Plumbing the History of the New Cleavage

Low-slung trousers are hot, but I see a bad moon rising.

By Shannon Rupp 16 Feb 2004 |
image atom

There's something sinister about the fashion trend to trousers slung-so-low that they require a wax job to wear.

Even my fashionista pal Anne, who devours Vogue in every language, cringed when she saw a pronounced case of what we used to call "plumber's butt" making her way across a restaurant. "That's just so tacky," she hissed, and shuddered.

Well, yes, but then tacky is the new black. It's the wear-with-everything accessory and the outfit that brings down-market appeal to every occasion. Bared naughty bits and decolletage-cut-to-the-crotch all celebrate values once associated with people who live in trailer parks.

So why did butt-crack chic become so appealing?

History of impractical fashion

As sociologists who study fashion tell us, clothing reflects social values, aspirations, and the zeitgeist. All those boyish flappers of the '20s with their breast-flattening bands and bobbed hair were making a subconscious attempt to fill the vacuum left by the First World War's lost generation of young men.

Fashions of the '20s are notable because they actually gave women more freedom, a rarity in a world where "style" is so often a stand-in for "social control." Chinese foot-binding, for example, was supposed to help women achieve that culture's measure of beauty, small feet, but as any undergraduate worth her salt will tell you, female beauty standards are usually defined by men, some of whom have ulterior motives. Foot-binding, not coincidentally, cripples a woman. She can't function in the world, and she can't run away, so she is left as little more than a decorative home accessory.

So what are the fashions that feature the new cleavage telling us about who and what women are supposed to be?

Since low-rise garments make it difficult to bend and move, this style has something in common with its predecessors, like spiked heels, corsets, and 20-pound wigs containing bird cages. These fashions evolved out of the philosophy that "You have to suffer to be beautiful," which was coined as a way of brainwashing women into thinking that pain was something desirable. It's a pattern of thought that I fear may be one of the reasons so many of us tolerate violence, sexual harassment, and other unpleasantness.

So ass-flash wear meets some of the traditional criteria for fashionable women's clothing: it's uncomfortable, it limits movement, and it serves as a way of putting women in their place. Donning it says to the world: Sure, women can wear the pants, but only as a symbol of their low status.

Blame it on Madonna?

But pain-and-suffering alone isn't enough to make a trend attractive-you have to convince the wearer that her garb says something good about her. Which brings us to Madonna. A colleague argues that Madonna can be blamed for most of things that are wrong with contemporary society: talentless celebrities who can't act making movies; talentless celebrities who can't write churning out books; and, well, the masses of talentless celebrities just vying for attention. You name something wrong with the culture, and, she argues, there's a good chance it can be traced to the material girl.

Although it seems unfair to blame Madonna entirely, she did play a role in popularizing tackiness as an expression of women's sexual freedom. She wasn't the first to wear underwear as outerwear-that had been a feature of underground culture for so long that by the '60s it had made its way into Bob Fosse's gartered-stocking musicals. But Madonna was the one who took it mainstream. Suddenly bras were everywhere, which, to be fair, led to some real improvements in bra aesthetics.

By the mid-'90s the exposed bra-strap became so popular among teens that TV's fashion-conscious Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired a drinking game in frat houses. Every time Buffy's bra-strap showed, the boys took a swig, thereby ensuring intoxication within the hour.

Clothes with class

While peek-a-boo lingerie suggests both a playful sexiness and a self-confident refusal to hide the symbols of female sexuality, there's something else altogether going on with butt-crack chic. It screams downwardly mobile-which is perhaps a clue as to why designers are dictating that women expose all their cheeks.

Butt-baring jeans rob women of power. Aside from telegraphing that she sees herself as a member of a social underclass, just how much authority can any woman claim when she is preoccupied with yanking up her trousers?

If the fashions we embrace represent the subconscious tug-of-war between what women long for and what society expects of them, today's woman is in serious trouble. While she may think she's celebrating her sense of liberation, it's more likely that much of the world sees her as little more than an object-of lust, or contempt, or even ridicule.

So this new moon rising isn't about freedom at all, it's just another sign that the sun is setting on women's power.

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Has the IPCC climate change report made you :

Take this week's poll