As some of you may know, I’m pretty interested in fashion. I spend a fair amount of time and energy (and probably more money than I ought) on my wardrobe and appearance. I pay a fair amount of attention to other people’s style: admiring it, analyzing it, deciding if I can steal it. I watch TV shows about fashion. I read books and blogs about fashion. I buy fashion magazines, and even subscribe to a couple. (It would have been just one, but we got a two- for- one deal when we subscribed to Vogue and got Glamour thrown in for free.) At big public events, Ingrid and I will spend many happy hours checking out/ commenting on other people’s outfits. Fashion has become one of my central hobbies.
And in general, I find fashion to be a fascinating form of expression. A language, even. Not in the literal Chomskyan sense, of course — we’re not born with a fashion module wired into our brains, the way we’re born with language modules — but in a metaphorical sense. In the sense that many extremely useful parallels can be drawn between the two. In the sense that different articles of clothes are assigned meaning more or less arbitrarily, in the way words are assigned meaning — not because those meanings bear some connection to objective reality, but because we all more or less agree on their meaning. (It doesn’t matter why, historically, a suit and tie means “I am willing to treat social conventions with some degree of respect, and expect in return to be treated with respect myself” — that’s what it means now, regardless of its history). In the sense that the meanings of these clothes shift over time, the way the meanings of words shift over time, rendering them even more arbitrary. (The meaning of makeup on women, for instance, has shifted over the decades from “prostitute” to “brazen” to “fashionably cutting-edge” to “entirely conventional.”) In the sense that these meanings change depending on how we combine them — the “grammar,” if you will (jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt). In the sense that these meanings can change depending on context (jeans at a rock concert mean something different than jeans at a funeral). In the sense that different cultures assign vastly different arbitrary meanings to clothing. (A short skirt and stiletto heels mean something different in Manhattan than they do in Cedar Rapids… and something very different again in Dubai.)
In fact, fashion and style are so much like a language, I’m always a bit baffled when people say things like, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the clothes I wear.” It’s a bit like saying, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the words that come out of my mouth.” But that’s a point for another time.
Here’s my point for today. Fashion is a form of expression. A language of sorts. An art form, even.
It’s also one of the very few art forms/ languages/ forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men.
There are some very sexist reasons for this, of course. Women are seen by our society as ornamental; we’re valued for our looks more than our accomplishments; blah blah blah. Yes. Agreed. No argument. But the fact remains that, whatever the reasons behind it, women have a lot more leeway in fashion than men do. We’re permitted a wider range of colors. Fabrics. Surfaces. Jewelry. Hairstyles. Makeup. Entire categories of clothing are available to women that are socially off-limits to men. We can even take on masculine clothing styles with little or no controversy… while men who take on feminine clothing styles can expect mockery and scorn at best, hostility and violence at worst. (If you don’t believe me, guys, try wearing a nicely-tailored skirt-suit to the office, with classic pumps and tasteful makeup and one strong piece of statement jewelry, and see what happens.) Again, there are sexist reasons for that fact — masculinity is seen as generally admirable and worth emulating, in a way that femininity isn’t — but the upshot is still that women have more freedom. If fashion is a language, then women have a much wider vocabulary. And we have a wider range of things we can say in that vocabulary.
So again: Fashion is one of the very few forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s typically seen as shallow, trivial, and vain.
It is the height of irony that women are valued for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental… and are then derided as shallow and vain for doing so. And it’s a subtle but definite form of sexism to take one of the few forms of expression where women have more freedom, and treat it as a form of expression that’s inherently superficial and trivial. Like it or not, fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. And I think it gets treated as trivial because women get treated as trivial.
What’s more, there’s an interestingly sexist assumption that often gets made about female fashion — namely, that it’s primarily intended to get male attention and male approval.
In my experience, this is very much not the case. Female fashion is often as much about women’s communication with one another as it is about our communication with men. More so, in many ways. When women who clearly care about fashion and style pass each other on the street, there’s often a sort of silent conversation: a moment of acknowledgement, a nod of recognition. (And the conversation isn’t always silent — I’ve been known to go up to totally strange women in bars or on the street and compliment them on their outfits. As other women have with me.) At parties, at conventions, at social and professional gatherings of all sorts, if there’s a decent number of women, there are almost certainly women checking out each other’s styles: appreciatively, competitively, enviously, companionably, subtly jockeying for status, in a spirit of co-operation and camaraderie, and in just about every other angle on human connection you can imagine. And it has little or nothing to do with men.
Now, granted: I’m a dyke, a lesbian-identified bisexual, and as such I have a different angle on this issue than many. I do have some interest in whether men find me attractive, but for the most part it’s only a passing interest, and my sexual self-esteem is only tangentially related to men’s opinions of me. (And my attention to other women is often driven by, shall we say, something other than our silent conversations about style.) But I’ve talked with other non-dyke women who are interested in fashion and style, and they say much the same thing: They dress for other women as much as they dress for men — and in many ways, more so. In particular, they dress for other stylish women. And this assumption that women’s fashion is aimed solely or primarily at men… well, there’s more than a little sexism behind it.
If you don’t personally care about fashion and style, that’s fine. We don’t all have to care about the same art forms: I could care less about grand opera, and it’s unlikely that I’m ever going to. I do think people should be aware that what they wear communicates something to other people — something about who they are and how they feel about the world and their place in it — and I think many people would be better off if they made that communication intentionally instead of un-. But again, we all don’t have to care about the same forms of communication. If what you want to say about yourself through your clothing is, “I wear clothes so I won’t be naked,” that is entirely your prerogative, and none of my business.
But if you think other people — especially other women — who do care about fashion and style are shallow, trivial, or vain for doing so?
That is my business.
I’m going to ask you to question that.
And I’m going to ask you to question the sexist assumptions that lie behind it.