difficult women

by Charlotte

Quick notes: a) I got a job for after graduation!  And an internship for next semester!  Let’s hope I don’t mess it up.  Thanks for the advice and well wishes.  b) It is usually company policy for me to reply to all comments on the previous post before posting something new.  This is a conversation, after all.  Well, fall semester stress has led me to majorly drop the ball on that one.  Apologies!  With any luck, all responses will be logged by this evening.  c) I have, like, a dozen drafts that I need to polish up and get going.  So, if you want to know how my sewing class went (ha!) or whether or not to press gathers, or if you’ve been puzzling over the statistical correlation between imports and clothing expenditure, I’m your gal.  However, it’s really interesting to juggle writing a handful of posts over a handful of months.  It doesn’t feel nearly as seamless as I’d like it to.  So, I guess I’m saying the next month or two of posts might sort of suck.  Completely.  Apologies in advance.

Last year, I was chatting with a friend and I’d mentioned that when I was a kid, my mother taught me the difference between silk and cotton, designer x and designer y.  My friend responded—and I will never forget this, so this is an exact, honest-to-goodness quote—“That’s disgusting.”

I’ve thought about that exchange a lot in the months that have followed, and realize that, in that context, it wasn’t about caring about visual ways in which we present ourselves to others, but rather about fashion.  Fashion being less about self-reflection and contemplation, and more about placing yourself within a cultural moment, and using what you wear as a way of communicating something to others.  I’m tempted to make the admittedly unfair argument that the relationship between clothing, designers, and status makes difficult an designer-as-artist approach.

So what are we really talking about, when we talk about fashion?  Every time someone says “I don’t care about clothes,” I always want to respond, You’re sooooo smart.  I’m sooooo impressed.  Just about everybody wears clothes, which implies that there is a certain extent to which everybody cares about them.  When someone tells me that they don’t care about clothes, what they mean is that they don’t care about a certain type of clothing.  Well, next question: What type of clothing is that?  You can’t look as if you care too much, because that makes you shallow.  Likewise, you can’t look as if you care too little, because that would make you a slob.  Apparently, we’re all supposed to wake up that way (this way?  Bey?  Anybody?).  As if yours is fine taste so well-cultivated, that you no longer need effort, because style is reflexive and your adaptation to context is seamless.  No pressure.

There are two lines of argument when thinking about this.  The first is that we have a finite amount of time, so why spend it thinking about what you wear as opposed to virtue or the plight of the unfortunate or something less superficial.  The second, which underpins the first, is that we should aspire to more refined taste, which transcends designers or trends, and manages to effortless reflect your self-knowledge and knowledge of the world.  Both are bullshit.

When I was in the thick of the job search, I wound up getting invited to all of these pre-interview things, and always found myself Googling “What is business casual NO REALLY,” to no avail.  (I followed the instructions on my first try: a pre-interview reception for an investment bank.  One of the recruiters mistook me for restaurant staff, in my navy ankle-length trousers, silk blouse, and cardigan.  Lesson = learned.)  I may as well have Googled “What do smart/competent/together/employed people wear?”

The answer?  Not this, apparently:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (shot by Ian Williams for The National Post, via Brittle Paper)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (shot by Ian Williams for The National Post, via Brittle Paper), who is smarter, more competent, more together, and more employed than I probably ever will be.

I’m sure by now we’ve all read or at least heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Elle piece on expectations of feminine and/or feminist dress, yes?  Well, have you by any chance seen this photo from the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (or, as it’s known at my house, The Artist Formerly Known as Orange)?

2014 Baileys Shortlist

Donna Tartt’s missing, but just picture a woman in with a raven bob and a slim-cut suit, will you?

These women are leaders in their field, and are writing cutting-edge fiction that not only reflects the state of the contemporary woman, but that of the contemporary world.  Why on earth are you asking us to reduce them to five (and a half) sets of outfits?  Well, reader, is it a reduction or a lateral move?  Is refusing to discuss the clothing choices of these people, on those grounds, not just a reinforcement of the broads-and-clothes stereotype that we’re trying to dismantle?  But they’re not just the clothes they wear!  I hate to break it to you, imaginary not-as-sharp-as-my-actual-readers reader, but neither are models or actors or plumbers or whomever.  There are entire industries built around divorcing the individual from his/her physical self, thus rendering the physical person an object and the internal self irrelevant—which is probably so many people place appearance and substance at odds with one another, and cannot afford each them the same sort of consideration.

Fine.  Let’s step away from that image for just a second, and talk about Elaine Showalter.  Elaine Jesus Christ Showalter.  Retired Princeton English professor and literary critic, and dyed-in-the-wool badass.  Feminist of feminists, king of kings, subject to a snide feminist graduate-student newspaper editorial about her gold briefcase.  Yeah.  That’s a thing that happened.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make, which I didn’t hammer to death in my last two posts in this series, is sometimes I don’t want to wear the Pink Jumpsuit of Larger Responsibility.  Sometimes, it rather sucks to be the sacrificial lamb with the gold briefcase who tosses How to Dress for Success to the wind.  Maybe I’m overthinking it?  I did an informational interview with an alumnus about a month ago, and we were talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  He said something along the lines of, “She’s a badass woman who doesn’t give a shit.”  Basically, this is the thing to which we should aspire.  The actual not caring about what people think, rather than the performative effortlessness that is undergirded by sleepless nights and thousand-word blogposts.

The Notorious RBG in a Banana Republic bib necklace she got in  the swag bag from Glamour's Women of the Year party.

The Notorious RBG in a Banana Republic bib necklace she got in the swag bag from Glamour’s Women of the Year party.

The key here seems to be understanding clothing and presentation as a part of identity, not a separate entity that eclipses it, nor the single element that defines it, but a piece of the mechanism worth analyzing.  Even Ally McBeal knows it, after being held in contempt of court for wearing short skirts.

I am offended by the fact that what is considered unprofessional is traditionally considered feminine.  And, truth be told, equally offended by the fact that the traditionally feminine is either infantilizing or overtly sexual.  (I have a draft called Meditations on Twee as Fuck, which we’ll get into when I’m spoiling for fight.)  Now, I’m sewing with an office environment in mind, rather than my usual put-a-cardigan-on-it approach to crafting, so it’s disorienting.  Yes, I am going to bring this back to sewing, eventually.

I’m going to uncharacteristically end here, because I have a dozen more drafts to finish up and post, and we’re not getting any younger.  However!  I’ve some homework for you for next time:

Have you read Stephanie‘s post on clothing and identity?  Morgan‘s on dressing like a feminist?  Sarai Mitnick from Colette linked to a really interesting New York Times review of a museum exhibit on women’s use of fashion to assert power.  Also!  Do watch this clip from Mena Trott’s (the dearly, dearly missed Mena Trott) talk at Big Omaha, on art, craft, and gender.

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