Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FFB: Dressing to Please

This month's Feminist Fashion Bloggers themed post is on fashion, feminism, and relationships. A topic that I found especially interesting is whether it's a problem for a feminist to let her style or clothing choices be affected by her boyfriend's/husband's preferences. Here I'm thinking more about long-term relationships, once you're no longer necessarily "dressing to impress." Most of us change some aspects of how we dress to please other people and/or to be "appropriate" for particular situations...and yet, I get uncomfortable at the idea of dressing not for my personal aesthetic/desires (unconsciously shaped, of course, by my culture, my work environment, the events of a particular day, my finances, my friends, etc.), but for a man's preferences. Even when that man is my dear boyfriend of almost seven years. (I haven't really introduced him here...let's call him K.)

See, while K. likes most of what I wear, he has a somewhat different sense of what he thinks I look best in than I do. To illustrate, I managed to convince him to style an outfit for me according to some of his preferences. Granted, he was limited by a) the return of summer weather, and b) the clothing and accessories that I own, which are items that I have primarily obtained for myself because I liked them. But he did come up with an outfit for me, which I wore to work last week:

A little insight into K.'s thought process... He definitely wanted me to wear a dress. This particular dress is one that I'd gotten from my mother and had been about to give away during my last closet cleaning, since it's quite a bit shorter than what I'm normally comfortable wearing, but he had convinced me it was fine and I should hold onto it. So...out came the dress. Silver jewelry to match. Yes, I should wear heels...but not too high. And I should absolutely wear my hair down, the way he likes it.

I know there are people who wear significantly shorter hemlines on a regular basis...I see them all over town. So why do I feel so uncomfortable with this dress? I suspect it's exactly because on my body, I think a short dress is supposed to be somewhat provocative...intended for the male gaze. Which, well, is why I ended up wearing it that day: because it pleased the male gaze of my partner.

Certainly, there are clothes that most men stereotypically just "don't understand." The Man Repeller blog is all about these sorts of fashionable-yet-not-"attractive clothes...the blog defines a Man Repeller as "outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive way that will result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and clogs." (I admit to have returned a couple of jumpsuits to the thrift store due to skeptical expressions from K...he always gets quite disappointed when something that he thought was a cute dress turns out to be a playsuit).

So is there anything problematic with dressing occasionally in a way that makes your other half happy? Generally, I feel my style choices should be primarily about my own self-expression. I want to wear things that make me feel comfortable, satisfied, and very much my own self. On the other hand, sometimes it makes me happy when K. likes what I'm wearing... is that anti-feminist? Is there a difference between dressing to please men in general vs. dressing to please one man in particular? And are either of those too layered with patriarchal issues of control? Does dressing for a man automatically bring up the "male gaze"? Wikipedia has an interesting definition of the "male gaze": "In feminist theory, the male gaze expresses an asymmetric (unequal) power relationship, between viewer and viewed, gazer and gazed, i.e. man imposes his unwanted (objectifying) gaze upon woman. Second Wave feminists argue that whether or not women welcome the gaze, they might merely be conforming to the hegemonic norms established to benefit the interests of men — thus underscoring the power of the male gaze to reduce a person (man or woman) to an object (see also exhibitionism)." Is the gaze still objectifying if it is actually wanted, in the context of a romantic relationship? Or is any kind of appreciation for a woman's appearance automatically objectifying and therefore confirming a male-dominant power structure?

More problematically for me, though, is how dressing for the satisfaction of one's partner can be linked to some behaviors that are quite troubling for me, as a feminist. Abusive men can use clothing "suggestions" as control, such as forcing their partner to dress less "provocatively" in order to keep other men from looking at her. Clearly that's on the far end of a continuum of behavior...but I'm not sure I'm comfortable even with the situation the author of a recent Daily Mail article describes. She appreciates and enjoys her husband's transformation of her wardrobe (getting rid of maxi dresses, UGG boots, short skirts, sequin tops, anything "too short, too low, or too tight," and anything else he felt didn't suit her) and his strong "alpha male" opinions on what she wears. "Within minutes of waking, I’m expected to be dressed: smart Levis or well-cut trousers, crisp ironed shirt, buffed and shiny heels, even my hair should be glossy and styled, and I, of course, should be fully made-up — all before breakfast." She discusses how she thinks this has been terrific for her and that she's content with her choice. However, she also says things like "Some people might think I’m foolish for agreeing to this, but when you’re entering into a new relationship, you find yourself going to surprising lengths to fit in. I wanted to be accepted and I wanted to be desired."

I also want to mention the fact that these issues seem to be more...well, more of a "feminist" issue when we're talking about a woman changing what she wears to please her male partner. Is it a problem if a man changes aspects of his wardrobe for his girlfriend/wife? I feel like that's more stereotypically acceptable; the woman trying to convince her boyfriend to throw out his old hole-filled concert t-shirt, or to try a new haircut. Or what about one woman in a lesbian partnership wearing things her partner thinks she looks good in?

How much do you let a partner's/boyfriend's/girlfriend's preferences shape what you wear (if at all)? Are you comfortable with that?

If you're interested to see how other FFB members explored this topic, a roundup of the others' posts is on the group blog.


For Those About To Shop said...

I think it is a beautiful gift to give your man when you dress in a way that pleases him. It's the sexiest thing in the world and the antidote to dressing to please all men. If you don't respect your man enough to want to please him, maybe you're with the wrong man :P Obviously this does not mean dressing in a way that is uncomfortable to you, but if it's within your comfort zone and feels like "you" then I say go for it.

Frances Joy said...

Very thought provoking post.  I have to admit I've been thinking a lot about dressing for my husband lately because I ... don't.  At least, not usually and not consciously (that subconscious thing is so tricky, though!).  Which doesn't mean that B doesn't like it, just that he's not my primary concern as I'm getting dressed.  I will say that I've definitely influenced his sartorial choices much more than he's influenced mine - not in that, "I have no idea what happened to your favorite tee shirt that I threw out way" and more in that "You look smokin' hot in those jeans" kind of way.  Makes me think even more...  

Terri said...

what a great question:  Is there a difference between dressing to please men in general vs. dressing to please one man in particular?  I don't have an easy answer, but I DO occasionally dress to please my husband.  I had intended to do a post this week on what I was wearing when I first met my husband---something very modest!  He is a bit bolder in his requests now, but because I am comfortable with the power relationship between us, I am not uncomfortable when I wear something I know pleases him.

oranges_and_apples said...

I think its only natural that our partner's tastes will influence our clothing choices and i see nothing wrong with it, as long as it is not something that happened all the time, or you end up wearing something you don't actually like yourself. I think i said this on someone else's posts, i am really aware of power relations and things like equal distribution of household chores in my own realtionship, but having my clothing choices influenced by Dave is not one of the things i worry about.

That said, the Daily Mail story is horrible! He actually goes shopping with her? and emails her photos of stuff she should wear? That just sounds horrible and creepy! And making all these dispariging comments about her figure to undermine her confidence, it sounds like a first step to emotional abuse. Only in the daily mail could something like that be presented as a good idea!

WendyBrandes said...

I've never had to think about it ... MrB and I have the same taste! The Daily Mail story gives me the creeps.

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