The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot (1917)
I have been thinking about the role of fashion in the lives of women for some time and I am going to brazenly suggest that “progressive”, intelligent women have very ambiguous feelings about fashion, at least those women in the upper third of the Western world in the 21st century. Fashion is sometimes seen as frivolous, superficial, and too silly to be of value to the average, no-nonsense woman.
I’m speaking not just of “Fashion” with a capital “F”, as in high fashion or haute couture, with its attendant sense that there are styles of dress that are being imposed on women by small groups of wealthy designers (mostly men), who are removed from our daily lives and experiences, and producing outrageous costumes at astronomical prices for an elite group of women. No, women have a problem with fashion period: how we dress ourselves, how we express ourselves through our way of dress, and, how we perceive others, particularly and especially, women.
Clothing evokes powerful feelings and can elicit intense emotional and physical reactions (well duh you are now thinking).
I have a theory that women quickly categorize each other by our fashion sense with a one rapid, raking look, up and down (we have all done it I fear), and then lump the woman into a clearly defined group: promiscuous (except we don’t use that adjective, we use the noun Barbara Amiel employed in Chicago during Conrad Black’s trial when she dismissed that female journalist); uptight (she lacks fashion sense); athletic (I wish I had her build so that could wear clothes like that); conservative (her clothes are boring - ergo she is boring!); trendy (she’s a slave to fashion); frivolous (cares too much about her clothes); snooty (spends more on her clothes than I do); trashy (men are attracted to her sexually because of her clothes), etc …
Now, how did Ms. Amiel dare to make that assertion about the female journalist. I’m betting that she merely looked at her clothes and her makeup and hasn’t had any other contact whatsoever with that woman to be able to determine whether she was, or was not, the “s” word. She sized her up quickly, malignantly, and uttered her pronouncement with withering disdain.
Amiel is a good example too of someone who is constantly scrutinized not just for her obnoxious right wing views (rightfully so) but for the way she looks. As much discussion in serious periodicals is spent on how good she looks for a 60 something, how much money she spends on her clothes, the fashion excesses her husband permits her, and, the outrageous photospreads (remember Babs sitting at the feet of Conrad anyone?) in fashion magazines.
It may sound extreme but I think it’s true. We, as women, are so obsessed with our looks and our sense of being evaluated by our looks that we can rarely be charitable about the fashion choices of other women. We are judged for our fashion choices not just by men, as sexual objects and/or objects of admiration, but by other females. And the women who say they don’t care, care just as much, perhaps more so.
As I look out the window of my little cubicle at the university in Toronto where I work I see groups of students flowing past all day long. Students rush past to classes or meetings with friends. They are a microcosm of urban Toronto: all races, all faiths, all shapes and sizes and shades. There is one common denominator that is easily discerned: they very closely resemble each other in style.
I see them in identical puffy winter coats or hoodies, low slung jeans, and trendy sneakers. There are studious looking, no make up kind of girls with the same sensible shoes and the same unadorned knapsacks slung over their backs. There are long legged athletic types trooping around with other long legged athletic types. Carefully made up girly girls, arm in arm, with identical cell phones, hairstyles, jewelry, and other girls who look like their sisters or cousins. And, I think, it’s not just because they are young.
I think it’s because they are female and seek what is familiar and comfortable and won’t make them too uncomfortable in their own circle of friends.
And I will toss around another F word: feminism. At the end of it all, I think most women, even what I would refer to as progressive, intelligent women with feminist beliefs determine if a stranger will be part of their “tribe” by their fashion sense, or lack thereof. And if said stranger doesn’t conform, there is no real kinship established between the women.
The high heel wearing fashionista will never share a latte and her heart with the Birkenstock wearing chum. The first will be eternally thinking “Oh why can’t she just do something with her hair when we go out?” The latter will secretly think the former spends way too much on manicures and should be devoting those resources to PETA or some other worthy cause.
But, no, no, you protest. That’s not true! I assure you it is. Look around you, look at your circle of friends (okay dear male reader look at your female partner or your sister or your mom and her friends). They will resemble you (or her if the reader is a male).
Soccer mom will cleave unto to soccer mom; sporty, athletic gal will cleave to similarly clad friend; high fashion career girl will share martinis with same. We need to surround ourselves with people that look like us – not necessarily the same race, or those with the same physical features, but here in multicultural Toronto and in most urban cities - we surround ourselves with people who have the same fashion sense. I could never be friends with woman who kept asking me how I get around on those three inch heels. The sheer absurdity of the question …
But men are the same you protest. Maybe. Maybe they gravitate to men that look like them, dress like them, have the same kind of car, play the same kind of sports, like the same kind of movies or video games. But do they reject other men as friends because of the way they dress as vehemently as women do? I don’t think they do. Certainly most would never comment on it. Or criticize the way other men dress.
Can you picture Tom after the hockey game, leaning over to Dave at the bar with raised eyebrows saying under his breath, “Can you believe what he’s wearing?” Uh, no.
I’m always surprised at the reactions of female colleagues who express pleasure that my eleven year old daughter abhors dresses and all the girly girl accoutrement of that pre-teen age. “That’s great!” or “She’s my kind of girl!” is the typical response. Why does disdaining “feminine” attire become an asset for a strong female? Will she be less independent or strong or capable because she does so? Tell that to Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher (and I’m not citing them as role models for young women, I’m talking about whether their dress undermines their strength as women).
I’d rather my daughter didn’t associate independence or strength with style of clothing at all or make determinations about a woman’s value by the way she dresses.
I’m usually comfortable with my daughter’s choices even though it goes against the grain of my own girly girl tastes. Actually, in her sneakers, cargo pants and CBGB T-shirts she looks more like her dad in her style. I fought her tomboy impulses initially and then I realized that I was unconsciously trying to mold her into a tiny version of me which is what I think most mothers try and do on a subliminal level and that wasn’t fair or even remotely possible.
Now I think she must go her own way. I shudder to think of my mother’s own heavy handed and unhealthy investment in my fashion sense, and who, until I was in my late teens when I finally left home, would send me back upstairs to change if she disapproved of what I was wearing. It could be anything, an offending scarf, an ankle bracelet, makeup, an errant hairstyle. I think my daughter embraces her own style, perhaps subconsciously, because she is trying to make herself separate and independent from me. I think it’s a healthy, natural impulse.
And here I will raise that dreaded F word again: feminism. Feminism is not about me resembling you or following the lead of other women who may think that women are enslaved by high heels, lipstick and reading Vogue or Vanity Fair.
Feminism is about individual choice in all realms including how we cover or don’t cover our bodies.