Vain, Fashion-Obsessed Women

penelope_cruz2Women are silly creatures who worry their pretty little heads over fashion and vainly adorn themselves in color, lace and ruffles.

But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe fashion, lace and ruffles are thought trivial because they are associated with women.

In fact, men were once fashionistas, too.

Many of our serious and revered Founding Fathers wore color, lace, ruffles, embroidered vests, and silk stockings with decorative garters. They also donned wigs, curled their hair and hired tutors to instruct them in the elegance of sitting, standing and gesturing.

Thomas Jefferson was particularly fastidious, his fashion sense costing him a pretty penny. Or, as historians Barbara Clark Smith and Kathy Peiss explain

600px-Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_StatesVirginia gentleman George Washington instructed a buying agent in London that “Whatever goods you may send me, let them be fashionable, neat and good of their several kinds.” Making a fine figure on important social occasions was part of Washington’s gentlemanly role.

Fashion mattered because it set the socially prominent apart from the rest of society.

But by the mid-1800s all had changed. Or at least half-changed: Women retained a fashion sense, along with color, lace and ruffles. But men now donned basic black.

What happened?

What happened was business and politics. And since women were excluded from those affairs, they weren’t affected much.

Case4No4The Founding Fathers advocated equality and fraternity. So it’s no surprise that the ideals were increasingly reflected in men’s clothes. As aristocracy was rejected, men’s clothing lost it’s frills.

Capitalism was also coming on and men looking for jobs sought to communicate how serious, hard-working and thrifty they were. Ruffles and lace did not convey that message. Severe clothing did.

"Best dressed" women at Oscars

“Best dressed” women at Oscars

But women were expected to maintain their beauty and create a “haven from the harsh world” for their men through both their home-decoration and their personal style.

It was part of women’s role to be fashionable. Yet they were punished for such trivial occupation, at the same time.

Just as they are today.

"Best dressed" men at Oscars

“Best dressed” men at Oscars

So next time you go to prom or watch the Oscars you’ll “get” why men look alike in matching penguin suits, while women are decked out in colors and frills–and horrified if anyone else arrives in the same outfit.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 11, 2013, in feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. As a little girl I would pour over fashion magazines in my room. Looking at all the ads and editorials, because all the clothing were so beautiful and the models as well. I formed a sense of style and it has since evolved. I grew up taking pride in my fashion sense, yet I would be teased or ridiculed because I cared about what I wore. Boys would not understand the clothing pieces I would style together and say “that’s so ugly” or “that’s so stupid”. Certain times in my life I would feel discouraged and would not experiment as much with my style. I find it almost offensive that women are made fun of for expressing an interest in a creative outlet. At least that’s what I use and view fashion as for myself. I like the point that you brought up, about how men used to care just as much about what they wore. For them it showed social status and how much money you had. Men and women both do this now, but it’s less common. I see so many different individuals dressing in the cheapest clothes possible but look fabulous. Yes, clothes are associated with women, but just because you love dressing up or take an interest in it, doesn’t mean you should be trivialized. Another example from my own life is that my dad likes to look clean up and handsome. He taught me about different styles of clothing that looked good on different type of men. It’s very unusual for a male to appreciate clothing just like I do. I looked up to him, because he didn’t care about what I wore, just as long as I felt good in it. An added bonus is that he likes to shop too, so when we go together he doesn’t get impatient. (-: In conclusion, I feel as though women AND men should be more lenient with the idea that fashion/clothes/style is a form of expression and not a competition of who looks best.

  2. I never really bothered to look into the history of fashion across genders. This blog post taught me a lot about how fashion was not always aligned with women and their interests. I would argue fashion to remain a big deal today. Men and women alike seem to express themselves through dress. Many men and women tend to sport certain brands according to their social status. I find it fascinating how men’s fashion transitioned from frills to a more simple attire. This post makes me reflect on all the historical based films that present men with elaborate and adorned clothing and hairstyles. So it really intrigues me how present day fashion is seen as a women’s concern. I also find it interesting how fraternities and the economy played such a large role in this transition from frills to simplicity. Brotherhood and career played a key role in men looking sharp and sophisticated yet hard working and “thrifty.” It also makes a lot of sense that women remain to be interested in fashion since their sense of self-worth remains tied to their physical appearance.

  3. I would consider myself somewhat fashionable. Wearing nice clothes makes me feel good and confident. I don’t understand why women are so traumatized if someone shows up wearing the same clothes as them. Great minds think alike, right? It’s probably because girls don’t want someone to outshine them. That’s where confidence comes into play! With high self esteem, women don’t need to worry if this ever happens.

  4. @Broadblogs What do you think of the way our culture encourages women to dress? I can’t help feeling that men’s clothing norms are way less ‘sexy’ than women’s. This is especially true at work. Your average corporate suit or shirt / trouser, for the male, is a pretty loose & shapeless affair, compared to what it is for a woman.

    • I think women’s clothing is way more expressive in pretty much every way, including sexual. I’d like to see men’s clothing gain much greater expressiveness. I’m annoyed that women are almost always the only ones who do the sexy-clothes thing — it’s one-sided.

      • Thanks for your opinion. Now that I think about it, as a man, I had not even considered clothing to be a form of self-expression 🙂 Though, obviously it is. Don’t you feel though, that this level of sexuality at work is troublesome? For example, I know a lot of guys at work who are super buff, but you wouldn’t know for certain unless you were taking a good hard look. And I know women who are well-endowed in terms of breasts and ass, and you know it instantly, whether you’re looking for it or not. There’s a certain exhibitionism here that’s not necessarily an individual choice. And it’s not true across all cultures…

        I get the feeling that the average woman in western corporate attire would find it difficult to buy something fashionable that isn’t a tight fit. Contrast with guys, who can buy tight stuff too, but it’s an anomaly and frowned upon in truly formal settings. And generally no way our suit jackets would ever fail to cover our ass, unless tailored to do so.

        Outside work, I’d say let everybody do whatever they want. But at work? I feel it undermines the seriousness of the work women do.

      • Since clothing is symbolic I can see your point. I don’t have a problem with professional guidelines at work.

  5. Fashion is about status, and yet the sex that is obsessed with fashion is trying to impress the sex that cares least about status.

    • I don’t understand this comment. Women and men are both interested in status, But it’s often expressed in different ways because of our gendered history, which continues to have effects even in the present day. (Once things get into a culture, they unconsciously embed in our brains, become tenacious, and are passed down through the generations.)

      Men have historically gained status from wealth and power. Women were excluded from the ability to pursue wealth and power. They had to marry to get wealth and they pretty much didn’t have power. So they used their looks to attract wealthy, powerful men. So looks became a woman’s source of status (since she had little else to work with). But men often marry “trophy wives” so a woman’s beauty is a status indicator for both men and women.

      • I meant someone being well dressed reveals that person’s high status.
        Women care more about men’s status than men care about women’s status.
        So women should supposedly pay more attention to men’s fashion=status whereas men that don’t care about women’s status shouldn’t care about women’s fashion=status
        But ironically women are obsessed with their fashion trying to impress men who don’t care that much about fashion – at least now days.

      • “Women care more about men’s status than men care about women’s status.”

        Yes, because his status affects her more than vice-versa. A waitress will see a sharp rise in status if she marries a dentist. A truck driver won’t see a sharp rise in status if he marries a dentist.

  6. As stated in the blog post, fashion is what the synonym of women accurately and thus are fashion obsessed. According to their taste and interest, women go for best outings and the jewelry they wear.

  7. I find this very interesting… I’ll read about pretty much anything if it has some element of “this is why we do the way we do” to it. I had puzzled about the finery of men back in the day as compared to how it is now but had not ever seen the connection between aristocracy and capitalism etc. etc.

    Thought provoking stuff, as usual!

  8. Very interesting! I didn’t know this. Of course- the media these days loves to criticize the women who in their mind “didn’t get it right” fashion-wise… making fun of them. Another reason why famous women feel like they have to spend so much time and money on what they look like… makes me think of recent article on Duchess Kate and the 900 plus she spent to color her hair cuz heaven forbid she has been too busy being a new mom, etc. and oh no, she actually has grey hair.

  9. Fashion kind of annoys me anyway. I almost never wear makeup and rarely wear something outside of jeans and a t-shirt. I’m jealous of the 4-packs of white t-shirts men can buy for less than $20. Can I please have that, too (in a women’s cut please)?

  10. This is something I like to point out to men who say to me “we invented makeup for you” or “women have always liked silly, overelaborate clothing”. They see the world through the lens of modern times…but go back 300-700 years and you’ll see women AND men with lacey shirts, poofy sleeves/trousers, powdered wigs, high heels, bejeweled coats, and lots of makeup and accessories. It is even evident in the times of Tutankamen and Alexander the Great…men enjoyed fashion and making themselves look “better” just as much or more than their female counterparts. (Obviously I’m talking about the upper class here, peasants/slaves/commoners had none of this.)

  11. Wondering aloud if the patriarchy in place at the time of the Jacksonian era when capitalism became entrenched didnt displace its need for the expression of the anima onto the women themselves?

  12. Watch any awards ceremony these days (Oscars, Grammys, etc.) and it’s obvious that many men (at least in entertainment) are quite fashion conscious. The growing trend is for men to stand out from the usual, flat-black tuxedo-wearing crowd by wearing designer suits featuring bold colors and patterns, And these events are perfectly suitable for exhibiting one’s fashion.

    But, while I like seeing a woman wear a pretty dress as much as the next guy, I’d never expect her to be dressed up all the time. I’m perfectly happy if a woman is wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt, for example. (I think the world would be a better place if everyone could dress comfortably most of the time) But some people seem to have a hard time with that idea, thinking they have to put together a ‘look’ every time they step out their front door.

    Dressing up is for special occasions. This demand for ‘fashion’ gets to be a bit much when we start insisting that even our ‘everyday’ clothes be designer branded. (Louis Vuitton sweatshirts? Really?) Thank goodness most people are too smart to fall for such nonsense.

    • Men may be more fashion conscious now, but compared with women they still look like penguins. Look at the Oscar comparison of “best dressed” women and men in the post.

      And even everyday wear remains much more detailed and expressive for women. Did you see this post I did recently:

      Couples Trade Outfits, and Attitudes

      I like mixing it up. I don’t like dressing up all the time. But I also get bored with the same old drab thing all the time and like balancing with more expressive clothing, too.

      Women have that option much more these days than men do. Even check out the women’s vs the men’s departments at the local mall. Big difference.

      So my feelings are 2-fold. That it’s sad that a behavior only becomes ridiculed when associated with women. And I would hope that both genders would feel free to be as expressive, or not, as suits their personality.

      • Ridiculing a behavior that we also help to perpetuate is just asinine. I think people should dress to suit their moods, and without fear of ridicule.

        But there’s something to be said for people dressing to get attention. Perhaps it’s that men have been socially schooled to not seek attention. Ironic, then, that in the animal kingdom it’s often males who are the more brightly-colored.

      • Yes, that’s ironic.

        There, the “guys” are partly trying to attract attention away frm the “women and children” as first line of defense since females are more crucial to creating babies and suckling them. Also, with birds its the “guys” that are trying to attract a mate. With humans, females are expected to attract passively rather than assertively (to avoid taking the male leadership role) so they have the added incentive to dress to attract.

  13. Great perspective! What I most like wearing is a sharp black suit, but it seems somehow not quite acceptable for a woman, and I worry that my clothes ‘should’ be more varied. Amazing how many of our ‘free’ choices don’t feel free at all. I think there’s a book to be written on this subject, a history of capitalism, gender and fashion…

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