Pretty Vacant

Who wears the trousers? Holly Combe doesn't skirt the issue as she analyses society's negative attitudes to "feminine" clothing.

Holly Combe, 16 December 2002

I very rarely wear skirts. One logical reason I often give for this is that I can move faster and keep warmer in trousers. The thought of returning to an age where, for a woman, looking smart on formal occasions required the obligatory wearing of a skirt is not an appealing one and I'm glad feminism put a stop to this etiquette.

But, then again, I do rather like the way my legs look in a skirt. And when I recently tried on a few of my under-worn items for size, I was also reminded of skirts I can move about in with both ease and speed. Along with this, I am partial to long coats and comfortable chunky heeled boots. This means that keeping warm in a skirt isn't a problem. Nothing matches a pair of jeans for comfort but (for an admittedly shorter period of time) I have managed to rush about in my usual way when wearing things traditionally seen as less practical.

What makes one simple garment feel so wrong?

So what took me so long getting around to strutting about in my skirt and boots this season? Why did I feel so uncomfortable in a white floaty dress when I dressed as the (very demure, apart from the soaking of blood) film character 'Carrie' at Halloween? Why do I avoid wearing a skirt when I meet someone new? What makes one simple garment feel so wrong?

My current theory on this is that I am experiencing that all too common contradictory side effect of feminist consciousness - the unfortunate absorption of the misogynistic idea that wearing a skirt (or, worse still, a dress) is undermining. I never saw it coming but, at some point, I must have internalised the cliché that independent dominant people who are in control of their lives 'wear the trousers'.

It is understandable that I have taken on this mantra. After all, I've existed long enough to come to terms with the fact that what we choose to wear effects other people's perceptions of us - and unless one plans to completely drop out of society, being taken seriously by other people is a vital pre-requisite to success.

I feel that the commonly prescribed profile of a skirt wearer is of someone rather old-fashioned, who'd maybe rather somebody else took the lead and who lacks professionalism and drive. It may sound unreasonable when said out loud, but it's still a common attitude (for example, in a recent 'What not to Wear' on BBC2, the taxi driver being given a wardrobe makeover hesitated at wearing dresses and skirts because she associated looking 'feminine' with being 'weaker'). The main problem with this view is that it is scripted in the presumptuous notion that anyone perceived as pretty, feminine or sexy is playing a specific role, universally understood by all. The 'post-feminist' assumption seems to be that any woman who actually chooses to wear the clothes traditionally associated with being female must also possess the urge to be subordinated or patronised.

We need to erase these signifiers and I think us feminists are sometimes amongst the most guilty of all in applying them. There really is nothing feminist about deriding, scolding or head-patting women who, according to our own culturally induced, warped ideas, look 'soft' or 'fragile' (just because they're thin or petite or wearing a so-called infantilised hairstyle, floral dress, pink etc). After all, anti-feminists have been doing it for years. Why us as well?

There's nothing radical about tutting at the amount of flesh a woman chooses to bare

Neither is there anything radical about tutting at the amount of flesh a woman chooses to bare. If you want everyday proof of the lack of respect that girls in short skirts get, now is the perfect time of year to put the theory to the test. Every winter, you will easily overhear bitchy conversations, between women and men alike, about the variety of impractical outfits that the local 'tarts' have been wearing (bare legs, no coat etc) and how pathetic and generally oppressed they are for doing it. The self-satisfied snobbishness of it all is most disheartening.

The fact our culture continues to stick the 'Tomboy' label on girls who don't like make-up and who enjoy pastimes still tediously thought of as 'masculine' is proof that these signifiers still live on. Rather than enjoying the spectacle of someone dressing up for the drag it really is (whatever the sex of the wearer) our society persists in viewing it as the very essence of being female. Extensive external maintenance and care for one's appearance is still being mistaken for internal weakness and lack of substance, and - as we know all too well - weakness has a history of being wrongly attached to the female character. As I recall Natasha Forrest recently saying to me, 'One of the reasons women are so devalued in our society is because the body has been devalued and held in opposition to the mind (with women being associated with the body).'

Our cultural response to the tomboy is loaded with the implication that 'she'll never actually be a boy but who can blame her for trying?' The tomboy is seen as a misfit but a force to be reckoned with nonetheless because of her wilful attempt to transcend the 'feminine'.

Further evidence of this unsatisfactory situation could be seen in a recent episode of Channel 4's 'Faking It', where a kick boxer being taught to ballroom dance by a particularly tawdry, condescending and nasty teacher, said she wasn't used to 'being treated like a girl'. (The two teaching methods this spectacularly sexist man was capable of employing were very basic: Plan 'A' was to be 'nice', constantly call his student 'love' and generally patronise her. The predictable reserved plan 'B', when she objected to this, was simply to switch to the more openly hostile mode of rudeness and aggression. It didn't seem to occur to him that it might be possible to be a thorough and fair teacher without denigrating your pupil. What made it even more irksome was the big emphasis he put on how 'camp' the business is, as if that would make his old-school sexism somehow more acceptable or edgy.)

Being treated 'like a girl' is a common euphemism for not being taken seriously.

Being treated 'like a girl' is a common euphemism for not being taken seriously. 'Girls' are treated gently and sweetly because of their assumed (or rather, socially expected) babyishness and vulnerability. Like the kick boxer in 'Faking it', they are then swiftly punished with a barrage of bitter, resentful rudeness (which is actually assumed to be just what a girl needs, indeed wants, to keep her in check) if any independent spirit is shown.

There also seems to be a common assumption, in both heterosexual and gay culture, that anyone who is excessively 'femme' must be just gagging for someone 'butch' to come along and treat her real mean. But, for me, machismo is unappealing in either gender. The traits commonly thought of as 'manly', such as dominance, aggression and wealth do absolutely nothing for me. And when I wear a skirt, I am not putting out a signal that I have suddenly changed my mind.

Our culture theoretically accepts that both sexes deserve respect and autonomy. It also partly takes on board the idea of the 'Beauty Myth' and what Greer talked of in The Female Eunuch as a woman's right to freedom from 'being the thing looked at, rather than the person looking back'. However, through this understanding, we seem to have come to an all or nothing conclusion on women's right to power and struck an overly stern bargain with those who actively choose to wear the kind of drag that symbolises femininity, as we know it. We are encouraged to feel that enjoying admiration for ones looks and costume, whilst retaining power and status on ones own terms is not fair play or, at the very least, not a realistic aim. Society seems to say that if you want to be taken genuinely seriously, the least you can do is be what people think of as 'masculine'.

But a skirt is not a uniform for subordination. Enjoying ones appearance is not a signal that you wish to be anyone's 'love', 'sweetheart' or 'dear'. And playing with prettiness does not automatically denote a vacant character.

So, without shame or further justification, I'll be wearing those skirts again (but, seeing as it's December, I'll be sure to put on some woolly tights as well, okay?)

About the author

Holly Combe

Holly Combe was recently horrified to discover the sex tips books in the 'fertility' section at Waterstones.

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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