Girls just love clothes!

// 18 September 2010

I hate clothes shopping. The whole experience is so migraine-inducingly frustrating for so very many reasons that it often makes me quite genuinely wish I had been born a man.

Essentially, I can really see no good reason why the vast majority of clothes stores couldn’t be taken up with unisex clothing, sorted according to measurements: chest, height, waist etc. For items that need to be tailored to men and women’s specific shapes, why not sell all styles in both men’s and women’s sizes: lacy pants for men who might like to wear something pretty but need a bit more room for their package, nice comfy Y-fronts for women without that unnecessary bulge at the front. Instead, we go ahead and separate out even our socks – socks! – into male and female.

The really very poor reason for this, of course, is that we live in a society where most people are so invested in the lie that men are from Mars and women are from Venus – be that because it’s a convenient way of excusing men from doing the housework or justifying sexual harassment or because many people are just so frightened of breaking from convention that any justification for the status quo acts as a kind of comfort blanket – that we need to do all we can to make men and women seem as different as possible. Combine that with the deeply ingrained view of women as sexual objects and a generous dollop of your common or garden misogyny and you get the tiresome situation in which we currently find ourselves.

Women’s clothing is generally cut to show off or outline the body shape, while men usually get a choice of showing off their figure to some extent (in the last few years, at least) or covering it up with something fairly shapeless. Why do I have to buy the men’s version of a t-shirt in order to get one that doesn’t cling to me? Why does every smart shirt for women have to be tailored? Why does being fashionable on a night out as a teenage girl generally have to involve being cold, exposed and uncomfortable? Why are those wonderfully comfortable camo-style shorts that most guys my age wear all summer only offered to men? Yes, I can go buy a pair for 14-year-old boys, but that only illustrates how nonsensical the situation is.

On the flip side, if a man wants to wear a skirt, or something considered pretty in a feminine sense, he’s got much more of a struggle on his hands. While our sexist culture (with a bit of help from our feminist foremothers) can deal with women wearing “men’s clothes” – after all, why wouldn’t a woman want to be like a man? – the idea of a man wanting to wear clothes designed for women is top comedy fodder. We can just about cope with the fact that some men get off on dressing to look like a woman – there’s a sexual element there, and dudes need sex – but it almost never seems to occur to us that a man might just want to wear a skirt because it makes his legs look good, keeps him cool, is made of pretty fabric or is really quite comfortable.

But while men don’t have the freedom to dress however they want, I’d take that over my position as a woman. I can’t buy the vast majority of the tops I like unless I wear a bra with them to change my body shape, because they’re all designed with the assumption that my boobs will be pushed right up to the top of my chest. If I need some smart shoes, I can choose between painful heels or impractical pumps that offer no protection from the elements (unless brogues happen to be in fashion, as they appear to be now). If I need trainers, I better damn well like pink. If I’m attending a smart social function I’m expected to fork out for a new dress each time, whereas men can just wear a shirt and suit trousers. If I start a new job in an office I’m expected to carefully select a whole bunch of outfits in accordance with the laws set down by Trinny and Susannah, whereas men just need – oh yes – five shirts and suit trousers. Because I’m a woman, I’m supposed to have an innate understanding of how to put clothes together, how to “express” myself with my wardrobe. I should be obsessed with buying vast quantities of clothing that I really don’t need. And I’m considered lazy and a bit of a failure if I don’t.

I realise all these issues aren’t exactly the worst things I could be experiencing in my daily life. There are also arguably much more important reasons why feminists should take issue with the clothing industry, most obviously the fact that the majority of people working in often very poor conditions to produce the clothes most of us wear in the UK are women (please see Labour Behind the Label for details). But aside from the practical aspects of not being able to easily buy the clothes I want and need – and despite the fact that I’ve worked hard to stop myself buying into body fascism – every little one of these issues niggles at me, because it’s a constant bloody reminder of how I’m expected to exist “as a woman”. And the friction between that expectation and my own sense of self is just nauseating

Photo by Becaberry, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

coldharbour // Posted 18 September 2010 at 8:21 pm

I near enough buy everything second hand shops and charity shops these days, the amount of waste in terms of clothes that goes on in the western world simply because of a shallow obsession with ‘the new look’ is a disgrace. I usually go up to Fulham Rd./Kings Rd., people literally throw things away after wearing them once, guess you can’t look like a ‘pov’ in Chelsea. Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ is a must when it comes to understanding the marketing powers at be brainwashing people into waste and needless consumption.

childerowland // Posted 18 September 2010 at 9:49 pm

Good post! One thing I noticed last year when shopping for smartish summer short-sleeved shirts was that it was difficult to find shirts with long enough sleeves to cover the armpits. Most short-sleeved shirts were designed so as to cover the shoulder but expose the armpit, meaning that women not bold enough to show hairy pits in public (myself included, unfortunately) had to shave every time they wore the shirt. It was so irritating to me – why not just make ever-so-slightly longer sleeves!!!

Helen // Posted 19 September 2010 at 2:50 am

I’ve had similar problems trying to find clothes for my partner, who struggles to find menswear that isn’t purely practical and shapeless and safely masculine without it being massively expensive. You might want to try shopping online at Uniqlo. They’re not actually unisex, but, with a few exceptions most of there stuff is cheap and practical and relatively non gendered. Hope it helps.

Shreen // Posted 19 September 2010 at 4:15 am

I don’t think this is some conspiracy to continually separate male and female as much as possible. It’s basic economics: if we sold a one-style-fits-all unisex shirt, we would make X amount of money. But if we made one set of shirts slightly tailored for women (fitted at the waist, plus use stereotypically feminine colours and decorations) and then another set tailored for men (masculine boxy cut, darker colours) then we would make a lot more money than X.

You can split this up even further: basics for women and high-end clothes for women…so rather than having a single shirt for £12, have a simple plain one for £5 and a fancier one with decorations for £20 (they will probably cost similar amounts to produce, ironically). That way, more people can afford to buy [the cheap one] and the ones that can pay more might buy the high end shirt, so your overall profits will tend to be higher.

Having said that I do understand your frustrations Laura. I like looking nice but shopping is certainly not a hobby for me, and it’s a pain in the backside when most shops only sell what is deemed fashionable at the time and not what I would consider standard, classic wardrobe pieces. Luckily there are certain shops I can rely on to sell nicely tailored, good quality, simple and not overly fussy/fashionable/sexual clothing, but they are in the minority.

Practicality is a massive issue for me (I cycle, I ride a motorbike, I run and jump over things etc.) and trying to dress practically and still look nice is difficult but it can be done with some forethought. I had to laugh when a sales assistant told me ‘you can really pull of the ‘tough’ look’ and then proceeded to try and sell me some boots on the basis that they were ‘really on-trend biker boots’ (lol!). I don’t care what’s ‘on-trend’ or not, I just need some boots. ;)

My big concern with the fashion world is how it seems to have brainwashed many people into a never ending spiral of having to keep their wardrobes ‘up-to-date’. Sure, clothes perish, but not at the rate most people buy new clothes. It’s a very worrying trend and I’m sure someone else further up the supply chain is getting screwed over. It doesn’t seem sustainable nor sensible. Checking out Labour Behind the Label now…

tomhulley // Posted 19 September 2010 at 8:17 am

What helpful insights, Laura. I always thought that women’s clothes tended to be hampering and even demeaning but saying so seemed sexist somehow. Maybe clothing is about control (about being controlled, sadly, for many women) -men seem more free to move about unrestricted. Think about heels and handbags! (as well as comments)

The one thing I envy though is the bright brashness of some children’s clothing especially for girls (apart from the pink plague). Men’s clothes can be boring. I have a basic anti-authoritarian problem about grey men in grey suits.

polly // Posted 19 September 2010 at 10:03 am

The simple answer is just to buy ‘men’s’ clothes. I’ve got loads of jumpers, tshirts and hoodies and shoes and even jeans from ‘men’s’ ranges. It’s particularly helpful if you’re not slim – for instance I’ve got quite a lot of stuff from superdry, but it’s all “men’s” because the biggest size in their women’s range is a 12.

I do like buying clothes, and I have to say that I think the choice in women’s clothing has improved a fair bit recently – mainstream shops seem to have moved away from that nightmare hyper feminine/everything has to be short and tight look, that was popular for ages, to the extent where I even got a nice (loose enough, long enough,) shirt in River Island this week, a shop I would have avoided like the plague a bit ago.

And most surfy style clothes ranges have more androgynous stuff for women, I’ve got baggy camo shorts from Animal for instance.

As for dress codes, I solved that by avoiding anywhere where “smart” clothing is required. I’ve got one suit for those work occasions that demand it, otherwise, if you can’t get in in jeans and trainers, I don’t want to go there. I think Trinny and Susannah deserve a special place in hell – but the solution is to just say no. Wear your check shirt with pride and tell them where to go.

saranga // Posted 19 September 2010 at 11:00 am

I hate clothes shopping. I have regularly come away from trying clothes on in tears, because most clothes don’t fit me right, and I feel like I’m being told that my body is wrong, i’m the wrong shape. This isn’t the case, it’s the clothes that are the wrong shape, that are made wrong, yet it’s difficult to distance that from myself.

As for capped sleeves, I invest in a lot of shrugs. I have a scarred arm from self harming incidents when younger which I don’t really like showing in the office, but trying to find mid length shirt sleeves is a nightmare. I end up with vests and shrugs (not very smart) or long sleeve tops, which I hate. Lots of dresses are out of the question as they are all capped sleeves..

And I loathe women’s pants. I now wear men’s pants cos they cover your arse, don’t ride up and are made out of much more comfortable material.

Laura // Posted 19 September 2010 at 11:17 am

@ childerowland – Yes, that annoys me too! I’m not bothered about showing my hairy pits in public, but given that men don’t generally show theirs in smart/formal settings I find it less easy to feel comfortable in those kind of short sleeved shirts. Luckily my office is casual, so I don’t feel it’s a problem there. Although I do think I’m a bit silly for feeling like pit hair is somehow more acceptable in more casual settings! I’m working on it…

@ Shreen – Excellent points, I have thought about the economic factors before but forgot to mention that in my post. The joys of patriarchal capitalism.

@ Polly – I do buy men’s clothes where I can, but I’m fairly slim so there’s only certain places that sell them in small enough sizes, and they tend to be the places where the trendy skinny boys shop so you have to get in there early to get the XS! Surfy stuff is a good idea though.

I didn’t mention swimwear! That really pisses me off. Men get to choose between tight speedos or lovely covering trunks, whereas women are expected to wear something that demands pubic pruning. You can get some fairly covering short-type bottoms, but men’s trunks are so much less hassle if you’re not ready to expose any pubic hair in public.

Shreen // Posted 19 September 2010 at 11:46 am

“…whereas women are expected to wear something that demands pubic pruning”

But here is the great thing: expectation is not a demand – you have a choice! :)

There are always alternatives (granted, sometimes they are a pain in the arse to find) …but for example in the case of swim wear, you could wear loose fitting surf shorts and a vest top or even a surf top (cut like a t-shirt).

You don’t have to dress revealingly if you don’t want to. :)

I know the expectation is there, but who is driving it? Usually it’s other women. Why give in to this pointless notion of competition (subconscious or not) ?

Pressure is always there to conform, but if you resist, then the status quo changes as more and more people resist. :)

Sheila // Posted 19 September 2010 at 11:58 am

The sad thing is that your appearance does say quite a lot about you. You might complain that’s not fair, but since you are responsible for your appearance (not your looks but your image) how you choose to project yourself is important. It’s a choice you exercise. I know not to go into most high street shops for the look I want.

May I put in a word for a fantastic charity which just celebrated its tenth year in the UK: Dress for Success. This charity helps women out of rehab, prison and domestic violence shelters, frequently referred by Job Centres or social workers, to gain the confidence they need to put themselves back in the job market. They have a 50% success rate in finding these women jobs. It isn’t about putting these women into impractical high fasion statement outfits, but about helping them to wear the clothes that will give them the confidence and correct appearance to get a job. The charity also helps out with writing CVs and interview technique. It is most certainly not some vacuous Gok Wan or Trinny and Suzannah type of advice. The clothing is donated by women in employment who’ve outgrown their clothes, changed shape or realised their clothes didn’t suit them – the things that we’ve made mistakes about and realised didn’t suit us.

Some women don’t have the privilege of deciding not to fit the expected stereotypes of neat black or blue suit and shirt for work. They need a job more than they need to make a statement about their feminism. The clothing is all business and work appropriate or the charity would reject it.

Yes, I wish that clothing could be sold more simply.

Josephine // Posted 19 September 2010 at 12:49 pm


I despair at how hard it is to find clothes that are comfortable, fit me, and I like the way it looks on me.

marie // Posted 19 September 2010 at 3:28 pm

i think it depends on where you shop. tthe designers design clothes that most women want to wear. most women i know like wearing those short tight clothings you talk about.

Laura // Posted 19 September 2010 at 4:34 pm

@ Sheila – Sounds like a great charity. I appreciate that not everyone is in a situation where they are able to, say, not shave their armpits or refuse to wear heels, and clearly having a job is more important than challenging gender stereotypes. But the way I dress and my appearance are not a “statement about my feminism”. They are informed by my feminist views, yes, but stopping shaving or wearing heels etc. are actions I have taken to improve my self esteem, my lifestyle and my relationship with my body, not to show that I am a feminist.

Rose // Posted 19 September 2010 at 5:54 pm

I find that womens clothing is generally weaker, as in, it breaks easy. And it rarely has practical pockets.

I find the when it comes to work gloves, the ones for women are soft material designed for pruning rose bushes, and the ones for men are designed for draging old scrap metal around. Result? Jobs my father does with heavy duty workmens gloves, I do with my bare hands, (which are much too small for mens gloves).

I needed shoes to go hiking across deserts and glaciers last year, it took me half an hour to find somewhere selling womens shoes that weren’t high heeled or flip flops! And another 15 minutes to find some that weren’t pink At one point I asked a sales assisstance if they had any ‘practical’ shoes for sale, the answer was ‘no, we don’t really sell that sort of thing’, it was a shoe shop, shoes once had a purpose to serve!

I find it fundamentally insuting. I’m too slim for most mens clothes – which I should need to wear – so I wear ripped clothes! Cos I’m not changing my life, or denying it, for their ‘fashion’ concepts.

polly // Posted 19 September 2010 at 6:30 pm

You can get swimsuits with legs (like cycling shorts) if you look around online. I’d try a specialist swimwear/sports clothing site, or ebay.

I don’t disagree with Sheila that some people don’t have a choice of clothing if they need to get employment, but I would disagree that your appearance says a lot about you.

It’s surely more the case that people make (often entirely unwarranted) assumptions based on your appearance, which isn’t really the same thing. Like the fact that I get treated completely differently if I’m in a suit to if I’m wearing jeans. I’m still the same person after all. Although I have worn a suit for internal interviews at work, I think it’s somewhat ludicrous, since the people interviewing me know that’s not what I habitually wear. All it proves about me is that I own a suit.

Juliet // Posted 19 September 2010 at 6:38 pm

Laura, you’re right, issues such as these don’t come close to worse things you could be experiencing in your daily life. I think much of your article is wild exaggeration. Talking about getting nauseous or tearful because you can’t find clothes you like (although I don’t know what kind of shops you must be going to!) seems beyond ridiculous. As does paying so much attention to all these ‘expectations’ you feel you’re labouring under. Ignore!!!

I do agree that people working in awful conditions to produce cheap clothing for the UK and European clothes industry is a big issue, and one that causes me personally a lot of concern. But it’s really not true that you can’t find non-tight T-shirts, for instance, or that teenage girls have to go on nights out freezing and half dressed. Maybe you’ve been watching too much telly.

Speaking of which, I’ve just been watching a Battle of Britain weekend about women pilots delivering spitfires to RAF bases, and all the dangers they faced.

Laura // Posted 19 September 2010 at 7:09 pm

@ Juliet – A big part of feminism has always been women sharing experiences about their daily lives and their personal feelings. They might seem ridiculous to you, but they’re very real to me and I’m not sure what exactly you hope to achieve by belittling me. The aim of this blog is to cover a whole variety of issues, and the fact that some of them may not be as serious as women pilots’ role in WWII doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about them.

And I do pretty much ignore all this stuff, which is why I hate shopping, because I have no choice but to confront it. My comment about t-shirts was in reference to when, say, you want to but a band t-shirt and the women’s version is almost always tight.

Shreen // Posted 19 September 2010 at 7:45 pm

Laura: “A big part of feminism has always been women sharing experiences about their daily lives and their personal feelings. They might seem ridiculous to you, but they’re very real to me and I’m not sure what exactly you hope to achieve by belittling me.”

Perhaps it felt offensive, but I’m sure Juliet never intended that. The thing about feminism, or any topic for that matter, is sure, you can say what you like, but the listners/readers have the right to criticise it.

In this case I think your post came across slightly melodramatic. Perhaps you were going for the comedy element, but it didn’t really work. Wishing you were a man because of clothes shopping did seem quite OTT to me I’m afraid.

Always good to put things in perspective. :)

However, that doesn’t negate the fact that womens clothes generally suck… (and yes, impractical pockets are a pet peeve of mine too, Rose!!)

My only pair of jeans have ripped and I’ve had to wear skirts for the past 3 weeks! Imagine that – a tomboy in nothing but skirts! The problem, as has already been mentioned by others, is my body shape isn’t typical so I struggle with clothes that fit. :(

marie // Posted 19 September 2010 at 7:49 pm

Rose i totally agree with you, most of my clothes rip so easily compared to my boyfriends, i am very petit so wearing some of my partners clothing is sadly not an option. i also agree with Juliet some things i read on this site are very over the top.

Tei Tetua // Posted 19 September 2010 at 8:08 pm

I think maybe women voice their complaints about clothes, and men don’t. For instance, how many men go to work in summer in a suit and tie, with solid leather shoes, and work alongside women in light dresses and sandals with bare legs (acknowledging that shaving is most likely required)? Women have their sorrows, but for men it’s the same old uniform, day after day and season after season. And when winter comes–who pulls on their furry boots?

Speaking of swimsuits, don’t exaggerate the choices men have. For any man under 35, it’s a horror not to stay covered navel to knee. Nobody can explain why.

Jessica // Posted 19 September 2010 at 8:45 pm

Good article. I tend to buy the same things over and over again — black vest tops, black a-line below-the-knee skirts, sleeveless shirts. (I sweat a lot, and I really do need light cotton layers and no sleeves.) Or I make my own dresses.

However, I disagree about baggy clothes. I am very curvy. I wear a 32E or a 30F bra. Most tailored shirts are still baggy round my waist, and I find it really difficult to find clothes that make the clothed me look as good and as healthy as the naked me. I don’t want to look sexy (at least, not for work), but I want my clothes to fit, and tailored clothes aren’t tailored enough for my figure.

Tailored doesn’t have to mean tight — no way are my buttons bursting over my breasts. I want my shirts to outline my figure in exactly the same way that my partner’s shirt outline his figure. His suits and my suits are just as well tailored to our respective figures (TM Lewin, both of us) but he can go into any suit shop and find a suit that will fit. I had to search high and low. And I have only ever found two shirt styles that look good — one Hawes & Curtis, one M&S. Needless to say, I bought multiple copies…

gadgetgal // Posted 19 September 2010 at 9:41 pm

Great article – I have to say I hate clothes shopping too, although I also hate most other kinds of shopping (with the exception of gadgets or books!). I think this is a more important issue than a lot of people seem to be giving it credit for, clothes are not just considered practical items to cover the body against the elements anymore, they’ve become a representation of lots of aspects of life and individuals, whether you want them to be or not. Someone above mentioned Dress for Success, and how it can help women in getting back into employment more from the feeling the clothes give the person wearing them rather than what the items actually are, and this is a good example of it. I find that trying to get that feeling from clothes shopping as difficult as you – women’s and girl’s clothes tend to be too flimsy for me to feel really comfortable in, I’m too short to wear men’s clothes, and too fat and curvy to wear boy’s, it can get really disheartening. I don’t blame it entirely for making me feel bad about myself but if I’m already feeling low it definitely doesn’t help!!

I’ve also noticed the trend with body-hugging clothes for women, although my personal peeve (other than gaping shirts because of my over-large chest) is the way a lot of tops ride up in the back now, coupled with jeans that don’t seem to hit the waist anymore – I find my backside and fat flaps hanging out when I sit down to be as uncomfortable as it is unappealing! And bloody freezing!!

Alex T // Posted 19 September 2010 at 9:53 pm

I never shave my bikini line, and I just wear normal swimwear. I was terrified the first time I went swimming like that (I was pregnant and couldn’t have reached to shave even if I’d wanted to!), thinking I’d be thrown out – but the fact is my lower half was under water the whole time! A couple of years on I still don’t put a razor anywhere near my pubes. Nobody has ever looked or commented and I don’t even think about it any more. Give it a go, you won’t regret it!

Rachel // Posted 20 September 2010 at 12:25 am

Juliet, I really don’t feel that your comment was called for. I too find myself getting tearful trying to find clothes because it just feels like it reinforces that I am “the wrong shape” and that I need to change in order to buy the clothes that look nice.

I realise that I should ignore what society dictates, but it really is easier said than done, especially for someone who doesn’t feel especially comfortable in many social situations. I get enough comments yelled at me in the street and men staring at me just because i’m female as I go about my life as it is.

And as for teenage girls having to wear basically no clothes out… that is also true, clubs have dress codes that do not allow for full body cover…

Feminist Avatar // Posted 20 September 2010 at 9:51 am

@Polly- I think what wearing a suit show- even when going to an interview where you will never wear one for the job or with people who know you- is that you are aware of the social rules that surround interviewing for jobs. This show social awareness, ability to conform and follow rules etc. It shows that you are not going to make trouble or be difficult over the little things. These are things that employers look for even if they don’t have it on the application.

It is also not a rule that everybody knows- there is job-seeking training on interview clothing and benefit budgets to buy suits for those on unemployment because these lessons weren’t always relevant to certain occupational communities and were not automatically taught to their children. This is also partly what Dress for Success aim to do- not just to provide work clothing for those without it, but to give advice on appropriate clothing for different workplaces and inteview panels.

I guess the lie of individualism is that our clothing expresses who we are- hence our frustration at not getting clothes that conform to what we want- but in practice clothing actually speaks to our acceptance and rejection of social norms.

EmilyBites // Posted 20 September 2010 at 10:28 am

Great article, Laura – this is something that bugs me constantly. I don’t think it’s an insignificant issue either, because what we wear is a choice we face every day – and it affects how we feel (physically), how we behave, are treated by others, and it’s partly how the gender binary is enforced.

You only have to look at the traditionally male and female garments to see who is being trussed up for someone else’s visual enjoyment; strappy tops, bras, strappy stilettos, lacy pants, pencil skirts, corset tops, hotpants, ballgowns, bikinis versus shirts, trunks, suits, non-fitted tees and so on.

Formal occasions are the worst – men cover up in a tux designed to make them look powerful and women show as much of their flesh/skin as possible because the only important thing about a woman is how hot she is.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with revealing, tight, sexy clothing – I wish everyone joy and confidence in presenting their bodies however they like, but the belief that ONLY women are for looking at has got to change. If tight, diamonte-studded combat trousers with no pockets exist (they do), they need to be for everyone!

Imagine trying to market a ball-bra, designed so that mens’ testicles could be pushed up nice and high, exmphasised by their specially low-cut trousers. So that we could all stare down a man’s trousers on the bus. And compare their different-sized endowments. And start a restaurant chain called ‘Honkers’ where only large-balled men can work, in tight trousers with built-in ball-bras.

James // Posted 20 September 2010 at 11:42 am

I liked this article as it reminds me of when I cross dress. The only problem is, the writer clearly gives too much attention to what other people think of her – as a young man who cross dresses every so often, I see my defiance of social convention as a big middle finger to those who wish me to conform, and if the writer simply did this and struck out against stereotypes (buy men’s clothing, don’t buy a new dress every time you go out, wear what the hell you like on a night out), and more people followed suite, true change would happen.

Furthermore, there are many reasons for wearing certain clothing – there’s no doubt a lot of female clothing has a sexual element to it, and it can be the wearer’s choice to embrace this – I know I feel a mixture of excitement and enjoyment when I’m wearing lingerie underneath my normal clothes. There’s nothing wrong with being at one with your sexuality, and your clothing can definitely be an extension to this.

Jen // Posted 20 September 2010 at 12:16 pm

“it’s a constant bloody reminder of how I’m expected to exist “as a woman”. And the friction between that expectation and my own sense of self is just nauseating”

I know what you mean, and you don’t mention it, but it’s not just the clothes in the shops that are a problem, it’s the whole atmosphere of the shops themselves. There’s a lot of unfair attention paid to what shop assistants say in these threads most of the time (not overly in this case), and they’re just doing their job. But really the whole atmosphere – the music, the colours, the slogans…

If I can digress a little, I find women’s magazines pretty much more disturbing than anything, because those women in there are supposed to represent you – all the articles don’t only speak for you, they speak on your behalf, kind of like when the Sun says ‘readers will be appalled’, except they dispense with even mentioning that. Often it’s not even ‘us girls’ or ‘we girls are all the same’ or whatever – it’s just implicit. Walking into a clothes shop, particularly a cheap trendy one, is like acting that out, it’s like you get to walk into a women’s magazine and act the part of the heroïne of that magazine. So, it gives you a very uncomfortable substitute for your ‘self’, in a way it imposes one on you. You’re not only going to buy clothes that you’ll have to throw out in like six months because they’re crap, you’re striding across a desert of fashion-show music, and some creepy designer dudes are personally invested in making you – and all women – beautiful *shudder*.

I think you’re quite right to write about it, and you’re not over the top at all, because it’s linked to the more serious issues regarding clothes production that you mention, in that the clothes are largely designed to be unsatisfactory, they’re almost disposable, they fall to bits in no time for the most part, and the poorer the consumer of the clothes is, the truer that is.

Personally, I have much the same problem as Jessica further up, men’s clothes are not an option, anything button-down is difficult because my handbag undoes the buttons in public, causing passers-by to impale their eyeballs on my 30F-30G chest (which they do anyway, and some don’t hesitate to point it out). Also, when your bra size is also an atmospheric pressure, you can be certain you’re not going to find your size in high-street lingerie shops. I wear sports bras (anything low-cut is therefore out of the question, cause the bras are rather formidable and well-armoured). Or else you have to get them online at places that assume that with nuclear fucking warheads that big, you will be serving champagne and chocolates from between them to gentlemen callers.

Thing is, I like my clothes to be fitting (not necessarily tight, but I don’t mind that). I like good quality clothing, both feminine and masculine, I like heels and I don’t mind my trainers pink and glittery (wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a plus but almost), and generally I’ve got quite an advanced case of girliness, combined with an exageratedly feminine body shape. So all should be well, right? I should be snorting up New Look glittery tube tops like cocaine – it’s not like I find that sort of thing unattractive or unstylish. But I still have more or less exactly the problems you describe. It clearly reaches far beyond simple gender presentation and sartorial choices, to something deeply connected to our status as women, and what femininity implies with regards to relating to your body, a kind of alienation where we’re this ‘self’ reflected in magazines and advertising and our body is this palace we furnish for the purposes of career advancement and the comfort of gentlman callers. A lot of French beauty products folks – you may have noticed before – bang on about your ‘capital beauté’, and exploiting such. I’ve seen a lot of feminists refer to women being treated as sexual dolls. I think that’s a gross oversimplification (plus, the idea of women being considered sexual has never alarmed me that much). I’m thinking more in terms of an iron ore mine at this point – a capital that is devalued by having a little too much schist around the upper strata, obviously, but even if the capital is at maximum value, it’s still capital, which is somewhat dehumanising.

Then again, I also have no problem with clothing ‘saying things’ about you. You go to a job interview and you wear a suit – it’s telling the people interviewing you that you’ve made an effort. Clothing is a social thing, not an individual thing, and not everything ‘societal’ need be a ‘pressure’. Only, if you look at clothes as communication, the richer you are, the more subtle things you will be able to communicate. All I can communicate to someone interviewing me for a job – for instance – is that I have like one uncomfortable outfit I keep relatively clean for the occasion, and that I’m shit at applying make-up – I like it, wear it regularly, but yeah, I’m not going to make a good face for the company if – I mean, for a start I’m not wearing my glasses when I put it on, so if you don’t want a chick with eyeliner on her forehead at your front desk, I’m not the woman for the job, but I will however work hideous unpaid overtime so give me a job! please! Whereas someone with more leeway will be in a less vulnerable position. Then again, there’s so much more we could be communicating with clothing – I mean, mine tells people that I probably like punk rock and motown, which is relevant in some social situations, but not so much regarding my value in terms of capital.

Then, with the women producing the clothes, it’s assumed that they won’t be communicating at all. They’re basically equipment in this equation. If they turned up in a shop, the assistants would probably be instructed to politely get rid of them ASAP.

But really, I don’t think you should feel guilty writing about this, that there are far more serious issues involved, because it’s not like they’re unrelated issues. On the contrary, it shows that all the valuable stuff involved in people clothing themselves – the social stuff, the skill of making clothes, the pleasure of picking out and wearing good clothes and dressing yourself – is turned into something toxic for the people who are ‘privileged’ in this particular equation, as well as something that is completely denied those on the production side.

Working in customer service was quite an eye-opener in that sense, because you’re a working part of this entity selling stuff you can or can’t afford, you’re one of its voices (I was on phones mainly), you’re not the consumer in this case, if anything you’re a particularly friendly sandbag protecting your company against excessive customer queries and law suits and absorbing the often unkind (to put it marginally) things that people say to you on the phone – then you go home with the paycheck and you’re the Duchess of Consumeville yourself, assistants all treating you like royalty, as long as you can pay or get credit. That the consumer end is absurd and pointless is definitely relevant to the fact that the production side is totally fucking inhumane.

That’s why I can’t put up with people ragging on shop assistants all the time, and why it’s disturbing when this ‘customer complaint’ element gets carried through into activism. But as a system, I think it’s important to write about every part of it.

Hope that’s clear. It is in my head, but I know I tend to go off and put things in ways that aren’t all that direct.

Lindsey // Posted 20 September 2010 at 1:38 pm

I agree with the post and personally find that nothing makes me want to hate my body more than clothes shopping. Curvy suddenly becomes lumpy, stretchy becomes bulgy. Not fun. Certainly doesn’t equate with the mantras of “choose your style” etc if all the styles you try on make you feel like shit.

I sympathise about the band shirts too – last time I got a shirt at a gig the design I wanted only came in dude sizes: I am so pleased with it I may stick to dude size from now on.

Denise // Posted 20 September 2010 at 1:43 pm

M&S sell women’s T-shirts that fit comfortably. They also have some with long sleeves, which I like. I also like that they don’t have massively plunging necklines.

Tesco have great women’s socks, at reasonable prices.

I was recently looking for swimwear, and I found plenty of stuff which didn’t ”demand” pubic pruning. Also, comfy shoes and non-pink trainers are not difficult to find, i.m.o. The only thing I have a lot of trouble with is finding good jeans to fit me.

saranga // Posted 20 September 2010 at 2:38 pm

Regarding those of you with problems getting shirts to fit, try out bravissimo. they do shirts and dresses cut specially larger in the chest (and the right size inthe back and waist) so that they fit big boobed women.

ok, so the shirts are geared veyr much towards work wear and some of the dresses are downright hideous, but it’s a start.

Claireg // Posted 20 September 2010 at 6:25 pm

Juliet, I do not mean this as a personal attack, but your comment does strike me as coming from a position of body privilege.

To give an example, as a larger-breasted woman, I long found that bra shopping reduced me to tears every time. This wasn’t due to my inability to deal with frustration, I deal with it every day in a perfectly adult way, but because of a combination of factors, including the humiliating manner in which I was often treated by shop-assistants (withering look – ‘we don’t stock odd sizes’ etc etc), accompanied by the fact that I had been bullied, sexually harassed, and singled out throughout my schooling for the size of my breasts – not to mention by random passing motorists and men on trains ever since.

Until the arrival over recent years of shops that stock a wider range of sizes and shapes of bras, I was made to feel it was me that was odd, unwelcome and deserving of this treatment (in the wider sense) and this reinforced all those negative feelings about myself.

Fast forward to the current day, where I have but on some weight, and I work in a professional setting where I am expected to dress smartly, despite my significantly curvy shape (and not much cash in the bank). Again, it takes hours and hours to find a single item that even fits, let alone something that covers up my larger chest, looks professional etc etc – I take 20+ items at a time in the dressing room with me, I’m not picky, but manufacturers DO NOT make professional clothes for women with figures like mine.

For you to say that becoming tearful is ridiculous when someone is exhausted during such a long and difficult process which taps into so many negative past experiences, strikes me as somewhat judgemental. I am glad that you and other women do not have these issues, but some of us do. Perhaps you might read up on body privilege?

gadgetgal // Posted 20 September 2010 at 7:14 pm

To Claireg – as a fellow busty lady (34G) I promote your comment! It’s only a fairly recent thing that I’ve been able to find anything to fit (thank you online shopping!) and going into any store, especially lingerie ones, makes me feel like I’m not “normal” whatever that means.

In fact, I’ve personally never known any woman who genuinely fits into the standard store sizes. I know they say they’re aiming at the average female body (a myth that’s already been debunked before, so I won’t go into that), but if out of all my hundreds of female friends exactly zero of them are this size, then who are they catering for?

It seems like a bit of a conspiracy by the manufacturers – even though shopping is off-putting it’s mostly societally necessary (for example having to have work clothes, interview clothes, wedding clothes, funeral clothes, dress-down clothes, dress-up clothes, etc. etc.) but by making us ever-so-slightly uncomfortable in how it fits or how it looks means we’ll end up buying more when we see something else that may suit us just a little bit better! An example: I had to buy some black trousers for work. All the shops (cheaper ones) were selling pretty much the same styles, none of which really suited me. However, I HAD to have a pair of black trousers, so I bought some anyway, then a few weeks later bought some more in a style that suited me a bit better (but still not quite), thereby forcing me to buy double what I really needed. So more money for them, less self-esteem for me – yay! And because the second pair still aren’t quite right, I’ll end up buying another pair, and another pair, again, and again… Truly, conspiracy (that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway!).

polly // Posted 20 September 2010 at 8:55 pm

I agree with you feminist avatar on what suits are MEANT to show, but what they really show is that you know you’re meant to wear a suit to an interview. And ONLY that.

They don’t actually indicate you’re not going to make trouble or be a good worker, let’s face it. I work with one woman who possesses an armoury of smart suits, but she’s not a good worker and she is a difficult person and deliberately obstructive person to work with. But her image is very ‘professional’ looking.

And for certain jobs, wearing a suit won’t make any difference whatsoever. Last time I interviewed someone the interview was based entirely on how well the applicants showed they had the skills for the job – this was done by way of a practical test and questions asking how they performed in certain scenarios which were directly related to the job role. Yes all the applicants (as it happens) wore suits, but my decision and those of the other members of the panel wasn’t based on that.

I think the main issue here is that suits are actually quite expensive garments to buy, certainly more than other items. I think it’s a pity employers aren’t more focussed on people’s actual skills and less on their ability to afford an expensive and impractical item of clothing.

Reminds me of a Seinfeld joke about suits ‘we’d better trust this guy, his jacket matches his pants’.

polly // Posted 20 September 2010 at 9:14 pm

I also think an aspect of the discussion surrounding ‘socially acceptable’ clothes/appearance – particularly for work – that gets ignored for women is how these demand a standard of conventional “femininity” that a lot of women don’t feel comfortable with. I never wear make up in my day to day life and I wouldn’t wear it for a job interview, nor would I wear heels or conventionally feminine shoes such as court shoes/pumps. But both these things are often expected in a lot of work situations, and a woman who fails to conform in terms of appearance will be penalised, no matter how good her skills/abilities. And even if she’s dressed ‘smartly’ but not in an overtly feminine way.

Sheila // Posted 21 September 2010 at 9:06 am


I can only anecdotally contradict what you say. “Femininity” doesn’t come into it when I interview people. What matters is that candidates’ clothes are clean and respectable.

gadgetgal // Posted 21 September 2010 at 10:19 am

Right on polly – I don’t do the makeup thing either, I find it a lot of hassle and I have bad eczema which flares up if I wear makeup more than one day in a row. And agreed too about the cost of work clothes as well – I don’t mind wearing what a company wants me to wear, but if they want me to wear it that badly why can’t they cover the costs? A lot of places with strict uniforms do, I’m thinking here of shops where the staff all wear the same t-shirt or jacket, or in health professions at hospitals. It seems unfair that in workplaces where you’re earning as little as everyone else you also have to fork out for a smart suit that costs a week’s wages!

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