GSS Student Interview Series: Shayna Goncalves

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Parsons Fashions Studies M.A. student Shayna Goncalves focuses her research on a semiotic analyses of the miniskirt. Photo credit: Robert Longley

In this month’s edition of the GSS Interview Series, I had the pleasure to sit down with Parsons the New School for Design M.A. in Fashion Studies and GSS student, Shayna Goncalves, to learn a little more about her work centered on issues of fashion and gender.

Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to have a quick conversation with me about your work, Shayna! I want to start out by asking you to speak a little bit about what work you are currently doing in Fashion Studies and what ideas you are currently thinking about.

Well to begin, I think a good access point would be to tell you a bit about my thesis. My thesis looks at how we have come to understand the miniskirt through the various meanings and symbols that this garment, this piece of clothing, has accrued geographically and historically. For example, in one part of the world, at one specific time, the miniskirt is thought of as a symbol of liberation and sexual freedom (think of the U.S. in the 1960s), but in another part of the world it is thought of as this thing that is a threat of the west imposing values on non-western ways of life – this is the viewpoint that many African leaders have expressed by legally banning the miniskirt and this logic has been doled out and consumed by some of the people living in their relative societies, such as those in the case study I am focused on taking place in South Africa. And, at the same time, in some places the miniskirt is even viewed with a sense of terror for women by women because women who are in certain areas do not want to be seen wearing the miniskirt because they are afraid of being sexually violated if they wear one.

My research, then, may be contextualised in a  broader framework than the miniskirt, and one may think about how garments, in general, accrue meaning, symbolism, and value. And what I have found is that this occurs through the ways that we see them, through the way they have been depicted in fashion media. So on the one hand I am looking at how the miniskirt has accrued value and how it has accrued meaning is through fashion media. As such, I am doing a semiotic analysis of fashion media images that have the presented the miniskirt to viewers and the different ways in which the miniskirt is presented. On the other hand I am looking at the relationship between the representation of women in fashion media and what this means for living women in everyday life.

This is really all so fascinating, and now you have me thinking a lot about the various ways in which the miniskirt is presented. Could you speak a little bit about the ways in which the miniskirt is represented in fashion media?

Well right now I am currently working on picking out what representations in media I will be looking at, but right now it looks as though I will be focusing primarily on how the miniskirt was represented in the media in the 1960s. That being said, I am interested in thinking about how the miniskirt accrued this aura of liberation and aura of sexual freedom. So, if we think about the 1960s, there was so much happening in Western society (and we really ought to focus on the West when thinking about the miniskirt because we believe it was either invented in Britain or France) concerning these issues of liberation within the broader political systems-at-large that permeated into the fashion culture at the time. For example, we see a relaxation of divorce laws, mass marketing and mass production of the contraceptive pill, all of these things added to the sexual liberation that was occurring at the time. But because of these liberatory issues arising to the forefront of our political identities, there was an increase in the prevalence of young people having sex. Because younger people were having sex, the women who were being appealed to through sexualized marketing have not yet reached physical maturation. To explain this, if you look at 1950s fashion marketing, you see a lot of curvaciousness and curves in their portrayals of women – a sort of emphasis on fertility. But in the 1960s, the portrayal of women shifts to focusing on much less “curvy” women. This why female models in the 1960s start to look a lot skinner; they reflect a sort of pre-pubescence. Now the important aspect of this shift in how women are portrayed is that a new part of the body becomes “sexy.” In this shift, more emphasis is placed on the legs as opposed to other parts of the body. And in this, we see the arrival of a new garment to adorn this part of the body.

Wow, I had no idea that a single garment of clothing could be so significant and also really be such an interesting object of research. Could you speak a bit to what inspired you to analyze the miniskirt?

Great question. My thoughts that inspired my thesis began when I heard about a case of sexual assault that happened in South Africa in 2008. This woman was sexually assaulted by a group of taxi drivers. In regards to taxis in South Africa – it is a very different concept than taxis in New York in that the riders are primarily of lower socioeconomic standing. So the people taking the taxis are poor. Now, what was so interesting about this case was that all of the media covering this case wrote about how the victim “had it coming” because she was wearing a miniskirt. This rhetoric characterized how the taxi drivers justified their actions and how the media continued to portray the case; a lot of attention was taken away from the fact that she was violated and violently abused and a lot of attention was put on what she was wearing. This issue was further complicated by the fact that it wasn’t just the taxi drivers and media who spoke of the victim in this regard; the elders – both men and women – in the Johannesburg community explained that “women these days” are dressing in a way that is very sexually provocative, that women should be covered up; they spoke with this sort of “traditional” rhetoric.

It seems as though, then, that the miniskirt has taken on a new meaning, of sorts, in South Africa. Would you say this is accurate?

Yes, very much so. This is very much a part of my thesis in that, by looking at the meanings it already has, I am interested in seeing what new meanings it has taken on. For example, I spoke about the aspect of terror earlier – the miniskirt was being a garment of fear for some women. Specifically, in South Africa, for the men who view women wearing miniskirts, the issue is more than just “you dress inappropriately,” and it has become more about how these women have adopted Western forms of dress. Of course, not only do they take issue with the fact that these women have adopted a western form of dress, they take issue that these women have adopted a broader westernization in a place and on a continent that is very postcolonial and attempting to assert itself in its postcolonialism. In other words, they take issue with the way these women dress because the men view these women as becoming tokens of their colonial pasts. However, in trying to avoid adopting westernized values, and in attempting to hold up traditional, cultural values, they are really trying to hold onto a lot of imposed gender norms; these cultural values are steeped in gender normativity. And so out of this, a lot women are forced to think twice about wearing a miniskirt because they are afraid of the powers around them. The miniskirt becomes a garment of terror for women.