27 March 2011

Schoolgirl Style

 This weekend I took in Sucker Punch at our local theater.  I had hoped for a film that was visually interesting and yet capable of exploring the divide between fantasy world and reality all the while keeping up with a strong female character. I guess I had hoped for too much.  I heartily recommend avoiding this film and if you want to read full reviews of it go here and here, but I warn you they contain plot spoilers.

The wardrobe choices of this film left it near impossible to consider this a movie of female empowerment, although I'm sure some critics would disagree.  Babydoll, the main character, is committed to an insane asylum shortly after her mother's death. What follows is her escape to a dreamscape of a dance brothel and then from there an additional layer of escapism as her mind flees to various surreal battlefields.

In each of these dreamscapes that she constructs, Babydoll wears schoolgirl outfits. While school uniforms and schoolgirls themselves used to be pretty innocuous, our contemporary culture has sexualized this image.  Google schoolgirl and you will most assuredly find scantily clad women and older teen youths.  Perhaps it is first a failure of the film to properly develop the character enough that her wardrobe choices seem like a natural extension of her being, but whatever the cause, the viewer is left with yet another empty sexed up ingenue. It is not the actual image of the schoolgirl herself, but the lack of appropriate context that seems irksome to me, as though the outfit is less about presentation of self and more about subjecting her to the male moviegoer's gaze.

After viewing this, I decided to do a retrospective on the schoolgirl look over the past 90 years, how we progressed from classic conservative staple to over-saturated images of dance pop videos featuring the likes of Britney Spears.

Hemlines swiftly make their way upward from Edwardian ideals and we officially welcome in the first recognizable schoolgirl look. We often forget how dramatic a cultural shift we took from Edwardian ladies to the next decade's styles. Short pleated skirts paired with loose, often sailor inspired blouses, were the hallmarks of this style.

Shorter skirts become ingrained in school uniforms, further entrenching the schoolgirl style. The photo used above features young women in Australia indicating that the style was not a local or regional style.

We're all in love with seperates, so much so that they pinafore was a strong schoolgirl style contender. Skirts have a bit of pleating and plaid and schoolgirl start their connection here. 

This is the era that brings us one of the strongest images of schoolgirl style that we have today: the Catholic schoolgirl.  Outfits and uniforms worn to Catholic schools are by necessity conservative and easily replicated.

Schoolgirl style takes a big turn in the 1960s. Mary Quant takes credit for creating the miniskirt and it seems as though women and teens rejoice. Hemlines are drastically brought up especially when held to their 1950s predecessors.  Tartan also takes off in the 1960s and we'll always make the connection between the style and the pattern.

As the subversive culture shifts more strongly from hippie to punk, the schoolgirl look picks up steam as a sexualized image. Debbie Harry of Blondie is a strong example of this look.  The skirt lengths are shorter, and here paired with thigh highs and a hint of skin showing, the message is clear.

The sexual overtones of the 1970s are tempered in the 1980s by the overblown and oversized form. Here, from the movie Heathers, we see an example of the requisite plaid skirts paired with weighty blazers.  While the blazers shift in and out of current interest depending on where we are on the love/hate pendulum when we consider the 1980s, the skirts are really still top form and classic.

The schoolgirl look becomes inescapable and the hyper-sexualization of the schoolgirl look is back in full form by the 1990s.  The movie Clueless captured how omnipresent this style was with shortened hemlines and tighter fits.  Britney Spears knocked it up a few notches with her controversial (at the time) take on the full schoolgirl uniform.  With her midriff exposed and her pleated skirt sporting a dangerous hemline, critics couldn't decide if they should be critiquing the culturally complicated lyrics of her hit song or her decision to embrace a look that was heavily circulated in pornography.

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