Take a good look at the image on the left, who do you think Betty Brosmer (the Barbie-proportioned 50s model and author) had in mind when she put that outfit together in the morning? We’re guessing it wasn’t her mother. Traditionally, women’s fashion has always been about drawing the male gaze. During an interview on Good Morning, America in 1979, sex-goddess Sophia Loren said that, “A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view.” The popular sentiment was that clothes were there to protect the body, but not so much that they cover up a woman’s sexy curves. But whatever may have been true of the past, today women are no longer dressing to impress men. Rather than looking “attractive” in any traditional sense, the way women choose to wear their clothes is seen as an opportunity to satisfy a creative itch and show the world that they run with a creative group of friends. In 2011 a survey commissioned by Simple skincare found that the majority of women think about their girlfriends when getting ready, and would value a compliment from a female higher than one received from a male.
These days women’s fashion is decidedly less about “come hither” and more about “Look at me! I’m one of the cool girls.” At least, that seems to be the case for all those who’ve whole-heartedly signed up for this decade-long ugly-pretty man-repeller dress-to-depress new wave of fashion. For these cool girls, the foremost questions when getting dressed are: am I comfortable? Will my fashion girls love this? Would my favorite fashion blogger approve? Do I look like the kind of person I want to be? The male gaze hardly ever enters the equation anymore.
But before we get carried away with joy that sisters are finally doing it for themselves, we’ll be the first to admit that the fashion industry is fundamentally about what others think. By engaging in a certain trend, or buying a particularly “current” cut of dress, you are announcing to the world that you belong to an exclusive club of women who are ‘in the know’ about fashion. Buying into a trend serves no personal purpose outside of a social context. That part of fashion is still there. But what has changed is that subtle (or not so subtle as in the case of Ms. Brosmer above) dash of sex sprinkled on everything women used to wear. Without any of us realizing, a quiet revolution has been brewing that has taken fashion into increasingly gender neutral territory. The sudden sartorial dominance of oversized boxy jackets, comfortably shapeless tops, blunt bobs and roomy high waisted jeans all have that unmistakable touch of androgyny that most straight men, by and large, find unattractive on a woman.
The slow shift has made some lament that “women don’t look like women anymore” (see this guy). But step back from that statement for a moment and really think about it. Beyond actually being a woman (which clearly doesn’t seem to be enough in this case) what does a woman need to do to look like a woman? Stuff her ribcage into a corset? Bind her legs with a pencil skirt? Teeter around on her toes all day in a pair of stilettos? Why can’t a comfortable woman be seen as a real woman? There is an inherent catch 22 to all this: On the one hand, a woman who get’s comfortable and embraces that modern minimalist sans makeup look will get derided for looking sloppy or unfeminine. On the other hand, a full face of makeup, high heels and an overall polished look will ensure she’s perceived as vain and arrogant. Really, looking like a “real woman” is an impossible endevor. It means tight but not too tight, made-up but not too much, sexy but just the right amount – the brain power required just to navigate these unwritten sartorial rules would be better put to use building an empire, or a garden of petunias (or a sandwich really).
“I really don’t get it, everything looks baggy.” Mike a 26 year old graphic designer explains reluctantly. “And I don’t get the short hair, isn’t it a scientific fact that men prefer women with long hair?” Men everywhere are baffled by the concept that women would actively alter their appearance to be less attractive to the male gaze. And it’s really no surprise. Our culture, with all it’s incredible art, literature and music, was built around the male gaze: The artist/muse relationship has always been one of observer and observed, women were rarely the one’s who created art, but the ones that hung as art on the museum walls to be looked at and dissected. The vast majority of the greatest literature on the planet was written from the perspective of a man (even if the protagonist was female), and from as far back as there was a fashion industry men have been the ones in charge of creating and setting the trends that women wore. And for this reason, whether we like to admit it or not, we’ve all fallen for the trap of thinking that women dress for men rather than for themselves.
It’s the terrifying “she was asking for it wearing that” phenomenon. A sexy woman walking down the street gets sexually harassed, and all anyone can talk about is how she probably should have covered up a little. For many people, it is a deeply rooted (and completely misguided) belief that it is a woman’s responsibility to adjust her attractiveness depending on the amount of attention she wants to receive from men, rather than understanding that all adults, whether male or female, are responsible for controlling their own emotions (regardless whether those emotions are lust, anger or sexual frustration).
In her memoir, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But this principle can be applied to all emotions – at the end of the day the only person living inside your head is yourself, you are the driver behind the wheel. No one else can make you do or feel anything you don’t really want to do or feel – that’s what it means to be an emotionally stable adult. A beautiful woman in a short skirt is no more asking for attention, than a Big Mac Meal is asking you to eat it, or a Celine bag is asking you to buy it. The temptation is in your head, not in the real world. But considering all this, it’s really no wonder that women are becoming increasingly drawn to androgynous apparel. If nothing else, at the very very least this new mode of dressing is a lot less controversial and politically dangerous than a sexy short skirt and high heels.
Of course, that is not to say that women have given up on looking sexy. Far from it. Different fashion situations call for different approaches, and a killer dress is as useful in the wardrobe arsenal as a moto-jacket. A woman who is about to go on a date with the hottie of her dreams will likely not pull out her stylish mom jeans and dad sneaker combo but will probably want to whip out her “let’s make some magic happen tonight” power dress. But that’s not the point of this article. What we’re talking about here isn’t the occasional date, job interview or night out with the girls, but a woman’s day-to-day sartorial existence, the person she chooses to convey through her wardrobe on a daily basis. Overall, women today are likely more comfortable in their clothes than they’ve ever been before. It’s a strange and entirely unexplored moment in fashion history, and we like it very much.
So now, the question remains, who do you dress for?