Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada III: How Are People Who Are Different Regarded?

People who are different are regarded differently depending on their stature in society.

People who are different but (already) have high stature are regarded as being "different" or "original" and the difference is considered "distinction". They are often considered trendsetters. If a highly respected artist were to draw a black dot on an otherwise empty canvas, it would still probably be worth millions.

People who are different but are neither of high or low stature but find themselves somewhere in the middle would be considered "eccentric".

People who are different but are of low stature would be considered "weird" or their work or bodies would be considered "ugly".

To a large extent, the valuation of difference is not a function of the objective quality of behavior, work or deportment but a function of the collective's valuation of the social location of the agent whose behavior, work or deportment is being evaluated. The cue for this social valuation usually comes from those who would be considered society's legislators (ex. critics, media in general).

And there is no clearer case for this than in the world of fashion. In the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda is clearly the legislator of what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable fashion. It is not what is worn that matters but who made it and who wears it and wear it is shown (If Miranda allows it to be shown on Runway). Recently, there was a fashion show in Paris where the designer chose to use the Philippine banig as the primary material. The Philippine banig is a mat, it is what some of us use to sleep on and is hardly ever considered fashion material. But since the banig was used by a respected fashion designer, that designer was able to draw appreciative oohs and ahs from the crowd.

I've always wondered how fashion designers can claim to know the trends (the next hottest clothing item and the next hottest color is...; white is the new pink, etc. In Tagalog, kung ano ang magiging uso at kung ano ang hindi). I think in reality they are just inventing trends within the bounds of acceptable and unacceptable clothing. They push the envelope without going too far. They can get away with it because they have a sense of how far people will go.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada II

Warning: spoiler. Read only if you've watched the movie.

When Andy decided to undergo a make-over, she quickly realized that changing her clothes was only the start of her initiation into the world of fashion. The fashion industry demanded more and more time from her and gave her less and less time for her friends and her boyfriend. She even missed his birthday party. At one point, she was also made to choose between her friendship with her officemate and her job and she chose her job. In the end, she was made to realize that all those choices that she was making, which were in no way inconsequential, was changing her trajectory and making her more and more like Miranda and less and less the Andy her friends used to know.

From the time after her make-over, Andy made a series of affirmations of a particular sense of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, of a particular understanding of what constitutes right or wrong strategies, of particular stakes of the game or values.

Her no at the very end could be accounted for by the fact that her embodied sense of what was appropriate and inappropriate (i.e. her sense of what was appropriate and inappropriate before her make-over), her sense of the rightness or wrongness of strategies and most importantly, her sense of what stakes were worth playing for were too different from the sense that the fashion industry made her swallow.

It is important to note, however, that it could have gone either way. She could have, at the very end said no to everything that she was before. She could have gone on and said no repeatedly to her boyfriend and her friends and her sense of style and deportment before her make-over. She could have fully embraced her lover and her job and her new lifestyle.

To say yes to something different is difficult, yes, but not completely impossible. Our sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate, what is the right or wrong strategy, and most importantly, what stakes are worth playing for are "durable but not eternal".

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada I

The Devil Wears Prada, a movie about a campus journalist who ends up working for the editor-in-chief of Runway which is considered the fashion magazine, is a perfect demonstration of the adage that clothes make the person and that one can be excluded from a certain field in many ways.

Andy, Anne Hathaway's character was clearly not dressed appropriately. The clothes she wore to her job interview and the clothes she wore to work caused her co-workers to raise their eyebrows and make critical remarks. She had no working knowledge of the industry and thiswas apparent in her failure to recognize the first names of icons of the fashion industry.

Andy becomes frustrated because no matter how hard she worked, her efforts were not appreciated. Then she decided to ask the fashion director of the magazine to give her a clothing make-over and from then on she moved from success to success in her work.

What this transition shows is that practice can not only be distinguished as being appropriate or inappropriate but within particular fields, in the pursuit of particular stakes, practice can be right or wrong. Strategies, in particular, are right or wrong.

Dressing appropriately was a good strategy, or the right strategy for Andy to get ahead. In order for her to get ahead, she had to wear the right clothes, and the right brand and had to have the right look.

Dressing appropriately is not just good strategy in the fashion industry, it is also the right strategy in any field. The corporate world has spawned an entire culture of power dressing. There is an entire industry composed of stylists.

Sometimes, dressing appropriately means dressing down rather than dressing up. Among students, for example, attire that is too formal or too garish would be considered "different". Slippers are in now among students and faculty are shocked by this particular instance of dressing down.

Some people refuse to dress appropriately, choosing to assert their own unique identity and swim against the tide. This is fine (we all have the freedom to do what we want to do, after all) but these people have greater difficulty getting ahead precisely because they are too different.
There is a contestant of Philippine idol, for example, who is a lesbian or a transgender (I'm not sure how she identifies herself). Her clothes are nowhere near being girlish. She has a good voice but the judges pick on her by asking if she will ever wear a skirt in the contest. Choosing to wear clothes not usually associated with girls is her prerogative. But dressing in a way that the judges and some sectors in Philippine society may consider inappropriate may cost her the contest. Some people may not accept her rebelliousness and assertion of difference.

Practices need not be viewed from the perspective of morality (i.e. good or evil). That is another discussion altogether. But practices are inevitably implicated in the discussion of whether or not your strategies are right or wrong for getting ahead in a particular field.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Clothes Make the Person

The sense of appropriate and inappropriate deportment carries over to the clothes a person wears and how the person "carries" what he wears. The ideal, just like in active corporeal activities like dancing, is for the act of wearing a particular set of clothes to come naturally. A lot of this has to do with deportment, or how a person carries his body because a person who has the appropriate deportment can by extension wear clothes naturally. In Tagalog, we say wala yan sa damit, nasa nagdadala. I've even heard it said of people that they can wear sack cloth and they would make it look beautiful (kahit nakasako siya, maganda pa rin). This illustrates the primacy of deportment.

For most people, however, the trick is knowing how to dress appropriately. Here we ask the age-old fashion questions: is it better to over dress or underdress (to which I have heard stylists say it is best to dress appropriately)? What does smart casual mean? What is a good tie and what is a bad tie? Here, the legislators of style come to the fore: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and all the magazines sold by the Gokongweis and all those books on How To Dress.

Clothing also betrays the inequality of the ability to engage in or the inequality of awareness of appropriate practice. A person may have a sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate practice in terms of clothing but may not be able to afford the appropriate clothes. The lack of appropriate clothes may lead to self-restraint on the part of a person who chooses not to go to an occassion or to a particular place on account of not having the right clothes to wear. Clothing then becomes a principle of exclusion.

Those who are not aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate attire are looked down upon or are identified as not being one-of-us. This is often quite tricky especially when the sense of what constitutes appropriate attire is not obvious. Among the rich especially, displays of wealth are often understated except in the most formal of occasions and when it comes to cars and cellular phones. I had a friend who said he could tell if a person was wearing tailored slacks or RTW based on the fit. Rich adolescents seem to dress simply and some adults are shocked that they wear slippers to school without knowing that these adolescents can tell if the simple dress or slipper is branded (after all, one can speak of P600 slippers). There was once a suggestion to prohibit students from wearing garish jewelry which exhibits an ignorance of practice because adornment of the body with garish jewelry is already considered by students to be inappropriate behavior. Wealth and status must be displayed more subtly.

Good taste is acquired from a lifetime of socialization and is very difficult to teach. One can have good friends who will give you a one-time make-over but maintenance will be difficult if you do not have a sense of what makes the make-over good in the first place and if you cannot carry that new look. That is why the Queer Eyes give out awards to the straight guys who are able to maintain their looks.

Good taste, like virtue, is acquired; it cannot be easily taught. It is difficult to explain to a person, for example, what makes a good tie. Either one knows, or one doesn't. Good clothing, like deportment, is most effective when it becomes second nature to a person.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bodily Gymnastics

Bourdieu says we learn bodily which can mean two things. First, that our body learns and adapts to the social enviornment. This was discussed in the essay on deportment. Second, that our body learns seemingly independent from the mind.

Deportment becomes second nature, something we do mindlessly, without mental effort. We do not normally think about how to hold a spoon or fork or knife nor do we think about whether or not we walk properly. We do not normally think about the volume of our voice in conversation. Our body learns.

The same is true for more purposive corporeal activities (beyond deportment) like driving or dancing or sports or sex. A person who is good in all of these things does them mindlessly, as if the body had a mind of its own. A person engaged in these activities is considered to be good when the body knows what to do even without mental consideration. That person has good bodily instincts.

As someone gets adept at driving, for example, that person increasingly thinks about driving less and is able to think about other things more and yet still avoid accidents. A new driver on the other hand, will think about nothing but the road before him and his deportment will probably easily identify him as a new driver (not seated back but leaning close to the wheel, not looking at passengers, jumpy, etc.)

Bodily agility in purposive corporeal activities can be gained through constant practice or drills. At first, a dancer may find himself counting as he dances say to the waltz (one two three, one two three) but a really good dancer does not count anymore. The body already knows what to do. But to get from counting to bodily agility requires constant practice, a training of the body until it knows what to do. That is why we often say, "That looks easy" but when we are actually engaged in the corporeal actvity, we say "It wasn't as easy as it looks".

Monday, September 11, 2006


The sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate does not only apply to behaviors but also applies most effectively to our bodies. Each collective has a sense of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate for a body to be or do.

From the moment we are born, society looks at our bodies and tries to bring it in line with the sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate. We worry about a child who might grow up to be bow-legged or cross-eyed or left-handed. We teach our children to hold writing implements properly and the same goes for dining utensils. We worry about children who habitually touch their genitalia or thumbsuck.

We admonish these same children as they grow up not to pick their nose or fart or burp in public, or to cover their mouths when they sneeze (and to say "bless you" when others do).
This sense of appropriate and inappropriate bodies and bodily dispositions is the central problem faced by any teenager and those like me who never really appreciated this sense of bodily norms. We often say that teenagers go through an awkward stage or an ugly duckling stage. Thus, the teenagers' torment when he has to deal with pimples sprouting all over his face or when his voice croaks at inopportune moments.

At least twice or thrice in my lifetime, one huge red pimple has appeared at the very tip of my nose (one was beginning to sprout on my wedding day but thankfully, it was not yet in full bloom), making me appear like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The older I get, the more embarassing it has become and the harder it is for me to hold my head high and behave as if it is not there. I know that it is embarassing because few people bring it up. When someone (uncouth) brings it up, nobody follows it up and people quickly change the topic.

Another problem I face is posture. One day, as I was walking along the street, a woman behind me was telling her companion, "Sayang ang tangkad niya, hindi diretso tumayo" and I knew she was referring to me, a person for whom standing straight does not come naturally.

As we grow old, we are judged based on our ability to have a sense of the appropriate bodily gynmastics. It is high praise when someone says we are comfortable with our bodies (kumportable siya sa katawan niya) or that we know we have a good sense of deportment/ we know how to carry ourselves (kaya niya dalhin katawan niya).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Appropriate/ Inappropriate

Every collective has a sense of which practices are considered appropriate and which practices are considered inappropriate. Practices may include behavior but also include decisions on what to wear or even posture.

I think that there are various levels of inappropriateness.
  1. The first level is the mildest of all and may easily be converted into a joke. Let us say you fart (an embarassingly inappropriate topic for a blog, I know) but you are among friends. That will most likely elicit laughter or feigned derision which ends up in laughter. Mildly inappropriate behavior is noticed and talked about quite openly.
  2. The second level of inappropriateness includes embarassing practices, in Tagalog, nakakahiya. Those kinds of practices are rarely brought into the public sphere. When I graduated from my M.A., my cap fell off when I bowed and elicited laughter but after that, no one joked about it. Or sometimes I have a great big pimple right on the tip of my nose and very few people mention it. Embarassment is public but the public holds back on making it public. Sometimes good friends whisper to you that your practice is inappropriate but even that is made privately. Some time ago my polo was hanging out from its tuck-in and a friend embarassingly whispered to me to fix it.
  3. The third level of inappropriateness elicits shock and often leads to tsimis. Someone takes on a mistress o di kaya, may nagwala in public. People talk about it but not in front of the offending party.
  4. The fourth level of inappropriateness elicits an instant reaction which others cannot help but display to the offending party but there is no follow through. The act of the offender is considered madness.
  5. The fifth and highest level of inappropriateness is associated with scandal. It leads to revulsion and often elicits a very negative reaction. Angry words are thrown at the offending person verbally or through a scathing letter. That person is often ostracized.

Next post: Monday, September 11; Deportment