I recently came across a post with a list of female artists that keep their clothes on, and many of the comments intrigued me. Some suggested that these female artists are more appropriate role models than their less-clothed counterparts while others disagreed, feeling that women should have the right to wear as little or as much as they want to, without judgment.

However, men don’t have that right. The media may be pushing celebrities of both sexes to play up their sensuality by displays of skin, but that doesn’t guarantee that we respect the common person who follows their example. How many bare-chested men truly garner our admiration by walking around without their shirt? And even if they don’t have an unsightly figure, they hardly appear professional.

Once, a shirtless man showed up to pay his bill at a company I worked for (there being no policy against it). He had a decent figure and tolerable muscles—possessing neither the “six-pack” nor the “keg”—yet the reaction of my coworkers, once he was gone, displayed that such flamboyant “fashion” did not garner him an ounce of respect. He was laughed at for thinking that he was “all that and more” and for parading around in such a manner. (He did walk with a certain degree of swagger, but no more than the celebrities whose example he was emulating.) In the same way, I think many women who chose to follow celebrities in the path of “less-clothes-more-skin” tend to appear in a similar, less-than-professional light.

This may not seem fair, but, for better or worse, our society does judge people by appearances. Appearance is seen as an extension of ourselves, our characters, and our personalities, and it does influence what we think about people, regardless of age, race, or gender. A sloppily dressed and dirty infant is considered a reflection on her parents precisely because they are responsible for dressing her, while a neat appearance lets us bypass the outfit and focus on the infant herself. Perhaps, if our goal was less about making a spectacle of ourselves and more about looking nice without being risqué, we too would allow others to get past our clothes and see the beauty of the person wearing them.

A book I just finished reading, The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish has some interesting thoughts to offer on this subject. In discussing the “Dress Doctors” (women who once advised other women in their fashion choices), the book points out that society has to look at us, whether it wants to or not, so our fashion choices are not just for ourselves. We should dress in a way that demonstrates respect for ourselves and for those who have to look at us (something that isn’t necessarily reflected in many people’s fashion choices—think skinny jeans on more-than-skinny frames).

The author writes, “Clothing was supposed to make [it] clear that women belonged in business while allowing them to remain women,” and she goes on to quote one of the Dress Doctors: “I do not want women to become masculine, and lose the distinction and charm of their femininity…They have no right, however, to emphasize their femininity in the office, where they are employed—or should be if they aren’t—for their merit and efficiency rather than their sex.” Perhaps affirmative action changed this, and now women should show how anatomically female they are since this shows how much they deserve their jobs?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

3 thoughts on “How Free Should Fashion Be?

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