Saturday, February 20, 2016

On Wearing Clothes

The author, wearing some clothes.
A few years ago, we organized a professional wardrobe event (video here) as part of one of our Graduate Women at MIT fall conference events. We received a fair amount of criticism from people who felt that fashion was "frivolous" and such an event would tarnish the reputation of the group.

I see where this criticism is coming from, but fashion is far from frivolous--especially for women. Many people have told me that people should not care so much about clothes and only care about what's inside. Most of these people also believe that "not caring about clothes" is communicated by wearing a fairly specific uniform, for instance free t-shirts, non-form-fitting jeans, and very functional shoes. Such uniforms are often not available to women (see "fake geek girl"). In Why So Slow?, on why  psychologist Virginia Valian writes that while men often have a professional uniform available to help them blend in, women tend to be "marked" and stand out no matter what they wear. Especially since clothing serves as a powerful social signal, it's important for women to take charge of what they wear and communicate how they want to be seen. (Many others have written about this. Here's a nice piece.)

In short, it requires a lot of thought to be a woman wearing clothes. Especially since my post on dressing for academic interviews got a lot of interest and discussion, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the positions I've developed about wearing clothes, as a woman in a male-dominated field and in general.

Been building a uniform a button-down shirts and dark pants.
Embrace the uniform at work. Virginia Valian says there is no "uniform" for women, but this does not mean there cannot be a uniform. Adopting a uniform is a bit of a prisoner's dilemma for women: for any individual woman, putting in the effort to dress well and stand out provides benefits but keeps women as a whole in the clothing rat race. But if this fashion editor can wear the same outfit every day, then we should be able to embrace at least the personal uniform. (Friends have pointed out that there is a de facto "uniform" for PhD women in science: ballet flats, jeans, t-shirt, cardigan.) Life has become much easier for me once I picked five outfits to wear to work each week. Life will become even easier once I figure out the Ultimate Outfit to wear every day forever.

From my "boy" phase.
It's fine to look feminine. I see many women in STEM go through the "man" (or, more generously, "androgynous") phase. I've gone through it myself. You cut your hair. You start wearing baggy pants and t-shirts and dressing like a boy. While there's nothing wrong with this, it's also important to realize it is not necessary to do this. I started thinking about why I did this after a friend pointed out my "boy" phase coincided with a period of time in college when I was struggling with not being listened to and hypothesized my gender had something to do with it. With time, I learned that changing my communication patterns, refusing to be ignored, and establishing myself in other ways went a lot further than dressing like a man. (I wrote this fairly controversial piece on changing one's communication patterns for a male-dominated work environment.) Though I still like to dress somewhat androgynously to avoid standing out too much (and was advised to do this especially for first impressions), I'm much more comfortable looking not-like-a-man these days.

A surprisingly functional feminine not-for-work outfit.
Embrace functionality. Much of women's clothing is optimized for being looked at, rather than moving in. While it is certainly possible to wear this kind of clothing as a woman on the go, having shoes you are worried about falling off of and clothes you are worried will become not-clothes without sufficient supervision places a certain amount of cognitive load. Since I'm all about men and women having comparable amounts of cognitive load, here are the ways I've come up with for achieving more parity:
  • Take flats seriously. Many women are taught that heels are the norm and flats are just in-between shoes. I've spent a fair amount of time finding flats that are unapologetically the only shoes I will be wearing. I really like oxfords (I have this pair, this pair, and this pair) and John Fluevog's designs. (I'm wearing a pair of Fluevogs in the photo above. Women have stopped me in the street to ask about them, making references to their quests for functional shoes that look good.)  That said, I also have several pairs of heels I can run in. (I really like the brand Born for this purpose.)
  • Embrace pockets. Years ago, a close friend was dating a French billionaire male chauvinist who told her “All ladies must carry a purse.” Easily impressed by money and power, neither of us left the house without a purse for at least a year. One day I woke up and realized it was a lot of work to always have to think about what purse went with my outfit and also to then carry the purse, so I started carrying things in my pockets whenever I could. After carrying my ID, a credit card, and a couple of bills in my front pants pocket for a while, I got a thin wallet insert (by Steward/Stand) for holding my essentials. (For pants, Outlier is really good about pockets. Many standard designer brands, such as 7 for All Mankind, are as well. Also, my dress above has pockets! Check out my friend Elizabeth's Pocketist blog for more pockets.) Sometimes if I don't have pockets I will put my things in my boot or, less reliably, in this garter pocket I acquired for the purpose of holding my things. I highly recommend not being a lady and not carrying a purse.
  • Find outwear that actually serve its function. I spent years ogling the raincoats and winter coats of my male friends for how they looked good and actually worked before I found my own versions of coats that don't make me choose between form and function. I've mostly been finding functional items by non-technical brands, but I also have friends who have had success finding fashionable pieces by technical brands. I've spent a lot of time drooling over coats by Nau, designed for this niche, but I haven't yet talked myself into spending money on one.

Look ma, no purse!
Pay attention to range of motion. One time I was at a friend's for dinner when I noticed my friend Caroline behaving differently than normal. She seemed more relaxed--perhaps more confident. Towards the end of the dinner, Caroline explained that she had been trying to adopt more dominant body language. Studies have shown that dominant displays such as spreading one's legs communicate--and help establish--power. Caroline said that she had success with this new body language: at an interview, she had taken care to sit with her legs open and the interviewers kept commenting on how "confident" and "competent" she seemed. Since then, I have also become more conscious of my body language. In doing so, I have noticed how traditionally feminine clothing such as dresses and heels require women to sit and move in certain way. While the movements these clothing items encourage is often associated with femininity and feminine attractiveness, they are not associated with non-sexual forms of power. (It's a whole other long conversation why it's important to have forms of power outside of sexual power.) For these reasons it is important when choosing clothes to consider whether they will permit corporeal assertions of power.

In conclusion, solving the clothing problem is an important step towards gender equality. I once heard that gender equality is when women are allowed to be mediocre--that is, women don't have to be clear standouts to justify why they deserve to be doing something. For clothing, gender equality comes when women aren't "marked," when they can blend in whether they've spent time thinking about their clothes or not. Though we're further from this point than some might think, community thoughtfulness and good discussion can go a long way. Until then, it's important not to dismiss conversations about clothing, as they serve an important function in moving things forward.


Anonymous said...

'I have noticed how traditionally feminine clothing such as dresses and heels require women to sit and move in certain way. While the movements these clothing items encourage is often associated with femininity and feminine attractiveness, they are not associated with non-sexual forms of power.'

That's deep and really made me think! As a man, it's not something I'd ever really thought about before!

Jade Graham said...

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