The Intention Behind Fashion: 
Unraveling the Seams 

This is a criticism of the ignorance of a group of people’s view of fashion as it pertains to identity and communication. Misinformed individuals make the common mistake of overlooking what fashion actually is, always has been, and what will continue to be: art. What’s more infuriating is having to listen to non-artists dismiss the value an art piece for the sake of upholding an argument. I can only classify this group by a term that explains what they are by its binary, what they are not (the standard language for philosophical discussion) – as not-artists. As the language implies, these individuals are not artists. What does it mean to be a “not-artist”? A not-artist does not understand basic art fundamentals, much less complex art fundamentals. If you don’t understand what these fundamentals are, you are a not-artist. It is important to establish this basic concept early on because it creates a clear image of what it means to have knowledge of what art is. Despite popular belief, art is not entirely opinion. As with any other area of discipline, certain systematic structures exist and do not change – hence, the term “art fundamentals” or “x fundamentals”, x being any area of discipline.

In order to illustrate this discussion, consider the following interactions in response to Rihanna’s dress, where Person A makes a general comment to the post and responds by negation, and Persons B and C reply to Person A:

Person A: “So she’s not contributing to rape culture by showing herself in public in a sexual way which men will inherently see as her objectifying herself because men can’t possibly see a subject in a sexual being even though both men and women are born to be sexual beings and our brains are able to discern between objects and subjects so that we can live together? How is that stupid!? She should be wearing a burka!”

Person B: “Don’t defend rapists, duh. I should be able to walk outside naked and not get raped. I wouldn’t rape a naked man no matter how sexy he was.”

Person A: “What!? That’s not how rape culture works? I thought it was because women are over sexualized and men see them as objects that they are entitled to have. Am I wrong? Tell her to cover up!”

Person C: “No. People looking at her might objectify her. She is not objectifying herself. And rape culture works because men are allowed to get away with criminal behavior, while women are blamed for the man’s actions. THAT’S rape culture. Wearing a revealing dress does not mean she’s encouraging someone to rape her. Cripes. Check yourself, please.”

Clearly, Person A has structured his/her response in the form of sarcasm. However, the most important word to pay attention to is the “not” at the beginning. This way, we can begin to answer questions more directly. The assumptions thrown into question by Person A: Rihanna is not showing herself in public in a sexual way; Rihanna is not objectifying herself; Men will not inherently see Rihanna as an object because of the dress; Both men and women are born into sexual beings; and Human brains are able to discern between objects and subjects. Given the structure of the language, we can say that Person A is suggesting that there really is a correlation between sexuality and clothing. Persons B and C make the assertion that there is no correlation between sexuality and clothing.

Before I begin my analysis of Rihanna’s dress, a few things must be addressed. These issues will be presented in a series of questions:
Can one display sexuality through clothing?

What does it mean to objectify?

Can one self-objectify and maintain self-respect?

How do objectification and rape culture correlate?

Should she be wearing a Burka? (jk)

What is the correlation between clothing and rape?

Among the first questions posed in Art school, is this: What can be can be classified as art? Well, intention is what classifies anything as art, on a very fundamental level. Intention. We will not discuss what makes good or bad art, because that has little relevance to the points of discussion and requires an entire curriculum to answer completely (art school). Fashion is an art form, therefore it has intention. Most of all, commercial art, and therefore, commercial fashion. Women and men claim too much ignorance of how clothing is supposed to communicate ideas, information, and intention.

Can one display sexuality through clothing?

Now, in fashion…typically, a body will serve as the foundation, or simply the means by which an article of clothing becomes the sexual appeal, where the dress will make you sexy and the suit will make you professional.

​Exhibit A: You have intentions of going to a job interview. What’s the obvious choice of clothing? Business attire: Button-up, blazer, suit jacket, slacks, pencil skirt, flats, short heels, etc.

​Exhibit B: You have intentions of going to a night club. What’s the obvious choice of clothing? Ding ding ding, club attire! Tight clothing: short dress, short skirt, small top, high heels (ones your friendly neighborhood stripper might even wear).

So, yes. One can display sexuality through clothing.

What does it mean to objectify?

In Rihanna’s case, the dress transforms the body into the sexual appeal; the dress is the means by which the body becomes the sexual appeal. In other words, the Swrovski Crystal dress intends to objectify the female body. Think about the material being used: crystals. These crystals are typically used to adorn other human body parts, like a hand, ear, or neck via rings, earrings, and necklaces. Yes, the crystals are gorgeous, but we must also recognize that this type of adornment functions specifically to objectify the hand, the ear, or the neck on, arguably, very subtle levels. A crystal dress that covers nothing only emphasizes the fact that a woman is being naked and intends to be sexy. (Nakedness is a state of being) The crystals highlight her curves and shape, making her look like some sort of goddess if you will. The material is so light and scarce that the intention is not to cover up, rather to show off what’s underneath. That screams, “Look at me!”. Just by virtue of the fact that her body contrasts with everyone else’s, the dress emphasizes her sexuality to the degree that it is distracting. Distracting as in, “Wow, I can see everything.” It is a well known fact that the female body is used as a symbol of beauty and sexuality by BOTH men AND women; art history proves this. Given this very fact, it would not be a stretch to assert that this pattern of upholding the female body itself as an object of affection is being reaffirmed, arguably celebrated, by the designer, Adam Selman.

​Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those. The point being made here is that we understand the correlation between articles of clothing and intention. If we understand this relationship, then we understand the identity of an article of clothing: a button-up, slacks, and flats is professional and “not-sexy”; a tight short dress is “not-professional” and sexy. If you wear an article of clothing that was quite literally designed by designer to elicit a specific reaction, like sexual arousal – hence the whole idea of sexy club wear – you should expect people to respond to that message being communicated by your clothing, because clothing is an art after all. Know what you’re getting into, meaning: understand how your clothing’s identity is constructed and understand how you subscribe to that identity by wearing it. I repeat: understand how you subscribe to that identity by wearing it. By wearing it.

This point is crucial to the whole argument of claiming ignorance. In order to illustrate this argument better, consider the following comment where Person D attempts to define the perimeters of objectification:

Person D: Wearing a see through dress is not objectifying yourself. If a person thinks that nudity and self respect are mutually exclusive, that’s their problem, not Rihanna’s.

Per this individual’s “reasoning”, or lack thereof, it is clear that he or she does not understand the concept of objecthood, as I have just explained. It is also a classic example the ignorance I am critiquing. Simply negating the idea of self-objectification without justification does nothing to validate the point. That’s a basic rule of any form of debate. Nevertheless, the notion of self-respect is very interesting to consider in this argument. It raises the following question: How do self-objectification and self-respect correlate?

The act of dressing yourself in an article of clothing and wearing it is a clear act of agency. You choose to wear one piece over another. In a visual sense, you are merely an extension of the concept the article of clothing is representing. In Rihanna’s case, she is choosing to wear an outfit that is designed to objectify the body as the point of sexual desire. Therefore, she is actively choosing to objectify herself with her choice of clothing. So the idea that this is “not Rihanna’s problem” shows blatant denial of the entire concept of agency, free will, and choice – for the sake of upholding the argument of Rihanna not objectifying herself. In other words, one can actively choose to self-objectify and one can actively choose to not self-objectify.

Can one self-objectify and maintain self-respect?

The answer to this question is not so easy to answer, as it depends entirely on how we attempt to define self-respect. It becomes a matter of degrees. It mirrors the following questions: Can a stripper objectify herself and maintain self-respect? Can a porn star objectify her self and maintain self-respect? Well, it is not the case that one person’s actions are indefinitely irreverent or indefinitely reverent over a consistent period of time. Actions are transient. If actions are transient, then so is self-respect. Because self-respect is transient, then lack of self-respect is also transient. In other words, it is plausible for an individual to objectify themselves momentarily, and to display lack of self-respect momentarily; it is also plausible for an individual to not objectify themselves momentarily, and to display self-respect momentarily. Does this mean an individual lacks self-respect entirely if he or she experiences an event in lacking self-respect? No. By the same token, does this mean that an individual has self-respect entirely if he or she experiences an event in exhibiting self-respect? No. In other words, every single person is capable of instances of self-respect as well as instances of lack of self-respect.

Now that we’ve established how self-respect exists and functions, we can answer the question at hand more clearly, as it pertains to the specifics of the event: Rihanna wearing the Swarovski dress.

Rihanna, former beauty pageant contestant, is a celebrity. She has been lauded as a sex icon. It comes as no surprise that advertisers would exploit her physical appearance, the epitome of the “sex sells” business model. Yes, it’s a business model. Welcome to Capitalism. The current trend among female pop stars isn’t revolutionary if we look at from this business model. They’re doing exactly what advertisers want them to do: to sell their sexuality. Rihanna has claimed ignorance to her own sexuality in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. That particular interview becomes so relevant to the question of self-respect, as it focuses on the domestic abuse between her and Chris Brown. Her tolerance of abuse might suggest momentary lack or self-respect, for example. In the same way, one could argue that her self-objectification could be a momentary instance of lack of self-respect.

How do objectification and rape culture correlate?

A brief defense of the designer Adam Selman is due. Obviously, the Swarovski dress is a concept dress. It gives the illusion of a sheet of crystals draping over the body. Light reflects against the curved surfaces of the body, creating subtle highlights and shadows. It was a very good attempt at reinventing our idea of what slip dress is; it pushes the boundaries of how we can use certain materials, like mesh and crystals. The flapper pastiche was a nice touch, with the mink-like wrap and crystal cap. It’s an absolutely gorgeous dress.

Technical problems with actually wearing this dress include the exposed areolas and nude thong. The visibility of these things completely destroy the elegance the dress intends to create. The nude thong does not match Rihanna’s skin tone at all. It functions the same way fishing wire does. Fishing wire is clear, and you might think that it is invisible, but because the light is reflected, the wire is even more exposed. In the same way, Rihanna’s nude thong is more exposed. As for the areolas, they are distracting in the same way a stain on a white shirt is distracting. It takes away from the pristine look of the crystal slip. Adam Selman is not to blame for this catastrophe; Rihanna’s make-up team is to blame. With all the money and talent existing in Hollywood, you would think someone would have suggested creating silicon covers for her vagina and areolas. Applying makeup to her areolas would not have been an option because it would have compromised the quality of the dress by absolutely staining it. Alternatively, Adam Selman could have made minor adjustments to the dress design. For example, he might have considered concentrating the crystals around her vulva, mons and nipples, maybe connect the areas with a concentrated line of crystals from her chest to her pelvic region. This would be a way to cover up. Either way, we can agree that the dress looks very different on a mannequin versus a human body for the simple reason that a mannequin is one shade, and human body is not. This is the only shortcoming of the presentation.

With regard to objectification and rape culture: there is no question that wearing sexually arousing clothing is going to elicit sexual arousal, as I have already explained. However, rape culture is defined by an individual’s justification for raping. This justification is a lot simpler than the public wishes to acknowledge. The sad truth of the matter is that rapists rape because they think they can get away with it. A criminal commits a crime because the criminal believes he or she can get away with it. Another sad truth is that rapists have, and continue to get away with rape because our current legislation lacks the proper discipline to actually bring these criminals to justice. Self-objectification does not justify rape. Although, self-objectification has power to the extent that it will attract a certain degree of attention. This is exactly how strippers and porn stars manage to get paid. A stripper’s wages are directly related to the degree by which she objectifies herself: the less skin she shows, the more she identifies as a sexual object (breast implants, other plastic surgery, wearing a mask of make-up, wearing hair extensions, wigs, fake nails, jewelry, high-heeled shoes, etc) the more attention she will receive. The more attention she receives, the more money she will make. The same is true of a porn star.

So, the question that now presents itself is this: How do self-objectification and objectification correlate? Well, self-objectification only validates objectification. When an individual presents his or herself as an object, it follows that the viewer will view them as such. The mechanism of self-objectification and objectification is such that the individual being objectified can be only be objectified if that individual is self-objectifying. In other words, there is no justification for an individual to objectify another individual who is not self-objectifying. This distinction has become very dangerous in our society because many individuals fail to discern individuals who self-objectify from those who do not self-objectify. By the same token, many individuals fail to realize when they are self-objectifying and when they are not. This is something current feminist discourse has consistently failed to acknowledge; it is a clear instance of how female culture has encouraged this kind of ignorance and encouraged lack of responsibility to the choice, free will, and intention behind fashion. The reason for this ignorance is a direct result of the ignorance of how fashion functions. So, while self-objectification does not justify rape, it does justify objectification.

This realization leads to a number of relevant questions we should be asking ourselves: How often do we self-objectify? Are we harboring narrow views of what sexy is? How are we contributing to our own images as sexual objects? 

The goal of this essay is to challenge the norm and open up discussion. I will be following up on this submission with another piece that focuses on what kinds of clothing lend themselves more to self-objectification and which ones do not. I will also analyze the differences between a designer’s intention and the way the they items of clothing are marketed i.e. self-objectifying clothing is marketed as trendy or cute. In addition to this, I will submit another piece on Michelle Rodriguez’s perspective of what it means to challenge traditional female roles.