Wednesday, November 16, 2011

FFB: Not-Sexy Dressing

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.


Franca said...

I have read a lot of these posts, but it's really not an experience I've ever had. In all my years as a post-grad student and in work, I cannot say I have ever heard anyone question anyone's seriousness because of the way they dress. The interest in fashion = no brain thing is not something I've encountered. While I'm not an academic, I do work with academics and i would be very surprised to find this kind of behaviour going on in the universities. People do comment on other people's appearance sometimes, and it is more often women that are commented on, but it is widely recognised that this kind of talk is not professional and not really acceptable among colleagues unless they are friends. I wonder if it is a US thing?

There is of course still lot of endemic sexism everywhere, for example women politicians are always judged by their appearance in the media whereas male ones can be as ugly as they like, and it's even worse for singers and actors. I have found though that in recent years people have become more willing to comment on men's appearances in the same (or similar) way as they do women - though I'm not sure that's a good thing - two wrongs don't make a right.

Fish Monkey said...

Franca -- I suspect it's a science thing. Sciences are still heavily male-biased, and the pressure on women to be as serious as possible is huge, and that usually translates into joyless dressing. My colleagues in humanities seem to have a somewhat different experience, although I still do think that sexy/frumpy dichotomy is a very real thing no matter where you go -- that is, women get judged on their sexiness all the time, no matter what.

Cynthia said...

I love this post. LOVE.

I'm in the sciences, but my department is (by design) 50% female and we're all relatively early career. I generally get positive response to my colorful styling efforts from my female colleagues, and zero comment from my male colleagues.

Across our campus, a friend (and headless style blogger) gets no end of difficulty from her older male colleagues because she is young, feminine, single, and wears heels to work. Having heard what she's experienced I could see how it would make a woman retreat from dressing well at all. If my department was treating me like that I'd be coming to work in cords and a black hoodie every day. And looking for a new job.

fashionpuppets said...

I also have the feeling it depends on what department it is. In university I've always had the feeling that every faculty had it's own uniform. Arts students would dress very edgy. Those that would study agricultural engineering would try very hard in my opinion to pretend they didn't care about these things. And what always amazed me was that there would be some law or economics students that would wear a suit to go to classes. There even were people that could say who would study what based just on how they would dress and their attitude (law students = big attitude). Personally I feel like Psychology students were dressed and would act quite normal, but that's probably because I was one of them.

Anonymous said...

I have a supervisory job where most of the other employees dress in jeans and/or scrubs. I know I get sneers for my skirts and tights and scarves instead of wearing the jeans and sneakers uniform. I almost started to dress myself down for them. Then I realized I dress as I do because it makes me feel professional and good about myself. If they don't like it, it's their issue. I'm happy that I'm finally comfortable enough in my own skin that I won't bend to change who I am so others can be comfortable.

urbanrhetoric said...

really great post. i was recently thinking about this, having read an older article entitled 'the f word' (although i am having a hard time finding it online now). it basically calls into question exactly what you are talking about....what i have really been struggling with is feminism + fashion. as if the 2 could not co-exist in the same space or body.

anyway, thank you for expressing this. more food for thought.


Heather Fonseca said...

I feel like men simply don't have as many options as women in terms of their clothing, for work or otherwise, so there isn't as much to read into their clothing choices. Perhaps if they had to choose between wearing a skirt or pants or suit or dress they'd have the same issues women do trying to look professional and appropriate for work.

One of the other commenters also mentioned that people are essential tribal in their clothing choices. What we wear tells those around us which group we belong to. If we dress the right way we fit into the group, but if we don't then, well, we don't fit in.

Congrats on making links a la mode too! Your article is very thought provoking and enjoyable.

Fashademic said...

Excellent post! And when you wrote about academia, it reminded me of a quote I came across in Virginia Postrel's 'The Substance of Style' (which makes a great argument for the importance of aesthetics). Postrel quotes Emily Toth, an English professor who was offering advice to aspiring academics about clothes and make-up suitable to the academy:

"If you look like you spend too much time on your clothes, there are people who will assume that you haven't put enough energy into your mind. (Conversely) if you don't know how to dress, then what else don't you know? Do you know how to advise students or grade papers? The clothes are part of the judgement of the mind."

Equal parts hilarious and groan-inducing.

Sofia said...

Great post. I never thought about since I'm not even in college, I just hope I won't have to worry about it later.

Brittany said...

I just found your blog and love it, particularly your thoughts on fashion :).

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of uniforms. I think that would help a lot. I love fashion, but I wore scrubs at work and it was wonderful. I could wear whatever I wanted to and from work because once I got there I put my uniform on. I also hate the concept of "work wear". I don't want to have to buy clothes that I would otherwise not wear because I need to have clothes to wear to work.