Fashion and Gender

One of the things that has struck me as I research fairy tale is that rarely do tales describe men’s attire in great detail. There are a few exceptions – d’Aulnoy’s “Princess Rosette” makes some apt mention of the King of Peacock’s appearance – but by and large, while there is ample evidence of women’s dress, men’s dress doesn’t receive the same attention. This is odd, because when you look at the history of fairy tale, many tales were told in societies in which men were dressed in richly embroidered, fabulous fabrics and bedecked with jewels. Yet, their attire raises little interest among tellers, both male and female. Indeed, if you think of the vast number of male kings, princes and emperors, perhaps the most memorable is the one who was wearing nothing at all!

Today I saw a lot of posts about Karl Stefanovic, a TV host, wearing the same suit for a year. In The Age, he’s quoted: “No one has noticed… But women, they wear the wrong colour and they get pulled up. They say the wrong thing and there’s thousands of tweets written about them” (Nov. 15, 2014). It is quite wrong that his female co-host has to endure so much comment on what she wears, but it struck me as particularly horrifying that no one made a comment about Stefanovic wearing the same suit all year. You could argue that the male suit is itself nondescript. Differences between suits tend to be subtle and those who wear suits that are noticed are usually wearing those that diverge dramatically from the basic suit or are noticed more for the person wearing the suit than the suit itself. Certainly, on a television screen, it’s doubtful too many viewers could detect differences between suits beyond whether the suit is blue or grey. This in part affords men the privilege of having their attire disregarded, focusing attention fully upon their actions and words, with individuality largely restricted to their ties and socks. However, this only occurs in certain contexts – men don’t wear suits everywhere. And, certainly, men who don’t conform do draw attention to what they wear.

However, while women do endure much more negative comment about what they wear, I have to admit, I find it much more interesting that women have access to and the freedom to wear much more diverse clothing. This does fuel discrimination – and certainly those freedoms are often curtailed by social and political norms – but at the same time, women have much more ability to use what they wear as a marker of individuality or social/political meaning. This is why Cinderella’s dress is so significant.

The absence of a feminine equivalent of the masculine suit (or variations thereof) is reflective of women’s employment. Increasingly, masculine attire is associated with profession. Feminine attire to an extent follows – ahem – suit, but with much less restriction. I’m cheered by such items as Go Fug Yourself’s ranking of The Good Wife‘s suits.

This is really an open ended thought, in the sense that I think I would be disappointed if what you wore ceased to matter and if men could continue to get away with wearing the same suit all year. I also enjoyed Go Fug Yourself‘s suggestion that male members of the British royal family perhaps need a ‘Blue Suits Anonymous.’ I do think the world would be a better place if we again paid more attention to what men wore – instead of simply to what women wear.

The following are a couple of interesting pieces about fashion and the gender issue.

The History of the Power Suit, Meredith Lapore

Female Academics, Don’t Power Dress, Forget Heels – And No Flowing Hair Allowed, Francesca Stavrakopoulou