This week’s topic for Feminist Fashion Bloggers group post is sexuality, but of course I am going to cheat and talk about something slightly different: the impossibility for a woman to dress in a sexually neutral manner. We live in the society where a guy can put on a pair of slacks, a shirt and a tie, and be totally work-appropriate and professional, without inviting judgment of his sexual life. For a woman, it is not so simple – striving for an attractive or fitted look tends to lower one’s perceived status (sexy secretary, anyone?), and forgoing sexiness in favor of more somber, looser clothes spells frumpville. So it’s sexy or frumpy, with a very narrow ledge in between. The width of the ledge varies depending on the workplace, the observer, and the woman’s age and attractiveness. Talk about running a gauntlet.
And this is the thing: I love clothes. I like being dressed professionally and put together at work. What I don’t love is that while I intend my clothes to be a message about my abilities, being a lady, I cannot take out any perceptions of sex. I really am not interested in seeing people I interact with at work as sexual objects; it seems only fair that women as well as men should be allowed this opportunity. I am here to do my job, and to look like I can do it well and be awesome while doing it.
What Not To Wear is an interesting case: they often implore women to look “sexy”, with Stacy asking emphatically, “What’s wrong with looking sexy?” And my answer is, of course nothing, if that’s what one wants to look like. But there ought to be alternatives other than hassled sad woman who gave up on herself forever, you know?
In academia, one is already looked down upon if one shows interest in fashion – and part of, it, I think is the conflation of fashion with sexualized image of women. It doesn’t have to be, of course, but sadly we live in the world of binaries: sexy or frumpy, slut or blue stocking, etc etc. So the shortcut goes from well-dressed to fashiony to sexy to vapid. The opposite is of course the stereotypical female academic who takes her work too seriously to spend even a minute thinking about clothing – and those are perceived as sex-hostile and/or mannish. Being respected and perceived as competent becomes almost impossible without personal style becoming a statement of self-denial. And we need this third thing.
You know, the thing that men have, the way of dressing that says, I am here to be presentable and to do my job, and not to be evaluated in terms of my perceived sexuality. The thing that doesn’t make people think, “Gee, she spends so much time/money/effort on dressing, she must be really vapid.” The thing where wearing low heels and masculine clothing doesn’t invite people to automatically assume that one’s a lesbian or, at the very least, “has given up” (whatever that means.) But women as a sex class are denied these opportunities. We can confine ourselves to different castes of this class, but we cannot escape it. So we can certainly talk about how women have more choices than men when it comes to clothing and workwear, but until these choices include the possibility of presentation entirely outside of the sexual dimension, the variety is not really signifying anything but profits for the fashion industry.