Monday, January 6, 2020

Women's Dress Codes

Try making sense out of this. The latest in psycho research asks why women dress the way that they do. It does not directly address the issue of how women dress when meeting men or when going out with men, but looks mostly about how women dress when meeting with other women. With women they know and with women they do not know.

And the study also distinguishes between attractive and unattractive women. Do attractive women dress differently when meeting women they do not know, or do all women adopt a similar dress code?

The report does not seem to distinguish between single women and married women. It does not seem to distinguish between women who hold different statuses, or between women who work outside the home and those who work within the home.

The study is designed to help us overcome the notion that women normally dress for other men. By the lights of social psychologists women usually dress for other women. Men, by this reasoning, are too stupid to notice what a woman is wearing. And besides, they are mostly thinking of how the clothing comes off, not how it stays on.

More than a few feminist pseudo-theorists have made something of a fetish out of the male gaze. For reasons that are not too difficult to discern they have made it into something of an invisible phallic appendage, designed to penetrate a woman’s vestimentary defenses, in order to cause damage, even shame. And to make it more difficult for women to function in the workplace.

At the same time, one might point out that women often dress as they dress because they want to capture the male gaze, because they want to enthrall and ensorcell men. I trust that this does not come as too much of a surprise. And, if you converse with women of a certain age they will often tell you the moment when they recognized that they were no longer attracting said male gaze. They recognized that they had lost something and that their loss has nothing to do with social constructions.

It ought to be obvious, but when a woman is attached to a man, whether through marriage or through a committed relationship, she will signal as much when going out in public, especially when going out with said man. A woman who is attached will dress more demurely than will a woman who is unattached. Thus, women follow certain highly complex dress codes, signifying relationship status and social status. 

At the least, we know that male dress is governed by different social codes, deriving from military uniforms. Apparently, today’s young men no longer follow dress codes. They have abandoned suits and ties in order to dress more casually and informally in the workplace.

One feels constrained to note that male behavior in the modern workplace has become too familiar, too informal, too casual and too unprofessional. Obviously, this suggestion does not capture the true horror of what is happening in said interactions, but would it not be better for men to dress as though they were there to do business, not as though they were there to party? It might be a small step in the right direction, but at least it would be a step toward redefining the world of business transactions, the better to ensure that people did not believe that it was a world where more casual transactions were acceptable.

As we ought to know, when male attire is defined in terms of the uniform, this still allows a different kind of stratification. Men who rise up a corporate hierarchy, even a hierarchy of lawyers and bankers, often judge relative status by reading subtle signs in the attire of other men. Such men can look at a suit and have a good idea whether it was bought off the rack or was made by a London bespoke tailor. They can look at shirts and, by counting the buttons on each sleeve whether it was Van Heusen or T and A.

You would think that the average business man would have better things to do with his time, but apparently such is not the case. Men care about their place on status hierarchies. 

Anyway, the latest in psycho research attempts to overcome the constant complaining about the male gaze. It directs its attention toward the way women relate to other women. What are women trying to say when they meet other women, women they know and women they are meeting for the first time?

One might assume that women dress to designate social status, but apparently this is not so much the case. Or, at least, the research did not address the issue.

We would be closer to the truth if we consider that women dress to signal their virtue and their modesty. And we would also hone in on the truth if we understand that women prefer not to look overly alluring when meeting with other women. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, yet it reveals an important fact about human desire. 

One recalls that Hillary Clinton, trying to put to rest persistent rumors about her sexual orientation, told Howard Stern, of all people, that she has never felt a smidgeon of attraction to any other woman. It is obviously a lie. Everyone knows, or should know, that women always feel at least a smidgeon of attraction toward other women. Women’s dress seems less a function of military uniforms and more a function of desirability and availability. In truth, the only people who never feel any attraction toward women are gay men. But I am sure you knew that already.

And while we are at it, we should also point out that slut-shaming, to use the inelegant term, is mostly performed by women. A man who thinks that a woman is offering her favors promiscuously will see an opportunity. A woman who thinks as much of another woman might see her as competition, roughly as one supermarket will take serious offense if its competitor is offering the same product as it is offering, only, for free.

Besides, in another part of this calculus, if a woman wants to feel respected for her mind, besides not donning what she will call a pussy hat, she also will choose not to associate with women of loose morals. No serious woman will invite a stripper or a porn star or a prostitute to her dinner party. In part, it’s about competition, but in another part it’s because she does not want to be tarred by association, and to be treated accordingly.

Now, the study that provoked these reflections appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Eric Dolan summarized the results on the PsyPost blog.

The crux of the issue is women’s hostility toward other women. The authors posit that a woman who is going to meet with other women will dress more modestly because she believes that if she dresses in a sexually provocative manner she will incite aggression.

Dolan summarizes:

New research in Social Psychological and Personality Science provides evidence that women strategically dampen signals of sexual permissiveness and desirability to avoid provoking intersexual aggression. In other words, the study suggests that women “dress defensively” by wearing less revealing outfits when encountering other women.

“So much social psychology has focused on men’s cognition and behavior, or has long assumed that male psychology is the default. But men and women can also face some distinct challenges, and this seems especially true when we consider how women navigate their same-sex social worlds,” explained study author Jaimie Arona Krems (@JaimieKrems), an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University.

Do they fear aggression or do they fear being shunned? Aren't they worried about being excluded from a friend circle, and thus not invited to places where the other women’s husbands will be present?

Or else, are these women making clear that they are not looking for a hookup?

Dolan continues:

...Krems told PsyPost.

“More specifically, women are deeply rational and strategic; women are aware of the threats posed by others and act in ways to avoid those threats. Here, for example, we show that women are aware that appearing and/or dressing certain ways make them more likely targets of other women’s aggression, and that, in situations where this knowledge is salient, and for women most at risk of incurring aggression, women then choose to dress in ways might help them avoid others women’s slings and arrows.”

And, of course, women understand, when meeting with other women, that they will not be exercising their power to capture the male gaze. Thus, among women one of the sources of their power will have been largely neutralized.

I would question whether we should try to understand this in terms of threat assessment. Dress and fashion involve complex social codes. Avoiding threat might be one motivation, but defining oneself as a social being is surely another, equally important motive.


Derek Ramsey said...

"women are deeply rational and strategic"

Said no one ever.

Women avoid dressing like sluts when they go out with other women because they'll be treated like sluts if they do. Everything my wife does when she goes out with the girlfriends (including what she wears) is about limiting the inevitable emotional drama. That it also happens to be rational is merely a side effect of the emotional strategy.

Anonymous said...

Writing on this topic:

H.L. Mencken — ‘Misogynist: A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.’

Anonymous said...

My mother's gaze is the one I'd think about, if anything. And she would say that I don't think about it enough.

Anonymous said...

There are some women who take dressing down too far, such as showing up to a friend’s wedding in a wrinkled tee shirt.


RGPM said...

"In other words, the study suggests that women “dress defensively” by wearing less revealing outfits when encountering other women."

In other words most women are not trying to attract other women.