You probably have accumulated decades’ worth of lessons on what to do to be taken seriously, on how to dress to be taken seriously. For a while before she was the published author she is today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did too, and she learnt to tame her love of fashion. She had discovered that women in the West who wanted to be taken seriously had to project indifference to appearance, and to only talk about fashion apologetically or contemptuously. So she gave up her heels, kept her outfits undifferentiated, and learnt to play along to the policing of other women writers who appeared to have invested in their appearance.
She is not the only intellectual to have to contend with the gendered expectation. When Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a professor at the University of Exeter did a 3-part biblical series for BBC2, a commentator marvelled that the series had been commissioned by someone indifferent to the fact that she looked as if she was “shimmied out of one of the hotter passages of the Song of Solomon”.
The gazers are undecided
Our policing of women’s bodies and appearances though oppressive, is anything but decided. We want to have a say, to gaze and to be pleased, but we can’t seem to decide who we want them to be. We want writers to look frumpy. We want politicians to look put-together, but not too put-together, definitely not too feminine.
In an interview with Die Zeit, Angela Merkel marvels that citizens would write letters if she wore a blazer four times within two weeks, they wouldn’t if a male politician wore the same dark blue suit for a hundred days. It is unfortunately not hypothetical — German newspapers have written about a repeat outfit Merkel wore to the same music event 4 years apart, and about a daring cleavage. And American ones have reveled in Hillary Clinton’s perceived fashion faux pas — from cleavage-gate, to scrunchie gate, to her bare face after the 2016 elections.
Resisting the policing
Women we look up to have resisted the policing of course. Sonia Sotomayer wore red nail polish to her swearing in against common wisdom for neutral-colored lacquer. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would chanel Sotomayor at her own swearing in, in bright red lipstick and lacquer, along with a white pant suit and hoop earrings — a nod off to the Latina connection to the chola subculture in which women developed a distinctive personal style to project a “badass, take-no-shit” strength in neighborhoods where they needed to survive.
Many smart women who love fashion know that people will have opinions either way. So they respond ahead of time with their personal goals and personal comforts in mind.
And herein lies your approach to dressing up for the spaces you want to stand out in — define your reasons for what to wear, define the facets of your personal style, and live up to those, boldly, unapologetically. You will have a defense for critics, but also most importantly, you will be comfortable in your own skin.
Photo by Amanda Vick