difficult women

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.

22 thoughts on “difficult women”

  1. Charlotte! Congratulations!! I am so glad to be catching up on your posts now…lots of good reading ahead. (So surprised you linked to mine..I’m so embarrassed by the incoherence of most of my posts, but writing is a bit of a compulsion I’m afraid. ) Back to reading…

    1. I forgot yesterday to mention something else. Something that has been interesting for me this year has been to see that although I have been dressing more expressively and authentically (including wearing full skirts and mixing lots of patterns), I have in fact had the best year of my career, with lots of responsibility. My conclusion has been that as I’ve become more assertive and more confident in the true value-added of what I deliver, people either don’t care about the colourful fashion me or accept it as part of the package. I am cheered and grateful.

      1. This might be the key, I think. Must get better at insouciance and confidence. I am sewing for this spring’s internship, and, admittedly, have bought some geometric prints just for it. I think I might wait a few weeks before I test the waters with a silk shirtwaist and cardigan. (This is business casual, no? Anyone? Bueller?)

    2. Thank you! Oh, dear, I don’t comment as often as I should (if I did, I wouldn’t be able to read a quarter of the blogs and comments that I do), but I follow your blog with great attention. No incoherence to be found. The tripe I write, on the other hand. . . .

  2. Congratulations on your job and your internship.
    I still have frantic phone conversation with my mom (she’s the person responsible for hiring staff, so every interview we have conversations that read like:”no not that dress, you look like a fat teenager in that dress” and that was my number 1 option)

    I must say that I hate the fact that people judge you on the way you look, especially if you are female. I’m equally good at my job when I’m wearing a dress as when I’m wearing pants. In my case I must admit that I look better doing my job when I wear a dress, but that might be just me.
    I have no idea if this is some kind of point that is relevant to what you wrote, but nevertheless it’s true.

    I can’t wait to read your next post. They are always so funny + serious and I love that combo.

    1. Hanne! “You look like a fat teenager in that dress,” is the story of my life. That, or “You look like a middle-aged mom in a hurry.”

      I look better doing everything when I wear a dress, mostly because I am infinitely less miserable in a dress than I am in trousers or whatever.

      Thanks, Hanne!

      1. I think the point of “being less miserable” is an important one. Same here.
        However, these days I’m aiming for feeling fabulous. It helps that I’m an art teacher so whenever people think I’m overdressed/wearing too much colour, I can literally see them think: oh, it’s the art teacher, that’s normal. Followed by collective sigh of relieve.

  3. You got a job! Congratulations! Hopefully that will take some of the stress off of finishing up.

    There’s a lot of Disparagement of the Feminine that goes on with publicly disavowing an interest in appearances (and one which I’ve participated in, for sure). But, fingers crossed, this seems to be shifting.

    1. This weekend, I devoured Inside Amy Schumer, and there are several (dozen) skits about this. This is barely related, and I’m actually sure you’ve read this, but I’ll post it anyway: http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/11/i-gained-50-pounds-and-didnt-recognize-myself.html.

      Maybe I’m especially sensitive to the issues in the piece, because I’ve had a super fun double-digit, can’t-zip-my-pencil-skirts weight gain this semester, and have thus been reading a lot of articles about feminism and its relationship to weight (-loss), but there’s one line that really stuck out. The author says that when you’re fat, you have to put more attention into your appearance, because if you’re thin and you’ve got messy hair and are wearing jeans, it’s cute; but you’re a slob if you’re fat. Beyond appearance, I wonder if it is attributable to this weird relationship everyone seems to have with effort. I love putting effort into things, and give myself all of the gold stars, but there seems to be a lot of shame surrounding it.

      1. I hadn’t read it. It was interesting, though, and a bit heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

        It is kind of a weird relationship with effort, isn’t it? Which is odd, when you consider the Protestant Work Ethic and the whole idea that anyone can be successful at anything if they work hard enough–but then there’s this idea too that if you work really hard, you’re probably not actually that good at it.

  4. Congrats on the job! Business casual can be defined in so many different ways depending on the industry. A couple months ago I read a round table discussion with 5 women who work at Buzzfeed (I think) and they all described what they wore to work and their fashion identities and I kept thinking it was so different from my industry (engineering).

    Sometimes I want to dress more fashion-forward or trendy/awesome, but then I worry I won’t be taken seriously amongst all the older men in suits so I instead I have a pretty boring work wardrobe. On another side note, do you listen to the “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast? Recently there was an episode about what women lawyers should wear and it was interesting, and frustrating, to hear how women lawyers are “supposed” to dress.

    1. Thank you! Business casual is the devil. Most of the women at my business casual events just straight-up wore suits, while the men left off their ties. Totally different, friends!

      I don’t listen to that podcast. I should! I’ve been jonesing for new listening material. I imagine skirts and hose play prominent roles in stuff lady lawyers are supposed to wear, yes?

      I should adopt your boring work wardrobe, because I don’t get taken seriously a lot of the time. I dropped a class this semester because, as a friend summarized it, “[The professor] thought you were Mindy Lahiri, when you’re really Leslie Knope!” I like silk blouses and pop culture references, and I also like doing my job! Would that I had the balls of RBG or Chimamanda Adichie.

  5. Several thoughts. A numbering system has become necessary.

    1. YES. YESYESYESYES. I think constantly about the intersection of work appropriate and feminine, which arrives at a roundabout of What I Actually Want to Put on My Body and gets squiggly.
    1a. Also, on the Elle piece, which I love, can we stop telling people “you look nice….” in such a way as to intimate that one is overdressed? It’s worse than “you’re overdressed,” in my opinion. Nothing makes me more embarrassed than for someone to make a Thing out of an outfit that is, to me, more comfortable and simpler than jeans and a t-shirt. Clearly one-piece outfits made from bedsheets purchased at the thrift store should in no way qualify anyone to be overdressed for anything. Right?! Does this only happen to me?
    1b. I am obviously not from Nigeria, but boy howdy can I relate to the author’s unwillingness to wear sneakers and pajamas. I could not figure out how to dress when I went to college, having come from 13 years in the Land of Well-Pressed Uniforms. When I left for college, I went with a stereotypical steamer trunk filled with button-down shirts, brown leather shoes and lots of khaki.

    2. YAY job.

    3. Are you leaving D.C.? We neeeeeed to get together again. Doubly so if you’re leaving. (And not just “hey, how are you? I’m getting off at the next stop” on the Metro. 😛 )

    1. 1. Do you ever flip through Brooks Brothers’ Black Fleece section? Thom Browne does it, so a lot of it is not curve friendly, but is is really refreshing and/or jarring to see wool suiting fabrics combined with such traditionally feminine silhouettes. I remember you’d commented on Renée at Miss Celie’s Pants’s blog about how everyone in DC seems to think that silk blouses and pencil skirts are the uniform, but that’s not you. Agreed entirely. I feel like I’m wearing my mommy’s clothes when I put on a suit.

      I give lectures and stern talkings-to all the time on this very subject. “Look. Bro. It’s got a single zipper, then I threw a cardigan on top of it. You, on the other hand, have like six pieces and several sets of fasteners going on. Not a contest.”

      Brown leather shoes! My lifeblood. I have a much less casual camps than most—I’ve never seen anyone in pyjamas, and often women have on full faces of makeup at 8am, while I sport wet hair—but the appearance of effort is odd. No one wants to look try-hard, but I’d wager that everyone puts in around the same level of effort every day.

      2. RIGHT?

      3. Staying in DC, and we’re sharing a Metro stop. (I’m across from the IMF, on Penn.) Yes. Indeed, the internship is around the corner from you old job, so I seem to be doing the Allie Tour of Washington, DC. We need to have catch-up drinks, ASAP.

  6. First of all, honey, I’m so glad you’ve gotten jobs lined up, and you’re going to do fine. Not to say that life will always be smooth sailin’, but you’ve got what it takes.
    Here’s what I think…having worn the 70s disco wrap-dress look, power suits, Princess Di twee, bad preppy, minimalism (several times), the urban Diane Keaton look, etc. What you’re shooting for is sophisticated and classy. Sleek clothes you make from quality fabrics. Hermes scarves (from Ebay). Good bags (also from Ebay). Cool vintage jewelry. The right reddish lipstick. Things that harken back to good design from the past. It doesn’t matter if other people get it or not. Go to Paris and look around. The French women aren’t sitting around going, how do I fit in? They’re thinking, what’s my personal statement? Style is not political. It’s fun!

    1. Oh, thanks, Julie. That’s a comfort.

      Next blog post, I actually may or may not leave in the bit where I talk about buying my first Hermès scarf. I was 17, wearing track pants and a grey athletic t-shirt, and it was. . .memorable.

      I’m thinking about adopting a uniform for the internship, and seeing how it shakes out. Wool or silk jersey dresses, silk scarves and/or cool jewelry, low blockish heels (Ferragamo Varas, specifically). The lipstick is going to be my white whale over break. Your Hepburn scarf might have to make an appearance or two.

      Ahhh, but I’m not happy if I can’t agonize over everything! Fine. Shall depoliticize style. Ho hum.

  7. Congratulations on the job! Hooray! 🙂

    As far as “what to wear” goes, I think a lot of it depends on who you will be surrounded by the most. Because honestly, as long as you aren’t naked or overtly sexy/attention seeking, *most* men DGAF what you’re wearing as long as you get the job done. Women, on the other hand, are the ones who really seem to have this useless cattiness down to an art form. And as a woman who occasionally catches herself slipping down that slope, I think I can say that. If you want to be a badass, be one, it’s all about attitude anyway. Clothes don’t make the wo/man.

    1. Thanks!

      I went to see a professor after a job interview. Referring to my suit, he said to me, “Isn’t that gray too light?” Forever ruining me for life. Badass attitude is this semester’s project.

  8. Congratulations! We are aiming for full employment and glad to know the ritual sacrifice did the trick.

    Grateful that I don’t have to have these thoughts anymore. Grateful that I can amuse myself/horrify myself with watching ESPN on mute and just focus on how much cleavage/leg the sports anchors have to show/not show at work. Do men play “who wore it better?” with other men? I mean, besides my spouse?

    Whatever you wear, make sure the cleaning bills for it don’t outstrip your pay. And remember: Richard Feynman may have believed that he didn’t care what other people thought, but he had a government job with a pension and heath benefits.

    1. Thanks!

      As I’m sure you know, I regularly refer to myself as Old Testament God (fickle, moody, wrathful, demanding, but ultimately a good time if you know what you’re doing). As such, you should consider yourself lucky for having remembered the ritual sacrifice bit.

      See, I have so many catty straight dude friends who actively comment on the appearance of others, that I am unfamiliar with this alien breed of man to which everyone refers. Not just your spouse. Men do it all the time.

      The minute I get tenure—the very minute—I am going to start wearing full silk ball skirts and cropped sweaters (à la OscarPRGirl) to every class. Suck on that, university administration.

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