Prairie Dresses and the Digital Economy of Women

I wrote about the recent prairie/religious/Batsheva fashion trend for my Spring 2018 class, Fashion and Digital Media. If you’re interested in fashion, please check out our blog “For(war)dham Fashion” and all the GREAT posts by the students in the course.

Here’s my post, which I’m hoping to turn into a bigger paper/project…

Batsheva dresses started creeping into my Instagram feed last year. At first, I couldn’t believe anyone would go for these, let alone the fashion world. They definitely fit the ‘modest core’ (is that a thing?) fashion trend. The dresses were so strange, and yet I wanted one. They reminded me of my childhood and the games I played, books I read, and worlds I imagined—Little House on the Prairie, Annie, and The Boxcar Children. They also reminded me of the Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax aesthetic of the 1980s, two “it” brands for a spell. The Batsheva dresses are overtly feminine with their ruffles and flower prints, high collars, long sleeves. They look mildly restrictive in their cuts and the complete opposite of athlesiure. I don’t think they’re made for super curvy women, and from the initial images of the dresses, being rail thin helps give them an edge. When thinking about the dress on myself, I immediately worried it’d look too real—meaning the fashion-statement-making impact (and the irony) would be lost. The dresses seem to be a young, thin woman’s game.

The dresses definitely bring home Simmel’s 1957 thesis that fashion, at it’s core, is a way to stand out, especially for the upper, and upper aspiring classes. Wearing a frilly, modest core, Amish style dress does not read as “basic” in 2018. If we follow Simmel’s thesis, eventually the suburban women will be wearing such frilly dresses and the elite will have moved on to something radically different. Part of the appeal of the Batsheva aesthetic is that it’s a fashion risk. The ability to take a risk is a way to signal not only one’s fashion sense but also a way to signal cultural capital. Batsheva Hay, the designer herself, embodies lots of cultural capital–Ivy League educated, a lawyer, married to a fashion photographer, and, according to her Instagram, runs with a fascinating crowd of intellectuals, artists, actors. All of this capital enables her to take sartorial risks, to go against the grain. Risk taking helps one stand out online, creating value via likes, followers, ads, and, potentially, sponsors. It is an especially important way to stand out in a digital economy flooded with #ootd posts.

A look from Batsheva’s Downtown Modesty.

What’s especially interesting about the Batsheva dresses is the religious reference to a traditional style of dressing, which by its unchanging nature (tradition) is anti-fashion. Back to Simmel, for fashion to even exist, there has to be a break from tradition, a society that changes. Change in fashion comes from the back and forth between standing out and fitting in. The Amish (and other traditional or orthodox groups) do not ever change their dress, they are not a part of fashion. Wearing an Amish inspired dress then is a risk: you have to be able to effectively signal that you are not Amish (ie not traditional), that you are instead fashion. The sociologist in me enjoys watching fashion, like capitalism itself, turn up every nook in search of new forms of value. Traditional dress has always been so anti-fashion, it held no value for the capitalist system. But capitalism doesn’t care so much about cultural differences if they can be mined and turned into profits.

Until I taught this class I was under the impression that digital media was democratizing or at least upsetting the fashion world. After all of your wonderful presentations, however, I see that there are different digital classes of fashion just as there are different fashion classes IRL. Mainstream digital fashion seems to be ‘the blonde salad’ and her millions of followers whereas the elite digital fashion class may be Batsheva (with her 4554 followers as of 5/9/18). The cost of the clothing may not be determinative of class in the digital world—it’s more about attention. Who has the attention of the elite vs who has the attention of the masses, or who has the attention of both. As we kept returning to all semester, it’s women (their attention, participation, production and consumption) that create, circulate, and stand as massive sources of value in this digital economy of attention. While we’re all out here #ootd-ing, Instagram is minting money!

That’s not to say digital media is not important for women, feminism, and other marginalized peoples and movements. Cinematic media gave us what Laura Mulvey termed “the male gaze”—a way of identifying with images, a way of looking at women as body parts and less-than-full-humans. The male gaze is a product of technology. The camera cuts out all the elements of real life (the set crew, the grips, etc) so that all viewers see is one version of reality. Digital media upsets this omnipotent construction of reality because we see everything, or way more than before. We see the make-up application from bare face to full contour; we see a fashion haul; we see all the labor that goes into making an image. This is a new type of gaze. A gaze that creates a fleeting identification with others instead of some oedipal desire. We no longer sit in a dark theater, we check our feeds all day. Women are creating, circulating images and stories en masse. The digital gaze is, or can be more easily, a female gaze.

A look from Batsheva’s Downtown Modesty.

Which brings me back to Batsheva. Yes, the dresses are a break from the norm and therefore a fashion risk (a way to stand out). But they also speak to a female gaze. These are not the dresses of a male gaze/male fantasy, they definitely fit into the “Manrepeller“, ugly-cool zeitgeist. These are dresses that speak to some deep girl/femme culture and play. She makes the dresses in adult and child sizes so mothers and daughters (or sons!) can dress alike.

 A vintage and handmade little-house-on-the-prairie type of dress I found. 


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