I read a comment this morning from someone who’s been reading the new Women’s Review of Books, about the “raunch culture”, on the “sexualisation of fashion”. And in one of those epiphanies you sometimes get when half-asleep and caffeine-deprived, I thought: “But fashion has always been sexualised!”
Now I’m a little more awake, and with some tea inside me, I still think that’s the case. (Not always what happens with such flash thoughts.) The examples are far too multiple to quote, but think of everything from Tudor codpieces on men, to Victorian bustles, designed, off course, to accentuate women’s buttocks.
I find a lot of the feminist criticisim of so-called “raunch” culture offensive, because it reeks of the environment in which I grew up, in which women felt they could and should “police” the behaviour of other women to fit within very narrow confines of what was “respectable”. “Tut, tut, mutton dressed up as lamb,” was one of the favourite ones, for any woman judged to be wearing clothing “too young” for her.
And many woman lived – and some do still live – in fear of breaking these rules. I recall once being in a hairdresser’s in Walthamstow (east London) when a classic blue rinse set lady came in in a flap. She gone out without an umbrella and it had started raining. Her “set”, the armour-plated fixing of her hair into a helmet, which she paid for once a week as a sign of respectability, was in danger of being ruined. She wanted a rain hat. No one had one, but the hairdresser offered her a shower cap instead. A look of pure horror crossed the woman’s face. “I couldn’t go out in THAT. It is not the proper thing.”
She was really, genuinely panicking about not looking “right”, “respectable”.
Whereas I frequently, should I need to go out in the morning, to say walk a dog, stagger out in whatever odd collection of clothing happens to be piled at the end of the bed, with no more attention to my hair than my fingers run through it, and if anyone doesn’t like it, tough.
And I mostly wear hipster jeans, because ones with higher waists never fit my shape. (One woman at a bus-stop in central London once told me: “You should be ashamed of yourself at your age with those jeans,” and I laughed – genuinely laughed. Because I’ve been empowered to do so.)
Of course some women, particularly young women, are stressed by pressures to show off their bodies when they are uncomfortable with them, and they need to be told and retold “wear what you want”. But attacking other young women for wearing what they want, if that happens to be T-shirts with sexy slogans or midriff-baring tops, is only playing into the hands of the puritan rightwingers, those who are training their girls in ways like this, turning them into “young ladies” of VIctorian form – and with narrowed, restricted Victorian brains to match.
Wear what you like, and tell other women to do the same! And then tell them they look good!