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Fashion, Thresholds, and Borders

journal contribution
posted on 2023-08-22, 04:30 authored by Monika Winarnita, Sharyn Graham Davies, Nicholas Herriman
Introduction Since at least the work of van Gennep in the early 1900s, anthropologists have recognised that borders and thresholds are crucial in understanding human behavior and culture. But particularly in the past few decades, the study of borders has moved from the margins of social inquiry to the centre. At the same time, fashion (Entwistle), including clothing and skin (Bille), have emerged as crucial to understanding the human condition. In this article, we draw on and expand this literature on borders and fashion to demonstrate that the way Indonesians fashion and display their body reflects larger changes in attitudes about morality and gender. And in this, borders and thresholds are crucial. In order to make this argument, we consider three case studies from Indonesia. First, we discuss the requirement that policewomen submit to a virginity test, which takes the form of a hymen inspection. Then, we look at the successful campaign by policewomen to be able to wear the Islamic veil. Finally, we consider reports of Makassar policewomen who attempt to turn young people into exemplary citizens and traffic 'ambassadors' by using downtown crosswalks as a catwalk. In each of these three cases, fashioned borders and thresholds play prominent roles in determining the expression of morality, particularly in relation to gender roles. Fashion, Thresholds, and Borders There was once a time when social scientists tended to view clothes and other forms of adornment as "frivolous" or trivial (Entwistle 14; 18). Over the past few decades, however, fashion has emerged as a serious study within the social sciences. Writers have, for example, demonstrated how fashion is closely tied up with identity and capitalism (King and Winarnita). And although fashion used to be envisaged as emerging from London, New York, Paris, Milan, and other Western locations, scholars are increasingly recognising the importance of Asia in fashion studies. Whether the haute couture and cosplay in Tokyo or 'traditional' weaving of materials in Indonesia, studying fashion and clothes provides crucial insight into the cultures and societies of Asia (King and Winarnita). To contribute to this burgeoning area of research in Asian fashion, we draw on the anthropological classics, in particular, the concept of threshold. Every time we walk through a doorway, gate, or cross a line, we cross a threshold. But what classic anthropology shows us is that crossing certain thresholds changes our social status. This changing particularly occurs in the context of ritual. For example, walking onto a stage, a person becomes a performer or actor. Traditionally a groom carries his bride through the door, symbolising the transition to husband and wife (Douglas 115). In this article, we apply this idea that crossing thresholds is associated with transitioning social statuses (Douglas; Turner; van Gennep). To do this, we first establish a connection between national and personal borders. We argue that skin and clothes have a cultural function in addition to their practical functions. Typically, skin is imagined as a kind of social border and clothes provide a buffer zone. But to make this case, we first need to elaborate how we understand national borders. In the traditional kingdoms of Southeast Asia, borders were largely imperceptible or non-existent. Power was thought to radiate out from the ruler, through the capital, and into the surrounding areas. As it emanated from this 'exemplary centre', power was thought to weaken (Geertz 222-229). Rather than an area of land, a kingdom was thought to be a group of people (Tambiah 516). In this context, borders were irrelevant. But as in other parts of the world, in the era of nations, the situation has entirely changed in modern Indonesia. In a simple sense, our current global legal system is created out of international borders. These borders are, first and foremost, imagined lines that separate the area belonging to one nation-state from another. Borders are for the most part simply drawn on maps, explained by reference to latitude, longitude, and other features of the landscape. But, obviously, borders exist outside the imagination and on maps. They have significance in international law, in separating one jurisdiction from another. Usually, national borders can only be legally crossed with appropriate documentation and legal status. In extreme cases, crossing another nation's border can be a cause for war; but the difficulty in determining borders in practice means both sides may debate over whether a border was actually crossed. Where this possibility exists, sometimes the imagined lines are marked on the actual earth by fences, walls, etc. To protect borders, buffer zones are sometimes created. The most famous buffer zone is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, which runs along North Korea's border with South Korea. As no peace treaty has been signed between these two nations, they are technically still at war. Hostility is intense, but armed conflict has, for the most part, ceased. The buffer helps both sides maintain this cessation by enabling them to distinguish between an unintentional infringement and a genuine invasion. All this practical significance of borders and buffer zones is obvious. But borders become even more fascinating when we look beyond their 'practical' significance. Borders have ritual as well as practical importance. Like the flag, the nation's borders have meaning. They also have moral implications. Borders have become an issue of almost fanatical or zealous significance. The 2015 footage of a female Hungarian reporter physically attacking asylum seekers who crossed the border into her nation indicates that she was not just upset with their legal status; presumably she does not physically attack people breaking other laws (BBC News). Similarly the border vigilantes, volunteers who 'protect' the southern borders of the USA against what they see as drug cartels, apparently take no action against white-collar criminals in the cities of the USA. For the Hungarian reporter and the border vigilantes, the border is a threshold to be protected at all costs and those who cross it without proper documentation and process are more than just law breakers; they are moral transgressors, possibly even equivalent to filth. So much for border crossing. What about the borders themselves? As mentioned, fences, walls, and other markers are built to make the imagined line tangible. But some borders go well beyond that. Borders are also adorned or fashioned. For instance, the border between North and South Korea serves as a site where national sovereignty and legitimacy are emphasised, defended, and contested. It is at this buffer zone that these two nations look at each other and showcase to the other what is ideally contained within their own respective national borders. But it is not just national states which have buffer zones and borders with deep significance in the modern period; our own clothes and skin possess a similar moral significance. Why are clothes so important? Of course, like national borders, clothes have practical and functional use. Clothes keep us warm, dry, and protected from the sun and other elements. In addition to this practical use, clothes are heavily imbued with significance. Clothes are a way to fashion the body. They define our various identities including gender, class, etc. Clothes also signify morality and modesty (Leach 152). But where does this morality regarding clothing come from? Clothing is a site where state, religious, and familial control is played out. Just like the DMZ, our bodies are aestheticised with adornments, accoutrements, and decorations, and they are imbued with strong symbolic significance in attempts to reveal what constitutes the enclosed. Just like the DMZ, our clothing or lack thereof is considered constitutive of the nation. Because clothes play a role akin to geo-political borders, clothes are our DMZ; they mark us as good citizens. Whether we wear gang colours or a cross on our necklace, they can show us as belonging to something powerful, protective, and worth belonging to. They also show others that they do not belong. In relation to this, perhaps it is necessary to mention one cultural aspect of clothing. This is the importance, in the modern Indonesian nation, of appearing rapih. Rapih typically means clean, tidy, and well-groomed. The ripped and dirty jeans, old T-shirts, unshaven, unkempt hair, which has, at times, been mainstream fashion in other parts of the world, is typically viewed negatively in Indonesia, where wearing 'appropriate' clothing has been tied up with the nationalist project. For instance, as a primary school student in Indonesia, Winarnita was taught Pendidikan Moral Pancasila (Pancasila Moral Education). Named after the Pancasila, the guiding principles of the Indonesian nation, this class is also known as "PMP". It provided instruction in how to be a good national citizen. Crucially, this included deportment. The importance of being well dressed and rapih was stressed. In sum, like national borders, clothes are much more than their practical significance and practical use. This analysis can be extended by looking at skin. The practical significance of skin cannot be overstated; it is crucial to survival. But that does not preclude the possibility that humans—being the prolifically creative and meaning-making animals that we are—can make skin meaningful. Everyday racism, for instance, is primarily enabled by people making skin colour meaningful. And although skin is not optional, we fashion it into borders that define who we are, such as through tattoos, by piercing, accessorising, and through various forms of body modification (from body building to genital modification). Thresholds are also important in understanding skin. In a modern Indonesian context, when a penis crosses a woman's hymen her ritual status changes; she i

History

Journal

M/C Journal

Volume

25

Location

Brisbane, Qld.

ISSN

1441-2616

eISSN

1441-2616

Language

English

Issue

4

Publisher

Queensland University of Technology

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