The standard for a better self
Fashion magazines and fashion journalism deliver more than just clothes, they represent the variety and creativity of fashion but also the selected point of view of contemporary society. As philosopher Roland Barthes suggested, fashion journalism has shaped and perhaps even created the concept of fashion and its symbolic value. Through time, fashion functions as guidance, leading people to elevate themselves to achieve an ‘ideal appearance.’ And with the rise of neoliberalism and the centralising of individuals, nowadays, fashion journalism and fashion brands seem to be focusing more on people’s ‘inner-selves.’
Encouraging self-improvement, women’s self-help success stories, or their mind-altering experiences when using certain products, are quite commonly seen in fashion magazines. These stories bring another layer of meaning and value to the products as proved by pioneer American publicist Edward Bernays in 1920’s that the unconscious emotional state of consumers is the key to sell products. In fashion magazines, text and images are used as tools, emotions are dug out but also muddled with misleading and antithetical information.
Moreover, whether promoted by fashion magazines or brands, this strategy of creating selected, idealised, and idolised images of selfhood builds up a hierarchy and a standard to fit in or fall out. While promoting self-help or self-transformation, there is always a certain product being suggested, and a particular figure who is recognised as elegant, possessing ideal womanhood, and successful. And these are the criteria we can and should achieve to become our better selves.
Norms of gender and a person’s well-being
As mentioned before, at Hul le Kes, we don’t want to focus on a particular gender. And the way the current fashion industry operates reminds us that the above-mentioned standards not only stipulate how women should look like, but also strengthen the gender norms, which is what we strive to avoid.
There has always been a complicated discussion between sex and gender. Sex and gender are not synonyms, sex primarily refers to biological and physical attributes-body characteristics notably sex organs which are distinct in the majority of individuals. Whereas gender, according to physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, is the social construction of how particular sex should behave, and it may be different based on culture or subculture.
It is clear that contemporary society is still operating under the dominant heterosexual frame. Even though people are now more aware of the concept and complication of gender identity, our way of dressing and purchasing clothes is still mainly based on binary norms of gender. Furthermore, what we don’t seem to notice is that gender identity affects more than just the way we dress but it is also deeply connected to a person’s self-recognition and well-being.
The violence of gender norms is psychological torture— being discriminated against because of the failure to appear in accepted gendered norms, the terror and anxiety to coming out, the fear of losing one’s place in gender and so on.“It was difficult to bring this violence into view precisely because gender was so taken for granted at the same time that it was violently policed.”4 written by philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler. What we need to realise is that, as long as the hegemony of heterosexuality still exists, there will always be a boundary that defines inside and outside, normal and abnormal, privileged and non-privileged.
In an interview with Cristan Williams, Butler stated that “My sense is that we may not need the language of innateness or genetics to understand that we are all ethically bound to recognise another person declared or enacted sense of sex and/or gender. We do not have to agree upon the “origins” of that sense of self to agree that it is ethically obligatory to support and recognise sexed and gendered modes of being that are crucial to a person’s well-being.” Strive to confound the very binaries of sex and to expose cultural configurations of sex and gender’s fundamental unnaturalness,6 our goal is not to eliminate gender but to denaturalise gender as Butler suggested. Fashion has an influence over the way people think and feel about their bodies. This is surely a position of power and responsibility that fashion brands should be taking seriously.
At Hul le Kes, we don’t focus on the specific gender because it should never be like that. We treat gender-fluid fashion as a normality rather than something unconventional and focus on bodies. Therefore we work with our own size chart, with sizes from 1 up to 4 (or, when it is a one size fits all, with an A size.) Yet, we also understand how different it is between every human body. This is why in most of our designs, we add some details that allow the size of the garments to be adjustable. Our local production and preordering systems, not only helps us avoid overproduction but also allows us to offer customised services to our clients. We are now working on the customisation and alteration services which will bring us closer to inclusivity.
Self-care isn’t self-transformation
As mentioned above, self-care is often being used as a branding strategy. Due to the increasingly focusing on the individual selves, emotion has become a product itself. The industry now is highly pushing us to not only transform our appearance but allow our inner selves to become ‘better’. Surrounded by an excess of positivity, the way of becoming a better person is simplified to just ‘try harder.’ This, however, ends up excluding the people who can not afford the products which have a promising effect of helping us to achieve a sense of self-confidence. Again, the standard is set to be followed, and the hyper-optimism results in making us feel ever insufficient and in turn making us more vulnerable to this type of branding.
Whether it is gender identity or self-care, none of it should become a tool to be used. The standard and class division should never be telling us how to feel about ourselves and what kind of identity or state of mind is better than the others. Today, the understanding of self-care is an ongoing mission of upgrading ourselves. And we are convinced that the improvement we made will bring us happiness. Nevertheless, in her article Selfcare as Warfare7, scholar Sara Ahmed argues that selfcare is not the duty to care for one’s own happiness and flourishing. It is about finding a way to exist in the institution that we are not included in and to care for ourselves to live, to be, or to survive when we are under attack. Even though Ahmed wrote about how 8 self-care is affecting marginalised groups, it affects all consumers in some way.
It’s not the perfection but the imperfection which makes clothes and people interesting. This is always the central idea of Hul le Kes. No one is perfect and they never should be, so as our products. As we are constantly working on the beauty of imperfection in our design, we also value the uniqueness of all imperfect individuals. Therefore, In addition to Studio RYN, we set up the Hul le Kes Recovery Studio for people with a need for mental or psychological care; not fitting the dominant standards of our society.
We believe it is important that we not only carry out gender equality on the surface, but also inside our company, our everyday lives, and deepen the topic. The standard of being beautiful and the norm of gender are poisonous, we should never have to try so hard to fit in just because the world tells us to. Self-care here is not self-transformation. It is to take care of ourselves while we are still under all these rules and hegemony. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have affected the mental health of many people and created new obstacles for those who already suffer from mental illness. Transferring away from the self-help industry, we would like to pay more attention to difference without judgement. Besides, inside Hul le Kes, we hope to grow as a community that has the ability to support each other as we always should.
Wei Chi Su is a master student at ArtEZ Fashion Strategy. She is now working as an intern at Hul le Kes. During her time here, she wishes to research and rethink fashion’s relationship with feminism, racism, human rights, and gender identity. She sees design as a form of intangible communication and fashion as one of it is the most intimate to our bodies and probably our lives. Coming from Taiwan, a country that has an uncertain international status, she feels deeply connected with the feeling of not getting the equality most people are taken for granted. Seeking a way to express her concern, she finds fashion as the most comfortable form for her to express her thoughts.