Thursday, November 10, 2005

What’s the Big Deal About a Silly Dress?

Why do we sometimes change our clothes 5 times before we walk out the door?

Why do we need to shop with our girlfriends?

Why do we say things like "I’m not in the mood for that outfit today."

Our clothes have meaning to us. They make us feel a certain way. They send messages about us to the rest of the world.

Oh! I’m not talking about the kind of sick and twisted messages sex offenders and people who are complicit with sex offenders think (ie: she was asking for it). No! Our clothes AND the way we wear them make us visible or invisible. They make us confident, sexy, earthy, smart, snuggly, safe, wholesome, slutty, sophisticated, and powerful. We make a conscious choice in the way we look when we walk out the door. It says something about us.

The message might be: I’m a Mom and I don’t have time to give a shit about the spit-up on my sweatshirt.
Or: I’m invincible, untouchable and powerful in my navy blue suit and smart little pumps.
Or: I want to blend in with my unremarkable sweater-set and slacks.
Or: This hot slinky dress makes me feel sexy as hell and I want to be noticed.

We also know that women are more likely than men to notice one another for our outward appearance. While it’s true that both men and women are judged this way, it’s different for women. When was the last time you overheard a bunch of guys whisper that another fellow was wearing last year’s jeans? How often does a guy shout out "Hey Steve, that color looks great on you. It really brings out your eyes." And, do men commonly share fashion tips in the washroom?

These behaviors are taught to us. It’s the American way. We’ve grown up with the cultural expectation that we conform and fit in. For young women, who are more likely to be judged by the way they look, this is especially true in terms of clothing. At the same time, we’ve grown up with an opposing cultural expectation that we express our freedom and individuality. In other words, be yourself, but not if you’re too weird. This is why our teenagers love to shock and challenge society with their appearance.

Adolescence is the time of our lives when we experience the power to think and chose for ourselves. We individuate from the people who raised us. It’s an important task. If we don’t do it, our parents will be stuck with us until we’re 35-years old. Interestingly, teens often express their individuality in faddish trends. They stop looking like us in an effort to look as freaky as other kids do. In my day it was Madonna and the Punk look. Now, piercings and tattoos are as common as lipstick.

So for adult women, we’ve been trained to accept idea that the image we portray on the outside is significant. When a gal is in the exact right mood for the exact right dress, she feels great. Add the perfect pair of shoes, a matching handbag and jewelry . . . watch her spirits begin to soar. It gets really amazing when she pulls off the hair and make-up.

For an example of what I’m talking about, go here to see how beautiful Zoooom looked the day she married The Idiot. That sexy Hot Chik is absolutely glowing!


At 7:58 AM, Blogger Anonymous Assclown said...

This is a very insightful post but I think men are just as likely to note outward appearance as women. We may not vocalize it as much, but we're still very aware.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Thanks for pointing that out.
I've been wrong in my assumptions about whole groups of people before. I think it's called "stereotyping".

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Aisha T. said...

Ah yes, this is part of my professional and proved theory of the 'Cinderella Syndrome'. (okay, maybe not at all professional and a little deulusional) We'll chat about that later. Anyway, isn't it said that women usually dress for women?

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Laurie said...

Did you read my post today? ;-)

I remember when I was a teenager, I wore all kinds of crazy stuff. But the only time that my dad lost it completely was when I came downstairs ready to go out in a total "Madonna" ensemble (this was 1985), complete with rosary beads.
It was pretty funny.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger ZooooM said...

I'm reading, I'm reading..I'm agreeing. A certain click of clothes and attitude can make me feel like I can tackle the world. The opposite can make me feel like hiding all day.

And it can be the exact same outfit both times.

And then I get to the last part and...

OOOOH MY GOSH. Thank you for the kind words...

I will admit I felt a bit like a princess that day. Which is really truly hard for me to admit. I'm not very comfortable with the girly - but that day I really was.

Aisha, I'm interested in your Cinderella Syndrome.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger JayneSays said...

Great post! I think we have been on the same wavelength. This topic has always fascinated me, how sometimes, as women, our sense of power, confidence, identity is tied up in what we are wearing.

But answer me this (tree falling in the forest) question: is it the outfit itself, in a vacuum, or the tacit reactions of others to said outfit, that boosts (or diminishes) our spirits?

Energetically, yes, it starts with the conditioning, the way we "feel" when done up or slobbed out, but I believe that feeling is enhanced/amplified when others react to us differently depending on how they perceive us. Again, insightful post, as usual. . .

At 2:46 PM, Blogger figleaf said...

"When was the last time you overheard a bunch of guys whisper that another fellow was wearing last year’s jeans?"

Anonymous Coward is correct that we'll notice your outward appearance but you're never, ever going hear a bunch of guys whisper that a woman is wearing last years outfit either. You know what we *do* notice instead? What kind of eye contact you make with others. *That's* what lets us know if you're feeling sexy/invulnerable/casual/unremarkable/untouchable or whatever.

I'm unbelievably glad to hear that women dress for other women. It's exhausting to be told "men make us dress this way" when 83% of men wear whatever their partners pick out.

I'm *not* saying men aren't oppressive in many, many ways but I would like to suggest that when women spend time focusing on appearance they're only oppressing themselves. And each other.


Aside: At least once a month I run into a blogger who expresses surprise that someone finds her attractive at, say, the gym when she's sweaty and not looking "her best." At least for me this is incomprehensible. One is either attractive or one is not -- whether one is also sweaty, or down with a cold, or has pillow hair, decked out in full diamond tiara, war paint, and eau d'carcass or bopping around in bib overalls is completely beside the point.

Yeah, men are exceptionally visually oriented, but not that way. Not the same way, or nearly to the same extent, as I think women are.

(Eek! Sorry if this sounds like a rant, Theresa. I really don't mean for it to.)

Take care,


At 3:14 PM, Blogger Anonymous Assclown said...

For the record, I'm wearing black flat-front slacks, black collared thin-ribbed wool sweater, a light grey linen blazer and black loafers.

I look way hot.

At 6:53 PM, Blogger Aisha T. said...

Theresa--sorry this is for Zoom--I tried to make it small's a complicated theory!
A Concise Summary of the Cinderella Syndrome—an Aishology: The theory that human female offspring are coerced into pre-determined role by using flattery, toys, baubles, shiny things, and tulle. Females are encouraged to feel that being ‘pretty’ is the same as being ‘successful’. Beauty=Success. Also, figures such as ‘dolls’ are given to show them the roll that they should aspire to fulfill. Babies=success. Having manly man who will whisk the female away is said to give neverending happiness. Marriage=success. Adult females will go through great lengths to win such male by wearing expensive and uncomfortable shoes, pricey sexy clothing, maintenance involving wax and cuticle clippers, and a variety of other trials learned from early stages of being a human female even if it is not who they really are.
The danger of ‘winning’ a manly man could actually be a trap. Instead of being taken care of, the female finds herself trapped in a cage (referred to as ‘home’) given endless, thankless tasks while waiting for manly man. When manly man arrives, b.j.'s abound after gourmet dinner is served. Pleasure for female is denied.
Of course, the latter example is an extreme circumstance (usually this circumstance is vainly attempted to be diffused by breeding more females) and may not happen to majority of females. Also, a firm belief in the Syndrome may lead a female to end up as a bitter, jaded, lonely female with 20 cats found dead because of the horrible stench released from decomposition.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger theresa said...

Aisha - Thanks for sharing your theory. I saw a lot of truth in it. My own mother used to start many dreadful conversations with, "If you're ever going to get a man to marry you, you'd better start behaving differently."

Laurie - Sounds like you knew exactly how to get to good-ol Archie Bunker ... I mean Dad.

Zoooom - Those photos convinced me that you were most definitely a beautiful princess! But, every other day, your natural beauty shows through in so many other ways.

Jayne - Good question. I have certain clothes that simply make me happy to wear, either because they fit my personality or they have sentimental value. At the same time, I also tend to dress for my audience. I suppose it's an issue of control. I make an effort to control what other's think of me by what I let them see. I bet I'm not the only person who does that.

Figleaf - You made some really good points. Guys like you notice more than silly superficial details. I'd like to tag on that I think women's motivations vary. I also think men's do too. Men have a hand in encouraging competition between women. Wet t-shirt contests may not be about who's got the cutest handbag, but they still encourage women to use their physical attributes to compete for the attention of men.

AC - Wow! I was going to wear that very same outfit today. I changed my mind because I thought it made my ass look big. I bet you sizzle in that smouldering black & gray ensemble.

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Theresa, I actually do think you're pointing to something else, though. I know this is going to be a little bit of an overstatement but there's only so much room, here. . . I think there are some ideas that are generally at play. There is the whole objectification/commodification thing. There are power relationships. Homophobia is a part of it, too. Women comment directly on and to other women and men. Gay men comment directly on and to other gay men and women. Straight men comment directly on and to women but rarely to other straight men because we're taught that we're not supposed to notice other straight men "like that" which, in the straight man would "lower" us to the level of a woman or a gay man. The only situation in which this seems to be allowable is if we're kissing up in some way ("Nice tie, sir.") which also speaks to power dynamics.
OK, this is admitedly a huge stretch, but what if the ways women and gay men comment on appearance has to do with making alliances or eliminating competion? Could the whole comment thing be an effort (conscious or not) to consolidate perceived power or eliminate competition in a world in which women and gay men are still considered less powerful and less valuable in some ways?
Maybe. Maybe not.

At 1:17 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Popeye - Fantastic comment! You are such a Feminist thinking guy. When women and Gay men compliment one another on their appearance it forms an alliance, which indeed is part of surviving in the social realm where we have less power when we're isolated. Likewise, when someone threatens us, we criticize in order to separate them from the "us" group. Sometimes this kind of behavior can get completely out of control. When it's damaging in the workplace and schools it's called "mobbing". Fairly recnetly it's been identified and documented in the US, but in Europe some countries even have laws against it.

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Bougie Black Boy said...

Yeah, I think men are really overly concerned with outward appearances of themselves as well as the women they engage with.

In a busy society where 60% of our time is at the office, 35% is sleeping and probably about 5% is out socializing--i think that we STRIVE for something a bit creative, to make us happy. If our only sanity to get us by each day is a pair of brown velvet pants to wear to the office--so let it be.
But I live in nyc, where I think we can get away with funkier clothes in the workplace.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Maverick said...

A complex issue, for sure. I think it goes both ways - we use clothes as a mask to tell the world about us, but we also dress as a reflection of who we are inside. E.g., I always dress kind of sporty b/c I'm a tomboy in a way, and I like to be comfortable not (esp. self-) restricted, but also seen as sort of active (b/c I am active and always ready for anything). My dr. noticed and said that not being able to use my hands lately has probably been killing me. And, it has. I dressed, she reacted appropriately - points for approp. dressing.

Diff. b/n men and women. I notice what guys wear and make comments, like "new shirt?" "nice shirt" - and they look at me like they had never thought about it, and I'm sure they hadn't. THey notice each other, I think, in terms of power mostly, but don't comment. That's my take.

Spitting in a Wishing Well

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Ron Southern said...

I'm sorry, I never noticed your clothes. I bet you were wearing some, though.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger JayneSays said...

I just wanted to weigh in on commenting and societal power. I think Popeye is spot on in recognizing the societal phenomenon of complimenting as a form of power consolidation. Primates do this, too, grooming one another, forming alliances when one is not Alpha.

However, I believe that when we become actualized adults and stand fully in our own power, we can choose to break free from societal restraints. We (male, female, gay, straight, etc.) can and do tell one another how beautiful we each are without coming from a position of "lesser than" or "beneath" much less from "above" and "intimidating" (such as sexual harassment and other unwelcome commenting).

Instead, we are coming from a recognition of absolute equality and unity. This stance stems from the power of the self, when one's core is swayed by neither external praise nor criticism, and is not dependent on one's "place" in society, as I believe that is somewhat illusory when we take into account free will and the ability to choose one's perceptions.

Is this position of equal, unifying exchange rare? Perhaps, but let's make it less so, shall we? ; )


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