All entries for Thursday 26 January 2006

January 26, 2006

Fashion Show and One World Party.

Title:
Fashion Show and One World Party.
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The One World Week Fashion Show and the One World Party provided Warwick’s numerous and lively international societies with an opportunity to showcase traditional costume and forms of dance from every continent in the World in a dazzling celebration of their country’s heritage, however these performance were by no means flashbacks. In fact most societies seemed equally proud of their country’s transition from the ancient to the contemporary world. The striking visual contrast this created between the past and present not only drew attention to the transitions in visual culture but seemed to highlight the changing conceptions of sexuality and gender.
This issue particularly pertinent when the host announced before the Carribean Society entered, that we were about to witness a “celebration of the African woman”. And as the curvaceous beauties ascended the stage exotically swathed in vivid print cottons, bare feet and enormous fabric headdresses I could see why: they were luscious, graceful and strong, and the men who escorted them performed various romantic gestures with religious reverence. And in fact this presentation of a flower or kiss on the hand became a motif of the evening; sometimes aloofly rejected and sometimes shyly accepted by women of every nationality.

However this mood of passionate piety was swiftly banished by the next set of African models, who strode onstage in underwear dripping with diamonds and feathers, concealing the bare minimum of brown bodies which were more western looking in figure and toning. Their carnival dance captured the thrill of celebration but lost the sensuality of sway to frantic movement. Finally the last group of models arrived and as chest shaking gave way to hip gyration both their costumes and attitude turned from flamboyant to garish, whilst their partners turned from from pilgrims to pimps. Indeed, the gangster rappers who accompanied them, similarly sporting the all the bling of ball, regarded them with cool indifference. Even when the women wound their bodies down and brought clawing hands to rest, with their heads, at groin level, their brazen sexual display was rewarded with little more than an arrogant nod of the head in time to the music for the benefit of their male audience. The very same models who had stood, a few minutes earlier, with these men at their feet offering them roses, were now were on their knees before them.
This same radical transformation in the dynamic power between the couples occurred in almost every performance. In fact, as if to emphasize this, the injected tributes to modern films intended to provide “multicultural” interludes in the society acts stood as pertinent testimony to a new model of relationship. James Bond, Austin Power, Sex in the City, Moulin Rouge all exhibited women defining themselves through dress and movement as objects of a new male type of fantasy. In place of the mysterious, adorned jewel, symbol of a precious demure femininity, were confident, playful, violently seductive women, conscious of the male gaze, and responding to it. The affected indifference to being watched displayed by the woman of the past seems to have transferred gender and is now more characteristic of the new male. A simple three second movement from kneeling and standing conveyed so much more than sexual energy, intentionally or not, this opposing positions signified a new perception of gender.
The fact that these shows drew audiences of over three thousand people many of whom have no outside interest in fashion or dance proves that they expected these costumes and routines to be invested with meaning beyond the aesthetic. Indeed, the changes within and differences between national costume and dance reflect political, economic, religious and social developments and values. They are a code to be deciphered. The conjunction, for example, of tea dances and parasols with the sharp suits and a call on a flash mobile followed by the exchange of money proudly acted out by the Japanese Society unsubtly alluded to their technological and financial superiority and the growth of their mafia which makes Japan a superpower today. Similarly, and perhaps in deliberate opposition, after a traditional Russian knee kicking dance, a group of thugs in beaver hats violently kicked a man covered in a old-fashioned patterned cloth before the soundtrack proclaimed “we’re not gangsters, we’re Russian”: a most elusive message. Farewell heritage? Who knows.
However without attempting to extract unintentional political messages, the divisions produced by dress and dance which undoubtedly operate according to new categories, do expose new and universal sexual politics. Whilst we were enthralled by the sway of the Sri Lankans, the coiling arms of Asians the jumps and high kicks of American cheerleaders, and head-down shuffle of Japanese, the Salsa stamp and whirl of Latin nations as we were also entertained by the culturally indistinguishable chest popping, shimmying, arm punches and of all their modern counterparts, although they did blur into one after a while. However the walk down the catwalk was the most revealing aspect of the performance. Where the modesty of slow, gracefully executed movements create a profoundly alluring impression, the grind and strut of the modern women is one of exhibition: a subject of social perception, although ironically it is often considered as a symbol of dominance.
However, I am by no means suggesting that the diversity of past tradition has given way to cultural uniformity because although the audience was wowed by the sumptuous silks and bindies and bangles of India; the bold checks of wide sleeved Kimonos; the burgundy fans and pearls of Italian opera wear and the huge pink bows enclosing the waist of the mini Malaysian ladies, this variety seems to have been replaced by a new set of clearly distinguishable costumes: the skew-wiff caps and bright vests of the streets, chains, denim, lace and leather of the clubbers, gangster basket ball shirts and sparkling studs, grunger hoodies, sharp business suits, designer chic Manahlo Blaniks and more. So perhaps we are not becoming One World but simply one with a new currency of cultural difference: clothes and moves no longer based in race or religion but on class money, education and power.


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