The Power of Clothing

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

by Miqqi Alicia Gilbert

Part 1 of 2

Clothing is a political issue. It serves a great number of purposes, all of which are social, but many of which are also political. First, I want you to think about what we know, or, more correctly, what we assume about someone from their clothes.

Of course, the first thing that comes to your mind is gender, and you may well be right. But clothes are not always safe gender signals in every context. I work on a university campus, and as often as not, the young women and men there are wearing the same thing?jeans, a T-shirt, and runners. When a young woman dresses like that, she can be stating many things, including, to cite just one, that she is not in a romantic space and is focusing on her classes.
Of course, clothes establish a lot?clothes speak volumes. Again, on campus, there are identifiable groups of students. One group always wears black and usually has shocking hair colors. Another looks as if they just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog, and yet another just walked out of J. Crew. As you well know, looks vary from a businesslike appearance to quite grungy; some attire is ethnic, some quite ordinary and some quite bizarre. But in each case, personal attire establishes who a person is and who she wants to be. By this, I mean she is establishing her group connections?and if you know the codes, telling the world how to react to her and what to expect from her. The diversity of dress, especially on some place like a campus without a dress code, allows you to establish your identity and membership very easily.

To see the importance of this, consider what happened during the cultural revolution in China. Why was so much emphasis placed on everyone wearing the same clothing? Why were there no gender differences in attire? The answer is simple: clothing establishes difference, and the cultural revolution was all about eliminating difference. The ideal was
that everyone was the same and that
all deviations were nothing but counter-revolutionary egoism. Sameness induces conformity, and that was important, just as it is in a prison or an army. If you want everyone to act the same, dress them the same.
In the vast majority of cases, clothing and its concomitant, appearance, establish gender group membership. The establishment of gender is an imperative accomplishment, and those who fail to do so are in peril. Females who appear masculine, males who appear feminine (and I am not here talking about transgender), have grave difficulties maneuvering their way in public spaces. Many of us of a certain age can certainly recall the taunts that followed hippies, freaks, and flower children when their gender was ambiguous. Pat, on ?Saturday Night Live,? is a person of highly ambiguous gender, and an entire ongoing skit is built around determining just what ?it? is.

Much of the time, women dress differently from men. How differently depends on a number of variables. The first is age. Women who are young and fecund generally dress differently from mature women who are partnered. The second variable is occasion. Clothing at work varies, often dramatically, from clothing at a party or celebration. A great number of women in North America wear slacks to work, as opposed to skirts or dresses. It?s similar with hair styles. Most working women over thirty seem to have short hair, while single young women almost all have long hair. A third variable is personal taste, politics, or religion. Some women refuse to display any skin or wear anything but pants, while others prefer to be dressed in a ?feminine? manner at all times. (Culture, of course, has a lot to do with the parameters in which this occurs as well.)

The key to how we dress is realizing that how we dress expresses how we want to be treated. A woman who is dressed in a provocative manner wants to be noticed; a woman wearing jeans and a loose sweatshirt is trying to minimize her gender membership, generally in order
to minimize male attention. (Note that lesbians, many of whom often dress this way, are rejecting the display function assigned to their gender.) If you notice the way Western women dress when they are on display, the social politics become clear. There is always, among young women, a great deal of skin on display.

A dress is standard, often short and low-cut, exposing a fair bit of d?colletage. The man beside her is covered in cloth from head to toe, with the only exposed skin being his face and hands. The woman, being exposed, is vulnerable and fortunate that the fully covered male is at her side, ready to protect and cosset. He will open doors, shield her from strangers, and otherwise act in a protective, paternal way. The clothing she wears infantilizes and puts her on display, while the clothing he wears emphasizes his strength and importance. That?s social politics.

There are times when the different rules for male and female dressing seem extremely stark, and when they occur I am always transfixed. These times are most obvious when the context is formal: weddings, elegant Christmas parties, banquets, awards shows, all demonstrate both the diversity and rigidity of dress. When
I watch the Academy Awards, to cite a prime example, I am struck by how exposed the young women are, how fragile their appearance. Their shoes make fast movement next to impossible, their skirts make genital access easy, and the exposed skin means they require protection. Older women range in their degree of exposure, but also follow the party line lest they face the wrath of commentators like Joan Rivers. Note also that the vast majority of men look identical?black
tuxedos and white shirts. Their uniform means they are ready to defend, well-clothed and invulnerable, covered and guarded. It also emphasizes that they are not the ones on display, but the ones who are displaying their beautiful possessions.

I have to confess that I?m not certain where I?m going with this, but I?ve been reading sociologist Erving Goffman, the master of this sort of analysis, and he got me to thinking. (You can find out lots about Goffman with a simple Google search.) As a young crossdresser, I indulged in the most feminine aspects of women?s clothing, the sort that proclaimed femininity. As I grew older, and especially as I became more politically involved in transgender issues, I began to explore other forms of dress?more casual, more typical of what I would wear for my age and style, were I actually a woman. When I began to do that, a lot changed for me. I developed a deeper sense of what I liked to call my woman-ness, my sense and awareness of myself as a ?woman? in the world, as opposed to someone just going out to party.

I?m going to have to pursue this in another column, as I?m running out of space. But I don?t want to give the wrong impression. I know many women who like to get dolled up regularly, and going to a wedding or a ball can be a treat for someone whose work outfit is slacks and a blouse. I myself love skirts. They are a favorite article of clothing, and while I do wear slacks sometimes, I feel better and think I look better in a skirt. It?s just not a mini for daily purposes. More on this soon.

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Goffman was a big influence on your editor back in the 1970s?especially his book Asylums (I was working in a mental institution and quickly figured out that the most seriously crazy people dressed in white). To see visual representations of what Miqqi is talking about, take a look at: Goffman, E. (1976). Gender advertisements. New York: Harper Colophon. ?Ed.