How Can We Reclaim Traditionally Feminine Dressing?

I have spent years honing my personal style. Learning to dress my body in a way that felt beautiful and powerful and authentic to me has helped me accept and love my body in a way that I otherwise couldn’t have. I feel that crafting my personal style has connected my intellectual and emotional selves to my physical self, and that process has transformed me in the best of ways.

Now immersed in my honed style, I tend to dress in what people tell me is a “traditionally feminine” manner. I wear heels almost exclusively, and pants almost never. I love fitted styles that show off my waistline, belt nearly everything, and gravitate toward garments that enhance my bust. I love these styles and they love me back.

And I have read again and again that I am indirectly reinforcing patriarchal notions of femininity. That even if I never acknowledge or accept it, my choices are being guided by concepts of female bodies, sexuality, and beauty that I’ve never directly condoned.

And I’ll level with you: I’m sick to death of it. I am not a villain because I favor heels over flats. Not a dinosaur for embracing dresses and skirts, and shunning jeans and pants. Not a monster for loving my body in clothes that work with its natural form.

I want to find a way to reclaim traditionally feminine dressing. I want to dress this way because I like to, because it makes me feel good, because it’s what I choose to do and who I choose to be. But I don’t know how. Because I can point out that living my life and dressing my body in opposition to what the patriarchy wants would still leave me controlled by it, but I get shot down. Whenever I say that I AM capable of making decisions independently, I’m told that I’m being naive. No one believes me that this is actually what I want.

So tell me:

If you believe that traditionally feminine dressing is an affront to the feminist movement, how do you dress instead? Is there any way to embrace looks, styles, and garments that are socially-sanctioned without selling out?

If you don’t believe that traditionally feminine dressing is an affront to the feminist movement, how do you reconcile the fact that your tastes may have been shaped by forces outside your control, designed to keep women in positions of powerlessness? And, as I asked the previous group, is there any way to embrace looks, styles, and garments that are socially-sanctioned without selling out?

{I realize this is an issue about which many people – myself included – feel quite passionately. Please remember to be kind and respectful, both to me and to each other. We are friends and colleagues here, even when we disagree.}

  • Ann M.

    I had a discussion on a similar topic with a friend the other day; it wasn't about which clothes to wear but what women want (should want, could want) from their future.

    In essence, my opinion on both discussions boils down to this: I don't believe that feminism should be about telling anyone which clothes to wear (jeans) and which not to wear (dresses) or which future to choose (career over a family, because any stay-at-home mum is clearly dominated by the patriarchy, right?). I think feminism should be about having a choice. A choice to wear jeans or a choice to wear dresses and heels. A choice between career and family – or even both.

    People who say that only the one thing is good and proper and choosing the other makes you give in to old values and means you're controlled by the patriarchy are only substituting one set of values and restraints on women with another. Shouldn't everyone be free to make their own choice? Isn't that what it's all about?

    … Not sure if I managed to put my thoughts into a coherent text, but I hope it makes at least some sense.

    • http://www.boots2008.blogspot.com Melody

      Ann, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a 50-something, I was in the first wave of those who “were free” to choose careers over children/homelife. As one who chose homelife and 4 children, I can bear witness that that was most definitely NOT considered a “valid choice.” My college friends were “sad” that I had been “forced to submit” to parenthood and “defer” my career. After I told them that it was most definitely my choice to choose motherhood as my profession, they drifted away and we lost touch. Now I have 4 fine adults who call me, “Mom,” and am beginning that career. It won’t be as long as some, but I knowing then what I know now, I would still choose the way I did.

  • jumpseat monalisa

    this is definitely something i've been thinking about a lot recently and i'm excited to see what kind of dialogue this post creates. at this point, i generally just end up over-thinking myself into oblivion every time i confront the issue and wanting to wear absolutely nothing. i think it's best to dress for yourself, in things you feel comfortable and beautiful in. you can analyze why you feel beautiful and yeah sure, maybe it's because 'the man' has defined what beautiful is, but in the end if it's real to you, that's all that matters. such a tricky area. i think it's best to keep it simple and go with your gut.

  • Peter

    Sal. We ALL dress in ways that are to one degree or another socially sanctioned. These are the choices we have. How many people are wearing animal skins and tree bark in Minneapolis? We shop in stores and we're limited to what's available.

    We grow up in a human society, not in the forest, raised by wolves. Of course we're going to prefer ways of dress that look "right" to us. We're conditioned throughout our entire lives. Whether you grow up in American suburbia or among the pygmies, you are conditioned by your environment. That doesn't make us unconscious victims.

    There isn't just this one monolithic thing called PATRIARCHY. Women have always had a tremendous cultural impact even if this hasn't always been recognized.

    Am I a victim of patriarchy because I wear mens shirt and pants? That's what most men wear in our society; that's what's available. Today, women can wear them too if they want to. It's just body covering. Clothing has been "gendered" male and female, but there's tremendous crossover and there always has been.

    If you prefer traditionally "feminine" styles, so what? We've all been conditioned to view these as appropriate and pretty. What's wrong with appropriate and pretty? What's important is that you can choose to dress however YOU want.

    Do you honestly think a DRESS can reinforce patriarchy?

    Violence, poverty, ignorance, greed, environmental catastrophe — let's focus on the real problems we face as human beings — both male and female — and not on our clothes.

  • Anonymous

    For me, the concept of femme identities in queer communities has been very helpful in thinking about these issues. I'm straight, and I'm not sure if a straight girl can technically be femme, but it reminds me that there are more dimensions to our gender identities than just male/female-man/woman. I grew up with a similar relationship to fashion as you did, and now that I'm a skirt-wearing, fashion-conscious grownup, I sometimes remind myself that if I was gay I would probably identify as femme and that would be a perfectly valid way of being!

  • Simply Playing

    I find this question to be very similar to being an at home mom or dare I even say homemaker and being a feminist. I always thought being a feminist gave me the right to choose what was best for me irregardless of societal views. So I guess it all rests on what your idea of feminism is.

    I find that on the days I wear makeup, or a skirt, or jewelery my son asks me why (he's 4.) I tell him it makes me feel pretty. He turned to my husband and asked what made him feel pretty. Maybe that's another question to ask – why are men never questioned in the same way we are about our fashion choices.

  • Cathy Benavides

    Oh honey, I have this conversation at least twice a week, and I feel your pain. I wear dresses about 5-6 days out of the week, and someone always either comments or asks why I don't wear pants. Sadly, some people very dressing feminine and showing weakness or displaying that you are less than a man. However, I find there to be great power in expressing my femininity. I love the fact that I'm a woman and I relish in being just a little girly. I say you keep on- you look beautiful, not just because of what you wear, but because it helps you pull your shoulders back, hold your head up and feel fabulous about yourself.

  • Nique

    You wear what you feel great and confident in, and this will make you your most powerful self. I can't think of anything more feminist than that. Of course what makes a woman feel her best is going to vary, so there is no "right" thing to wear to be a feminist.

  • Deanna

    I think if a person dresses herself in opposition to the patriarchy, she's still permitting the patriarchy to influence her choice. She is allowing the patriarchy to place 'dibs' first and taking their leftovers. Any person who wears her clothing simply because it pleases her without reference to what other people would like her to wear is making an empowered choice. And some aspects of 'patriarchal' clothing–like fitted waists–appeal not just to men, but to all of us because they are simply the most flattering to a woman's body. They highlight the actual figure, and if we hide that because men like it too, aren't we tiptoeing down the slippery slope to Burqaville?

  • Andrea

    I have always felt that the feminist movement was about having the ability to make our own choices. We, as modern women, have entire shopping malls to choose from, jeans to dresses. Passing judgement on how other women choose to dress, in my opinion, is an afront to feminism. My choices work for me, your choices work for you.

  • sapotes

    I'm really surprised, honestly, that people are skirt-shaming you. That's so Feminism 101 – yes, we do live in a culture that provides a lot of positive feedback for certain kinds of gender performance. I don't think your decision to wear skirts is a free choice in a vacuum any more than my free choice to wear, I don't know, a bathing suit while swimming is – we both live in a culture that presents us with certain options, and we choose among those options. But I also don't think either of us have the option to wake up tomorrow raised in a completely different culture and see how we'd dress then – we've only got one life, and the one world to live it in, and depriving ourselves of innocuous pleasures just because they're feminine really doesn't advance the cause of womenhood. In fact, I usually assume that the "ew, dresses" reaction is partially backed up by internalized misogyny – maybe you're advancing the cause of womenhood way more by dressing in a girly way and continuing to be a person who deserves to be taken seriously then by perpetuating the notion that people with a certain kind of gender performance are less-worthy people. Heck, there's a lot of transphobia and homophobia that's got the basic assumption that people that act in "feminine"-coded ways are less worthwhile as humans at the root.

    (Part 2 to follow)

  • sapotes

    Comment part 2! Sometimes I type a lot before I've had coffee.

    I will say that as someone who's rendered helpless and kind of teary-eyed within fifteen minutes in Belks, it has been hard in the past for me to get over resentment towards women for whom these things seem to come naturally. When you don't believe that you have a free choice not to do these things, but instead just feel helpless to achieve them in a culture where a woman is never pretty enough, it breeds resentment and a general wish to have permission to stop trying. You're not out to take anyone's permission to wear chinos and a button-down in a loose size every day away from them; that's one of the reasons I like your blog.

    If you really want to back yourself up while doing a flying leap over the "perhaps pants will magically free us from our bonds!" school of second-wave feminism, you could always bone up on good old queer theory and try the "this is the gender presentation that makes me feel happiest and most comfortable, and I support everyone else in the gender presentation they prefer" tack.

  • jen

    My guess is that there is some kind of history behind this post that I'm missing out on becuse I usually read through my RSS reader. I took feminist theory classes and still don't really get this post. Suggesting that to be a real woman requires some sort of asexual uniform does not seem very feminist to me.

  • AnaJan

    In my opinion, dressing style has nothing to do with being (or not being) a feminist. I think that judging someone by his (well, in this case – HER) clothes is as chauvinistic as judging someone by her gender.
    Furthermore, to put my thoughts in a feministic form: if a guy has a freedom to dress whatever he wants and likes, without being discredited, judged or belitlled, why would a woman suffer these judgements for doing the same thing?

  • Cynthia

    You HAVE reclaimed it, Sal! I am having total envy of your cute black dress. You OWN traditionally feminine dressing, and yet you are totally modern.

    I just don't think that people are constantly scrutinizing and judging each of us over things like this. Maybe it's because I'm not in a relationship and therefore don't have immediate personal male/female dynamics playing out in my life. Maybe I'm just poorly socialized and oblivious to some social cues that other people are fluent in. Or, maybe people really aren't scrutinizing us.

    I remember being more worried about this kind of thing when I was in my 20s, but lately I feel like I've grown a shell that tunes it out. What is that shell? How did I get it? I'm not sure. On the patriarchy side, I've tuned out a LOT of advertising messaging by not having a TV. I don't read magazines or novels that are marketed specifically to women, I largely don't watch "chick flicks", I shop on the interwebs more than in the mall. On the angry feminists accusing me of being a sellout when I wear a skirt side, I'm not sure how I avoid those but it probably has something to do with being around madly practical scientists all day.

    I've been poking around at these ideas in my own head since I read a blog post equating body/image messaging with a "war on women". How do I avoid feeling targeted? I remember feeling like that when I was younger, but where did it go? Maybe it's middle-aged female invisibility.

    I know it's not overly helpful to say "you can learn to tune it out" but maybe that's the only way — just be what you are, accept that some people are going to be jerks about it no matter what you choose to do, and go on your merry way.

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating post! and a topic to which I've been forced to give much thought thought in recent years. In the past five years I've had to transition from an ultra-casual office in which I was one of few women. I needed to look clean and pulled together, obviously, but dark wash jeans and a blouse or sweater were fine. I had no sense of personal style at that time which didn't bother me too much, though I had a nagging sense that I "wasn't good with clothes" and I looked with envy on my effortlessly stylish friends.

    Fast forward to when I got a job in academe. I started by wearing my same old wardrobe–a pretty close match for how many of the men that I worked with dressed. Soon, however, I was gently taken aside and told that jeans weren't professional for me (no matter that I'd had to dig my car out from two feet of snow that morning). So I tried to transition to more conventionally feminine but inexpensive clothing. Then I heard through backchannels that my Limited/Express items weren't doing the trick–"too young," "too casual," and still just not right.

    In irritation if not despair, I sought out my more sartorially astute friends and embarked on a quest for the highest-end professional/corporate garb I could find (albeit through E-bay and thrift shops). Along the way I was delighted to find that I was finally discovering, I felt, some sense of personal style and a sense of what clothes that looked right on me.

    So now I go for full out corporate–usually now an Ann Taylor blouse and Talbots or some equivalent level vintage suit. I find that vintage is usually the best deal for me since I don't need to take in the waist on everything I buy–the old feminine styles just *fit* me better–and are often built like a suit of armor to boot.

    So I'm not altogether sorry for my little wardrobe odyssey, however reluctantly I embarked on it. The only thing is that now? Apparently I'm overdressed.

    So I've come to the conclusion that as often as not criticisms of women for adopting conventionally feminine styles mask a rather different agenda. I suspect that they often are a covert way of saying, "Quit drawing attention to yourself," "You are your mind not your body" (as if we're not allowed to be both), and above all else "Check in with us [whoever "us" happens to be] and we'll tell you whether or not you can be happy with your appearance." In short, the point of making you dress for someone *else's* agenda is that it drives home the larger point that you had probably better not have your own.

    Doesn't sound too feminist to me.

  • Anonymous

    **I've had to split this into two posts–sorry this is long**

    Fascinating post! and a topic to which I've been forced to give much thought thought in recent years. In the past five years I've had to transition from an ultra-casual office in which I was one of few women. I needed to look clean and pulled together, obviously, but dark wash jeans and a blouse or sweater were fine. I had no sense of personal style at that time which didn't bother me too much, though I had a nagging sense that I "wasn't good with clothes" and I looked with envy on my effortlessly stylish friends.

    Fast forward to when I got a job in academe. I started by wearing my same old wardrobe–a pretty close match for how many of the men that I worked with dressed. Soon, however, I was gently taken aside and told that jeans weren't professional for me (no matter that I'd had to dig my car out from two feet of snow that morning). So I tried to transition to more conventionally feminine but inexpensive clothing. Then I heard through backchannels that my Limited/Express items weren't doing the trick–"too young," "too casual," and still just not right.

  • Anonymous

    **Part II of the earlier comment**

    In irritation if not despair, I sought out my more sartorially astute friends and embarked on a quest for the highest-end professional/corporate garb I could find (albeit through E-bay and thrift shops). Along the way I was delighted to find that I was finally discovering, I felt, some sense of personal style and a sense of what clothes that looked right on me.

    So now I go for full out corporate–usually now an Ann Taylor blouse and Talbots or some equivalent level vintage suit. I find that vintage is usually the best deal for me since I don't need to take in the waist on everything I buy–the old feminine styles just *fit* me better–and are often built like a suit of armor to boot.

    So I'm not altogether sorry for my little wardrobe odyssey, however reluctantly I embarked on it. The only thing is that now? Apparently I'm overdressed.

    So I've come to the conclusion that as often as not criticisms of women for adopting conventionally feminine styles mask a rather different agenda. I suspect that they often are a covert way of saying, "Quit drawing attention to yourself," "You are your mind not your body" (as if we're not allowed to be both), and above all else "Check in with us [whoever "us" happens to be] and we'll tell you whether or not you can be happy with your appearance." In short, the point of making you dress for someone *else's* agenda is that it drives home the larger point that you had probably better not have your own.

    Doesn't sound too feminist to me.

  • Lila

    I read you blog daily because I like your style. I have re-discovered the style I always loved – feminine and more traditional than yours! Long hair, long skirts, long wraps and scarves and long earrings. Like a hippie from the 19th century.

    And I'm a feminist, i.e., I believe in freedom of choice.

    That says it all, doesn't it? What is all our Feminism good for, if we are again stuck in a system of rules? You must not look feminine. Said who?

    Simone de Beauvoir looked good and dressed the way she wanted. Why can't I? I'm a woman and I'm proud of it. Why should I dress like Marlon Brando? On the other hand, if other women want to dress like Marlon Brando, why shouldn't they?

    It took years until I reached sartorial autonomy. Nobody can tell me how to feel my best when I dress. But I know when I feel dressed well. And that feeling is empowering.

    Go ahead, dress as you wish, fulfill your potential as a person, and don't waste your energy on illusionary battles. The battle for equalizing dress is won. We may dress as men if we wish to. May we now dress again as women, if we wish to?

    Love your blog!!!

  • just_the_average_jane

    Long time lurker, first time commenter! =) Love your blog, I read it every morning.

    I think it would be naive to think that any of our preferences/choices were formed in a vacuum –there is just no way to disentangle our likes/dislikes from what we see and learn from society. At the same time, I completely agree that opposing something just on the principle of opposing it is still an example of being controlled by it (and the phrase "cutting off your nose to spite your face" comes to mind).

    For me, I figure the best I can do for me is to dress in a way that pleases me and makes me feel and look good to my own (albeit shaped by society) eyes. When I look in the mirror, I want to think "hot damn, I look good" and not exclusively "So-and-so is going to love this" or "I am so on trend for this season" or even "I have to dress like this or else people will laugh at me". However, I also try to be aware of the forces that might be guiding my choices, and I try to question them if instead of positive self-talk, I find myself beginning to criticize the way my body looks.

    Additionally, I think it's key to recognize that everybody has the right to dress in a way that makes them feel/look pretty to them but not necessarily to me. I'm pretty sure you've said something along these lines before though! I feel that as long as I really, truly am accepting of other women's choices and right to clothe themselves how they like, then there is nothing wrong with me choosing to dress in a way that I enjoy –essentially, I think it's important to recognize that the style I find most visually attractive is not the One True Way that all women should dress.

    Ooph, sorry about the huge comment. I think you can tell, it's something I feel rather strongly about.

  • Jeanni

    I don't believe that dressing in traditionally feminine clothing makes you naive or anything like that. I love dresses and skirts because I love the way I look in them, because I love my legs.

    To me, all style is influenced by what society says. But choosing what of that influence you want to take is what makes you unique.

    Also, to me, feminism is about choice. It's about women being able to make whatever choice we want about our lives and our bodies. Choosing to wear skirts and heels is no less powerful and valid a choice than choosing to wear jeans and boots.

  • Toby Wollin

    I'm of an age where I've seen pretty much the whole deal: having to dress in dresses/skirts/suits for work and being able to dress in pant suits and down to blue jeans for work. And I have to say this: It doesn't really matter what women wear to work (other than perhaps bondage wear or something like that): where men are in positions to hire and promote, they will hire and promote other men the vast majority of the time no matter how many good women there are available to them. In some industries, it is more prevalent than others but the fact remains that no matter what women wear, men are the barrier to their achievement. OK – having said that, then, I say dress however makes you feel as empowered and confident as possible – women need all the help they can get. If wearing dresses and skirts makes you feel like superwoman, then do that; if you feel the need for pant suits, then do that. The patriarchy is out there and in full force no matter what you do – you'll be damned no matter what you do, so you should do what gives you the most confidence no matter what.

  • kheli

    Wow! Thought provoking! I love to dress in a traditionally feminine style BUT, with my job, my lifestyle and my size(5'9", size 14-16) and location (very rural with limited shopping)I am more comfortable on a day to day basis wearing pants. Does this mean I am "masculine"? No, I just need to feel comfortable and covered when I am bending, stooping, leaning and carrying. Do I feel you are "reinforcing a patriarcal notion of feminity"? No, I feel you are sure of your personal style, comfortable in your own skin and serving as a fantastic inspiration for women in today's world. I believe we should feel comfortabe in our skin, in our clothing and in our daily lives. I just happen to feel this way clad in pants more often than skirts or dresses.

  • Courtney

    I tend to favor pants over skirts or dresses because I am more comfortable in them. My choice doesn't have anything to do with my feminism.

    I really hate comments like the ones that you describe. They aren't much different than the so-called feminists who attack women for making other "traditional" choices like being a stay-at-home mom or working in a field like teaching or nursing or keeping a baby from an unplanned pregnancy.

    My advice is not to engage them within the debate parameters they are trying to set, because they already have the rebuttals lined up. Redirect the debate to the complainer's understanding of feminism.

    Real feminism is about the empowerment of women to make choices on their own, not about being forced to make choices that are in direct opposition to the patriarchy. Real feminists support the rights of women to make those choices, even when they don't like them.

    Just the other day, I was reading a post on Shakesville where Melissa McEwan was defending Sarah Palin and the various women who are running as Tea Party candidates against misogynist media coverage. She writes, "Yeah, I know none of these ladies would piss on me if I were on fire, but, as I've said many times before, I will continue to defend Sarah Palin et. al. against misogynist smears not because I endorse her or her politics, but because that's how feminism works."

    By dressing to please yourself and no one else, you are making feminist choices. Dressing in a way that gives you confidence helps you do other work to push back against the patriarchy–like writing an awesome blog that addresses our culture's body image problem. And those people who attack how you dress on feminist grounds–when they police women's bodies and social behavior, they are doing the patriarchy's work.

    Kick them in the teeth with your sassy high-heeled boots, Sal!

  • eek

    I don't really think that hard about how I dress related to feminism or not. I think a person should be able to wear what they want because it makes them feel and look good.

  • Laurelann

    I strongly believe that people should wear what makes them feel good about themselves without considering if it will make other people like them. I think that one could make an argument that by wearing what you want regardless of the patriarchal beliefs makes you a stronger standout. I don't think skirts keep me powerless. My belief is that when I feel great about myself, I feel powerful. How much sway does an article of clothing have on your life? I think that it only has power against or for you IF you give it power. I think that the term "selling out" shouldn't be used in the term of liking something in the mainstream. That in itself is a version of control. Like you said, people that refuse to wear skirts on principle are still being controlled by the patriarchal society. I think that we give clothes too much power. Personally, I love to celebrate my differences from men and do not want to dress like one all the time.

  • Franca

    I just wrote 5 paragraphs and got a 'service unavailable' message and lost my comment! How irritating.

    So I'll just ask the one question this time: who actually says dressing femininely is non-feminist? I have honestly never ever come across anyone holding this position, and am therefore wondering if it's a bit of a straw man! but I may be wrong.

  • nestra

    I was all set to comment but Andrea said EXACTLY what I wanted to say (only maybe a bit more succinctly).

    Wear what you want and love. You look beautiful

  • Bombshell Beauty

    If dressing in a traditionally feminine way is an affront to feminism, I think the reverse is also true. Purposely dressing in a way that is not feminine for the sole reason of trying to reinforce feminist ideals is an affront to those very ideals. Feminism to me is all about women being able to choose what's right for them – that's where we all gain our power.

  • Sal

    Thanks – already! – for so many fascinating and thought-provoking comments and views. You folks amaze me on a daily basis, and I'm so grateful for your contributions.

    Franca: So sorry Blogger ate your comment! There's hardly a thing in the world more frustrating. This post was written in response to articles I've read elsewhere, but also in response to comments I've received from readers – this relatively recent post has quite a few – so, I can say that it's no straw man.

  • Frankincensy

    As a feminist and a femme lesbian who loves playing with traditionally feminine aspects of style, I'm so glad you started this conversation. I don't really have anything insightful to add, but thank you for writing this post, Sally.

    (Also, the outfit you posted is just beautiful.)

  • Anonymous

    I think women are luckier than men–there are a million more ways for us to express ourselves through wardrobe. I'm kind of surprised there's even a debate–in my circle, everyone wears what they like, and it's all different. The only parameters are cost, comfort, and convenience, all of which are totally individual. As to dressing in a feminine way, what's with this patriarchy thing? As a stay-at-home mom with a husband who's away a lot, I go days without speaking to an adult male, let alone trying to please one! And I'm not at all convinced (although I'm not a student of fashion history) that most fashions have developed as a way to please men. Historically, who's done all the spinning, weaving, cutting and sewing? Dressing oneself (and others) is an art, or more prosaically, a hobby. It takes a lot of effort to make it a manifesto.

  • Jodi

    you look beautiful in this pic Sal… your hair looks awesome and I really like that dress on you.
    I grew up with brothers and a macho father, grew up chopping firewood and backcountry skiing. I always associated being feminine to being weak. Well,over the years I have gotten the freedom to embrace who I am and what I like just because. I stopped trying to prove that I am strong, capable and can keep up with the guys. Yes I am a well accomplished triathlete and yes I can dress in heels and jewelry and wear pink. I think its all about having the freedom to be self expressed and not worry about how people might be judging you. People judge us whether we like it or not, we usually can't do anything about what they think. I once heard a quote by Wayne Dyer that was something like this " What you think of me is none of my business".

    great post Sal
    j

  • Cosmic

    This pretty yet formal style dress really suits you, Sal!
    x

  • Anne Marie

    My profession – a (woman) engineer – slightly complicates the equation for me and certainly influenced how I dressed in my early 20's especially. Being in an atmosphere that is predominantly male – and wanting to hold my own on an itellectual/professional level especially when looking a few years younger than I actually am – has pushed me to dress in ways which I feel don't call even more attention to the fact that I'm different, ie female. That, and the fact that some days at work I have to switch my shoes for steel-toe boots and put on a hard hat – construction sites don't allow skirts. In the last couple of years though as I have approached and reached age 30 I have tried to branch out with my wardrobe and I wear skirts or dresses once or twice a week. But there is no doubt in my mind that my confidence to dress in a more traditionally feminine way has come with more confidence in my own professional abilities.

  • barbara5503

    I started following your blog because of the title- I need to remember I am already pretty, I don't have to fit anyone else's expectations to be a worthy human being. I CHOSE to be a full-time mother, I CHOOSE to dress in a way that reinforces the positive aspects of my self-image. Feminism is a difficult subject for women who choose 'traditional' roles. I thought we were past the early feminist thinking that women are the same as men (this is the way I was raised) and on to a healthier, 'women are as valuable as men and have their own strengths' way of thinking. Okay, I am rambling a little, but the point is we can embrace our femininity without that making us somehow inferior to men. We are not bimbos just because we choose to wear skirts.

  • Genuine Lustre

    Sal – Oh please! I'm sure there are some who would prefer you with a butch haircut and baggy khakis, but not me. Men are women are different, and we revel in those differences. Why not dress that way?

  • barbara5503

    Oh, Ann M., that's what I was trying to say. Feminism means we can choose what is right for us- to stay home and raise the next generation or work in jobs we choose, to wear clothes that fit our personalities. I chose my children over my career because I wanted to be with them, and in the same way, when I choose to wear a cute dress I am expressing who I am, not who some man wants me to be.

  • Eve

    I agree that even if we never acknowledge or accept it, our choices are being guided by concepts of female bodies, sexuality, and beauty that we've never directly condoned. You, me, everyone. None of us makes decisions entirely independently–we live in a patriarchy. We are swimming in misogyny. To think that we are not would be like fish thinking they walk on land and breathe air.

    When people point out to you that you live in a patriarchal society and that you are complicit in the patriarchy in some ways (as I am, as we all are), they are not calling you a villain, a dinosaur, or a monster. That sounds like you are taking a criticism of society very, very personally. It must be difficult to live like that, Sally. You are not responsible for the ills of society.

    Your post seems to imply that you think feminists are asking you personally to abandon your hard-won personal style in order to conform to some sort of masculine or gender-neutral norm in order to support women everywhere. I doubt that. There is no feminist uniform. No feminist thinks that if all women worldwide just wore pants and flats every day, the whole sexism problem would be solved.

    It's important for me to acknowledge that at times I play along with patriarchy, whether to survive or to get ahead. If I lived in a place that required me to wear a veil or not go outside, I would wear a veil so that I could go outside and not be stoned. Yes, wearing a veil would be a concession to patriarchy. But being able to stay alive and walk around would definitely be more important to me than keeping both my middle fingers constantly raised toward patriarchy.

    The tradeoffs we make in this country may not be as obvious, again because we're swimming in it and it's hard to get perspective, but we all make tradeoffs. I wear corporate clothes during the week–a concession to a classist, patriarchal society. If I insisted on wearing my preferred jeans and t-shirts with angry political slogans, I wouldn't be able to have this particular job that comes certain opportunities to do good in the world. It's a tradeoff that I'm comfortable with. I don't consider myself a dinosaur villain. (Rawr.)

  • LK

    Hi Sal, Just wanted to let you know I used your photo in one of my posts about feminism and clothing. Its here http://wheelsamsara.blogspot.com/2010/09/womans-right-to-chooseher-clothes.html

    :)

  • angie

    This is my favourite outfit you have EVER posted, Sally.

    I am with Peter. I too believe that we all dress in ways which are socially sanctioned in some way or another. Loose your battles but win the wars. Style is YOUR choice. Isn’t that the crux of it at the end of the day?

    I am not going to climb into the feminist argument further, but I just wanted to say that I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that you wear dresses and skirts almost exclusively! This is how you made fashion your own. That equals style. Set a new standard and inspire others – which you are clearly doing with your blog :)

    That *is* power.

  • leah

    I actually do think a dress can influence patriarchy, or more clearly, I think people can be influenced by patriarchy in their clothing choices.

    As much as we like to think that we're aren't influenced by patriarchial and out dated "feminine" traditions, the truth is we cannot escape their psychology. Until it becomes ok for anyone of any gender to wear a skirt then choosing to wear a skirt is going to be associated with being old fashioned and conforming to patriarchy. It doesn't mean that you're old fashioned in any other way, nor is it a bad thing. But to say you make your decisions on what you are comfortable wearing as though you're in a bubble without outside influence from cultural psychology and the dreaded patriarchy might be a bit naive.

    Just as my choice to be a stay-at-home mother is one I made as an empowered woman, it's a much easier choice to make than becoming a bricklayers labourer or a coal miner. The system of cultural norms we have makes some choices a lot easier than others. Skirts and heels being one of them. But adding the layer of feminist guilt on top makes it more complicated again – but I could never say that my choices are not influenced by the world around me because I know that's poffle.

  • Future Lint

    This issue is so big, I feel like I can't even wrap my mind around it… I was raised in the USA in the '80s and as such, cultural and societal norms of the time did effect how I viewed men and women and their roles and how they should dress and behave. However, I try to just dress however I want, whatever makes me feel good. Is it annoying that I get cat-called whenever I wear heels and a skirt? Yes. But will I stop wearing them as a result? No. Will I wear jeans and flats some days? Yes. I feel like I wear a good mix of clothing styles and enjoy wearing the clothes that I do, which is all that really matters, I guess.

  • Rebecca

    I think that most of my thoughts have already been covered in depth by previous posters.

    Our clothing choices are always going to be shaped by the culture that we live in. Even the fact that we wear clothing is a social norm. I think that it is impossible to never have your views on clothing (or most other things) impacted by societal imfluences, but maybe that is just my anthropology degree talking.

    I think being a feminist is about opinions and actions, not appearances. I am a feminist because I think that women should be able to dress in the style that they are most comfortable, and a choice of pants or skirt does not make one more or less a woman.

  • Alison

    I agree that dressing against social norms just to react is buying into the "patriarchy." Dress how you want to, because you want to, because it makes you feel good. If your true power is in feeling at home in your body, and that requires dresses and heels, who's to complain? I think buying into this so-called patriarchy would be negating your own essence and wearing pants though you don't want to – to keep other people comfortable.

  • sapotes

    Incidentally, because I'm seeing it come up, I do feel the need to put my foot in it and say that no, actions aren't "feminist" just because a woman does them, any more than actions are, I don't know, progressive or conservative just because they're perpetuated by someone who's registered with a certain political party. Feminism is in fact a specific political stance that holds that women and men should have the same rights and opportunities and that differences in gender are mostly cultural and not inborn; further, feminism believes that persistent gender inequality exists and is problematic. People don't have to subscribe to that belief to justify their oxygen intake – or their right to wear the leg-covering of their choice – but just because someone's female, that doesn't mean that every decision they make is a) automatically feminist just because they have x chromosomes b) up for review on a feminist-antifeminist scale by random passers-by. Holding individual women publicly accountable for their, say, political actions (::cough::) is not anti-feminist; it's treating them as fully-grown adults. Holding individual women publicly accountable for their leg covering of choice, however, seems to mire us back in the place where a woman's body is a public spectacle to be scrutinized, and is thusly part of a long pattern of gendered expectations.

    I will however firmly hold that there was a biological reason for skirts back in the day, namely, that a woman in skirts and petticoats is going to have a far easier time peeing outdoors. And on that incredibly classy note, I'm off to work.

  • Charlotte

    I feel like sapotes expressed what I feel pretty much exactly, so I'm just going to second that wholesale.
    The only point to my comment, really, is to notice how we all — posters and commenters — talk about "feminism" as if it was a something we all agree on. It's different things to different people (duh), and like most schools of thought with various chapels, some are more prescriptive than others (to put it blandly). (duh again, I know).
    Academichic's controversial post yesterday (on which I did not comment because I did not have the time to do the issue justice) pointed one such difference to me: whereas L's phrasing was offensive to some (including me), most seemed to have strong feelings that it's innapropriate for 14 year-old girls to be or want to be sexually active/ curious. They should be focussing on their brain and education at that stage, potententially athleticism, creativity, etc. Which I (and no doubt I'm in the minority there) find terribly prescriptive. Don't mistake me, I'm not advocating sex at 14 for all, but I think some girls are there and should not be ashamed into thinking they are sluts for being early in developing one side of their personality.
    If you don't agree with me, there's always the solution to say that I'm not a "true" feminist, or you could maybe think that I'm also a feminist, albeit one with different ideas, and engage me in a discussion. I'd even welcome you trying to convince me, if you'd allow me to try to convince you back.
    These are good discussions to have, and frankly, the one on clothes is a good one to have too (I certainly don't think ALL of my sartorial choices come from the same place). What gets me is the certainty that people have that they hold the one and final answer. I doubt you can know yourself this well, so judging others???

  • Sarah Eagle

    Hmm, this is my first time posting, so bear with me.

    First of all, I'm someone who is equally happy in a pair of pants or feeling girly in skirts and dresses. But, I also wanted to add something that I don't think has been discussed and may get me skewered but I'll be brave and go for it anyway. (Also, I feel as though I should add that I'm in my early 20s and therefore generally the prime demographic for what I'm about to say.)

    First of all, I feel as though, as an early 20-something who has never felt in anyway less important for being a woman and in fact, would almost have no concept as to why I would be treated like anything less than smart and competent and good at my job. As a side note, I am the only woman at my office, my boss and coworkers are all men).

    I don't think that the idea of dressing for the opposite sex has really been discussed and it is an interesting topic. For example, when I first started going out with my boyfriend, I dressed both for me AND FOR HIM. I wanted to look pretty and sexy and beautiful because it both made me feel more confident in myself (which is always the best accessory) and I thought that he would enjoy looking at me. However, I knew that he was also doing the same thing. I know him well enough now, that when he decides to through on a button down and nice jeans, he's doing it to look good both for me and for him.

    Additionally, he likes it when I wear pants but it certainly makes him happy when I'm in a particularly nice (ie hot) dress. Thus, begging the question – am I less of a feminist for dressing to look hot for someone? In my case, I don't think so. Sure, it makes me feel good to know that he likes looking at me and it makes him happy. I don't think that I'm supporting any type of patriarchy. I like looking pretty, I like knowing the man I love thinks that I look pretty. However, I also know that he thinks that I'm smart and capable and a good life partner. He knows that I can also manager our rather meager finances and that we're both equals on a team. I don't think that it cheapens my relationship to want to be girly or hot or to look good for my guy.

    As a feminist, I believe that not only do I have a choice what to wear every day, but that I'm also a multifaceted personality and being girly and fun doesn't preclude me from also being as strong or smart as any man

    Anyways, just my thougts…

  • Sewfast

    Very interesting discussion. I have really never considered feminism when developing my style. I wear what I like, what feels and looks good and is appropriate for the occasion. I wear alot more dresses and skirts than the people I work with and get positive feedback all the time. I think it is a matter of being comfortable in your own skin and finding what works for you. I personally admire your style. Thank you for sharing your vision.

  • Sarah Eagle

    Hmm, this is my first time posting, so bear with me.

    First of all, I'm someone who is equally happy in a pair of pants or feeling girly in skirts and dresses. But, I also wanted to add something that I don't think has been discussed and may get me skewered but I'll be brave and go for it anyway. (Also, I feel as though I should add that I'm in my early 20s and therefore generally the prime demographic for what I'm about to say.)

    First of all, I feel as though, as an early 20-something who has never felt in anyway less important for being a woman and in fact, would almost have no concept as to why I would be treated like anything less than smart and competent and good at my job. As a side note, I am the only woman at my office, my boss and coworkers are all men).

    I don't think that the idea of dressing for the opposite sex has really been discussed and it is an interesting topic. For example, when I first started going out with my boyfriend, I dressed both for me AND FOR HIM. I wanted to look pretty and sexy and beautiful because it both made me feel more confident in myself (which is always the best accessory) and I thought that he would enjoy looking at me. However, I knew that he was also doing the same thing. I know him well enough now, that when he decides to through on a button down and nice jeans, he's doing it to look good both for me and for him.

  • Sarah Eagle

    Additionally, he likes it when I wear pants but it certainly makes him happy when I'm in a particularly nice (ie hot) dress. Thus, begging the question – am I less of a feminist for dressing to look hot for someone? In my case, I don't think so. Sure, it makes me feel good to know that he likes looking at me and it makes him happy. I don't think that I'm supporting any type of patriarchy. I like looking pretty, I like knowing the man I love thinks that I look pretty. However, I also know that he thinks that I'm smart and capable and a good life partner. He knows that I can also manager our rather meager finances and that we're both equals on a team. I don't think that it cheapens my relationship to want to be girly or hot or to look good for my guy.

    As a feminist, I believe that not only do I have a choice what to wear every day, but that I'm also a multifaceted personality and being girly and fun doesn't preclude me from also being as strong or smart as any man

    Anyways, just my thougts…

  • orchidsinbuttonholes

    Such a thoughtful post, Sal, and I enjoyed reading it and all these insightful and articulate comments. Several of them have said how I feel about the matter far more eloquently than I have – I believe that part of feminism enables women to dress herself in the way SHE wants to.

    There's a post I've been meaning to write for some time about this subject that your post has made me want to take another stab at, so thank you (again) for the inspiration.

  • dana

    Hi Sal, it's odd. I work and have three young kids. And my style has morphed so much over the last 5 years, not counting having to wear maternity tent dresses when i was pregnant with twins.

    What I find at home is that i'm going more and more functional. You need crew neck tees to chase kids and not flash them, and you need flat shoes that stay on your feet (sneaks). You need pockets and backpacks and fanny packs for hands-free action. I've taken all that and come up with jeans, graphic tees that make me laugh or that I think are cool, sneakers or creepers or flat boots, and most recently, a wallet chain (very cool forears kaede style from etsy).

    With all that, jewelry has started to play a bigger part, on weekends and at work.

    Meanwhile, work has morphed away from professional gear to 80s redux wanna be Queen Michelle but can't, while retaining flat shoes and boots. Being pregnant with twins makes you unaccepting of discomfort and function ever again (at least, it did for me), and i gave all my heels away to my babysitters after the boys were born.

    Sorry for the ramble. I should be working. But there's a key element of function for me combined with fashion, that more and more I can't ever compromise. I want work clothes I can run in!

    You're amazing, never change!

  • laura

    For me the biggest problem I have is that I occasionally get treated as more stereotypically feminine and weak while wearing feminine clothing or talking about some of my hobbies that are similar to a 1950's housewife, I love to cook, and have started sewing and knitting and crocheting. But those who get to know me know that’s not the full picture:

    I love rock climbing, blowing bubbles, building shelves, fixing things, jumping in puddles, lifting heavy boxes, skipping, spinning in circles, math problems, reading, bad puns and making people smile and I'll often do all of the above in a skirt…well maybe except the rock climbing, though I do have dreams of a mid-climb tea party in Victorian dress. I am adamant that anything a guy can do, I can do, and if I so choose I'll do it in a skirt.

    Yes, I am influenced by society and may be pre-disposed to liking some things, but I've always liked dresses. Less feminine clothing is not made for my body. I think pants and a button down shirt is an awesome put together look, but unfortunately, I have yet to find pants I love on my body, and don't feel put together when the buttons on my shirt are pulling and gapping.

    So long story short, people can think what they will of me in my skirt and heels. I feel good, which makes me more confident, which helps me accomplish things. And really, I’m more of a feminist for picking and choosing than for blindly rejecting all things feminine (emphasis on the blindly, it’s fine to pick all or nothing). So do and wear what *you* want, and who cares if you're influenced…you're still you.

  • Anonymous

    I have always been very feminine without selling out. I too, wear heels almost exclusively, and dresses most of the time. I feel great, and I want to look that way. My career choice and my ability to do well at it reaffirms that a pretty woman can do a fantastic job. I have to give a presentation today – whenever I have done this before, my colleagues come up and tell me how good the presentation was, not how pretty my dress is.

  • Hearth

    I wear skirts because I like them. I would wear them if I didn't cover my hair, if I wasn't a complementarian, if I'd never read the conservative discussion boards about dress and modesty. I LIKE skirts.

    That said, YES – there is a segment of the population that deliberately dresses in feminine, modest clothing for religious reasons.

    Why fight it? Feminine clothing is FEMALE and has been developed over countless centuries to display the natural female form and to complement its growth past the age of flat-bellied, slim-hipped adolescence (no disrespect to those few who continue that in maturity – but you're rare).

    You are a lovely woman with a woman's body, and you've already found that dressing it like a woman is most flattering. Go for it!

  • gypsyariana

    Echoing what so many have said…I think it's all about choice. As a feminist, if you choose to wear dresses and skirts because you like them and you like the way you look and you feel confident, well, isn't that what feminism is all about? The right to choose for ourselves?

    I think you ARE reclaiming that feminine style, by wearing it, looking fierce, and being the strong, outspoken woman that you are. Thanks, Sal!

  • V

    To answer your questions, Sal… By dressing the way you want when you want. I came to the conclusion some time ago that if it's not your skin, it's a costume. Costumes on the stage and screen broadcast a lot about the character wearing them: age, economic status, culture, personality and so on.

    People also react to what you wear in real life all the time and make value judgments about you, your economic status, values, personality and so on based on your clothes. Good or bad, that's the way of things. Most of the times the judging and/or response from the viewer is subtle or unseen, but some times it's not — as you've found out.

    I have what I consider "genres"* in my wardrobe: chore clothes, workout clothes, weekend/vacation clothes, work/business clothes, special occasion clothes, and appropriate hats for each category. Some of these genres mix and max, some don't.

    I work in a professional office, go to science fiction/fantasy conventions, do a lot of crafting, like gardening/houseplants and so on. I want my clothes to be highly functional, comfortable, and appropriate to whatever I'm doing. I also want them to reflect my attitude and personality.

    People never comment on my choice of dresses/skirts vs pants/slack. They do comment on my hats. It's gotten to the point where I can tell a lot about a person by how they react to whatever I'm wearing on my head that day. Which, except for the Santa hat and the top hat, are pretty unexceptional.

    If worse comes to worst, just tell the person "If you're judging me based on my clothing choice, just think about how I'm judging you based on your reaction to my clothes."

    —-
    *I read widely and am an author. In fashionese my "genres" would be "clothing collections" except, they're not by one designer and I tend toward the eclectic in some areas. Some of my "genres" are non-obvious collections in the fashion industry meaning of the word "collection" since I organize my clothes by use, setting and audience.

  • A-C

    The way I understand it, feminism is about having a choice. Having the choice to wear pants OR a skirt. Whereas before feminism there was no choice, it was only wear a skirt. I think too often feminism has become a dirty word thereby sullying its gains because people understand feminism to mean that women are denying their femininity and want to be men. I've never felt that way and frankly think that even though part of the people the call themselves feminists think that way, I feel like the point of the movement was to enable women to have a choice. This is a roundabout way of saying that Sally, if you choose to wear a dress and heels everyday, go for it. If however, you choose to wear pants and flats everyday, that's fine too. The point is that you have a choice whereas women in the past did not.

  • Stitchy Witch

    I agree with the others who say that feminism is about choices. I don't wear pants much either (because I like how I feel in skirts.) Living in a pretty conservative state, I find that the way I dress, and being in a somewhat traditionally feminine job, cause people to make some assumptions about my beliefs that aren't true. But that's ok, because then when they actually talk to me I can break their stereotype about what feminists are supposed to look like. And I think that's good.

    I don't agree with the idea that I shouldn't wear my vintage dresses because women were oppressed then. It's silly, and quite frankly I thought we were past the idea that equality means making ourselves the same as men.

  • Anonymous

    I'm a journalist who typically prefers skirts and dresses. But on Friday nights I cover high school football with a bunch of guys who typically wear jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers. I don't go that far, but I do always wear jeans (normally with boots and a nice sweater). Which, if you think about it, means that I'm conforming to a patriarchal idea of what should be worn at a football game. Does that make me more or less of a feminist?

  • naeelah

    I am not completely disregarding feminist critique of clothing, but I in general I think it's pretty silly to judge someone by what they're wearing. Feminism exists in our behavior, and dress might be a manifestation of our behavior and preconceptions, but I think there are more significant things to worry about.

    To start with, pants ok/skirts not ok is a huge oversimplification. If you get criticized for wearing a fitted dress, you're being criticized for dressing in a way that emphasizes (read: reveals in any way) your figure. Traditional feminine clothing can be asexual, as with many conservative religious dress codes, and pants can be plenty tight and curvy.

    The real implication here is that we have to be de-sexed or dress in unisex/masculine styles in order to be taken seriously, and I think this is a HUGE problem. (If straight men give unfair advantage to attractively dressed women, this is something that has to be adjusted in THEIR behavior. The solution is not for all women to de-sex themselves in order to avoid fulfilling the expectations of the patriarchy.)

    <>

    All tastes are shaped by forces beyond our control. If you wear BDUs and baggy t-shirts every day, you're still conforming to a standard, just a different one than the girly girls are. Both tastes are ok. We should all just do what makes us comfortable.

    What is powerless about traditional women's clothing? I can do anything in a skirt, although riding a bike can result in disaster if you're not careful. Heels are perhaps not so great if you're being chased, but for day to day life, it's no interference. (Big difference in, say, the 2 inch heels I'm wearing right now and 8 inch chopines…) Bras? Try walking briskly without one if you're as well endowed as I am. No thanks. Even corsets aren't restrictive, if you get one that's actually made for you and is designed to move. Hell, men wore –and still wear — them to war and to hunt.

    The point is, all items are inherently meaningless without context. Their significance and power (or lack thereof) come with attitude and use.

    Consider this scenario: a Muslim man wears a long white gown, and he is seen as dressing modestly and piously. A Christian in Nebraska wears an identically cut gown, but with flowers printed on it, and he's seen as flouting sexual and gender norms. Which is correct?

  • SarahN

    I loved Peter's comment; he made my point better than I can. We are homo sapiens. We live on Earth. We are surrounded by society and culture. By law, we have to wear clothing in public. We have breasts, hips, a waist. We can choose to accentuate them, or not. Getting dressed is a powerful activity, but I don't believe it equals selling out to anything.

  • Diana

    To be honest, I kind of hate that the idea of "feminist" has become such a divisive,judgmental thing, so I tend not to use it much these days. I don't feel the need to PROVE to others that I am a feminist. Personally, I think feminism is being able to CHOOSE what I want to do with my life and my style choices; feminism is NOT being told what I can and can't wear because of its connotations, historical or otherwise.

    I wear dresses and feminine clothes; I enjoy knitting and cooking; I am also a PhD and a scientist. NONE of those things defines me as a feminist or not a feminist, and I don't have to prove it one way or another in any case. I feel empowered and comfortable in my choices, and that is enough for me.

  • Bianca

    I feel feminism boils down to women having equal rights.

    As long as its not a "mandate" (oh so punny) that you are required to wear said clothing, I don't think it applies.

  • Fernanda

    I think one of the main problems with criticizing feminine dressing is assuming that women should adopt male dressing. For me, that equals assuming that male dressing is the norm. That is, the men are the norm. Perhaps instead of advocating that women should restric their (our) options we should encourage men to do the opposite and being more flexible with what is considered apopriate for a man. I mean, I for one, love having the option to wear skirst, dresses, pants, shirts, boots, heels, anything.

    PS. I've been reading your bog for a long time, but it's the first time I had the courage to comment :)

  • kathel

    Not every choice a feminist makes is a feminist choice — and that's OK. We all have to make our own deal with the patriarchy, and if dressing to challenge gender norms leaves your soul empty, then life's too short for that.

    However, I find it glib to sum feminism up as "choice" as many people do. My choice to marry a man was right for me, but it allows me to take advantage of a construct that harms many women. It doesn't make me a bad feminist, but I'm certainly not part of the solution.

    Which is to say, we all perpetuate the patriarchy, because we live in it, and there's no way not to. Just recognize what hills you're willing to die on, and be kind to yourself.

  • Kelly

    I am going to write this before I go back and read the other responses because I don't want to be influenced.

    It drives me bonkers when people say things like the crap people have said to you. It's as if those people think that expressing femininity is a sign of weakness – in which case, I think *they* are the ones with the problem and the prejudice. If they can't see an outfit, image, etc. indicative of a woman without judging that image as an undesirable or submissive one, isn't that quite sexist?

    I'm of the opinion that men and women are separate but equal. I don't think there is any sense in attempting to hide or diminish your gender just for the sake of not emphasizing the fact that you are different from the men. That implies that being male is the more respectable, more serious gender, and that's quite an insult to all women. That we have to increase our "manliness" in order to be taken seriously? Yikes!

    Are men "giving in to the man" when they wear ties or shoes that match their suit? Somehow I doubt these people who harass you have a huge problem with those things, but those are socially influenced choices too.

  • Anonymous

    I'm commenting before having had time to read the whole conversation, so forgive me if I'm raising points already well-covered…

    I'm a college professor, and I find that in my academic field (not in the sciences, but still traditionally male-dominated) if I want to be my feminist, smart, articulate, slightly edgy self … I'm much better off dressed in heels and a skirt. I like "femme" clothes, look good in them, feel comfortable, etc. but also find that my clothing style has the potential to disarm people who might otherwise be threatened by some of what I have to say. I talk about my kids and spouse in class for the same reason – it normalizes feminism, normalizes various of my intellectual positions, and makes my job easier.

  • Garrett

    You have a wonderful style that suits you, Sally, and I love that you share it daily. Never mind what whoever-it-was said about being unfeminist. Keep feeling free, wearing wonderful clothes, feeling comfortable in your own skin, and keep blogging. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    I haven't had a chance to read every post, and I'm short on time right now. But I just wanted to agree with probably someone… that choice is what it is all about. I personally like to wear skirts, though am unable to because of working conditions. They flatter my figure and make me feel pretty. I also think that feminism thought of as being being more man-like infers that being a woman is bad. Yet, many people agree that life needs to have a balance… except when it comes to males and females. Women balance men in a way only she can and men balance women in a way he only can. When we choose what is best for us (our families, friends, and so forth), we are living a balanced life regardless of irrelevant social titles.

  • Anonymous

    With all due respect, as a woman and an intellectual, and in all seriousness, it causes oneself harm to think too much about these things. Don't let others' mental masturbations effect how you feel about something that harmlessly (really.) makes you happy. It doesn't matter whether we have control or we don't, who controls us or who doesn't. When it comes to small things, we as people can exhibit some amount of influence but in the grand scheme of things, we as people control nothing. Wear heels and a skirt and embrace it.

  • Kristin

    wow, heck of a brain burner with lots of cogent, intelligent responses that really have covered most of my thoughts – especially Peter's. It's our right to define ourselves stylistically, politically, or however else you like; but it's ALL within some kind of context. Trying to find a sartorial choice that is without reference of any sort is impossible. Unless a) society's norms change and clothes are no longer needed or b) we choose to never interact with others ever again, we have to make a choice about what to wear. Which means judgments made and signals (intentional or not) given. Best to use your power of choice to choose what is appropriate for yourself, from the plethora of choices that exist, and trust in that. What we wear is just one choice of the thousands of daily ones that accumulate to represent our actions … which then begin to define you as a person.

  • bubu

    Wow, clearly a lot of opinions on this one. I read this this morning and have been ruminating in the back of my head, but busy at work and debating whether to jump in the fray… but decided I would and risk the onslaught with a different position. I agree with most of what's said regarding "traditionally feminine" looks… but at the same time I am concerned about the "choice" argument to defend any and all clothing choices. I remember about ten years ago at the height of the "poptart" phenomenon (Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears")these performers saying in interviews that their looks were their "choice" and they were "empowering women to embrace their sexuality" and so on… and I found that really troubling and, well, wrong. These were underage girls focusing their looks on appearing highly sexual and titillating, and I think sending some very troubling messages to young girls about what it means to be "empowered." It also makes me think, as I often do, that we are a nation of too many extremes: either this highly sexualized stuff, or sweatpants and baggy shirts. Compared to, say, Europe, where women try to look attractive and put together, but not necessaril overtly sexual. So I worry, I guess, when the language of feminism is co-opted by those using it to push what I think is a highly sexual, objectified view of women.

  • molly

    Leaving out your questions for the moment, I'm bothered by the idea that you're either a feminist who looks at clothing choices through the lens of social pressure _or_ you dress "how you want" in a traditionally feminine manner. I'm absolutely a feminist and I think it's worth examining why one might choose to wear skirts (and there are multiple reasons), but examining it doesn't mean I can't keep wearing skirts and enjoying them. It feels unfair to set this argument up as "feminists who say you're reinforcing patriarchal notions of femininity" versus our beloved Sal, though I understand why you might be feeling defensive.

    I think you agree with this to some extent because of the way you phrased your second question. No, I don't think traditionally feminine dressing is an affront to the feminist movement, and yes, my tastes may have been shaped by forces outside my control.

    How do I reconcile it? Well, as much as people want to say feminism is about choice, that's only true if we acknowledge the pressure we put on women to dress a certain way, and then stop doing it. So I don't go around saying that women look better in heels or that they should dress to "look like ladies" in contrast with men. If heels make my feet hurt (and they do), I mostly don't wear them. If skirts are just as comfortable as jeans and show off my cute and functional knee-high boots, I wear them.

    Even if you're struggling with the terminology, I suspect you feel more or less the same as I do about how you and others "should" dress.

  • Frances Joy

    I feel like I'm still sorting out a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, but here I go…
    I identify as a feminist, but I'm going to go ahead and add that I think of myself as a kind of "Third World feminist". What does that mean? This is the part that I feel like I'm still sorting out…
    I went to a women's college, which was an experience which I truly enjoyed and that allowed me to interact with a lot of really strong women and feminists of all kinds. One of the things that baffled me, though, were those people who felt that feminism had to be about adopting those things that are traditionally masculine. You should always choose a career over a family; forgo having babies; wear pants.
    At twenty-eight, the thought of having babies still freaks me out and I am pretty certain that if I were a stay at home mom I would go absolutely crazy. But my mom was the one who first introduced me to feminism and she stayed home and raised kids and cooked and cleaned and wore skirts and heels. While her life was traditionally feminine, she was teaching me that gender is one of those porous boundaries. Yes, it shapes us, but we don't have to be limited by it.
    In my book, she's as feminist – and as feminine – as they come.

    I have a really hard time with the idea that feminism means discarding those things that are traditionally female – as if those things made us somehow inferior.

    Isn't it, in some ways, more revolutionary to hold up all of those traditionally feminine things and reclaim them? Isn't it important to recognize the importance of the things that make us different?

    I was talking to my husband the other day about how I would feel much more validated as a woman and a feminist the day that a man could choose to stay at home with the children without being called into question for it.

    I guess that sort of extends to the way I feel about clothing. The day it's okay for men in the Western world to adopt those items that are traditionally feminine the way women have adopted "menswear" then I'll feel like we've made it.

    In the meantime, y'all can view my skirts, dresses, and heels as my "take that" to the establishment.

    All that to say, yes, you are reclaiming traditionally feminine dressing.

  • Jenny

    Really liked Eve's and sapotes's comments. They said what I was going to say much better.

    That is all. Except that I love coming over here. Thanks.

  • Frances Joy

    Sorry if this is a repeated post, but apparently it's too long…
    Part 1
    I feel like I'm still sorting out a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, but here I go…
    I identify as a feminist, but I'm going to go ahead and add that I think of myself as a kind of "Third World feminist". What does that mean? This is the part that I feel like I'm still sorting out…
    I went to a women's college, which was an experience which I truly enjoyed and that allowed me to interact with a lot of really strong women and feminists of all kinds. One of the things that baffled me, though, were those people who felt that feminism had to be about adopting those things that are traditionally masculine. You should always choose a career over a family; forgo having babies; wear pants.
    At twenty-eight, the thought of having babies still freaks me out and I am pretty certain that if I were a stay at home mom I would go absolutely crazy. But my mom was the one who first introduced me to feminism and she stayed home and raised kids and cooked and cleaned and wore skirts and heels. While her life was traditionally feminine, she was teaching me that gender is one of those porous boundaries. Yes, it shapes us, but we don't have to be limited by it. In my book, she's as feminist – and as feminine – as they come.

  • J.Rose

    Someone please tell me, what "concepts of female bodies, sexuality, and beauty" are these? Female bodies are beautiful? Women look lovely in dresses? Women look beautiful and sexy in clothes that accentuate their bodies? These aren't bad things. I honestly do not get what negativity you might be perpetrating by wearing a dress. Yes, women used to only be allowed to wear dresses. So is that supposed to mean that you believe everything women believed in such a time, just because you're in a dress? If you see someone in furs (environmentalism aside) do you immediately peg them as having the societal beliefs of a caveman? Because that's what cavemen wore.
    Is wearing a dress supposed to mean that you feel weak, because dresses aren't as convenient as "active-wear"? But you don't have a physically strenouous job! I really don't get it. Maybe I'm just ignorant about how this patriarchy is supposed to work, so please, tell me.

  • Frances Joy

    Part 2 of previous post:
    I have a really hard time with the idea that feminism means discarding those things that are traditionally female – as if those things made us somehow inferior. Isn't it, in some ways, more revolutionary to hold up all of those traditionally feminine things and reclaim them? Isn't it important to recognize the importance of the things that make us different?

    I was talking to my husband the other day about how I would feel much more validated as a woman and a feminist the day that a man could choose to stay at home with the children without being called into question for it.

    I guess that sort of extends to the way I feel about clothing. The day it's okay for men in the Western world to adopt those items that are traditionally feminine the way women have adopted "menswear" then I'll feel like we've made it. In the meantime, y'all can view my skirts, dresses, and heels as my "take that" to the establishment.

    All that to say: yes, you are reclaiming traditionally feminine dressing.

  • Sal

    Just have to say again how impressed and moved I am by the depth and variety of responses here. Thank you ALL for voicing your opinions.

    Many of you have declared that feminism is about being free to make our own choices. And while I think that living a rewarding life is generally contingent on feeling free to make our own choices – and that goes for men and women alike – I don't actually think that feminism boils down to women having the freedom to choose. Feminism is about equality, bottom line. Women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, and be treated with the same respect. sapotes expressed this with TREMENDOUS eloquence in the comments.

    Many of you have also pointed out that I've oversimplified here, and I TOTALLY have. I do realize that saying it's skirts vs. pants is a bit silly, but my point was this: If embracing clothing that supports socially-sanctioned beauty ideals is weak or counterproductive or anti-feminist, what is a better choice? Is it dressing more like a man, or androgynously? Is there a better choice? And if not, how are we supposed to live with ourselves?

    It is good to be reminded that dressing is social – something I say CONSTANTLY and believe fervently, but also something that gets obscured somehow when issues of feminism are on the table. I never meant to imply that I want to dress or exist in a vacuum, or that my choices could ever be completely, 100% my own. What I rebel against is being scolded for thinking that I have any real power over my own tastes and actions when it comes to appearance. Because I do. Even being a social creature and even being constantly influenced by forces I don't condone, I still make the final calls.

    Finally, I have to thank you here in the comments (Eve in particular), via e-mail, and on Facebook for the reminders that I take all of this stuff far too personally. I have this idea in my head that I might be able to shift views and change the world. And while I may be able to do that on a small scale in the realm of style and body image, I can't beat the patriarchy. I just can't. And that's fine except for the part where I want to set a good example. In addition to being me and utilizing style as a means of self-exploration and personal empowerment, I want to do everything I can to support the empowerment of OTHER women. All the time. And, technically speaking, those goals may be at odds. And even though I embrace hypocrisy as beautifully human, it's hard to feel it implied in my actions and choices, which are, through this blog, quite public. It's hard to declare that I like certain styles, be told that those styles feed patriarchal notions and socially-sanctioned beauty ideals, and NOT feel like I'm getting blamed for making crappy choices. But reading responses to this post has reminded me that the blame is being laid on the system, not on me. And that I can't have it all – at least, not all at once – and that's OK, too.

  • Sal

    Just have to say again how impressed and moved I am by the depth and variety of responses here. Thank you ALL for voicing your opinions.

    Many of you have declared that feminism is about being free to make our own choices. And while I think that living a rewarding life is generally contingent on feeling free to make our own choices – and that goes for men and women alike – I don't actually think that feminism boils down to women having the freedom to choose. Feminism is about equality, bottom line. Women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, and be treated with the same respect. sapotes expressed this with TREMENDOUS eloquence in the comments.

    Many of you have also pointed out that I've oversimplified here, and I TOTALLY have. I do realize that saying it's skirts vs. pants is a bit silly, but my point was this: If embracing clothing that supports socially-sanctioned beauty ideals is weak or counterproductive or anti-feminist, what is a better choice? Is it dressing more like a man, or androgynously? Is there a better choice? And if not, how are we supposed to live with ourselves?

    (More in a sec!)

  • Sal

    (more!)

    It is good to be reminded that dressing is social – something I say CONSTANTLY and believe fervently, but also something that gets obscured somehow when issues of feminism are on the table. I never meant to imply that I want to dress or exist in a vacuum, or that my choices could ever be completely, 100% my own. What I rebel against is being scolded for thinking that I have any real power over my own tastes and actions when it comes to appearance. Because I do. Even being a social creature and even being constantly influenced by forces I don't condone, I still make the final calls.

    Finally, I have to thank you here in the comments (Eve in particular), via e-mail, and on Facebook for the reminders that I take all of this stuff far too personally. I have this idea in my head that I might be able to shift views and change the world. And while I may be able to do that on a small scale in the realm of style and body image, I can't beat the patriarchy. I just can't. And that's fine except for the part where I want to set a good example. In addition to being me and utilizing style as a means of self-exploration and personal empowerment, I want to do everything I can to support the empowerment of OTHER women. All the time. And, technically speaking, those goals may be at odds. And even though I embrace hypocrisy as beautifully human, it's hard to feel it implied in my actions and choices, which are, through this blog, quite public. It's hard to declare that I like certain styles, be told that those styles feed patriarchal notions and socially-sanctioned beauty ideals, and NOT feel like I'm getting blamed for making crappy choices. But reading responses to this post has reminded me that the blame is being laid on the system, not on me. And that I can't have it all – at least, not all at once – and that's OK, too.

  • Sal

    (more!)

    It is good to be reminded that dressing is social – something I say CONSTANTLY and believe fervently, but also something that gets obscured somehow when issues of feminism are on the table. I never meant to imply that I want to dress or exist in a vacuum, or that my choices could ever be completely, 100% my own. What I rebel against is being scolded for thinking that I have any real power over my own tastes and actions when it comes to appearance. Because I do. Even being a social creature and even being constantly influenced by forces I don't condone, I still make the final calls.

  • Sal

    (aaaaand more)

    Finally, I have to thank you here in the comments (Eve in particular), via e-mail, and on Facebook for the reminders that I take all of this stuff far too personally. I have this idea in my head that I might be able to shift views and change the world. And while I may be able to do that on a small scale in the realm of style and body image, I can't beat the patriarchy. I just can't. And that's fine except for the part where I want to set a good example. In addition to being me and utilizing style as a means of self-exploration and personal empowerment, I want to do everything I can to support the empowerment of OTHER women. All the time. And, technically speaking, those goals may be at odds. And even though I embrace hypocrisy as beautifully human, it's hard to feel it implied in my actions and choices, which are, through this blog, quite public. It's hard to declare that I like certain styles, be told that those styles feed patriarchal notions and socially-sanctioned beauty ideals, and NOT feel like I'm getting blamed for making crappy choices. But reading responses to this post has reminded me that the blame is being laid on the system, not on me. And that I can't have it all – at least, not all at once – and that's OK, too.

  • The Waves

    I haven't read the others' comments yet, because I wanted to just say it from the heart: I fully believe that how one dresses really shouldn't be anyone else's business. The truest form of conforming to any societal / patriarchal rules is to limit the choices of oneself and others based on a preconceived notion.

    I love the way you dress, Sal, and it is because your inner strength shines. And honestly, if someone has a problem with that, I say boo-hoo to them.

  • Jessie

    Thanks for this interesting question, Sal. I think as a queer woman my relationship to femininity is actually a little simpler than many straight women's–my femme identity is by definition subversive because it is enacted outside of the context of male approval. I'm often read as straight in public, however (partly because my partner is often read as male), and I do what I can to contradict that. I don't shave my legs or armpits. I wear a nose piercing. I am outspoken about my identity whenever possible. I'm not sure if anyone else notices these things, but it makes me feel better to know that I'm sending signals that complicate each other. Still, I know that most people will probably see skirts and heels and earrings and homemade cookies and overlay an identity for me. It's an ongoing struggle.

  • kathel

    So I had this idea while I was hand-knotting a dainty pearl string for myself (you’re welcome, patriarchy!). Personally, I don’t believe traditionally feminine styling can be “reclaimed” in the sense I think you’re using the word – the only way it becomes an equally feminist choice to deliberately androgynous styling is if both styles are equally culturally reinforced.

    Naturally that’s not going to happen quickly, or even in my lifetime. However, as a blogger with a pretty robust platform you have some power to contribute to that cause. You already do a lot of posting/linking that doesn’t relate directly to your personal style; can you make a point of including more androgynous or genderqueer looks in that panorama? I’m a straight white female whose personal style is anonymous to the point of being invisible, and I’d totally dig it. I think normalizing the idea of a spectrum rather than a binary would be healthy – and fun! – for everyone.

    (Not that I think you owe it to anyone to champion this — just that you expressed a desire to take action, and this is one idea. Plus, it might be an interesting thought experiment to I MEAN TOTALLY separate "this looks good" from "this looks female.")

  • Stangela

    I just wanted to note something I don't think anyone else mentioned. Seems to me that most times women dress for the approval of other women rather than for impressing men. I kinda think that women judge/care (and even notice) what other women are wearing far more than men ever do. Perhaps it's women that are inforcing these ideas about what is feminine?

  • Fia

    I don't have time to read through the discussion right now (can't wait to dig in) but my initial response is that I think some people do a disservice to feminism by insisting that masculine things are inherently better. I get that dressing to flatter you shape walks the line of buying into the notion that woman are only as valuable as their appearance, however to say that dresses and heels are inferior to oxfords and slacks and that we should reject these things is for one, somewhat simplistic and two, plays into the notion that anything feminine is bad or less than. I think it's a complicated issue that requires more than a flippant critique that feminine dress reinforces patriarchal patterns. I'd say there may be some truth to that but it's more nuanced than that. Okay, I'm rambling now. Stopping while I'm ahead.

  • fleur_delicious

    First off, I don't think there are any ideas that haven't been shaped by social forces. No, really, none. For example, I really do believe that language, as a system of sounds by which we make sense of our world, structures *how* we can understand the world. And *how* we understand the world shapes *what* we think that world is. The filter through which we see partly defines what we can see. You grow up in a particular society in a particular socio-economic class in a particular part of the country in a particular period. Whether rebelling against, acquiescing to, fiercely supporting, there are myriad social forces influencing you even while you are still in the womb.

    So what's a feminist gal to do? I think dressing the way YOU LIKE is a big part of being a feminist. If feminisim essentially argues that men and women are equal, then you shouldn't honestly HAVE to agonize over "pencil skirt or equality." And personally, I think the way we LIVE and the way we encourage/facilitate/help others to LIVE is a lot more important than what we wear while doing it. If you live as a liberated woman and encourage others to see women as men's equals, then it doesn't matter if you're in stilettos. You're still walking the walk. There's a danger to getting too hung up in the semiotics of dress: we can lose sense of the big picture. You both are and are not your clothes (lookout! slippery postmodern slopes ahead!), and the key thing to realize is that while clothes HAVE made the man/woman in the past, and still MAY continue to do so in the present, that you are working to prove (with your life's living, you work, your blogging, etc.) that there can be a future where they do NOT. And won't that free-for-all of expression just be a blast?

  • Marsha

    Infinitely interesting and thought provoking topic. I don't really have answers, but the questions that have come up for me involve the limitations on our freedom of choice that we cheerfully accept in our culture but that do not exist in a few other cultures – freedom to be naked in public, for example. Do we generally reject that because we could be using our bodies to harm or intimidate others (which of course we do anyway even when fully clothed)? I myself feel fine at nude beach (or at least I used to; maybe I wouldn't these 30 years later) because everyone else is the same (not physically, but clothing-wise). But when we are dressed (differently), our differences very often deliberately call attention to ourselves – we call this personal style. What is our personal style FOR? What are we doing when we dress for effect (on ourselves/on others, and are the two connected)? I guess that's the question that arises. To attract a sexual partner or maintain the interest of one (probably that's a lot of it) – is that the basis of "feeling pretty"? I'd like to hear others' answers to that one. How much responsibility is associated with our clothing strategies – does anyone have the right to resent my choices based on the effect that they have on that person? Whew . . . this is a ramble, but I hope not unintelligible or simple minded.

  • C

    I see it quite the other way, as a matter of fact! I think much of the feminist movement mistakenly identifies power as masculine power and seeks to emulate that… through style, manner, attitude, etc. But this is actually a denial of something uniquely feminine, the power of being a woman. Of being who you simply are.

    I think in the name of feminism and equality, we women often still find ourselves defining ourselves only in opposition to men. Rather than pursuing an understanding of our sex as something separate, or recognizing the power of being women (which is not the power of sex, or bitchiness, or anything like that, but something far less definable).

    And this from someone who likes both pants and skirts.

  • Marsha

    Can't seem to stop thinking about this. C's response, in which she speaks of power, is making sense to me, but I would love to know what the power of being a woman is, if it isn't "the power of sex, or bitchiness, or anything like that"; why would it be "something far less definable"? I think that the power of sex (attraction, that is) is probably very much part of the power of being a woman, but that's not to say all of it. And in my case at least, it has to do with the power of being not only noticed, but admired or enjoyed. It seems that power has a lot to do with the issue. Any more thoughts on this?

  • Vanessa

    Okay, this is totally off topic: WHERE did you get that dress?! I love it!

  • Sal

    Vanessa: It's a thrift find. ;)

  • WendyB

    I think dressing however the fuck you want is the most feminist thing to do. As long as YOU are the one who wants to do it, so WHAT to anyone else?

  • Erin

    As long as the knowledge of what's "traditional" is out there and acknowledged, as long as we're not mindlessly marching along to the battle hymn of the patriarchy, then I say wear whatever you want.

    I'm a major feminist, I wouldn't call my style feminine (although I think your style is absolutely lovely, for you, especially since that's what you feel *comfortable* in), but I'm also a stay-at-home mother.

    Be who you are, and as long as you're doing that, nobody can say boo.

  • Aynna banahna

    Dressing feminine empowers the feminine movement! Showing you are a woman and are comfortable in your body and that you are still strong and capable is amazing! If people feel this is a hindrance on the feminine movement, they have the wrong idea about it

  • Angeline

    I agree w/ Wendy. It's not uncommon for groups of people to take something that started as a way to control them and turn it into something empowering. I dress how I dress–sometimes it's more feminine than others–but what else would we wear? Everything is influenced by something else…it's how comfortable you feel and how you wear it that makes things new.

  • Bex

    I'd just like to point something out as a queer-Femme; a same-sex attracted, feminine-style-embracing woman. I don't dress for the male gaze, or to attract men. I dress to heighten my female traits (bigger bust, small waist) because I like the feeling.

    IMHO – Feminine and masculine don't belong to a gender – butch women show that, trans-people show that, and I show that being 'feminine' has nothing to do with attracting a male and everything about whats inside.

  • Jenny

    Thanks for your own response, Sal. I think you nailed it.

  • Anonymous

    I have had this discussion with a very close friend and it infuriates me every time. She insists my love of floaty skirts and vintage dresses is something that I have been told by men to like it and that's why I do. But I've also been told that my wanting to have a career is only an idea implanted by the feminist movement. And it is for this reason that I hate both ends of the spectrum equally. I hate anything that tells me what I believe and why I believe it without taking into account that people can't be put into molds. I wear skirts because I feel pretty in them and that in no way influences my abilities in any arena of life.

  • Anonymous

    Feminism is giving women the right to have a choice. A choice over whether she stays at home to raise her children or works to give her family a better lifestyle. A choice over pants or skirts. To corset or not to corset. To me, Feminism is not about a power struggle with men but having the ability to choose in all aspects of our lives.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    I'm sorry to come to this conversation so late, but I didn't have time to read or comment on blogs yesterday. I agree very much with what sapotes and Charlotte had to say.

    I also know that this seems nit-picky but I think it's important to define what we mean when we're discussing traditional dressing. I think that you use it to refer to retro 50s silhouettes and skirts and dresses. However, some could construe traditional feminine dressing to also encompass the foundation garments that went along with that – girdles, etc.

    Because if we want to talk about garments imbued with power by the patriarchy I don't think it gets any more insidious than shapewear.

    Yet at the end of the day we all know that certain clothing makes us feel good because of our socialization. And, however, we choose to dress we can be assured that our individual agency is only part of that negotiation.

  • Sal

    Hi all, this comment is from reader Becky D., who tried to submit it yesterday, but got an error. I asked her permission to try submitting it again myself:

    Actually, in my experience, the more repressive a society is toward women, the less a woman is allowed to show her figure. In my mind, the freedom a woman has to show that she has a figure indicates how free that woman is within her culture.

    Now the repressive societies with which I am mostly familiar are Muslim, so my experience is limited. For instance, during my adolescence in Bangladesh, I lived in native shalwar kamizes, which my dad called "the most girl-hating clothes ever invented." Why, you ask? The shalwar kamiz consists of a sack-like, knee-length tunic and and baggy trousers. If you're going to appear in public or in front of strangers, you'd better be wearing a long scarf (to cover your hair and any hint of a bosom that the kamiz does not hide) or a burka over your clothing. Need I also mention that this is what every respectable young girl is required to wear in that tropical climate?

    Clothing like you wear, Sal, respects the female. It is indicative of the woman's right to meet a man's eyes because she is equal in value. It indicates her right to move freely in public and to interact freely with women AND men in public, and that kind of clothing celebrates what is unique and beautiful in women.

  • MsKatieKat

    Isn't feminism about the freedom of choice? That we have as much choice as men do? So if a woman chooses to dress in dresses and heels and ROCK IT, then by all means!

  • sara star

    I think that first a foremost a woman must feel equal and powerful in her clothing.

    I have changed how I dressed because the men in my office ogled and made me uncomfortable about a particular item, be it tall boots, a flowy skirt, or the color green. I have also changed how I dressed so I felt more powerful, I started wearing kick ass and take names shoes instead of mary janes, which I used to love, so I wouldn't ever feel cute or childish at work.

    I now work for a boss that seems to prefer blondes (and I started doing my hair red years ago, ha), so I never catch his eye regardless of what I wear. I feel this freedom in this job I never felt to wear what make me feel good. Whether it be a warm sweater that feels like a blanket, or a suit and knee high black boots.

    Ultimately, it wasn't me or the clothes that were the problem, as I said often it was a color, or my hair–even a full covered body in burlap is sexy to someone (mystery!). If the man feels he can overpower women with his gaze, it matters not how you got into his gaze. Its not the clothes, its not the hair, its not the woman's role in the work place, its his problem.

    Its a long battle to change this. And I fight it when I can. As long as anyone is stuck in a situation where they have to stay in a job to for their basic needs, there will be people in power who belittle them, for sexist, racist, or just pecking order reasons.

  • sara star

    I know this is off topic. But I think the reason staying at home as a mother is a difficult issue is because its a chosen limit of freedom. Should the husband fail in someway to be a good partner or even dies. The woman has limited independence and resources to be in a position to make her own choices. A woman who even maintains part time work or only takes a year or two off, keeps her options open. She stays more independent and powerful.

    I wouldn't say SAHMing is anti-feminist or setting feminism back any at all, but it is a perilous choice. MANY of these women find themselves always putting their children before themselves, losing individual identity (becoming Joey's mom). Losing touch with the life that made them interesting to others and themselves(professional discussions, arts and culture, etc). In a truly feminist society, either parent male or female would get paid for raising the children and foregoing work and the experience, training, and skills would be applicable towards future work in childcare/teaching. But that utopia is unlikely to happen because we are already over-populated and parenting is not an in demand skill. Its a job choice like any other–and its a poor one leaving you without many resources.

    Again, I would not judge it as an anti-feminist choice, just an option that puts the woman into a position of less freedom. Anyone can make that choice, to limit their own freedom (join the military for example) and income potential (get a degree in social work). Just be practical about it, if you got an art degree or were a stay at home mom, keep in mind you are unlikely to gain a lot of personal wealth or create a lot of additional options or possibilities for advancing yourself.

  • Audi

    You know I'm with you on this one, Sal! I don't get the constant griping about the patriarchy; wear what you want and get the fuck over it already. It is completely natural for women to have different aesthetic preferences than men; look around the animal kingdom and you'll see that it's true of most species. Male and female animals look different and have different behaviors; the only thing that's NOT natural is to value one over the other. What, so the only way women can be truly equal is to dress just like men? Fuck that. I'll take my equality AND my high heels, thank you very much.

  • Sox

    I think people should wear what they want.
    I like skirts; they offer a freedom that I rarely find in trousers. My Celtic ancestors obviously thought the same thing with the kilt.
    As for high heels, if you like them, wear them. I can only wear flats due to a few too many sports injuries that wrecked my ankles and knees.
    I think anyone who tries to control what another person wears is just substituting one type of label for another.

  • Mary

    I agree (in broad terms) with the many commentators who have said that feminism/being equal/being empowered is about choice. I certainly think you should wear what you want and not allow others to dictate your clothing choices to you on political/religious or indeed any other grounds. Having said all of that, I do feel that's it's reasonable to question yourself about why you make particular clothing choices. I dress in a fairly traditionally 'attractive' feminine way (by my country's standards) but I've arrived at the way I dress by a fairly long and circuitous route of self questioning and experiment. For me the question is – do these articles of clothing perpetuate notions of women as less capable than men. I have to say, for myself, high heels fall into that category – wearing high heels instantly makes me feel less physically capable. I can't run, I can't walk as fast as someone not in high heels and I'll be in physical pain by the end of the day. So I don't wear high heels. The same goes for tight clothes, short, tight skirts, tight trousers etc.

  • Amena

    It's strange to think how women can never seem to make our own decisions.

    If we cover up, we are suppressed. If we don't we're just sluts out to please men. We can never be accused of making our own informed and educated decision.

  • Casey S

    In my opinion, the only way to "do it wrong" when it comes to dressing and feminism is to tear down the sartorial choices of other women. I was a really crazy dresser in high school; Monday I might wear a maxi-dress with bell sleeves, Tuesday a pinstriped pantsuit, Wednesday the more uniform jeans and flip flops, and the most valuable lesson I learned from all of it was that, as a woman, someone would always be there to tell me I was dressing the wrong way. This was frustrating for many years, because I felt like it was my fault, that I couldn't figure out what the right choice was.

    But eventually I realized that it wasn't me; for women, there is NO safe way to dress that leaves us impervious to criticism. No matter what we choose, it's wrong in some way. If we cover up, we're too prudish, go revealing: too slutty, dress "feminine": not feminist enough, dress "masculine": too shrill or uptight … and the list goes on and on. This is just another way the patriarchy sets women up to destroy each other. It's also a stand-in for a much larger issue: there's no safe way for women to LIVE that leaves us impervious to criticism.

    In my eyes, the only way to combat this is for feminism to send out sleeper agents in every style of dress into every walk of life, and have them life it shamelessly and with dignity and without caving to the criticisms of well-meaning folks. Articulate, aware women who are willing to defend their choices against well-meaning detractors are the best tools feminism has, in my opinion, whether they're dressed in aprons, fatigues, pantsuits, or a little black dress.

  • Claire

    Mindful immunity.

    One can be conscientiously aware of societal opinions and issues, but it's the internal and uniquely personal thoughts you form around them that make you feel the way you do and create your reality.

    Sal, I wonder if you remember, you and I had a discussion a while back about this concept based around one of your posts on developing personal style. I think it was called "No Woman is an Island" or something similar. Anyway, in the context of the types of issues you bring up here, I just feel incredibly lucky to exist in this place and time… especially compared to all the other times/places I could have been born and knowing what human existence has been like through the ages.

    I endeavor to take the reality of this existence for exactly what it is, to feel neither guilty for the privileges and comforts nor to take them for granted, and just practice living well here and now in the context of my own self. In that same way, Sally, I believe you can reclaim the idea of feminine dressing and anything else you want for that matter, and feel secure in answering to yourself alone. I suppose that could sound like a tall order, but… cheers, lovely lady :)

  • Sal

    Had to re-publish this one, too. From my dear friend Rick, who posted his comment to the Already Pretty Facebook page:

    Interesting topic, Sal. As a 53-year-old man who sometimes finds himself wearing the same sweatshirt and pair of Carhartt jeans for days on end, what the hell could I possibly know about “reclaiming feminine dressing for women”? I’ll share anyway.
    At some point in my life – I’m not sure when, there was no flash of illumination, but I think I was in my mid-30s – I stopped caring about how the way I dressed might be perceived by other people. I didn’t stop caring about how I dressed, but I just no longer wasted the energy thinking about how someone else might approve or disapprove of it. What I wore was up to me and had to please only me. It had to have a certain level of comfort, it had to feel like I was choosing clothes for myself and not someone else, it had to pass the litmus test of simply feeling “right” when I happened to see my reflection in a mirror. And it was a tremendously liberating feeling to simply put clothes on for myself and not for some “audience”.
    So… maybe it’s all about liberation. I would think that a truly liberated, free woman would wear whatever the hell she wants to. If that means jeans and a tee shirt, great. If that means conservative business attire, great. If that means heels and skirts, great. Hell, if it means matching Green Bay Packers gear, great. (I draw the line, however, at Zubaz.)

    Oppressive conformity is oppressive conformity; whether through the workings of a patriarchal society or through the workings of those fighting traditional patriarchal norms. Wear what you want, wear what you love – there’s your liberation.

  • Cakie

    Wow Sally, great post! I consider myself to be a feminist but like you, I almost never wear pants. I wear skirts, I wear frilly things, I wear bows in my hair and I wear pink, but I do NOT believe this condtradicts my beliefs regarding feminism.

    Like many commentators have already said, to me feminism is all about choice. That means having the choice to have a career or be a stay at home mum (or both), having the choice to get a tertiary education or not, and having the CHOICE to wear pants or skirts.

    I know that we are all impacted by social and cultural influences but I don't believe the fact that I enjoy dressing femininely has been entirely dictated by the fact society tells me that's what I "should" do. I grew up on a farm. My mum wore jeans and boots every day. I helped feed calves, rode horses, stomped about in the mud and played trains with my brother, but I ALWAYS wanted to wear dresses. Even when my mum pleaded with me to wear jeans (because it was cold) I refused. Despite the fact I was raised by a woman who wore pants and spent her days helping my dad fix fences, and despite the fact I enjoyed doing many "boy things" (like playing with trains) all I ever wanted to wear was a pretty dress and coloured tights.

    I think that anyone who suggests dressing femininely defies feminism has totally missed the point. Our mothers and grandmothers fought for change so that we could have choices, and I choose to wear skirts.

  • Nicole

    It's interesting how everything in this comes down to perception and beliefs, both of which are really personal. Do you dress for yourself, or for other people's opinions? Their opinions are based on their own perceptions and beliefs, so no matter what you wear, people will perceive your outfit according to what they believe. And beliefs are all about how strongly you are influenced by external sources, like media, your upbringing (or rebellion against it), your learning and knowledge of society's norms, things like that. I believe that women should be able to wear what they want and be happy, but I can tell you right now, you will be perceived and even judged in a certain way by what clothes you are wearing, because we all can't help trying to make sense of other people based on how we see them and then interpreting what we see according to what we believe. So if someone sees you in a pretty pink frilly 1950's dress, and believes that women who dress that way are buying into a patriarchal stereotype, they will judge you that way and think you are selling out the whole feminism movement – when you never even meant to convey that in the first place. I wish that our society would allow us to wear clothes simply because it pleases us, but we are always in some social situation which is dictated by norms – I used to work in a conservative corporate office and despised every minute I had to wear those clothes, but I would have been fired if I turned up to work in jeans and t-shirts. We are also all incorrectly assuming that men have the freedom to wear whatever they like without judgement – when was the last time you saw a straight man dressed in a frilly pastel mini skirt and heels? Truth is, sadly, that we can all tell ourselves we dress to make ourselves happy, and we choose what to wear, but those choices are still really limited by our society.

  • Gloria

    Why do we have to dress like men in order to escape the negative view of femininity? Is it required of us to sacrifice what makes us women in order to matter? It seems like another way that society hates women: "we will only take you seriously if you dress like a man. We reject the feminine and you must do the same if you want to be anything." Big load of BS! Maybe women have been dressing traditionally feminine all this time because they LIKE it. I LIKE it. Men in general don't care about fashion. Women, in general, do. Why can't society just be okay with what women like/want? Why is wearing a dress a symbol of weakness? Because women wear them? We need to get to the point where the symbol of a dress (femininity) is seen as strong and as valued as masculine symbols.

  • Ann M.

    There, I tried to put my thoughts into a more coherent form.

  • Marie McGrath (The Joy of Fashion)

    This dress looks gorgeous on you!

    http://www.thejoyoffashion.blogspot.com

  • Anonymous

    For me feminism is about freedom of choice. No gender exclusive choices anymore, except when biology really does not play along, i.e. the baby production stuff.
    This also means the freedom to dress as you like and not be judged on your dress, or on the amount of skin, or on the femininity of said dress or the amount of pink, the amount of make-up or the use of Miss Kitty even as a man or an alien (even if you are green, and pink and green together often hurts the eye).
    Feminism is about giving everybody the opportunity to be who they are, to give them all the choices and the freedom to choose.
    Being a feminist means not to tell girls that they are bad in math, because they are girls and boys that they should not cry, because boys don't, but it also means not telling girls that they are not allowed to cry, because boys don't. Being a feminist means accepting a person how she/he is with dress and high heels or no clothes at all and every possible combination in between.

  • Anonymous

    I want to add my two cents on this topic, based on my recent decision to cut my hair really short. Having had my hair long or very long since high school (I am 33 now) I have been tempted for a while to cut it really short. I wasn't totally convinced though, thinking there would be no simple way out if I didn't like it. When I finally decided to take the plunge, I learned that a woman in my entourage I didn't particularly like has cut her hair short. I got stuck. I really wanted to cut my hair short, but I didn't want anyone, including her, to believe she influenced me. Then it finally hit me- to NOT cut my hair because of her was to really let her influence me. So I did cut my hair, I am happy with it, and I have no idea what our common friends and her think about it.

    To do things the opposite way the society, or friends, expect of us, on purpose, is to let them decide for us. If I make a Left only because you said Right it means I am surrendering my power to choose to you. Isn't that the trick we sometimes use to influence our children to do something, by suggesting them the opposite?

    So, do what YOU want, and forget about the others, that's power to me. I may even ask that woman about her hairdresser next time we meet. Her haircut looked better than mine last time we met.

  • Jeanni

    I love your blog, you're always smart and funny, and I personally love your style. I wrote a post at http://bit.ly/FashionIntelligence about the false stereotype that women who care about our appearances and fashion are stupid and linked to this post in it. Women like you prove the exact opposite!

  • Lanika

    Being a feminist and favouring vintage, very feminine looks creates a bit of a conflict sometimes within me, as I am not only perpetuating the traditional female look, I am often wearing clothing from an oppressive era for women. I think it comes down to the fact that my style is only one part of me. My behaviour, my personality, my ambition, does not “reinforce patriarchal notions of femininity”, and really neither does my style because it’s based on decisions I alone make for myself. I make the decision for dresses and waist-emphasis and heels and (heaven forbid!) red lipstick because I find them beautiful, and flattering to my body. These things empower me, not enslave me.
    Besides, I admire the androgynous look, but it would look ridiculous on my body and is ultimately just not my cup of tea. (Clearly my penchant for tea demonstrates my subordination to Britain like my love of stockings perpetuates men’s dominance over me)

  • Elizabeth

    I used to dress like you fairly regularly. Skirts, dresses, tights, heels. Then I developed foot problems that made it difficult to wear heels or tights. So I became a pants wearer. And I’m bored with it. I can wear tights again. I can’t really ever wear any heel over 1 1/2″ again. Blame the bunion growing on my left foot. Your blog inspired me to reinvest in cute flatter shoes that are comfortable enough to wear every day. I’m going back to my feminine style. Thanks for the inspiration. And perhaps some of the scorn you hear is from folks with painful feet like mine who can’t wear heels and are jealous.

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  • Melinda

    This is a really thought-provoking post, Sal. ;)

    I love traditionally feminine clothing. My fashion inspiration comes from the movie stars of the 1920s-1960s. They were beautiful women with iconic style. Modern stars like Christina Hendricks and even Kim Kardashian are bringing back traditional styles.

    At 27 years old, I wear blue jeans on a daily basis…but my inner girly-girl wants to wear pearls, pretty skirts, gorgeous frilly dresses, and sky-high heels. ;)

    I don’t like most of the clothing choices offered in stores. Some of the stuff looks poorly made.

    I respect the fact that some women prefer to not wear traditionally feminine styles of clothing. I only wish that those of us who admire traditionally feminine clothing could be respected in return. We have lots of options now. Personally, I love traditional modes of feminine style because that’s who I am. I feel more confident when I wear pretty clothes.

    Elizabeth…I agree with you. I’ve developed a problem with my right foot. Flats are more comfortable, but I still rock my stilettos now and then. Remember, flat shoes don’t have to be ugly or boring. I have a pair of cute leopard print ones and a pair of gold ballet flats. I wouldn’t be caught dead on the street in flip-flops, but ballet flats can be cute and comfy.

    Lanika…you and I think alike. I feel the same way. When I doll myself up, I feel more empowered. I feel like I can conquer the world. One can be a feminist and enjoy being glamorous at the same time. I rarely have the opportunity to do this, but it is simply my way of taking care of myself.

    From what I’ve observed based on people I know, traditionally feminine attire is frowned upon. I’ve had some people tell me that I was “dressed up” just because I wore a clean pair of blue jeans with some cute shoes and a nice shirt. This makes no sense. Since when does taking a quick shower and trying to look presentable mean “dressed up”? My sister-in-law seems to disapprove of the fact that I wear nail polish, love Marilyn Monroe, and have an interest in beautiful clothes. She had a problem with me wearing a pink and blue halter dress to brunch on my wedding day! She expected me to wear something boring on my special day. She isn’t the most feminine person…that isn’t an insult, it’s the truth. But I don’t make snide comments on her style (or lack thereof), or how she carries herself. That’s simply who she is. Her husband of nearly 20 years loves her, but I’ve noticed that he does admire women who wear feminine clothing.

    I try to pair my blue jeans with pretty tops that have feminine details or lovely colors. I’m not comfortable with wearing skirts because of issues with my body. Hopefully I’ll overcome that soon. ;)

    Anyway, Sal…you look terrific no matter what you wear! Don’t let anyone discourage you.

  • Valerie Morgan

    Hello Sally,
    The question in the title needs explanation, so that I can start to understand what is meant by ‘Traditionally Feminine Dressing’. Is it what I witnessed in my growing up years, my teens, twenties & so on, or is it what you witnessed at some point in your life. I enjoy dressing in a feminine manner so as to express my outward appearance as a female, but I have to be feminine on the inside. If not, I would resemble a salad dressing on top of a steak pie. I run a business & at meetings, I maybe the only female wearing a skirt or dress. That does not stop me from thumping the table when I have out-manoeuvred someone, as a result of my superior knowledge on a particular issue. It does not mean saying yes like a ‘yes person either’. I think that I may have a hint as to what your title really means when at a charity fund raising event recently I watched in amazement when the most feminine looking people there, were cross-dressers. Who was it that was out of sync in society? Them or me, or the other females attending, dressed more like the males? Makes us think, Hey!
    Thank you
    Valerie

  • Valerie Morgan

    Hello again Sally,
    As with most things in life, our perception of what we enjoy is part of our growing up, that is where the seeds are sown. You need look no further than to most of our schools (I am in UK) where regulations about school uniforms stamp out a girls femininty at the time in her life, where she should be coming to terms with it. It was schools in the eighties that discorouraged girls from wearing slips, & today, many ban the wearing of skirts. The reasons given for these rules range from concern for the girls safety to gender compliancy, which is totally false & only serves to demonsrate ignorance of understanding of whole subject of femininity. For forty years I have listnened to educationalists & the like telling us that better education will solve all of the problems of teenage pregnancy. Forty years on, teenage pregnancy in the UK is worse than ever. I will tell you why. If femininty is stamped out of a girl at that crucial time of her developement, what is she left with? Just sex. She has nothing else. In my teens, my femininty was worth protecting, I was not going to allow any compromise on that, hence you will not find my name on any teenage pregnancy list. I had too much to live for. The education chiefs over the last forty years have themselves to thank for the current state of affairs, & no one else. They do not understand what femininty is other than some notion about lipstick or hair styles. Put that right, Sally, & the new genation of girls growing up now just might have a happier time of being a girl. as I enjoyed & still do.
    Best wishes
    Valerie

  • http://www.daviniahamilton.com Davinia

    I think the ultimate form of feminism is being able to do whatever you like to do and not be judged on it. If wearing a skirt is what makes you feel your best, if you feel a million dollars in heels, that’s who you are and nobody, not men nor women, should have the right to tell you otherwise.

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  • http://www.StyleVamp.com Jessica

    I know this blog post was written a while ago, but I just came across it via a Google search—so it’s new to me!

    First, you look darling in your dress and heels, I get a 1940’s vibe from it.

    Second, I have NEVER agreed with the idea that a strong woman needs to dress in an unfeminine way. I LOVE that I am different than a man and I *embrace* those differences in my dress. Why not? It doesn’t make me weak, or helpless or anything of the sort.

    Thanks for the interesting blog post!

  • http://collaborative-writer.com Alison Gunn, Ph.D.

    My perspective on this issue is that the piece of information that was lost from the 1970s infiltration of feminism had to do with a woman’s freedom to choose. Instead of being free to choose, women were introduced to a new dominant voice: the voice of the matriarchy, if you will. And in the matriarchy, a hateful environment, in which women were not allowed to enjoy the color pink, or frills, or bows in one’s hair (all things I had rather liked in 1964) took over, as surely as ‘the patriarchy’ had done prior to this ‘new’ vision of ideals of the feminine.

    In fact, what was once feminine was subsumed under the Mao Tse Tung-style of egalitarianism. My family lived in Hong Kong in 1971, my mother the president of the International Feminist League. The solid navy blue suits so dear to the Communists made their way—in spirit, if not in fact—to the shores of America, and by the time we returned to the States, our sojourn overseas of seven years marked the feminist interstice. No longer were girls allowed to go to the prom, accept a ‘date’ from a boy, embrace motherhood, or be girly.

    It’s a terrible loss, in my opinion, and it’s no wonder femininity, in all its traditional faces, is in the process of resurgence. I believe women and men lost much that made us feel good about ourselves when we were denied the external vestiges of gendered identity. I played the identity politics game in academia, but after being asked, one too many times, why I wore lipstick, decided a world in which my appearance was not accepted by the women around me was not a world in which I would be comfortable.

    I decided to take back my own personal definition of femininity that I feel was stripped from me during the Great Equalisation period of the 1970s, the era in which I went through adolescence. I no longer feel in any way bad or negative about my decisions, since I have reclaimed my own identity, rather than give in to the totalising experience of academic feminism. Whether or not that world realises it consciously, the earlier feminists (of the 1960s and ’70s) did not tell us to abandon the color pink, nor did the message include a lack of choice.

    Yet, that is what happened; women everywhere, in declaring their independence from men, and from masculinised structure, hierarchy, and the lack of freedom stemming from everything to do with age-old political relationships with men, not only gained fame, fortune, and prestige. We have the ability to conquer mountains—I am woman, hear me roar—but we have come far enough, surely, to allow ourselves to feel free enough to do whatever we want to do, including bake cookies and wear bows in our hair. Surely the feminist project has a large enough worldview and is secure enough unto itself to admit that women want control over their own lives, including the decision to wear whatever makes us feel good, without being persecuted by the outside world for our decisions.

    This ought to be a basic right, just like the feminists of yore promised. They promised freedom—but so far, I’m not convinced they meant actual freedom. I think they meant freedom from one worldview, only to be trapped in another, which is no freedom at all.

    I

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