Fashion policing: a playground of oppression

Yeah, I’m wearing leggings as pants. You got a problem with that?

The deeper I get into the fa(t)shion world, the more I come across examples of fashion judging and policing, even within spaces that are explicitly body-positive.

It pisses me off immensely. First, because one person’s style is no one’s business but their own. Period. Second, because it’s inextricably tied up with pretty much every prejudice under the sun: sexism, ableism, ageism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia…

Warning: epic rant ahead.

A few examples I’ve come across recently:

1.)  Sal at Already Pretty did an interview with three women who dress within a defined aesthetic. I found it interesting, especially since I, like Sal, enjoy dabbling in many different styles. Some days I feel goth, other days pink bubblegum with a touch of fairy kei. Sometimes I just want to be Effie Trinket, or a flapper, or a slightly more sophisticated version of my seventh-grade self (Nirvana t-shirt and wide-leg jeans represent!). And my favorite outfits tend to involve combining multiple styles. So it’s cool to read about people who approach fashion differently.

But this statement, from Candice of Super Kawaii Mama, set my teeth on edge:

And the other thing that I feel very strongly about is raising the bar for the next generation. As a society we have never been so well off (historically) or had such ready and cheap access to good clothing and beauty options. We spend billions on advertising in these markets, spend our pay-checks on magazines of celebrities looking fantastic, and yet never as a nation have we been so poorly dressed / presented. It is a maddening irony and one that will only change if people are brave enough to challenge that status quo and raise that bar.

ARGHHHH NO. Just no.

I like glamour. I really do. But it’s only fun when it’s optional. Sometimes I don’t need or want to be glamorous–like when I’m on my way to go hiking, or sick, or dealing with shitty New England weather, or just in a yoga-pants-and-T-shirt-and-no-makeup mood. I don’t expect anyone else to prioritize glamour or any other aesthetic, or to justify their clothing choices to me.

And I certainly don’t define bravery as “dressing in a way that I like.” You want bravery? Try the NYU Hospital nurses who carried ICU infants down nine flights of stairs in the dark, manually providing them with air and ventilation.

If you find other people’s outfits “maddening,” that’s your problem, not theirs. No one has a responsibility to dress in a way that you like. And the very concept of “poorly dressed” is completely arbitrary. One person’s “eww” is another person’s “awesome.”  One person’s clashing is another person’s oh my God your coat is so amazing, I almost want to go to England and steal it from you.

Also, just because we’re well-off overall as a society doesn’t mean we don’t have poverty. It doesn’t mean that everyone has access, financial or otherwise, to the clothing they would like to wear.

Especially if they wear plus sizes, and even more so if they wear a size above 22 or 24. Especially if they lack reliable transportation to stores that carry their size, or the money to pay for shipping. Especially if they have a disability that makes getting dressed difficult, or sensory issues that make certain fabrics uncomfortable. Especially if their weight has changed (for intentional reasons, or due to childbirth, aging, medications, post-diet rebound, health problems, stress, etc.), and they haven’t had the time or money to assemble a new wardrobe. Especially if they’re busy and overworked, or un(der)employed and searching for a job–both of which are currently huge problems in the US and many other countries–and don’t have the energy to put into caring about clothing. Or some combination of these things.

As just one example, if you saw me on the street today, you might think, “why is that lady wearing a lovely goth-meets-business-casual outfit with butt-ugly running sneakers?” I hate how these sneakers look too, believe me. But I’m wearing them because I have plantar fasciitis in my left foot, and sneakers are the only footwear that doesn’t exacerbate it. I can’t even wear cute sneakers, like Converses–my feet are both wide and flat, which makes finding shoes that fit nearly impossible. I take what I can get, regardless of whether they fit my style. And if people want to judge me for it, that’s their problem.

Who knows, maybe I’ll start a trend?

They may not be pretty, but they make my feet less sad.

2.) I don’t normally read MSN Style, or other mainstream fashion sites/magazines/blogs. But I happened to come across this article somehow, and it’s a perfect example of everything I hate about fashion policing.

In the slideshow “8 Fashion Mistakes Men Make,” two fashion “experts” criticize various men’s outfits.

I want to get into this guy’s pants. Literally. They’re just that awesome.

The female “expert” says: “Oh, I see. Those don’t just look like lady’s [sic] capris… they fit like them too. The cardigan, shades and even the black case are so sleek, but the pants need a do-over.”

Maybe they are womens’ capris. So what? Some male-bodied people like to wear women’s clothing. Maybe they’re transgender or genderqueer. Maybe they subscribe to Kate Bornstein‘s philosophy: “I think love, sex and gender are like Pokemon, and I want to catch ’em all!” Or maybe they just like to wear dresses, like Michael of His Black Dress.

Redefining masculinity, one badass outfit at a time.

The male “expert” says: “I’m sorry, but I could never take anyone seriously if they walked into a room wearing those pants.”

Fuck that noise.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that gay and transgender people face high rates of workplace discrimination and harassment. Contributing to a culture of gender-policing has real, harmful consequences.

3.) A while back, there was a Fatshionista thread about whether there are age cut-offs for cutesy accessories. The original poster mentioned that she will soon be working in museums, and I think it makes sense to tone down your look for work. But what you wear at work is one thing, and what you wear during your free time is another.

In comment thread, one person said:

 If I saw something like this on a person older than 15, I’d judge. 

If I saw someone of any age dressed like this, I’d appreciate their awesomeness.

She went on to say:

 In my opinion the key is not to look like someone who desperately tries to look way younger than he is.

I hate the assumption that wearing certain clothes or accessories means you’re trying to look younger. I don’t wear Hello Kitty stuff because I want to look younger–I wear it because I like it. I’ll probably still be wearing HK when I’m 80, and I’m ok with that. (Also, I’m kind of looking forward to the day when my hair turns gray/white, because I’ll finally be able to dye it pink without bleaching it first.)

If you like it, and enjoy wearing it, you’re not too old for it. Period.

The same commenter mentioned that she is a huge Dr. Who fan, but limits her fan needs to small pins, socks, and bookmarks. Which is her choice to make, but she’s missing out on some pretty awesome stuff–like the amazing TARDamask shirt one of my coworkers wore recently.

4.) I like Trystan’s blog, CorpGoth, where she writes about keeping a goth edge while dressing appropriately for an office job. So I was disappointed to find two posts in which she makes privileged pronouncements about how people should dress.

In one, she repeats the popular meme that leggings are not pants. Which is so tied up with judgment about women’s bodies–especially fat women’s bodies. With the belief that we need to hide our shapes. With disdain for one of the cheapest and most comfortable clothing options.

In another, she declares:

Let it be known that I am firmly in the camp with those who believe that the casualization of clothing in the U.S. in the late-20th & early-21st centuries is the first step to the downfall of our civilization & that wearing pajamas in public is a sure sign of the coming apocalypse.

I know it’s hyperbole. It’s still not funny.

I feel that people are allowed to wear PJs outside the home exactly three times in their lives: (1) once when you have the flu & need to make a trip to the drugstore for tissues & meds, (2) once when you’re miserably depressed & need chocolate &/or booze between the hours of 2am and 6am, & (3) one additional time to be used judiciously, carefully, not in broad daylight or among more than a dozen people, & it can only last for no more than 10 minutes.

Thanks for deciding what other people are “allowed” to wear. You do know that people have the right to wear whatever they want, right? And that there are a million factors that affect what people wear, and judging them for it is an assholey move?

I could rant more, but instead, here’s a picture of me wearing pajama pants.

Hello Kitty, of course.

25 thoughts on “Fashion policing: a playground of oppression

  1. Oh my gosh. Those floral pants are AWESOME. Oh, and guy wearing a dress makes me feel happy for some reason. XD This is coming from a teen girl who shops in the men’s section in clothing stores.

  2. I followed your breadcrumbs from Fatshionista on LJ. Excellent essay! I agree totally. 🙂

    I did want to express my empathy about your plantar fasciitis. It’s no fun to have sore feet that limit your ability to wear the myriad of fabulous shoes to be found. 😦
    I’m not trying to bump a product with this, but I was wondering if you had tried SuperFeet insoles? I’ve heard they can help with PF and they can be transferred from shoe to shoe. Additionally, I understand that barefoot-style shoes in conjunction with foot exercises meant to strengthen the plantar fascia can help too.

    Anyhow, keep with your fierce style! The world needs all kinds, people who are bold and demonstrative in their fashion as well as the ones who aren’t. It’s a shame that some of us get stuck in the “OMG inappropriate!” nonsense when it comes to fashion. (Um, hello? If Lady Gaga can wear a meat dress I can wear whatever the damn hell I want! XD) I say: Live how ya gotta live and let the haters sort it out amongst themselves.

    • Thanks! 😀 Indeed, the “inappropriate” stuff is bullshit. And Lady Gaga is a great role model for wearing whatever the hell you want.

      Thanks for the tip about the insoles too! I’ve already been doing exercises and taping my foot, both of which have been helping, but I will check those out as well!

  3. Oh God, where do I even start? For my sins I’ve been delving into the world of older lady fashion blogs because sometimes I feel like a fish out of water on tumblr, given it’s predominantly youth demographic – not necessarily because of the way I dress, more because I’m of a different generation and am past the age where I viewed everything in stark black and white. And I have, to be fair, found a couple of interesting blogs, but on the whole? Oy what a nest of vipers.

    The age-appropriate clothes policing, the snobbery, the smugness, the boring duds (aka ghastly good taste), and the same fat phobia, thin-worshipping and lady-bonding over mutual self-loathing you get from women thirty or forty years younger. And just like those women, most of this lot aren’t – and have never been – fat either. As for finding a middle-aged fatshion blogger, foggedaboudit. So I’m still a fish out of water because of my FA. It’s so fucking depressing. I just want to bang all their heads together and scream,”You can opt out of this shit, you know!” In fact I’ve been wanting to post a rant about some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately myself. Grrrrr.

  4. I love this piece – I think you are right on. Also, I love your blog! (And you rock those pajama pants. 🙂 ) Thanks for the link to His Black Dress also – looks like an awesome site.

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  6. Heya, you’re welcome to have your opinion, but that means so am I. In fact, you quoted *why* I have an opinion on PJs in public, so don’t go calling me an asshole. I’m not just making a judgement for the hell of it. I have my reasons — I don’t like super-casual clothes in public. I don’t like what that represents in about 8 million ways, & yes, I can write a couple more essays on that. It’s not even about fashion — it’s about society losing boundaries between public & private, inner life & outer life. I don’t appreciate it when people wear jeans to the symphony, & I think that when a wedding has a bride in a ballgown, the guests should be in formalwear too. Because we have different symbols & expressions that befit different sociological spaces.

    There are things worth being a rebel over (equal pay for equal work, marriage rights, to name but a few), but I really don’t believe that PJs in public is one of them.

    • Ok, I guess we can agree to disagree (for the most part). I do agree with you that it’s a good idea to dress appropriately for special events like the symphony or a wedding. There are definitely certain events and spaces where dressing a certain way is a show of respect–places of worship, weddings, funerals, etc–and some where it’s just a good idea, like job interviews.

      But if people are just going about their daily business, judging them for what they’re wearing is really shitty. Whatever your reasons are, no matter how many essays you could write about them, it’s still shitty.

      You have no idea why someone is wearing PJs, or leggings, or yoga pants in public. You don’t know their financial situation, whether they have a disability or sensory issues, whether they can even access “regular” clothing in their size (which for some people is a significant problem–see the recent post I wrote about a woman who wears an 8X and can find almost nothing in her size at all, let alone anything nice), whether it’s laundry day, whether their kids are sick or their cat just died…or whether they have to wear uncomfortable clothes at work, and just want to be comfortable in their time off. There are a million reasons why people wear what they wear, and it’s not their job to look fancy for you.

      Sure, you can go on judging them. But I’ll go on thinking that judging strangers for their clothing isn’t cool. And I absolutely think that PJs in public is worth being a rebel over–even though I don’t usually do it myself–because it’s symbolic of the many ways that clothing judgment is tied up with systems of oppression. And because I feel really, really, really strongly that people aren’t ornamental. They aren’t out in public in order to fit someone else’s standard of appropriate dress or aesthetic appeal. They’re just trying to live their lives, within whatever constraints they have. And judging them for that sucks.

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