Sometime last year I stumbled across the “Rational Dress Society“—a Chicago-based fashion/art duo, whose claim to fame is the production of a jumpsuit that promises to help “reject the signs of class, race and gender that are inscribed onto our daily interactions”. Their successful 2014 Kickstarter sported a Wes-Anderson-ish explainer video of a jumpsuit clad model who asks the audience, “What stands between you and revolution?” and answers, “Nothing.” The video implores viewers to reject other fashion in favour of the jumpsuit (“available in 48 sizes”), as an exercise in counter-fashion designed to unite everyone under the same style.
As an academic in gender studies, naturally I wanted in on this so-called “ungendered monogarment“. I bit the bullet with the American exchange rate and shipping(!), ordered one, and promised myself I’d wear it for a full month to see how liberating wearing a practical, daily uniform could be. I’d record the process, do a study of my experiences. I imagined how I’d explain it at work, to my students. Maybe I really would feel liberated. My girlfriend kept asking me how and when I’d wash it, but I’d just smile. I imagined the Rational Dress Society would say You don’t need to wash clothes when you’re free from all that social malarky.
Twelve weeks later—and after sending in some measurements—my hipster singlesuit arrived in the mail. I feverishly stripped off to jump into it. Despite my extreme skepticism that a single garment could free me from oppression, I was genuinely excited to try something on that was made specifically for my body, that would finally fit, unlike all those sad things I’d previously ordered off the Internet (you know how it is: the too-small shoes, the dress that you have to squeeze into like a sausage, the pants that fall down around your bum).
But alas. I had never been in a more ill-fitting piece of clothing in my life. It was precisely all of the measurements that I didn’t have to record that were the problem—the width of my calves, for example. I was intensely confronted with the fact that my body was “ill-proportioned”, that is, that even with 48 sizes on offer finding something that fit long but thick legs and wide hips but a tiny waist and chest, was impossible.
Ironically it was the one piece of clothing that promised freedom from gender that made me feel the non-conformity of my body on a visceral level. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for some time that clothing wasn’t the key to gender liberation, and this seemed to be some proof in the pudding.
Cards on the table: my whole PhD was basically an extremely long-winded answer to the question “will feminine styles exist after the revolution?”, and my vehement answer was yes.
Of course we could debate what “feminine styles” means. But my main point was that people have attachments to gendered ways of presenting themselves, and that even though feminine beauty regimes and ways of dressing aren’t biologically-inherent (girls don’t naturally like pink and indeed, norms of gender are social), that doesn’t mean makeup and dresses and glitter and all those things would just wither away if we finally managed to smash capitalism. In the liberated world of gender that I hope for, your biology wouldn’t determine your gender or how you had to present yourself, but, there’d be a hell of a lot of room for experimentation, switching between many genders, and playing with presentation and costumes (much like when you’re a child, and you get to play dress ups).
Part of my attitude on this question, is that I’m just so damn obsessed with and attached to femininity. For me it certainly wasn’t a “natural” inclination—until I went to school, I was pretty androgynous, with a home-made haircut, adorned in skivvies and flannelette. As the child of a radical single mother, I was discouraged against buying into traditional femininity. But once I got to school, it was on. I wanted to fit in as a “girl”.
So my relationship to femininity started from a difficult place. But as I became obsessed with plastic jewels and wearing tutus over my track pants, god, it was fun. I started dressing by theme—my favourite of which was my “licorice allsorts” outfit, which was just me in all the neon clothes I had from the op shop, punctuated by black socks and a black hair tie. I would also cut the waist ties off my dresses and get my mum to sew them into headbands for me so I could match from head to toe. And, I held not one but three makeup parties, where the aim was to use the eyeshadows and pencils to draw as many cool things on each other’s faces as possible. Sure, I missed the mark on conventional femininity, but it was those elements of feminine style—the campy, glittery, over-the-top aspects of femininity—that won my heart. So, when I think of a liberated future, I tend not to think of monochrome jumpsuits that eliminate difference.
But I’ve had to debate my perspective with a lot of people.
Indeed, the history of feminism has been haunted by the conundrum of fashion and self-presentation. Infamously, women in the USA in 1968 protested the Miss America pageant, which included (among other things) throwing items of women’s clothing, makeup and magazines into a “freedom trash can”. Some say that this is where the myth of the “bra-burning” feminist began, though it must be noted that despite the desire of protesters to burn the contents of the bin, the fire department refused a permit. While the stunt was great for getting attention on the burgeoning women’s movement, one of the downsides of the event was that the protestors targeted the Miss America contestants themselves, not just the pageant organising body. They held signs which called the women sheep, and, actually paraded sheep—again, pretty cool, but a bad message.
This focus on the bodily and stylistic pursuits of women themselves reached fever pitch in the 1980s, with radical feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys claiming that wearing makeup was akin to self-harm as per the United Nations guidelines on torture. The story had morphed from the kind of points earlier feminists made about the negative expectations placed on women around social roles and bodily maintenance, to one where women themselves were really the problem, for being such dummies about their oppression. As Ariel Levy’s best-selling book of 2005 argued, in a surprise twist it turned out that women were really the worst sexists of them all, the “female chauvinist pigs”.
However, in response to these particular strands of feminism, so too was there a concerted effort (mostly in the 1990s, but let’s be real, we’re still living with the aftermath) to argue for the empowering and liberatory effects of “girl power“. The problem with this version of feminism wasn’t just that it was instantly recuperated into a market that sold it back to us, but that it claimed that femininity was empowering. This form of feminism has insidiously morphed into the celebrity feminism that we are pummelled with today, that suggests feminism means basically anything to anyone, as if it’s just another beautiful choice under neoliberal capitalism.
I don’t think we have to get into this binary way of thinking about feminine styles, to make such big claims about it being The Worst Thing Since Torture, or flipping right over and saying it is The Best Thing Ever. At the very least, it’s interesting. Gender expectations are painful, but gender, in more general terms, doesn’t have to be.
So I returned the jumpsuit, and felt all the better for having that tyrannical object of sameness out of my life.