Themes in Fashion Theory: Lady Godiva

The legendary ride of Lady Godiva, in which she took a promenade through town naked on horseback, has sparked the imagination of many. Various interpretations and multiple retellings of her story testify to the compelling nature and irresistible appeal of this tale.

In an effort to convince her husband to lower taxes, Lady Godiva is rumored to have stripped herself of all her clothes to ride through the town’s square. The townspeople are said to have shut their windows out of respect for this gallant, although shocking, gesture on the part of the Lady (but alas there was Peeping Tom notoriously watching her risque ride!). Whether or not this event really happened in the dramatic fashion in which it is most often retold is up for debate, but Lady Godiva serves as a significant springboard for discussing issues of nakedness, dress, and the gaze — all of which converge in themes of masochism and exhibitionism.

Although Lady Godiva was notoriously nude for her famous ride, there are some points to be made here regarding showing or revealing the body through clothing. Under the cover of dress we are obviously not revealing the body completely, but there is a sense in which clothing itself – while literally concealing the body – is precisely intended to show off the body. In fact, it’s been said that the history of fashion is nothing but the constant shifting focus of attention to various parts of the female form.

But what is behind this dual revealing and concealing in clothing? Does this close connection with the body allow for a sort of subtle or un-spoken exhibitionism? And if so, where does that exhibitionism leave us?

In his philosophical work Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre details the behaviors of the masochist — the person who sees him or herself most essentially as an object — a thing to be gazed upon. The masochist is too overwhelmed by freedom to encounter his/her responsibility as a subjective individual, so s/he relinquishes freedom to become an object in the eyes of others.

A person dressing with an over-emphasis on the body qua body may be revealing a masochistic/exhibitionistic inclination. Various styles which emphasize the body include anything highlighting specific body parts – the bust, the back, the legs – any article of clothing which intentionally reveals or conceals various body parts in an effort to highlight the body as something to be viewed as an object. (What is even more startling about clothing that highlights specific body parts is that it in a sense dissects the body into an amalgam of various parts – all of which are equally objectified.)

As we approach the close of New York Fashion Week and move into continued conversations revolving around the “future of fashion,” I think it’s important to keep in mind why we are interested in dress in the first place. What is purpose of dressing the way we do? I hope that through adopting a consistently self-reflective stance, we may become less and less likely to just see ourselves as objects simply wearing more objects.

Paradoxically, in the compulsive laying on of layer and layer of clothing which often characterizes fashion, we actually become naked. We have covered ourselves with so much fashionable material that we are nothing but our body — which is to say — another object.

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