Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Clothes Can Demean the Woman



People used to say, “Clothes make the man.” That was true. Before the French Revolution, commoners were prohibited by law from dressing like nobles, so a person’s class was recognizable from their clothes. Clothing was a sign of status, wealth and power.

Today celebrities wear jeans, and commoners can buy designer knock-offs, so it’s hard to tell who’s who from the way they look. Only male politicians seem to wear status uniforms all the time – dark suits, solid ties, flag lapel pins, and boring shoes.

Even if they no longer identify class, our clothes still make an impression on others, and are designed to do just that. Wearers, designers, and manufacturers collaborate to create individual looks, which are always socially influenced and sometimes socially prescribed. In the American world I see in my small hometown and everywhere else, the look prescribed for women is sexy. And I think it’s a mistake for women to capitulate to that fashion in their everyday dress.

High heels stretch the calves, making them (apparently) more attractive. Very high heels, not even as high as the 5 or 6 inches of many well-promoted shoes, lead to increased incidence of bunions, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, and knee and back pain. A recent study shows that regular high-heel-wearers alter their natural gait, even when barefoot. Dr. Judith Smith, an orthopedic surgeon in Springfield, MO, compares the social demand for high heels with Chinese foot-binding: “It is a fashion statement and a status symbol.”

Along with higher heels come short skirts, as tight as possible. It seems to me that skirts are shrinking and pants are getting tighter. It’s instructive to compare women’s and men’s jeans, or even women’s fashion jeans and the clothes of women who do physical work. Tight jeans are hard to put on, less comfortable all day, restrictive of free movement, and have no useful pockets. All form, no function, unless the function is just attracting attention to one’s body, defined by the curves of rear ends and long legs. In fact, for many women, pants have given way entirely to stretch tights.

I have to admit that I’m still surprised to see bare breasts on a daily basis. Women’s chests are more on display than any time I can remember. I can’t think of any reason to prefer tight, low cut tops for indoor wear other than for display.

In the 1970s I remember a powerful social trend among American women away from dressing for display to dressing for comfort, for convenience and for practicality. High heels shrank or disappeared in favor of ergonomic shoes, tight clothes loosened up, artificial restraints like girdles vanished, stockings were put back in the drawer. Because women were fighting to be taken seriously, as workers, as intellectuals, as minds, they rejected fashion conventions which stressed sex.

I believe that young women today have forgotten that lesson, and are returning to dressing for display. They risk being taken seriously only as sex objects.

I am not advocating that women cover up, the position taken by religious conservatives in many faiths. A woman should be able to walk around in the nude without having to worry about being assaulted, or even being touched, by strangers. But she cannot expect to be taken seriously for her intelligence, or even to have people look at her face.

Women can dress as they please. And then they take the consequences of their choices – to be regarded for their brains, their accomplishments, or their bodies.

The back of my box of Girl Scout cookies says “Oh, what a girl can do!” Whatever it is that girls, or women, might do, they won’t be able to do it as well in high heels and tight skirts, unless it is simply to attract everyone’s gaze away from their heads to their bodies.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 12, 2013

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