In Growing up with Princess Inc earlier this year I wrote about growing gender polarization. In the post I discussed the idea that shifts between androgynous and more overtly gendered fashion trends and body ideals are linked to social and economic fluctuations. Generational experts Strauss and Howe explained in The Fourth Turning that in eras when society struggles to recover from crisis, order, stability and traditional values gain momentum. From social science research we know socioeconomic lower classes tend to embrace traditional gender ideals to a greater degree than does the middle class. The middle class on the other hand, possesses economic and educational resources that allow them to push social boundaries without serious negative consequences. This results in a greater acceptance of non-conformist values such as gender transgressions. Tolerance for homosexuality and even”effeminate” men and “emasculated” women may thus be an indirect function of economics. Which begs the question: Are people more likely to espouse a more feminine or masculine version of themselves while feeling the effect of a recession?
At first glance it might look like a stretch to assume that changes in a person’s job position or income can rock such stubborn social identifiers as gender values. It might seem like the middle class is in free fall these days, but values are after all pretty hardy and will not suddenly evaporate in the presence of a pink slip. Nevertheless, the arts and world of fashion have been pretty good at visually transforming macro trends into “signs of the times” by sensing and capturing the the earliest signs of new neuroses in a population. But the arts are not influenced by society without also being a major source of influence. We look to fashion for cues on how to dress, how to eat, how to mingle, how to conform. And thus – at least for a while – we internalize the style and beauty ideals emitted by the fashion intelligentsia.
“Men have always been defined by their jobs — always”…
The quote above is from a New York Times article from about a year ago about the masculinization of male fashions. Neil Howe contemplated on the generational aspect of this trend on the Life Course blog. The authors point to the observation that men suffered more job losses in the latest recession which also has been dubbed a ‘Mancession’. With a growing number of female breadwinners, men are being delegated to domestic duties and the very essence of what it means to be a man is being challenged. And so it is theorized that in the midst of this downfall, men will try to project a more masculine image to look more mature and traditional in order to nail a job – and maybe also to hold on to a challenged sense of male identity?
So while female ideals have moved from the gaunt looking androgynous runway models of the 1990s to more full figured and feminine role models like Kim Kardashian, boys are now to model far more burlier types than the chicken-breasted meterosexuals that dominated the fashion industry before the recession.
What can we expect when the overall economy points up again? Well, the recovery seems to be lopsided as well. Now it’s mostly women who feel the blunt of the lay-offs, probably as a result of the many cuts in government positions.
In tumultuous times people may revert to the three t’s – traditional, tried and true. In terms of gender values it might mean sporting a tie and five o’clock shadow. Or strive for poutier lips and longer lashes if you’re a woman. If the gender theory holds true, don’t expect any significant gender bending trends like those of the 1980s or early 1990s until the economic winds have settled for some time.
Image: Man In The Hat by Jiri Hodan