In 1913, Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti proclaimed: “Today’s woman loves luxury more than love. A visit to a great dressmaker’s establishment, escorted by a paunchy, gouty banker friend who pays the bills, is a perfect substitute for the most amorous rendezvous with an adored young man.” The first time I read this, I giggled. All I could imagine was Marinetti in the middle of a foot-stomping temper tantrum. Can’t get the girl? Dress up that whining entitlement in condescension. Criticise her love of clothes. Suggest that her well-cut dress means she must be vapid, that she naïvely chooses aesthetics over "adored" young men and the real experiences they can offer.
History is littered with all sorts of weird, wonderful examples of men getting angry at women who prioritised fashion. Recently I began collecting them, fascinated by medieval preachers who considered wigs, painted faces, furs, and “wasteful sleeve-lengths, as well as womanly pride and passion” (as detailed by Christa Grössinger in her book Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art) to be sinful. Offering up an even better list of misdemeanours, the British King George V was a man who, according to his son, “disapproved of…painted fingernails, women who smoked in public, cocktails, frivolous hats, American jazz, and the growing habit of going away for week-ends.” For plenty, myself included, that sounds like a recipe for a pretty great time. In fact, throw in the "wasteful sleeve-lengths," and you’ve got yourself a proper party. Several centuries later, John Wesley’s Sermon 88 (from 1786) was especially indignant when it came to “Brussels lace,” “elephantine hats,” and “bonnets.” He also thundered on about how “gay and costly apparel directly tends to create and inflame lust.” Change “gay and costly” to “short skirts and low-cut tops,” and we have a message that society still maintains: Women must, somehow, be responsible for the actions of men, too. That their clothes are not just an affront but also an invitation, and a possible harbinger of blame. That, of course, is just a smattering of examples. There are myriad to pick from: criticism of everything from cosmetics to crinolines to anything slightly revealing. It’s easy to string together the funnier ones. You can’t help but snort with laughter (or despair) at the idea of an accessory being dangerously subversive, or sleeve lengths adding to society’s ailments. But too excessive, too scanty, too much, or too little, they all point to the same idea: Women who care about appearance must be vain, frivolous, excessive, conceited, stupid, air-headed, self-involved, insubstantial, attention-seeking...you pick the word — there are plenty.
Sure, women have complained about clothes, too. And lots of the moaning has been directed at men, or at anyone who might relish the process of getting dressed. But often, to be female and to enjoy clothing brings a higher level of anger. To focus on appearance (apparently) means to neglect any other number of things: duty, morality, intellect, seriousness, achievement. It’s something we still see played out today. Look at the commentary surrounding Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Or the noise made about the new British prime minister, Theresa May’s, shoe choices. Female politicians, particularly, can’t win. Not only do they tend to have their outfit choices dissected regardless of what they’re wearing — but those who relish what they’ve got on are treated with particular disdain. Women are caught in a contradiction. Our culture suggests that we must care about appearance, that our looks are valuable. But take too much interest — especially for our own satisfaction? Then we’re shallow. Lacking in substance. Probably using all our brain space on the material, with little left over for more "serious" matters. I often think about this stunningly good essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she writes about her love of clothes marking her apart in academic circles. She observes, “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers.” Embarrassment or contempt: what a pair! You can trace a direct link between the kinds of outraged statements found above and the anxiety captured here — a fear of being dismissed as trivial.
Adichie talks about learning to dress without shame, exulting in being bright, bold, and brilliant. That’s what strikes me about all of this. It’s not just criticism of clothes. It’s criticism of women making their own choices (I mean, it’s also about morality, sexuality, gender, modesty, sin, and the patriarchy, but I’ve only got so many words here.) We’ve always been bombarded with messages about how we should look and behave. To indulge in a good hat, some massive sleeves, or a set of painted nails is perhaps to piss off those who think they still have a say over what women do with their bodies. As well as bemoaning the lack of an “amorous rendezvous," Marinetti also grumbled that “the woman finds all the mystery of love in the selection of an amazing ensemble.” Now, I’m not suggesting that the mysteries of love can be located in a wardrobe, but an “amazing ensemble” can certainly be a wonderful thing. That’s the magic of clothes: The thrill of dressing up and being transformed. There’s also a kind of magic in being visible, I think. A woman who wears what she wants, who unapologetically loves red lipstick and eye-catching clothes, is still seen as a threat because she prioritises her own pleasure. Not approval. Not others’ opinions. Just the sheer joy found in a good dress or perfect pair of trousers. She takes up space — visually and maybe literally, too, depending on the size of that hat, or the length of those sleeves.