What is a garment of liberty, really?

Two women in a clothing shop, one of which is trying on a long, black, sleeveless dress with a fitted bodice and a full skirt.A couple of years ago there was a sketch on a Canadian comedy show (starts at 01:26), the Baroness Von Sketch Show, in which a woman walks into a clothing store and tries on a long, sleeveless black dress. She was, she said, “not feeling it” though it fit well, until she discovered it had pockets. “This dress has pockets?” she exclaimed. “Yes,” said the shopkeeper, “it is a garment of liberty”. The lady ecstatically reeled off the list of things she could put in those pockets, that she could go out “like a dude” without the tyranny of a ‘purse’ (handbag), and in her excitement walked straight out of the shop in it without paying, presumably leaving all her existing clothes behind. The sketch was brought to mind by an article on Quartz I read last weekend (published February 2017) in which Lucy Rycroft-Smith described how she liberated herself from the tyranny of modern women’s clothing by switching to men’s clothing. The experiment showed her, she said, that female fashion is a sign that “the world does not want women to get too comfortable”. (She posted an earlier article on the same subject at The F Word.)

Women’s clothing, she said, always left a mark — bra straps on her shoulders, shoes on her heels, tights around her waist; she would always strip off everything tight when she got home from work; her clothing never quite fit and she was always fidgeting and adjusting, and having switched to shirts and men’s trousers, she is aware of other women doing the same. In the earlier article, where she explains that her initial month in menswear was partly inspired by a challenge called “Octieber”, of wearing ties for a month, she noted that for women formal dress often meant things that caused her discomfort — showing more flesh, wearing tighter and more uncomfortable clothes and foundations, while the suit she borrowed from her boyfriend was her idea of a garment of liberty:

My boyfriend appears from the loft with a three-piece subtle black pinstripe from French Connection he has grown out of. I try it on and it’s magic. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given, and on no particular occasion. Happy Birth-of-A-New-Freedom-Day to me. This suit does not make me uncomfortable or pained in any way.

It looks smart and stylish but does not dig in, does not cling, pinch or make me frown at my reflection where it could be a little looser, a little longer and a little higher. It just is.

And they have pockets:

The clothes I’m wearing now have bountiful, multifaceted, capacious pockets. I have nine of them today. I counted ’em. On a typical day of wearing womenswear, I have NONE. Another realisation like a wet herring to the face: the ‘handbag vs pockets’ thing is huge confidence-underminer, another terribly effective, if inadvertent way, to hold women down. I remember being crouched over my handbag, furiously ferreting for a business card while my male colleague coolly produced one from his manly chest-cavity as though he lactated them to order.

As for the ties, however, she explains in her more recent article that “I never do it up to the point where I can feel it”. Which is the rub, so to speak. Because if you’re a man, and more so if you’re a schoolboy, you will be expected to do it up that far, and do up your top button so that it constricts your neck. This was an enormous source of discomfort for me at secondary school, and the source of numerous arguments with teachers and prefects who saw that I had left it undone and demanded that I do it up again. Girls at my first secondary school could wear blouses, which freed them from having to wear ties (though they did have to wear a skirt, with tights underneath; this, I’m sure, some found uncomfortable, though not all). So her going to work (or wherever) with her tie at “half mast”, as this used to be called when I was at school, is simply a case of her exercising the dress choices she has as a woman. (Admittedly, in some schools, the same is required of girls.)

When reviewing the various “privilege checklists” that did the rounds a number of years ago, I noticed that in some cases the privileges listed were in fact trade-offs, not straightforward advantages. In Barry Deutsch’s male privilege checklist, for example, he claimed:

My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.

“Fewer options” is often presented as an advantage — that a burdensome decision is taken off one’s hands and life is simpler — and this is often given as an advantage for school uniform, that the child does not have to decide what clothes to wear, it’s already decided for them; but in the case of clothing, it’s only an advantage if the clothing is neither ridiculous nor uncomfortable, which a lot of school uniforms in fact are. Rycroft-Smith herself names “simpler dressing decisions” as an advantage of wearing men’s clothes; in the case of office work, you don’t have to choose whether to wear a suit or something else; it’s just a question of which suit. But if you find suits and ties inherently uncomfortable or they bring back unpleasant memories, both of which are the case for me, that simplicity is no advantage at all. And much as a lot of ladies’ fashions are nowadays made of artificial fabrics (some form of polyester, usually) which is not as cooling as cotton, the same is true of a lot of men’s suits (T-shirts, however, are more likely to be cotton).

Rycroft-Smith describes the male clothing she has started wearing as being “looser, more flowing, and cut for comfort, without sacrificing formality and professionalism”. As far as tops go, she’s right. As for trousers, I’d like to know where she gets her loose and flowing men’s trousers. I’ve mostly worn chinos since I was in my early 20s and have had real difficulty in recent years finding trousers that have both enough backside room and fit around the waist. I did put on weight for a while a couple of years ago and found that chinos in my old size no longer fitted me, but also that I could not find chinos in slightly larger sizes that fit well either. In addition, I find that many of them are poorly cut and do not come up far enough, especially at the back, meaning that a T-shirt which is not quite long enough might come untucked. They are just not generous enough. I suppose I could go ‘ethnic’ and wear something like a shalwar-kameez, but they don’t have trouser pockets, though some do have hip pockets on the shirt (and forget wearing an Indonesian-style sarong, comfortable though it may be). If skirts for men ever take off, I’d be first in line.

Two white women in a clothing store; the woman wearing the black dress now has her hands in the dress's pockets and is holding the skirt out with an excited look on her face.In theory, having access to multiple dress formats such as trousers and skirts should mean that being able to find clothes that are comfortable is twice as likely. In practice, feminine and practical are treated in the fashion world as if they were mutually incompatible. (I even once saw an item of underwear being marketed as “practical, feminine, sophisticated” and it was an all-in-one bodystocking that you had to take off, along with anything on top, if you needed the loo.) ‘Feminine’ clothes such as skirts and dresses are often designed with the assumption that you wear them to look pretty rather than for comfort or convenience. To take an example, an acquaintance has a daughter on the autistic spectrum who wears summer dresses for most of the year because they are the only things she finds comfortable, yet nearly all of them have seams in odd places or other embellishments that others would not notice but to which she is acutely sensitive (though this is perhaps an extreme example); the presumption that a dress, being a feminine item, is something you wear to be pretty rather than comfortable or for easy dressing means that what should be the most comfortable thing often is not.

There is also the principle that maintaining the ‘line’ is so important that a bulge for cash, cards and a mobile phone would ruin the look. Clothes are designed with the assumption that the wearer will keep all her belongings in a handbag which, unlike pockets which are sewn into one’s clothes, can easily be forgotten or stolen. While most women haven’t gone to the extreme of wearing mostly men’s clothing, this likely accounts for the fact that the long skirt, which was ubiquitous in the UK the 1980s and early 1990s, has become something only a minority of women wear when they do not have to today, which is sad because, regardless of the politics of it, there is so much more one can do with a skirt from a design point of view — they can be decorated with flowers, patterns, any colour one likes or not at all. Trousers, by and large, are pretty dull.

When I shared Lucy Rycroft-Smith’s article last weekend, I had responses from female friends saying that they had worn a lot of men’s clothing over the years because it fitted better and often because it was baggy and comfortable rather than fitted, though perhaps this was partly because it was built for bigger bodies than theirs, and had pockets. That said, if it’s what you wear all the time and it’s what you’re expected to wear, it’s not as confidence-building and empowering as if it’s a choice, and her solution is not going to appeal to all women who might find a skirt more comfortable or like the simplicity of a dress, which as the name implies, you can put on and be dressed, or find that putting on pretty clothes livens up their day a little, or for whom dress is an important part of “feeling like a woman”. There needs to be clothing which is practical, convenient, comfortable and, as most people see it, feminine.

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