Not an Odalisque

The Very Girly Dress

with 3 comments

I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”

“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”

I bought it anyway.

Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.

I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?

Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.

I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.

I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.

It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.

I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.

I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?

*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.


Written by Not an Odalisque

July 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm

3 Responses

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  1. It’s not true that the issue doesn’t persist with men too. Granted, it’s different assumptions, different threats and challenges, but alternative appearance can get you glassed. Simillar comments persist too, say in transitioning from a gothic black to lighter colours provoke comments from nearest and dearest of all shades.

    To some extent, feminist discourse has wrenched woman from her own self to become a hyper-aware, hyper-self critical entity. The feminine itself is a problem, social assumptions regarding the woman exclusively her problem. Men don’t invent themselves in such ways (though for some reason, some jealous hack invented the term ‘misandry’? lunatics…) But yes, you fall out of living space into critical discursive space. Not sure where you fit once you enter that neurotic space.


    July 12, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    • There are, of course, issues for men with dress codes. I was dealing with the pressure to be feminine, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is hardly a powerful social force for men outside some very small, voluntary subgroups. There is a pressure to be masculine, and to conform to cultural expectations. I don’t know much about the experience of being a man, but I imagine the options are more limited (women can wear trousers, men more rarely wear skirts) which makes everyday choosing less of a minefield, but offers greater opportunity for transgression. An ‘alternative’ appearance will face disapprobation from some members of the mainstream—isn’t that the point? If you choose that, as a man or a woman, you will certainly have to expect that, but it isn’t in any way gendered (although the violence may be).

      I don’t think that feminism caused the hyper-aware state you mention, it is generally recognised as a feature of postmodernity. I’m afraid I didn’t really understand your point, in the second paragraph, after the first sentence. Perhaps you could illuminate it a little?

      Thank you for your comment.


      July 13, 2010 at 3:29 pm

  2. ‘Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.’

    It can do, for age-players, and ‘Daddy’s girls’. One great thing about kink is that all identities and looks are up for eroticisation, if the participants so desire!

    Also: Bob, hi.
    ‘The feminine itself is a problem, social assumptions regarding the woman exclusively her problem. Men don’t invent themselves in such ways (though for some reason, some jealous hack invented the term ‘misandry’? lunatics…)’

    I think the masculine is problematised too and men are more and more aware of how they look. See Mark Simpson’s work on ‘metrosexuality’

    I never used to believe the term ‘misandry’ related to anything, either. Until I started to challenge some basic assumptions within contemporary (mainstream) feminism. And I encountered misandry in a very potent form. Women can hate men and some do. I think it was probably sexist of us to assume that they couldn’t.

    Quiet Riot Girl

    July 22, 2010 at 4:04 pm

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