The headline reads “Fashion Bullies Attack—In Middle School.” An article from Seventeen Magazine? NEA Journal?. No, this piece appeared in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. The article quotes Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois and expert on bullying, as saying: “Having access to designer clothing affords some kids "the opportunity to become popular--and that protects you and gives you social power and leverage over others."
Why does this surprise us when What Not to Wear, a popular television show, features fashion bullying as entertainment? Just in case you’ve missed it, each week Stacy and Clinton ambush a fashion victim, belittling her appearance, and both verbally and literally trashing her wardrobe. They harass and harangue the victim while she shops according to their “fashion rules.” After she submits to a total fashion renovation, Stacy and Clinton offer her acceptance and approval. Each show climaxes with a homecoming celebration where the former fashion disaster returns to fawning friends and family who gush with admiration as the remade sophisticated, self-confident “new woman” sweeps into the room. Which network? That would be TLC—The Learning Channel.
But before we begin to wring our hands and bemoan a sick society that is poisoning the minds of our kids, a quick history lesson is in order. The use of clothing to establish a social hierarchy and to leverage power probably dates to the first time a caveman impressed his cave mates by wrapping himself in a sleek leopard skin rather than a flea bitten antelope hide. From the Golden Age of Greece to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sumptuary laws kept the lower classes in their place by dictating style, color, fabric, and ornamentation of clothing based on rank, title, or income. Mean Girls in middle school may wield designer logos to determine status, but at least their discrimination by consumption is not legally sanctioned and enforced.
The truth is that clothing has always been a driving force of technology and innovation. The needle was one of the first tools. Acquisition of silk connected Europe and the Far East and resulted in exploration of the New World. Fabric dyes represent some of the earliest chemical formulations. Fabric production sparked the Industrial Revolution. Animal species have been wiped out for human ornamentation. The economic potential of clothing is not new and commercial cartels have done their history homework. They continue to systematically exploit our fascination with our appearance and, recognizing the enormous buying power of young adolescents, they have turned their spotlight on this lucrative and impressionable market segment.
Maybe we should stop trying to force our students' interest in what they, their classmates, and celebrities wear under the table. What if we addressed, rather than attempting to suppress, their inclination to define themselves by their clothing styles and brand names? What if we embraced our students' love affair with what they wear and used it to link academic concepts to fashion-related applications in math, science, history and literature? What if we help them understand the implications of fashion as artistic and social expression? What if we gave them an opportunity to develop insights that would empower them to protect themselves from manipulation when fashion is for social power and to leverage power? If fashion has such a powerful influence on our students, then why not harness rather than try to fight that power? Lessons in history, culture, economics, applied mathematics, geography, chemistry, botany, engineering, genetics, psychology are all woven into the shirt on your back.
In my family and consumer science class, fashion is very much on the table. Maybe there’s a place for it on your table as well.