Thanks, World, But I Can Dress Myself

chelsea dressed

In a country where women’s bodies are regularly legislated, it should come as no surprise that we legislate what’s on them too.

If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. – bell hooks

It is 1994. I’m biting my Lip Smackers-glossed pout, twirling my side ponytail, and playing with Fashion Plates. I pick out my favorite head, torso, and legs for a formal evening look and slide the crayon over the paper, bringing fashion to life underneath my fingers.

Twenty years later the administrators at a Utah high school play Fashion Plates too, editing the yearbook photos of their female students, without the girls’ knowledge or consent, to show less skin.

It is 2010. I’m sitting at a baseball game with three male friends, sucking pop from styrofoam cups to beat the heat. After enough girls in tank tops and shorts walk by, one of the guys comments, “I don’t like when I can see bra straps. Wear a shirt with a wider strap, tuck them in, something. It looks trashy.” I wedge my thumbs between my shoulder and shirt to make sure everything is hidden, and flash him an uneasy smile.

Four years later, Zaren Healy White writes “On Wearing a Bra: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t” and I wonder, yeah, why all the “hoopla about breasts” anyway?

Presently another summer is upon us and I’m cleaning out my closet with my friend and style guru, Joey. He sits on the floor with a trash bag and two handcrafted “KEEP” and “TOSS” signs while I examine the clothes in front of me: some new with the tags still on, some that were great in my early 20’s but should probably be retired now, and everything in between. I think of a conversation I had with another friend once about “the way I dress” as an indicator of self-respect.

“The way I dress”? Let me count the ways.

There’s the business attire you’d expect to see on any young, female, white-collar worker: pumps and power suits, skirts and pantyhose, the, by my standards, “conservative” capped-sleeve wrap dresses and pressed khaki pants and ribbed turtleneck sweaters to pair with patterned scarves.

There’s the Friday night blouses and the embroidered tulle skirts, the hockey and football jerseys for cheering (or cursing) during the game over nachos at a sports bar, the mountain of jeans in every stain under the sun, the t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts for sick days, rainy days, I’m-only-leaving-my-house-to-run-to-the-grocery-store days.

And then there’s the bizarre, outrageous, specialty items that don’t appear in my regular rotation; clothes and accessories connected to a web of memories that pulse through me whenever I slip them on. The pair of $4 Goodwill leather pants I snagged in college that have since helped me through every Halloween from Joan Jett to Jedi Knight. The black mesh dress that has seen numerous ’80s dance nights and a goth club in Minneapolis. Lace corsets, thigh-high boots, and earrings so long they brush my collarbones.

Particularly in the workplace, we judge female fashion by its proper alignment with white male standards. Suits, neutral colors, and smooth hair comprise the “default” for all things professional—deviate from this model, and risk being labeled as less. Is that a v-neck blouse under your jacket? Someone may tell you to “wear a turtleneck next time; there are men in this office” as a female co-worker once instructed me. Do you like bright colors and animal prints? Tone it down and stop being so flashy. I had similar thoughts the other week about a colleague wearing hot pink tights before I got over myself. In an atmosphere that is supposed to cultivate enthusiasm about learning, why shouldn’t a teacher express her fun and funky persona with color?

And we can’t seem to judge a woman’s wardrobe apart from how a man would view it. From the first time we see a beauty pageant or a nudie magazine, we learn that if a woman wears a short skirt, a bikini, or red lipstick, she’s asking to be treated as an object of desire, pity, or scorn. This is the reason why we shame girls at prom for how grown adult men might react, why a nursing mother is told to put away her sexualized breast, and why Huffington Post commenters chastise female celebrities like Kendall Jenner for daring to show their hipbones. In a country where women’s bodies are regularly legislated, it should come as no surprise that we legislate what’s on them too.

There’s a grammar exercise we use in my class, on the difference between passive and active voice. Clothes can be draped more easily on models who have very thin bodies, one sentence reads. Who is doing the draping? Fashion designers. But even after reworking that sentence to include the subject—fashion designers—the agency of the models, the people wearing the clothes, does not exist.

When we talk about women’s fashion choices, it’s always in relation to someone else’s standards, someone else’s gaze. But we are not models or mannequins. We have the ability—the agency—to make purposeful, thoughtful decisions about our own dress and take charge of what makes us feel confident, comfortable, or beautiful.

The colors and fabrics in my closet tell a story, but it’s not who or how many people I’ve slept with or how much or little I respect myself. They speak of nights spent cross-legged around a pile of vintage fashion magazines with Joey, the two of us drooling over Audrey Hepburn’s little black dresses and Diane Keaton’s menswear. They pay homage to my leopard-print loving great aunt who always advised me to buy the accessories first and worry about the clothes later. It’s a story of family, friendship, support, bonding, heirlooms, and gifts, and from the power suit to the gothic mesh dress, one of performance and artistry.

And the most important thing about this story? I’m the one holding the pen.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the mediaFind her on Twitter.

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