Are we what we wear?
You are what you eat. We’ve heard that forever. But—though no one comes right out and says it—women, whether they’re heads of state, celebrities, or the average little girl on the street, are defined and categorized by what they wear.
It starts at birth, when we are swaddled in pink in the maternity ward, and it doesn’t end until the day we die. (Can anyone ever remember seeing a woman in a coffin wearing pants? I know I can’t.)
In 2014 in the U.K., there was a large-scale feminist protest against an ad campaign for Clarks children’s shoes. At issue is the sexist language of the ads, “boys test their shoes to destruction, girls love comfort and style,” as well as the girls’ shoes that the company is promoting. They’re flimsy and sparkly and not conducive to the kind of hard play that kids engage in. But what little girl isn’t going to want the sparkly shoes when they are promoted in pink and purple and “Everyone else has them, Mummy”?
Women are taught early on how to perform femininity through our style of dress. Gender non-conformity is not only deemed unacceptable, but increasingly, when girls want to dress “like a boy,” or boys want to dress “like a girl” (as if this isn’t already a fake construct), parents start considering the idea that their child might be transgender, when, really, they are just doing what kids do—playing.
In schools that require children to wear uniforms, girls wear skirts, boys wear pants. Girls aren’t offered a choice, even if they feel more comfortable (and safer) in pants. Skirts hamper girls’ movements and also force them to always think about whether their underwear will be revealed if they are climbing, or running, or fall down while playing. Skirts restrict girls’ ability to do the same things boys are doing because modesty and safety always have to be in the forefront of girls’ consciousness.
When we are old enough to choose what we wear and have some clothing autonomy, we have already been inculcated into what is “appropriate” for us, including hair accessories, jewelry, makeup, and, of course, shoes. Even the three female associate justices of U.S. Supreme Court have lace around the collars of their judicial robes.
In interviews during her recent book tour, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about how the media has focused almost as much on her style of dress as on the issues she’s espoused. Hillary Clinton wears pants, not skirts. As she describes it, the media has long been fixated on, if not obsessed by, her hair and her clothes, while the hair style and clothing of male politicians goes unremarked upon. This fixation even worked its way onto The Tonight Show, after the announcement that Chelsea Clinton was pregnant. “If it’s a girl, it will get some of Chelsea’s old hand-me-downs, and if it’s a boy, it will get some of Hillary’s,” Jimmy Fallon joked.
This kind of thing would be funnier if the way women dress didn’t get them ignored, dismissed, harassed, attacked, raped, and murdered throughout the world.
Style is problematic for women. We may have a range of choices as to what we wear, but those choices also impact how we are perceived in society. Those choices are often used as one more misogynist hammer to beat us with. Sometimes literally.
It’s easy to point to hijab and burka as repressive to women. Those articles of clothing seem to stand out for many as representative of the way women are oppressed by male-driven views of female modesty. But as Muslim women who wear hijab will argue, women in the West are oppressed by having to reveal most of their bodies in order to reflect cultural norms. It’s a hard argument to refute.
The way women dress is so central to the perception of who we are as people that it is also a component of the crimes perpetrated against us. On college campuses, young women are urged to be aware of how they dress so as not to invite rape. When women are raped, one of the first questions they are asked is, “What were you wearing?”
The detective who interviewed me after I was raped and nearly killed asked me that question. What I was wearing had nothing to do with why I was attacked in broad daylight outside my own house. Yet the question keeps getting asked of women victims.
The way lesbians dress is often a factor in hate crimes against them. Women targeted for “corrective rape” in South Africa have almost all been butch lesbians who dressed androgynously. The societal message, as many men in South Africa have stated, is that these butch lesbians need to be taught how to perform femininity. To death.
Raise your hand if someone has ever said to you “You don’t look like a lesbian” or “You look like a man.” If a lesbian chooses heteronormative dress, she’s told she doesn’t look like a lesbian—sometimes by her own community. But if she chooses a more androgynous or masculine style, she’s told she looks like a man, or is trying to be a man.
Yet for generations, some women who dress in male attire have been considered sexy, and the look has cut across a large swath of popular culture, as well as erotica and pornography. Whether it’s Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, who dressed in tuxedos in the 1930s, or singer Janelle Monae and designer Rei Kawakubo, who dress that way today, attractive women in men’s clothes have always evoked a sexual frisson in both men and women.
But that doesn’t translate to the everyday woman.
Gender non-conformity in our lesbian style makes us targets. When we do Janelle Monae, or even just Ellen, we get, well, shit. Most butch lesbians I know can’t dress butch at work. They can go the Hillary route, but out-and-down butch? Still not acceptable in 2014 at most jobs.
It’s part of the not-so-subtle lesbo-phobia that runs through both mainstream and LGBT culture. Women who eschew men—especially those who look like they might perform masculinity as well or better than any man—make everyone uncomfortable. How can a patriarchal society run smoothly and oppressively if the women who are lesbians refuse to allow men to tell them what to do—whether that includes how to dress or who to have sex with?
Not so long ago, butch lesbians were dragged out of gay bars and checked to see if they passed the “three items” rule—in order to discourage cross-dressers, women were prohibited from wearing more than three pieces of men’s clothing. I was too young to even know about it when I was sneaking into bars with a wink from the protective older butches who were my lesbian moms. The one and only time I got caught in a police raid that I wasn’t able to escape, it was because I had the “three items” problem. I was only 16. How many thousands of lesbians got arrested just because they were wearing men’s clothes, even though they were very much women?
The fact is, women are no more what we wear than men are. Style should be a manifestation of what we like, what we feel comfortable in—reflecting only a facet of who we are. Take high heels. Women who wear them know they’re never comfortable at first. We may get used to them, and we may even get to like them, but wearing them or not shouldn’t define who we are as women. Dressing “like a woman” or “like a man” doesn’t change your gender—it’s just one more false binary used, inevitably, to trap women or dismiss them. In the West, if we dress “provocatively,” we are called sluts; in Muslim nations, if a woman goes out without her chador or burka, she can be beaten, or worse.
If clothes make the man, clothes un-make the woman. That’s the problem with style. No matter how women dress, our style puts us in danger. And until that changes, all of us will still be what we wear, rather than who we are underneath.