Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Women Need Business Suits

I just got done reading an article about sexism in academic clothing, "Female Academics: don't power-dress, forget heels - and no flowing hair allowed."  I wish that I could really recommend the article, but when it starts off with claims like:

It’s well known that the suit conveys authority and power in the workplace in overtly masculine ways. You only need to look at the tie, pointing insistently to the male crotch, to recognise this. 

It is hard to take seriously.  That is a shame, because the article does in fact bring up some good points, the article just wraps those points in language designed to infuriate and alienate people who do not precisely share the exact same opinion as the author.


But the article did get me thinking, and that is what I hope for in any sociological article.  The problems of the intersection of women's clothing and feminism are really interesting.  There really is a problem across Western society in trying to figure out what women should wear when they want to be taken seriously.  I happen to disagree with the article's author, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, about what kind of clothing is appropriate to asking for professional respect.  That said, the problem remains that we, as a society, have never actually figured out what kind of clothing is appropriate for a professional woman.

A man can wear a suit if he wants to be taken seriously.  When he wants to be seen as a business man he can wear a business suit.  When it's time to dress up he can wear a tuxedo.  When he wants to be seen as a gentleman of leisure he can wear a blazer and slacks or a more casual suit.  Women's clothing has never allowed the same easy choices.  There isn't a standard women's business suit model, there isn't even a standard button arrangement for women's suits.  There aren't standard shirt styles for women's professional wear.  And when women want to dress up there are no easy formal choices, a look at the commentaries after every red carpet affair should make that clear.

Women have to navigate issues of professional presentation individually.  For men there are a lot of basic ground rules for how suits are designed.  For example, single breasted jackets typically have two or three buttons, unless it's a tuxedo, in which case there can be one.  While there are periodically fads of having four buttons on a jacket, two or three is the rule, and has been for more than a century.  If you look at women's "business suit" jackets there is a dizzying array of possible button and lapel combinations that often serve more to trivialize women than to help them appear serious.

A man's suit declares masculinity, power, and seriousness.  What do women's suits declare?


I did a Google image search for "Women's Business Suit" and this was the second result:
It's business time...
Nothing says "take me seriously" like short sleeves, peaked lapels on a single breated jacket, big shiny interlocking buttons, body revealing cuts, and a cameltoe...

Men's business clothes have traditionally been non-revealing.  Suits look good because we agree they look good and we have invested importance in them, not because they accentuate a man's physique.  Suits do the opposite of accentuating a physique, they allow a physique to not matter.  That is the power of a suit, you don't have to fit a physical mold for a suit to do its job, you just have to follow the rules.  If you wear a lime green peaked lapel single breasted suit with six buttons it doesn't matter what your body looks like, you will look like a joke.  If you are an egg shaped man with zero muscle tone in a well fitted suit, you look like someone to take seriously.

Part of the reason that suits work is that they take advantage of a man's skeletal structure.  The suit hangs from the shoulders.  The lines descend from the shoulders.  Men's shoulders are symbols of power.  We talk about strong shoulders.  Apparently Liam Neeson has shoulders that women find attractive.  Men swagger with their shoulders.  Men shoulder obstacles aside.  Suits amplify the shoulders while giving any man shoulders to be respected.
He has shoulders that just won't quit...  note that even though Liam Neeson has famously broad strong shoulders his suit still pads and shapes the shoulders.  This is the male equivalent of a padded bra.

This is actually a very good example of the gendered way that we view people's bodies.  Men's shoulders are a secondary sexual characteristic, like breasts, hips, and adam's apples.  Shoulders, like breast and hips, are often seen as visually attractive to the opposite sex, and are visible advertisements of health and reproductive potential.  However our culture treats boobs and butts differently than muscly shoulders.  Shoulders, unlike breasts and hips, are seen additionally as symbolizing strength and authority.

Clothing that accentuated women's breasts and hips the way that suits accentuate male secondary sexual characteristics would be viewed very differently than a business suit.  Male secondary sexual characteristics are seen as worthy of respect, whereas women's secondary sexual characteristics need to be concealed.

Consider that men's shoulders are an important part of their physical presence.  An imposing physical presence is intimidating.  Clothing that enhances a man's physical presence is fundamentally an attempt to gain psychological advantage over other men.  A suit is partially a dominance display, like a peacock's tail or a lion's mane.

Female physicality also has the power to gain psychological advantage over men.  When presented with revealing clothing that accentuates female secondary sexual characteristics, men are mentally compromised.  Sexualized clothing has dramatic effects on male brains.  Men become more impulsive, more likely to accept smaller rewards, and more impatient.
So, is Christina Hendricks in a bustier functionally equivalent to Liam Neeson in a suit?  Sadly, no.
However, revealing skin also has dramatic effects on human brains.  Back in 2009 scientists discovered that bikinis caused men to see women as objects.  At the time researchers claimed that it would be difficult to find ways to do this same kind of testing on women, because everyone "knows" that women's brains are different.  There's no way that revealing clothing could have a similar effect on women, so other ways of testing the effect of sexiness would have to be designed, like maybe nice cars...  A couple years later researchers found that it turns out this line of reasoning is crap.  Revealing clothing on men has the same effect on women's brains.  For both men and women, revealing clothing causes us to dehumanize people.  A skimpily clad man or woman is seen as an object whose thoughts and emotions are immaterial.

Biologically, if people want to be taken seriously it helps if they are not wearing revealing clothing.


A common complaint, and the focus of the Stavrakopoulou article, is that it is unfair for women to be judged negatively for dressing in a sexually attractive fashion.  This is both true and untrue.  If male and female brains both objectify members of the opposite sex in revealing clothing then that suggests that there is more than sexism in action on the subject of clothing.  But if our culture treats pretty women as automatically sexualized, then there is no way for a woman to dress nicely and professionally at the same time if they are pretty.

But the clothing that we consider revealing or sexually suggestive is largely dictated by our culture.  What is appropriate or inappropriate clothing is a matter of agreement.  Most people agree that a bathing suit is appropriate attire at the pool, but underwear is not, EVEN THOUGH THE DIFFERENCE IS ENTIRELY ARBITRARY.  The difference is agreement, nothing more.
Seriously, totally arbitrary.  Both options have a similar effect on brain function, but one is acceptable, one is not.
So what I am really arguing that we need is agreement on what clothing is respectable and professional and flattering for women.  A man's suit is flattering because we agree it is.  The same could be accomplished for women's clothing in a non-sexually-suggestive form if it could be agreed upon.


I like suffragette style, though the hats are kind of small in this photo.  To me it says "I'm a woman, and I expect to be taken seriously."

At the dawn of the 20th century women started agitating for the right to vote.  Those women were called suffragettes, and in my personal opinion no one has really gotten closer to a style of women's clothing that commands respect without sacrificing femininity.  The jackets that were worn were actually styled for women, not adapted from men's clothes.  The skirts, while rather dowdy to modern eyes, were serious, but feminine.

Alternative suffragette attire, more of a "don't doubt my gender identity" statement.

Of course, in some cases the suffragettes actually went the other way with the clothing.  Suffragettes were disparaged as being unfeminine, so some suffragettes got aggressively feminine.  Ruffles, lace, and giant hats RIGHT IN YOUR FACE!  This kind of detracts from my praise of the more somber suffragette outfits, but I see the two styles of dress as being appropriate to different settings.  The more somber outfits are analogous to business wear.

I actually kind of like the rather fierce use of aggressive headgear as a part of the look; of course pretty much everybody wore hats in those days, but in all the pictures suffragettes seem to have huge hats that seem as much a statement as a man's swagger.  The swagger and the giant hat both say "back up, I'm taking up just as much space as I want."


On the topic of giant hats, the importance of accessories should not be underestimated.  Ties are given a lot of attention, and not because they draw attention to men's penises.  Bow ties don't point down, and traditionally the long tie would tuck into the high-waisted pants that men wore.  The tie is an opportunity for individual expression while wearing a suit.  The tie allows a suit wearing person to display their decision making abilities.  An inappropriate tie can make a good suit just as much of a joke as the lime green suit.


So now we arrive right back where we started.  Women need professional attire that accomplishes similar functions as a business suit.  Unfortunately, as I said at the beginning, suits work because we agree on them.  There is no agreement on what a woman's suit should be.  Thanks to the butch suits movement, women at least have the option of suits that are actually cut for women, but sadly those suits are just adapted men's suits designs, rather than femininity affirming professional designs for women.  It is important (at least in my mind) that women's professional attire not just be adapted menswear if it is ever really going to signify gender equality.

A "Butch Suit."  While it does not show the face I like this image for a few reasons.  Number one, that is a nice suit.  Number two, it is cut for a woman, but it also illustrates how femininity is minimized in adapted menswear.  Number three, this image also helps illustrate that when it comes to suits, it's the clothes that make the person, the actual person in the clothes is not as important as the suit.  You can find this suit at Tomboy Tailors
Today's business suit is the result of centuries of evolution.  The business suits worn today are actually little changed from the suits that our founding fathers wore in the 18th century.  The components are largely the same.  The length of the pants and jacket have changed, and the vest has become optional.  But when you compare the amount of change that the men's suit has undergone in the last three hundred years to the amount of change that has occurred in women's fashion over just the last forty years you can see how static male fashion has been.

Of course a big part of the reason that we have no agreement on what a women's suit should be is because up until less than 50 years ago the question was immaterial.  Before the modern feminist movement the question of how to dress a woman in professional attire that was also feminine was only slightly more relevant than the question of what kinds of hats a managerial dog would wear.  There were professional women before Women's Lib, but the idea of women being systemically equal to men was seen as absurd.  When women did occupy a professional position they just adapted men's clothes.


Today we live in a world where there have actually been a few generations born since the fight for women's equality kicked into high gear.  But I actually think that our nearness to first wave feminism obscures the true magnitude of feminism.  Provided our society does not self destruct in the next few decades, I think that future historians are going to mark feminism as the characteristic change of our age.  Feminism has had every bit as radical and destabilizing effect on our social fabric as mechanization did at the outset of the industrial revolution.

You often hear people talk about the information age, but the change to a computerized economy is not as great a change as the change from agrarian to industrial was a few hundred years ago.   In fact we still haven't come to terms, as a species, with industrialization.  The issues of capitalism and communism are responses to the upheaval of the industrial era, and we are into a very different world now and no one has even started to figure out how we should be facing the current era.  Feminism has essentially doubled the available work force, while we have not yet found a way to provide for the propagation of our species within the new framework of gender equality.

It might seem like a non sequitur, but I think that an important step in moving forward is dressing women like they actually belong in power on their own terms and merits.  This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the suit is also losing its place in our society, at least out West.  What is considered appropriate professional clothing for men is changing more rapidly than it has in centuries.  At the same time that women have fully come into the work force, the same social forces that allowed women in, have destabilized professional attire for men.  So at the same time that women have to figure out how to dress professionally we have started to lose agreement on what men should wear.

So figuring out what women should wear in professional and academic settings is not going to be easy.  Right now the old rules are crumbling, and we need to find new rules.  Ultimately clothes only have meaning if the meaning is commonly held.  Suits still have meaning and power.  If we can find equivalent standards for women we will be in better shape as a society.


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