But the fact is, it is. Clothes, of course, do more than keep us warm and safe from indecent exposure citations: they are a form of self-expression–and they say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be. Chuck Taylors or Jimmy Choos? Superficial, yes–but your choice likely speaks to much more than your preference in footwear. And even if it means nothing to you, well, the world is waiting to foist judgments based on little more. More so for women.
In a piece in yesterday’s Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer takes on the being judged side of the equation:
What do Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin have in common? They each offer complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, “Sex in [sic] the City” feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold. Kagan’s appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script. Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings. Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.
Kaminer goes on to make the case that the judgments–both ways (that Palin was christened “Caribou Barbie” before she ever proved herself as informed as a plastic toy; that Kagan’s sexuality is a subject of speculation in a way it wouldn’t be if she looked like Sarah Palin or Kim Cattrall)–are yet another way women are thrown under the microscope that men are not. And obviously, she has a point.
Interestingly, before I saw the Atlantic piece, I came across a piece by Courney E. Martin, ahead of the upcoming anthology, “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists,” she’s putting together with J. Courtney Sullivan, which features a collection of stories from women describing the moment that feminism clicked for them. And in Martin’s Aha moment, fishnet stockings played a starring role.
Barnard College proved to be a place where just about everyone else was in the same state of confusion I was. We were all whip-smart, quirky, and intense, but none of us wanted to call ourselves feminist. It’s comical to think of it now. Here we were, dorms full of spitfire girls who had chosen an all-women’s college, and we were still reluctant to don the label. We were the low-hanging fruit, and feminism just hadn’t managed to pluck us.
That changed for me the day that Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner showed up on the third floor of Barnard Hall to give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite–long and sinewy, bright blong, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings. They were besties, taking over the world with totally fresh feminist analysis. This wasn’t the swishy-skirt feminism that my mom had manifested at her once-a-month women’s groups. This was contemporary, witty, brash, even a little sexy. This was who I wanted to be.
Consider her plucked.
In fact, both Kaminer and Martin make the point that fashion is a way in which we express our identification with certain groups. It actually reminds me of a story. Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?
Here’s a little more from Martin on that front:
I’ve experienced it myself. After speaking on college campuses, I consistently get emails from young women confessing that they had no idea that young feminists even existed, much less “cool” ones like me. I find myself–otherwise low-maintenance and notoriously uninterested in contemporary fashion–thinking very deliberately about what I wear to these events. Sometimes the irony astounds me: I don’t dress up for business meetings, but I do dress up for 18 year-old girls who might be converted to feminism by my knee-high boots or my trendy dress.
Both Kaminer and Martin make good points. And I think that what they’re saying cuts both ways. It shouldn’t matter if we like to show a little cleavage or opt to forgo shaving our legs. If we dress up or dress down. We shouldn’t have to worry about being judged on the basis of our appearance–or use our sartorial wiles to gain acceptance–or to persuade others to our cause. And yet.
Here’s a bit more from Kaminer:
Years ago, I watched an array of law students lingering in a hotel lobby, waiting to be interviewed by visiting firms. The men were completely, conventionally covered by their suits; the women seemed half naked by comparison, in fitted jackets, often showing a little cleavage, and above the knee, or shorter, skirts. Maybe they hoped to benefit from these reveals, but I suspect they were subtly disadvantaged by them. The men were free to focus on their interviews; at least some women were likely to be distracted by concerns about their looks and the need to sit and display themselves appropriately. How much skin is just enough? Stilettos, kitten heels, or flats? Hollywood or D.C.? These are questions men never have to ask. Will they ever cease to matter to women?
I don’t know–and yes, that men never have to ask such questions is unfair. But I think those questions matter a little less when you dress for yourself. Because when you’re dressing for no one but yourself, you’re at your most comfortable–and when you’re at your most comfortable, you’re at your most confident. And an ugly pantsuit or peek of cleavage kind of fades into the background in the face of a truly confident woman. Martin speaks my language, though–and I love that it’s become passe to assume a feminist wouldn’t be caught dead in heels. Not least because I love me my high heels–and I don’t, in any way, consider it a contradiction to call myself a feminist while rocking an artificial five inches. On the other hand, in my closet, both Chuck and Choo are represented–and they’re equally worn.