debates on the representation of ‘that impossible body’ through its further destabilization of key critical concepts by which the representation of the figure of the woman is conventionally contained. That is, whereas psychoanalysis has provided an indispensable tool for analyzing the chronic reiteration of patriarchal relations within classical film, the categories of analysis it advances are less than fully useful when applied to films by women wherein the image of woman invites relations of spectatorship not founded on the pleasure and predicament of the masculine spectator.
This grouping of films extends across three generations of film practice and three entirely different modes of production. The short film, So Where’s My Prince, Already? (1976), is directed by Ardcle Lister as a modern day fable that, in a realist style that plays havoc with the conventions of on the spot’ reportage, recasts the fairy tale romance by picking up on the story after the arrival of the prince. She employs clothing as metaphor through a strategy of parodistic estrangement that operates on the highly-charged feminine signifier of the wedding dress. Chantal Akerman’s feature-length Toute une nuit/All Night Long (1982) reworks the genre of melodrama through a hybridization of narrative and structuralist modes. Here clothing is employed in both the liberal sense advanced by Bruzzi as support to the narrative function, and in the sexual sense, as part of the film’s sensuality; but these are subordinated to a formal filmic language which displaces and disperses these effects. In Gerda (1992). Brenda Longfellow employs a hybrid overcharged realist style, mixing fiction, historical document and faux-documentary. In this short feature film, clothing is highlighted as iconography in a distanciated depiction of feminine masquerade.
‘There are not many funny feminist films about’, Charlotte Brunsdon has noted. Certainly an exception is this early (and only) short film by video artist Ardele Lister. In So Where’s My Prince, Already? Lister plays straightface within naturalistic cinematic conventions, enlisting the tools of parody, excess, fantasy and irony in her depiction, at the new dawn of the women’s liberation movement of a distinctly unliberated bible. A wedding gown is the central motif of the film – one might almost say a principal member of the east.
The story opens with the happy bride about to embark on the adventure of marriage. ‘A lot of people are putting marriage down these days’, she gushes, ‘but when you really love someone and are committed to the relationship, it’s an easy thing to do…’. The film is a chronicle of too-predictable setbacks to her idealized plans: her own career dreams diverted to working to support her husband’s studies; plans to travel come the elusive date of his graduation indefinitely postponed by pregnancy, and so on. These updates on the progress of the heroine’s life are conveyed in a friendly, confiding address to the viewer, as she persists, with earnest naivete and against all odds, in her deluded vision of potential bliss.
The bridal dress is the emblem of her romantic ideals and so just as she is clothed in dreams, so she remains forever adorned in the gown that represents them. The dress, with a small red heart emblazoned on the chest, is variously her apron, her workclothes, her ‘good’ dress, her maternity wear, her jogging suit, her nightgown. Dressed in the unwieldy outfit, battling with the train of her veil, the perpetual bride scrubs the toilet, feeds the baby, Struggle with groceries, finds herself working two outside jobs, is the kitchen-bound hostess to academic dinner parties, jogs along the beachwalk pushing the baby stroller, and so on. With the focus on the bride, the husband is given short shrift: a lump in the bed, a body behind the newspaper, a voice in the background(‘Don’t haaaassssle me!’). The camera is rather like a visitor who has unexpectedly turned up and to whom, hospitably, she relays her confidences, asides and non sequiturs. A female voiceover from time to time offers a commentary, with a corresponding image of the words printed on a valentine (‘Just because she hadn’t come, she thought she couldn’t be a Mom’.). As the film proceeds, the dress becomes more and more bedraggled; in one scene, the heroine gazes long and wistfully at a storefront window display of bright new bridal gowns. By the end of the film, she has rings around her darting eyes, is tippling booze from a baby bottle, has surrendered her sexuality to a vibrator, and has gone quite mad. As the camera leaves her for the last time, she is feverishly fantasizing a holiday in South America.
Rather like Oscar Wilde’s tale of Dorian Gray, wherein a painting of Gray records in minute detail the effects of his journey into decadence and evil even as his own visage retains the angelic beauty of his youth, so in this comic feminist fable the wedding dress bears mute testimony to the realities its ever-optimistic owner avoids. But here, rather than the wedding dress recording the corrosion of soul of its owner, the bride, it presents a satirically corrosive picture of a deception at the heart of the promise represented by the dress itself.
The wedding dress is of course a particularly potent symbol of the feminine, one not easily dislodged: for it is the nexus of a cluster of meanings centred most obviously on the wedding itself as the triumphant apex of romantic love, on the girl’s entry into womanliness, on the bride’s accession to the ‘culture’ of marriage, ‘a whole way of life’. In the film, the wedding gown symbolizes for the bride the promise of her ‘happy ending’, which is, as it turns out the unhappy beginning of her role of caretaker to everyone but herself. It is this sacrificial logic governing women’s place in traditional marriage – the wife’s identity subsumed in that of ‘my husband and I’ – that the film derides. The wedding dress is the relay point in the film’s absurdist prising apart of symbol and real: even as the bride holds tenaciously onto this symbol of plenitude, the film reveals its hollowness – an empty dress, plumped up by illusions.
In So Where’s My Prince, Already?, just as the wedding day extends into marriage, so the film is an improbable but ‘logical’ extension of its symbolic representative, the wedding dress, from its wear on ‘that special day’ into the everyday. Through her hyperbolically feminine bride, clothed in the fabric of patriarchy, Lister takes on the potent symbol of the wedding dress and , through the syntax of the film, literally wears it out.
Toute une nuit is orchestrated in three movements, the prelude of evening, the fullness of night and the denouement of early morning. Night here offers the suspension of the preoccupations and pace of the everyday and into this interregnum surges the emotional part of existence. ‘The night is more unreal, more surreal’. Akerman has observed of the film, ‘at night melodrama can come through’. The film itself is a radically condensed melodrama, a distillation to dramatic essence of the elements of the genre. Set in the city of Brussels on a hot and brooding summer night, the film depicts a compendium of tales of desire and affliction, sstripped to the core of intense revelatory moments. As her husband remains sleeping, a middle-aged woman rises from their bed, pulls a suitcase from the closet, places it on the bed, packs her clothes, leaves the suburban home. A child slips out of the front door of her home, running into the night with a small bag grasped in one arm. Her kitten clutched in the other. A woman sits alone in a bistro; time passes; suddenly a man bearing a suitcase bursts breathlessly through the door; they rush ecstatically, relievedly, towards one another.
The narrative begins and ends with a female character caught in a triangle of mismatched love. In between, the film unfolds a succession of vignettes of passion promised, thwarted, fulfilled, postponed, bereft. The stories are unrelated, but are to some extent linked by a limited number of revisited locations, in particular an inner-city apartment building. The narrative line returns periodically to follow the unfolding of one story or another, abandoning others begun, even as the stories and characters proliferate beyond any possibility of recall. The melodrama is not located in any one overwrought or blissful story but in this fleeting capture of an emotional infinite.
When present at all, dialogue in the film is brief, but it too is telegraphic, a condensed matter. The storyline is not carried in the dialogue but rather in the more filmic elements of gesture, movement, light, rhythm, sound. The buildup of a darkening storm that follows the summer heat of the evening adds to the sense of tension and tumescence; when it breaks, it ushers in a kind of release and, soon, the dawn.
Each scene is shot in real time and framed by an unmoving camera that stares with fixed and patient intensity into this dimly illuminated night. Time seems to distend in the silent gap between one breath and the next, one footfall and its other. Breaking the silence is the sound of the city, street traffic, footsteps on a staircase, a music box, a radio. Breaking the stillness is the movement of the players. In the dimness of this blue and black night, swathes of colour burst out with a particular luminosity, adding to the sense of overcharged sensuality. The red of a jukebox, the orange of a bar counter, the glowing sheen of bare skin, but above all and throughout, the shimmer of clothing on the players as they move about in the dark summer night.
Writing on mainstream cinema in the period this film was produced, Abigail Solomon-Godeau observes: ‘the construction of the female (as different, as Other) inevitably relegates her to the object of the gaze (which is always male) rather than permitting her to be the origin of it…’. Akerman’s film shortcircuits this familiar scenario in several respects. The point-of-view shots by which the privileged identificatory routes are routinely marked in dominant cinema are flattened out by the unmoving, unaccenting camera, whose stillness further foregrounds, rather than effaces, the filmic event (indeed, the point of view the camera presents is overtly that of the filmmaker.). The camera is itself positioned in a mid-ranged zone too close for distanced mastery, too distant for voyeuristic peering. Unlike mainstream cinema, with its narrative focus on the male protagonist, the storyline is dispersed between many players, the film giving equally vulnerable partners in a dance of need and desire. The Oedipalized scenario of dominant cinema, with its attendant heterosexualism, is further undercut by the film’s presentation of multiple desires and sexualities. The film is finally about desire: irrepressible, irrational, inchoate, unrepresentable. This I further underscored by the nonlinear narrative which ends, but cannot be said to conclude.
Akerman’s film ‘contaminates’ the ideal space of structuralist film with the ‘feminine’ melodrama, while using formal devices drawn from structuralist film to undo the narrative conventions of the melodrama and thus to reconfigure the spectatorial vantage. Through both the melodrama and the film’s use of structural elements, a space of feminine desire is doubly encoded in the film. And the place where these converge is in the clothing.
Dress forms an integral element of the film’s formal strategies, in which light, colour, movement, rhythm and gesture are accentuated to sensual effects. The inflammation of colour that charges the screen and animates movement and gesture within the filmic space is rendered primarily through the women’s clothes. A woman in a form-fitting décolleté sheath strides hurriedly towards a taxi, her form a vertical plane of red moving through the night. A couple clutch one another tightly in dance, the full skirt of the woman’s patterned sundress swaying wildly across the screen; a woman stirs restlessly in bed, her nightdress a shimmer and flare of golden silk; a couple stroll arm-in-arm, the flirt of her skirt a distant motion on the horizon; a woman slowly descends a stairwell, the skirt, then waist, then bodice of her fitted shirtwaist charging centre screen with the cool allure of blue; the blue-white gleam of linen livens the dim surround.
But clothing also supports the narrative in its depiction of gendered subjects. On the one hand, these clothes are generic in that they are not linked to any period of fashion but are of undated contemporaneity. On the other hand, they are quite particular, all coded very much in the conventions of femininity and masculinity. While the men’s clothes tend to conform to the fraternal uniform described by Veblen (hence the dark trousers and jackets less visually and sensuaily marked in the dim light), the women’s clothes are more individual, colourful and sensual; well fitted skirts and dresses, some soft and flowing, others lean and trim, and most of a casual elegance; no jeans or trouser suits here!
In Toute une nuit, the women’s clothes are imbued with sensuality as an integral part of the affect of the filmic text. Akerman aligns the ‘surface’ dimensions of melodrama (the emphasis on exteriorization of feeling over psychic interiority; the emotional clues lent to narrative by décor, setting, clothing; the favouring of narrative rhythm over action, narrative flow over resolution, and so on to the visual texture of the film. The film subordinates the sensuality of movement and of colour, both provided principally by the clothes on the moving bodies, to the film’s creation of a diffuse, libidinal surface that subtends yet exceeds the narrative.
In ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Laura Mulvey outlines a heterosexual division of labour wherein the male protagonist occupies the three-dimensional space and illusory depths of the filmic image while the resources of the cinematic apparatus are marshaled to fix the female at the iconographic level of the surface. Similarly, the division between spectacle and narrative gives the masculine protagonist the advantage as the agent of the forward progression of narrative action.
In Akerman’s film, however, men have no privilege within the diegetic space of the melodrama, the rhythms and motives of which are already aligned to the side of the feminine and which, in any case, gives equal ewight to its female protagonists. But, more importantly, in Akerman’s film, it is the surface itself that is marked as a libidinal space encoding desire in the feminine. The directionality by which the woman as spectacle is conventionally delivered to scopic possession is hijacked by Akerman, and dispersed. Through this displacement, in which the sensual clothing bridges the registers of narrative and film form (the structuring of vision), the passive ‘feminine’ of the spectacle is brought over to the side of desire.
In Toute une nuit works against the grain of the woman-as-spectacle, Brenda Longfellow’s Gerda plays up spectacle with a vengeance, but positions the spectacle as an object of pleasure for the female – indeed, the feminist – spectator. Longfellow takes as her subject the figure of Gerda Munsinger, who achieved notoriety in Canada in the early 1960s. The Munsinger case undermined the credibility of the entire apparatus of government in the scandal and the Royal Commission that followed upon allegations that the security of the nation had potentially been compromised, under the security of the nation had potentially been compromised, under the preceding government, by the liaisons of two cabinet ministers with this foreign woman who was friendly with underworld figures and a known East German spy. The context of the film is Cold War politics, into which the identity of Gerda, German national, displaced person and party girl, comes to be publicly inscribed as that of dangerous femme fatale in a paranoid narrative of Woman and nation.
The centerpiece of the film is a fictionalized eactment of scenes from Gerda’s life as an adventuress hanging out in the nightclub scene for which Montreal was legendary, not to say notorious, in the 1950s. Intercut within these are several ‘documentary’ elements that evoke period genre; testimonial interviews (principally with Gerda’s friend Berenice, another woman trawling the nightclub scene, and an investigator – the very picture of the hardboiled detective – who is put on the case when Gerda applies for immigrant status naming the two cabinet ministers as references); ‘faux’ documentary clips in cinema verite style, presented as ‘flashbacks’ by Gerda within the main filmic text, depicting scenes from a grim past (a rape in winter woods by a Russian soldier, a haunted stare through the wire fence of a detention camp); and, spliced into the introductory and concluding parts of the film, televion interview clips of the ‘real’ Gerda Munsinger who presumed to be dead, astonished the Canadian public by turning up very much alive to face down her accusers with a bracing dose of disdain towards their sexual hysteria. (‘Sure I’ve been out with a man for dinner… I’m a woman who lives her live.’)
Gerda is presented as a woman/party girl/romantic/survivor whose economic existence, emotional life and social entertainment are secured through men. Thus her success as a Woman, and her sense of herself is as a very successful Woman indeed. ‘You know, many woman have asked me, “Gerda, how do you do it?”’ she confides to Berenice. ‘I’m not a Monroe, I’m not a Bardot… I believe if a woman wants to make for herself some kind of career, she must learn to listen; you listen, you admire.’ Her consummate skill in displaying her femininity is depicted in a scene where, disgusted by the lackluster performance of a cabaret singer (‘Canadische women know nothing how to move’), she takes to the stage of the half-empty club to demonstrate, with provocative sensuality, how to sing it with style. The performance of femininity is doubled in a scene with Berenice where the two, in near-matching couturier gowns with exaggerated petticoat bustle, dance together for and towards the appreciative eye of a masculine patron. The film fiction at once foregrounds the manipulation, and the effectiveness of these manoeuvres.
Gerda performs a masquerade of femininity in the sense that her femininity is a ‘disguise’, a mask that can be put on to achieve particular effects. Yet Gerda’s performance of femininity is a game that lacks the measure of anxiety that marks the masquerade in Joan Riviere’s Womanliness as a masquerade’. For Gerda, masquerade is a part of the toolkit of an already-constituted femininity, exaggerated as seduction.
In Riviere’s account, masquerade is an ill-fitting disguise of femininity put on by the woman in her case study to cloak masculine attributes and so to avert (fantasized) male retribution. This masquerade betrayed an anxiety about her masculine identification, for which the ‘cover-up’ of exaggerated femininity was both neurotic symptom and defensive strategy. Riviere went on famously to aver that, in essence, there is no real distinction to be drawn between ‘real’ womanliness and the artifice of masquerade; ‘whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing’. In her appropriation to the scene of cinema of Rivere’s clinical concept of the masquerade. Mary Ann Doane initially foregrounds its effectively in underscoring the woman’s creation of a gap between self and image. ‘The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance’. In a subsequent revision of this influential text, taking greater account of subject position, Doane allows that masquerade is not readily recuperable as a feminist strategy.
But Longfellow succeeds in utilizing dimensions of feminine masquerade in effect by separating out the joined elements of ‘strategy’ and ‘symptom’. In this move, her diegetic framing assigns the ‘strategy’ to Garda but locates the ‘pathology’ of the masquerade not in its female practitioner but in the strictly patrolled boundaries of gender and class that at once restrict, contain and produce Gerda’s options as a woman. If Gerda’s performance of femininity is not compulsive, it is nonetheless compulsory. At the same time, Longfellow incorporates ‘pleasure’ among the attributes of Gerda’s performance of femininity, a pleasure that in reverting to a privileged female spectatorial position, grants that spectacle and masquerade are not directed only towards men’s pleasure and gaze. And of course clothing, as an integral aspect of both the display and expression of embodied femininity, plays a pivotal part in achieving this effect.
Clothes are an important structuring element of the narrative of Gerda. The friendship between Gerda and Berenice begins when, finding themselves side by side in mirrored reflection in the ladies’ room of a Montreal nightclub, each wearing the same extravagant hat of feather and fluff, Gerda responds to this awkward moment by whipping off her hat, taking off a few of its feathers, folding a section down, and repining it; voila, two different hats, Berenice returns the favour, alerting Gerda to the attentionshe has aroused in one of the club patrons, Pierre Sevigny, deputy minister of Defense in the Canadian government, and introducing them. And so the entanglements, including her benighted fantasies of marriage with the married minister, begin.
In her ‘career’, Gerda is meticulously, and expensively, fashionable. When she becomes ill and falls on hard times, it is the selling off of her glamorous gowns and beloved furs that marks the fall. (The detective advances evidence to suggest a subsequent descent into overt prostitution.) It is in replenishing her wardrobe by means of a lightfingered shopping spree with a girlfriend (the scene in the fitting-room of the elegant shop. A giddy piling of dress over dress) that this part of her life is brought to a close. She is arrested and, already under surveillance, an awkward, excessive, presence to her powerful ‘contacts’, political and Mafiosi, is abruptly deported.
Yet Gerda’s stylish and extravagant clothes are more than he requisite lure to the attention and desire of the necessary lovers. They are a displaced form of bodily narcissism (as Hanson observes,, ‘one thing fashion never lets the soul forget is its body’). They are the occasion for extravagant self-display, for the pleasure of seeing oneself through the refraction of the desiring look of an other. They are the fetishized reifications in commodity form of a host of cherished values. They are the emblem of Gerda’s climb from poverty, the measure of her social skills, the joy of her creative expression, the pleasure of her femininity. Thus tey are not only a part of the masquerade’s being-for-others, although they are also that, but a narcissistic being-for-self.
If Gerda the character identifies with femininity, spectacle (as the ‘sight’ she presents) and masquerade (as the excessive self-representation of femininity), a distanciation from these guiles is integral to the film’s enunciative strategies. This distanciation is achieved through devices such as foregrounding the historical nature of the narrative through an overcharged accentuation of period style/cliché in everything from clothing and gender roles to media genres and political narrative; in its ‘reportage’ of character, situation and event through its documentary elements; and, in the fictional narrative, in its emphasis on the gestures and actions of the players over psychological ‘depth’ or motivation. The gap effected between the feminist frame of the film and the feminine protagonist within it, the space between the distancing devices of the film and the identificatory processes intrinsic to narrative, is central in Gerda’s privileging of the spectatorial position as feminist.
Longfellow’s strategies of distanciation unsettle the standard operation of classical cinema, in which the element of ‘masquerade’ is elided to construct spectacle as transparent femininity and thus to make femininity available to structures of voyeuristic and fetishistic looking. In the male/female, space/surface split of classical cinematic operations, Gerda occupies both the diegetic ‘space’ and depth of narrative and the ‘surface’ of spectacle; it does not effect a similar foreclosure from the female/feminist point of view.
Riviere’s concept of femininity as masquerade is dependent upon a binary construct whose correlate is masculinity as authenticity or norm. In the patriarchal order of language, these positions, of phallus and lack, are assigned along the axis of gender. But it is also the case that this is an imaginary relational construct (though its effects are real enough, a point the film also explores). No one has the phallus, and lack is the lot of everyone, a condition of entry into the symbolic. If femininity is a masquerade, masculinity is equally a charade, and Longfellow pointedly exploits the clichés of masculinity; the tacky investigator, the suave womanizer, the hypocrite adulterer, the boys’–night-out conventioneer. Thus the film directs attention towards the historical and material practices which constitute and determine the boundaries, definitions and ‘styles’ of gender.
In reconstituting Gerda’s masquerade as a (historically) situated compound of strategy and pleasure, Longfellow’s enunciative strategies favour the female spectator who can, as it were, have her cake and eat it too. The double register marks out a female spectatorial position which offers a level of pleasure in the ‘sight’ of spectacle, display and feminine masquerade without aligning this to an identification with the passive feminine. Further, the assimilation of spectacular clothing to Gerda’s being-for-self, highlighted in virtually every scene of the fictional narrative, offers an additional level of narcissistic identificatory pleasure to, as Freud would have it, ‘all women’. In a film that denaturalizes the feminine and proffers a critique of gender relations, Longfellow nonetheless allows a space for female pleasure that acknowledges, in the accoutrements of the feminine, ‘the strength of the allure, the richness of the fantasy, and the uality of the compensation’.
Each of these three films subverts, in distinct ways, the conventional operations of classical cinematic forms and their invocation of identificatory positions predicated on a model of masculine subjectivity. But the films also offer challenging interventions into the modes of feminist filmmaking predominant in the periods in which they were made. So Where’s My Prince, Already? overrides the sober realist forms predominant in early feminist cinema (the so-called ‘positive images’ approach) with a hyperbole that enlists laughter as a critical tool of distanciation. The film is very much of its period, however, in an ethic now seemingly missing from a more theoretically grounded feminism; an exhilarating effrontery towards established canons of feminine propriety, identity and place. Toute une nuit is altogether deconstructive in its approach to the patriarchal legacy of cinema, yet sets itself apart from other work of the period by extending the deconstructive emphasis on negation – on dislodging dominant codes through laying bare the mechanisms of representation – into the symbolization of an alternate, non-phallic, register of desire. Gerda explores a hybrid textual form that blurs the boundaries of fictional and documentary realism, while recasting cultural memory and national identity by resituating the narrative of Gerda from that of the ‘universal’ feminine to that of a woman negotiating her position with regard to gender from within material relations of power and representation.
The films also suggest an approach to the representation of women that differs in its strategies from the two principal, and quite incompatible, approaches of early feminist cinema; work in realist forms that sought to alter the content of film by privileging new sorts of protagonists and subject matter centred on women’s lives, as against work on film form that refuses the positivity of any new naturalization of women, concentrating rather on problematizing the processes of identification in narrative illusionism and organizing alternate modes of visuality. These three films, by contrast, emphasize the difference of women from Woman through a layering of narrative realism and through distanciating enunciative strategies, doubling the registers of feminine and feminist to address the constructed nature of the feminine, but through an embodiment that does not revert to a renaturalization. That clothing is a primary vehicle for these operations which take place across different generations and models of film practice suggests a particular potency and viability of this cultural sign for the ad-dress of ‘that impossible body’.
Each of the films takes as protagonist the feminine woman. Yet this figure is sympathetically appropriated for, while kept distinct from, another scene, operating in another – feminist – register. This is achieved through narrative, mise-en-scene, formal and structural properties specific to film, which provide the ‘frame’ within which this dialectical double register is mounted. Each of the films challenges classical cinema’s alignment of scopic pleasure to the mastering properties of the ‘male gaze’; indeed, an integral part of this layering is the incorporation of strategies of address that privilege women as spectators.
Clothing as a social sign provides a vehicle for these processes of denaturalization of the feminine. But clothing also has effectivity in these films as the delegate of desire. In So Where’s My Prince Already?, when the bride turns dolefully away from the display of new wedding gowns, it is not her narcissistic desire but rather its chronic deprivation that is at issue. In Toute une nuit, the allure of feminine clothing is highlighted and assimilated to the creation of a filmic register of feminine desire. Gerda offers up a festive parade of spectacular gowns, elegant streetwear and sporty chic as the film puts into circulation the enactment of gender roles as cliché, as power and as pleasure.
Clothing is integral to the representation of gender. (As the drag queen Rupert Charles summarizes it, ‘Honey, if you’re in clothes, you’re in drag’.) In shifting attention from bodies (nature) to dress (culture), it underscores that gender codes, though aligned to (sexed) bodies, are not fixed; these codes not only vary between cultures, but may multiply within a culture. Clothes are the necessary props in the performance of gender, be this the conventions of the ‘natural’ (with its corollary of deviance or artifice), or a subversive reinscription of the clothing signifier through oppositional and subcultural dress, or the gender-bending of crossdressing. Dress may be the agent of subversion, parody, adventure, fantasy, exploration, play. As sign and medium, clothing offers a critical site around which questions of spectatorship and representation, being and appearance, gender and desire can move, unfixing the binaries of phallic and feminine.
Mary Ann Doane has described the emergence of the figure of the femme fatale in the nineteenth century, the period of a shift in the social imaginary of sexual difference already pointed to through terms such as The Invisible Man and The Great Masculine Renunciation. Doane notes that ‘if the femme fatale overrepresents the body it is because she is attributed with a body which is itself given agency independently of consciousness. In a sense, she has power despite herself.’ Doane’s account stresses the femme fatal as the representative of displaced masculine fears about the loss of the centrality of self. ‘These anxieties’, she argues, ‘appear quite explicitly in the process of her representation as castration anxiety.’ The femme fatale is an emphatic instance of more general operations within classical film, however, wherein this passive female body, not the subject of its own powers but object of fear and fascination of the masculine subject, is subject to strategies which would contain the threat she poses.
Within women’s films, however, the categories of analysis which locate and describe the position of the woman in classical film prove insufficient as descriptives for the diegetic and formal operations that stage. for the female spectator, images for her and of her; operations that do not turn on the defense against castration anxiety. These privileged tropes take on different meanings when the woman is not the object of imaginary masculine possession but is the subject repossessed by women filmmakers. Narcissism is a bedrock of identity, a primary condition from which later identificatory processes arise. While associated pejoratively with the feminine in its secondary manifestations, in feminist representation it may also signify a being-for-self antithetical to the being-for-others of the feminine position. In this sense, clothing and adornment are positioned not in a closed circuit of self-reflection, nor necessarily as a passive lure for the active look, but as a calibrated social act with many possible implications. Masquerade has a different inflection when, rather than the defining feature of womanliness, it is seen as a strategic mobilization and negotiation of gender self-representation in a mise-en-scene of a performativity of gender. The position of the spectator with respect to the ‘to-be-looked-at-ncss’ of the woman in spectacle is realigned in the diegetic operations of feminist film that present spectacle through the character not of the passive woman who ‘has power despite herself’, but as the subject of her self-presentation and allure, and in which her performance is structured in the cinematic operations for female delectation. The position these films accord the spectator as female, looking, undercut the structural dominance in classic cinematic operations of the ‘male gaze’, creating new positions for the female spectator beyond the parameters of a transvestite masculinity, masochism or narcissism’s radical assumption of the image.
When the object of address within feminist film criticism is classical cinema and its representations of the woman, a certain stability obtains. But insofar as women’s intervention into these codes have effectivity, they also have implications that impinge upon the mapping of psychoanalytic categories onto the field of representation. Can terms such as narcissism, spectacle, masquerade and the male gaze ‘stay in their place’ when women as subjects of desire take hold of the props of gender to their own gender-disruptive ends? Clothing as sign of desire, embodiment and culture is a privileged site around which such questions converge and multiply.
I would like to thank Lisa Tickner for her helpful comments during the development of this text