Clothing is a funny thing. Some people argue that it means nothing, and is a mere distraction from what lies underneath (figuratively speaking). Many others argue that is sends critical messages about its wearer, and obsess over what those messages are.
The most polarizing issues are always related to women: everything from whether Hillary Clinton’s sensible trouser suits make her qualified or matronly to whether followers of Islam should be permitted/forced to wear clothes that cover their faces or hair. I once heard a model claim that all fashion is women’s fashion, and that we only let men borrow it periodically. It was a joke, but one that implies that the control lies in the hands of women. I believe that it is the opposite, and that because they are free from all the attention, it is really men who have the power in this regard.
I wrote a paper a few years ago about how men’s fashion in the nineteenth century was instrumental in shifting feelings of “otherness” from those of class to those of gender. That is, the key differentiators in society before the 1800s were class-based, and reflected in clothing styles. After the 1800s, the key differentiators were between the sexes. Now, before all of you political historians tune out because you think I’m going to start using wacky postcolonial/postmodern/psychoanalytic/feminist arguments, let me say this: what people wear, and especially what they wear to work, speaks volumes about the values of the society in which they live.
(And, for what it’s worth, most of this post will be about men anyway.)
The nineteenth century was notable for spawning the first modern ideas about working: there was a real middle class for the first time, and it generally participated in a public sphere of manufacturing and commerce. Trade was no longer considered dirty by the upper classes; instead, it was England’s “nation of shopkeepers” that was leading the charge of modernity and Empire, and entrepreneurs were raised to the level formerly attained only by military men and the aristocracy. For the first time, hard work and professional expertise had respect, and this sense of respect bonded men together. Of course, it also separated them from women, who were rarely if ever allowed to participate in this glorious public work – they had to stay at home and raise children (which, of course, isn’t work at all, right? It’s pure joy! That’s why women don’t get paid for it!).
Thus arose the suit. Ah, the suit. That most modern uniform that signifies utilitarianism, seriousness, and piety (through its emphasis on black exterior and white collared shirt overlay, like priests!) all at once. The package that is so simple, easy and flattering that men (and those who see them) don’t even have to think about it. The modern suit was so revolutionary, after so many years of tights and funny short pants and ruffs and wigs, that one eminent historian of fashion has said that since its adoption, women’s fashion has been reduced to its imitation.
Because before the suit, all fashion was men’s fashion. Think ducks: men had to be ostentatious and showy while women merely had to be pure and able to produce offspring. And after, it was only women who had clothing that was complicated, deceptive, and silly. (Don’t even get me started on the kinds of mishaps that could occur while wearing a hoop skirt.)
So what’s changed? Is the suit still master of the professional clothing universe? I think it still represents all of the above (with maybe the exception of ‘piety’) and is still the defining answer to the question of what is appropriate to wear to work. Of course, there are signature looks (Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks, Richard Branson’s lack of ties, and “Casual Fridays”) but these are remarkable because they stand out from the norm. The suit is so powerful because it is a uniform and gives the wearer immediate currency in the professional world because he does not need to talk about it. But women aren’t included: if a woman wears a suit proper, she stands out. If she wears a pantsuit, she stands out for being too much like Hillary Clinton. If she wears something more feminine, she stands out for that too – perhaps for overly expensive designer elitism, a la Sarah Palin. If she doesn’t wear a suit, she is unprofessional — or worse. Whatever she wears, she stands out. If you don’t believe me, check out this picture of world leaders and tell me who stands out to you.
In casual wear, of course, it doesn’t matter – the separation between work and fun is clear and thus lacks a value judgement about competence. And besides, everyone, of all classes and both genders, wears jeans. But overall very little has changed on the professional world: the classes may mingle, but the genders remain distinct.
So what? you may ask. Clothing doesn’t actually change how competent (or incompetent) a person is. Of course it doesn’t – but isn’t it interesting that as a society we still can’t get past using the outside packaging as an excuse for our real opinions? Without all of the discussion about pantsuits, would Hillary still be considered “traditional” and a “feminist”? And don’t even get me started on shoes…
What do you think? Does it matter to you what people in positions of power are wearing? Do you respect a suit more than a skirt? Do you think clothing enslaves us? If so, how do we escape?