I grew up in a small town in rural New Zealand and in my sixteenth year I met a feminist for the first time. She came to our school from the city and she brought with her a rage and a consciousness that both intrigued and informed me. At the city fair that year, I visited the stall where a group of women were giving out pamphlets under a banner announcing International Women’s Year; the group was surrounded by slogans such as “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Although not quite understanding this, I observed how much these women rattled the men. Here was power!
These events were taking place at a time in my life when the narrowing expectations of my life as a woman were beginning to register. I was becoming aware of gender distinctions and learning that the trappings of the female gender are called femininity, and that they are indeed a trap. I was also becoming increasingly conscious of myself as an object of a sexually appraising male gaze, simply because I was a woman, and young. I tried to erase gender from interactions with males, since I felt myself to be a person first and female second, but this left me nowhere, feeling invisible and outside.
I looked at my options: nice girl married in church/quarter acre lawn/husband/dishes/–groomed, plucked, shaved, made-up, good. Even if I had been able to fulfil the social expectations of my small-town, religious upbringing, I knew I could not escape the sensation of being second-rate. I remembered the women at International Women’s Day with their stroppy slogans and loose clothing, clothes that didn’t present them on a plate, clothes that identified them as having choices and control. The choice seemed clear: I burnt my bras, made myself a muslin dress and threw away my high-heeled shoes.
To my dismay, I learned that what I sought to express through my appearance was often understood by men in quite a different way. Far from enhancing my efforts towards independence, freedom and self-worth, this style of dress actually attracted more harassment from men, who seemed to read “independence” as “unprotected”. Why was I attracting unwanted sexual attention? Was I too pretty? I certainly wasn’t trying to be – I only wanted to be taken seriously and treated as an equal. This problem of dress and appearance was profound.
I experimented. Abandoning all dress that could ever be considered attractive, I wore dull, concealing, dark clothes, and piled on some kilos for added protection. Although my sense of self was strengthened, socially I diminished. Feeling more invisible than before, I became angry and depressed. My female identity had no expression and I was further marginalised socially.
I capitulated: my identity became feminine. This demanded anorexia, shaving, plucking and adoption of mainstream fashion. There was an increase in social power, but it was superficial and limited. It also exposed me to the competitive aspect of male predation, accompanied by a devastating compromise in personal identity. I felt at my most vulnerable expressing this feminine identity.
The dress and identity experiments left me feeling without power or protection. There is no female camouflage save fat and drab, although scowling works quite well! For a time this was my camouflage, but I disappeared from my self. My power was lost. How to be real? How to dress a self? Rebellion and opposition left me on the margins everywhere.
Participation in society requires mediation of these dilemmas, solved for me only by time and age. It seems to me that the gender, identity and dress problem has changed, as definitions of gender expand and change, as men become more body-conscious and women become more delinquent. I realise that the problem cannot be resolved â€“ it is part of contemporary life to wrestle with ambiguity, to be caught between tensions and to experience ambivalence and life through a filter of gender, age and class. Self-confidence and ownership of one’s own power are directly linked to gender, class and age, and is a matter of adjusting and of placing the self in the role of conscious manager of own appearance.
By following those feminists in the 1970s, I experienced a different set of choices, conflicts and consequences. By aligning myself with feminism, I retained a level of choice and freedom and created a cultural space for myself. My dress style is slightly unconventional and I have a definite taste for the unusual. My style is not fashion – it’ colourful, it’s more about creative expression than status and is often what is so nicely termed “retro” dress. But it’s better. I can handle the responses I get and I enjoy some respect due to the power higher education has given me. It is good being a woman in my fifth decade, here and now. I wear trousers, dresses and skirts, and heels. And I study dress in society because it helps me to understand human behaviour, culture and my place in it. For me, this is power.