From the moment we are born almost every one of us are sexed. Like animals, we are put into one of only two accepted categories, female or male, based on the visible construction of our genitalia. This categorisation is most often the responsibility of medical personnel present at the birth and occurs within seconds of delivery. Even before birth, with advances in ultrasound technology, sexing takes place and, though it is wrong on occasion, the gendering of the child often takes place even before delivery. The split second judgement of a professional in a maternity ward almost invariably results in the gendering of babies and that is where the gendering of dress and appearance begins.
From the point of birth, dress is used as a way of distinguishing girls and boys, particularly for the benefit of other people, you would expect the immediate others around the child would know without a visual aid. Pink is now inherently linked to femininity and blue to masculinity. As a result of this gendering of colour, we use clothing as an identifier when admiring babies in public, we assume that a baby with a pink hat is a girl and a baby with a blue blanket is a boy. As a consequence of this, we are unaccommodating of those who do not conform, and thus must find excuses for those who do not conform, i.e. girls who like short hair and to dress in blue are “tomboys,” boys who like pink are “girly”, but both will “grow out of it”. This gendering is perpetuated throughout childhood; girls wear pretty dresses, make-up, accessories and significance is placed on how they look whereas boys are more likely to wear functional clothing that allows them to take part in masculine activities. By dressing males and females in certain ways, we embody them with the masculine or feminine characteristics that we as a society expect of them.
While wearing skirts and dresses as a young girl is rarely frowned upon, it is a different story for young women who choose to wear these outfits on a night out. For as long as rape and sexual assault have been reported on, the dress of the woman affected has been called into question by the media, by the justice system and most disturbingly, by a significant proportion of the general public. Recently high profile figures have publicly criticised women who wear short skirts or high heels for example. Sadly, some of these comments have come from women, such as Joanna Lumley’s comments implicating sexual assault victims on the grounds of how they were dressed at the time. Likewise, the victim dressing “provocatively” has become some kind of mitigation for the defence in sexual assault cases, despite the concerted effort by society to squeeze little girls into skirts and dresses. Even more disturbing is the attempt to sexualise not only women, but young girls through the way they are dressed. Walk into Primark, for example, and you can find t-shirts emblazoned by logos such as “little tease” for girls as young as three, indeed the company caused outrage two years ago when it emerged it was selling padded “boost” bra’s aimed at girls of just seven years old.
So from a young age women are socialised to dress and appear in a feminine and sexualised way, compatible with the socially constructed sexual desires of men. Through these standards women are often placed in a no-win situation. Dress in a revealing ‘sexy’ way and you’re ‘slut’. Dress conservatively, covering up and not conforming to a sexualised ideal and you’re a ‘dyke’. This criticism comes from both men and women, with women often verbally attacking one another in the media for the way they dress. For example, the Mail Online consistently has its female columnists commenting on the way in which women in the public eye dress. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Argentinian president for example, is celebrated not for what she does, but how she dresses, while female ‘celebrities’ are criticised by newspaper columnists for wearing too little/too much/too revealing an outfit. Likewise, we see constant commentary on what women are wearing rather on what they have actually achieved, with critical undertones in how the woman in question is portraying herself through her outfit choices.
The question of dress has been approached differently by the various waves on feminism. First wave feminism was not concerned with issues such as dress. Their focus on the rights of women in the public sphere, particularly in politics, meant that issues such as these were not considered; they firmly belonged in the hands of individual women in their own private lives. The second wave brought about some analysis of women’s dress, feminine clothing was often frowned upon by those involved in the movement. While the burning of bras was symbolic – women burning the ties that bind them – it could also be taken to be the burning of a symbol of femininity, the bra being one of the most prominent garments that only women wear in significant numbers. Wearing make up, shaving, having your hair done, manicures, etc were not the accepted behaviour of the most ardent feminists in the second wave. Feminism has always had diverse traditions within it so, of course, these observations cannot be applied to every member of the feminist movement, but it was a majority. Conversely, third wave feminism takes an outward look at dress, concentrating instead on the way women’s dress is perceived rather than commenting on women themselves. Feminist organisations are made up from a very diverse group of women, some who choose to shave, some who don’t, some who choose to have their nails done, some who don’t and so on. There is no longer that stereotypical image of a feminist within the movement, while it does still unfortunately exist in society.
In terms of dressing up, there are many challenges facing feminists today. As a movement, we need to break down that old stereotype of what a feminist looks like. This is a barrier to attracting people to the movement. Feminists are like women, they come in various guises, some even have a penis! A feminist can be a man or a woman; they can dress in short skirts and heels; they can wear as much or as little make-up as they like. To be a ‘real’ feminist does not entail dressing or appearing a certain way. We must continue to challenge the gendering of women in general, although it is contested among feminists how this should be done. Finally, there is an ever-increasing amount of pressure on women to conform to male-constructed ideals, particularly with the proliferation of porn culture. Lastly, we must be committed to the argument that everyone, not just women, can wear what they want, when they want and that their choices should not be judged or, in the worst case, used as mitigation in sexual assault or rape.
* This article does not include the issue of women and dress in religion, as this will be covered in a later article in the series about women, feminism and religion.