What I know about the intersection of fashion and feminism, I learned from my grandmother.
A daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, and a first generation American, as a teen she left Johnstown, Ohio to study fashion at FIT in New York. Leaving home to pursue an education was a bold move back then, and I’ve always admired the courage it must have taken for her to make that choice.
As a child, I found her design sketches tucked away with other family ephemera. I poured over black and white photographs of her from that time - young and clearly in love with New York City in the 1940s. But when my grandfather came home from Korea, she quit school and they quickly married.
Although my grandmother never got to pursue her dream of working in fashion, she showed me that in spite of the chaos of raising seven children, running a family business, and all of her other incredible pursuits, that style mattered. She showed me that fashion could be a creative outlet, and that clothing could communicate strength. Her dress was modest, classic, and unmistakably feminine; it belied a quiet fierceness that commanded respect. She was poised and beautiful in the face of any firestorm, and I miss her deeply.
I long to channel my grandmother's strength and her style, but on those days that I trek into the office, I am unrecognizable to myself. No deep jewel tones, full skirts, or tailored layers like my grandma wore. None of my coveted vintage Gunne Sax, fringe, or furs make an appearance either. Instead I am clad in a a very safe combination of blouse/pumps/skirt that make me think of those 13 years spent wearing my catholic school uniform.
I struggle knowing that be taken seriously at work, I have to wear a costume to look like everyone else.
Right now, nearly everything surrounding women and work is supercharged. We are energized, we are angry, and we are fed up. Some feel that in order to take a permanent seat at the table, we need to dissect our femininity from our professional identities, to bury what has put us in the crosshairs of male desire. But as Hilary supporters are championing a Pantsuit Nation, I worry how efforts to conceal and desexualize our bodies will play out.
In an article on the wired.com, Lexi Pandell describes how during the last election, Clinton supporters transformed the pantsuit into a “serious symbol of power.”
"The pantsuit has not traditionally been considered a flattering outfit. But it’s professional, it’s tailored to individual style, and, most importantly, it levels the clothing field with men.”
That last part is what has me very worried.
To imply that to level the playing field with men, we have to adopt their dress and deny our shape is a very dangerous ideology. It means that our bodies and our sexual expression stand in the way of our career advancement, so we better get to work pretending that they don't exist. Sadly, these shame-based messages are far from new for me. I remember my high school principal, a priest, warning me how distracting my body could be to boys, saying:
“they can’t study their algebra when they’re studying your geometry.”
Now, let me be clear. If you’re someone who feels more powerful in a pantsuit, by all means, do you. But what about the rest of us?
I feel strongest when my outward expression aligns with my inner self, and that inner self wants nothing to do with a pantsuit, or anything off the rack from Banana Republic or The Loft. How can we participate in corporate America when so many of of its inborn norms are at odds with our identities?
As I said in my last post, my workaround is that I work remotely, so most days I get to dress like my authentic self.
But for those of you spending your days in the corporate setting, how do you handle your dress code? Do you ever feel that your personal and professional identities are polarized? Are you joining the Pantsuit Nation?