Clothes Make The Man. But What About The Woman?

Posted: September 6, 2011

Why is fashion and the choice of what we wear such a double-edged sword to women?

Before Anna Hazare and his team and the government and their team and all those in between took over the cyberspace and the news-space, there were stories of a certain Pakistani foreign minister that was doing the rounds. This headline stealer who has long since been pushed to the news sidelines is Pakistan’s youngest and first female Foreign Affairs Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar. Now for those of you who missed these news stories as you were presumably engaged in other meaningful things, don’t worry. She wasn’t making the waves for sorting out India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan and opening up new lines of communication. No such thing. Or maybe she was, but not like we would get to know judging by the coverage of her visit.

All she was in the news for was her branded clothes and accessories that sent not only the fashionistas of our country into a tizzy, but pretty much everyone. The comments ranged from praising her for her impeccable sense of style to calling her a ‘weapon of mass distraction’ to those that lamented about a woman who came from a country in crisis flaunting her wealth. There were the fans who said she was the Asian response to the likes of Michelle Obama and Katherine Middleton. And there were those who urged her to follow in the steps of Indira Gandhi and her handlooms.

To cut a long story short, as Stephani Carvin, a London-based lecturer in international relations tweeted, ‘The Hina Rabbani Khar story confirms belief that women are great foreign ministers and the reporting on foreign politicians is terrible.’

No argument on that. I’m still trying to find a pertinent article that can tell me what exactly transpired from a foreign affairs perspective during Hina Rabbani Khar’s visit to India. But it’s hard to get beyond the blogs and articles that tell me that her country is in crisis, so she needs to donate her bags. And each time I read one of those, I’m reminded of our wealthy politicians, young and otherwise, not to mention our cricketers and actors who are lauded for flaunting their wealth. And it’s not like our country has a rank to be proud of on the Human Poverty Index either.

So why is what she wore such a big deal? Does an accessory, no matter how expensive or cheap, make a difference to her abilities? Or is an attractive young woman who pays attention to her wardrobe just eye-candy and nothing else?

This is not a new thing, this using of attire to judge a woman’s mental capabilities. More than thirty years after she quit acting, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been run down as being a ‘bimbo’ for her ‘skimpy attire’ during her career as an actress in the 1960s and 1970s. Ridiculous, yes! For you might not agree with her politics, but it’s hard to agree that her costume choices have anything to do with her intellect.

So why is fashion and the choice of what we wear such a double-edged sword to women?

In the Victorian era, appearance was a measure of good character. This meant squeezing yourselves into death-vice like corsets and sweating it out in layers and layers. In India, we were mostly swathed in various versions of the Sari. The underlying emphasis was on being pleasing to the eyes of men.

Slowly we moved onto the phase where we could first feebly and then strongly declare that ‘looking good need not be a priority.’ The era of gender equality in fashion arose. Women everywhere appropriated pants and made them a staple in their wardrobe. Fashion started to mean freedom of movement.

And then somewhere down the line we moved to ‘button up and hair up = smart.’ Enter the stereotypical dowdy librarian look that now also includes the female scientist look. A pigeonhole that is still very prevalent. Take the popular series ‘The Big Bang Theory’ for instance. The star geeks of the show are contrasted by the female lead ‘Penny’ who is blonde, technically challenged except for the time she thinks about making a shopping app for branded shoes and very social. On the other hand, we have neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler. A female version of the men on the show, Amy couldn’t dress in greater contrast to Penny to showcase her brains and her extreme lack of social skills. Both likeable characters guaranteed to give you laughs. But both make me wonder about the labels attached to what we wear.

How much attention are we allowed to pay to what we wear without being thought of as self-involved?

As a politician, should I wear a crisp cotton sari and a big bindi or a Salwar Kameez to be taken seriously?

Does colour co-ordination mean that my brain is not evolved enough to take high-level decisions?

What does what I wear have to do with the way my brain functions?

As blogger Naomi, asks in a post on the ‘Feminist Legal Theory’, “Is fashion an impediment to the feminist movement that turns us into lackeys and sexual objects for the gratification of a male-dominated world, or can we use fashion, for example, high heels to feel empowered as we finally stand eye-to eye with men? Do these shoes help us walk at the same height as most men, or do they hurt our feet and restrict our movement?”

When a man’s idea of power dressing or grunge outfits are accepted without a squeak, why is it that women have to think multiple times about the message our clothing is sending?

And so is it any wonder that we are often stuck staring at a wardrobe full of clothes with nothing to wear?

Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Writer and Travel columnist. Her fourth book and first collection

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  1. ‘And so is it any wonder that we are often stuck staring at a wardrobe full of clothes with nothing to wear?’

    Well said. I often wondered why a stupid cousin would hunt for something unique to wear for every wedding in the family. She would not want to repeat sarees because she felt that people would remember what she had worn earlier. As far as I see, at weddings and other social events we get to meet a host of friends and relatives and we’re generally having a good time without worrying about who wore what or whether she wore the same dress/saree once or 10 times in a year.

    Having said this i must add that I belong to a minority and to most dress is a status symbol with or without brains.

  2. Excellent post, Shweta. I have to confess – even though I consider myself a feminist, some ideas are so ingrained that HRK’s high-fashionista clothing etc immediately brought in images of “socialite”. Is it also because men’s clothing is less diverse/easily signifying? For instance, to an untrained eye, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a good suit and a super-expensive, designer one. I’m not sure on this. In a sense, it’s also difficult to spot a fake Birkin from a real one – at least I can’t. Perhaps the fact that the media takes the trouble to find out the brands that a female politician was using, itself says something.

  3. @Hip Grandma – Thank you for commenting.
    And like you said,
    ‘To most dress is a status symbol with or without brains’ –
    I wonder whether the same applies to men also. For I know for sure that there are enough men out there who spend the same or maybe as much as women on their wardrobe and accessories.

    Which brings me to Ritika’s comment as well.

    I completely understand the knee-jerk reaction we all had at a certain pictures of the Pakistani foreign minister with her Birkin bag. But like you said, how many of us can spot the difference between a fake and original? And beyond that, how many of us would have identified the bag as a Birkin if the media had not taken the time to point it out? Also I doubt the media would have taken the same effort to point out a visiting male politician’s Rolex.
    Smacks of chauvinism to me.
    Thanks for reading and commenting Ritika.

  4. Pingback: Power Dressing: Indian Corporate Attire for Women | Gaurangi Creation

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