“[Masculinity is] a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for one's entire life (by contrast, I imagine femininity to be an oppressive sense of nakedness).”
So says Paul Theroux, travel writer. This aphorism drifts around my brain like a detached pixie wing. It’s true in some ways; men do seem expected to roam thelandscape all covered up. The man’s coat might also be an ill-fit because it is his father’s; society has forced him into Dad’s constrictive mold.
Femininity can mean nakedness—women are often considered an earthy lot. “I am a body farm, I am produce,” 22-year-old-poet-me wrote. Since then, I’ve read enough about capitalism and sexuality to observe that women attract men with their bodies and then make babies with those same bodies; we offer a complete mode of production.
I certainly don’t want to wear the ill-fitting coat of masculinity. How uncomfortable. Nonetheless, a body farm may want protection and cultivation; it may wish to appear lavish and welcoming, like an English country house or a Caribbean villa. Would I prefer a corset to an ill-fitting coat, then? What about a pair of merciless control-top pantyhose, or Juicy Couture sweatpants that cling more tightly than skin and stop just centimeters from exposing the tip of my vulva?People’s dresses are really addresses; makeup and clothes write a social language. In 1899’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen notes that as the “chief slave,” the Anglo-American rich man’s wife is primarily responsible for displaying his wealth, and she often creates this display via her person (think trophy wives or “Real Housewives”).
Some contemporary circles view enthusiasm about adornment as a sign of a woman’s shallowness or as a badge of her submission—we should not give precious time and energy to such frippery. Life is a serious business—no lip gloss. If you appreciate beauty commodities, you commodify yourself; thou shalt not Bluefly! “Real” women, apparently, should not care about how they look.
Keeping all of this firmly in mind, I still feel that material self-fashioning generates pleasures that are both mental and sensual. I love a low neckline, for example, especially if it creates a teaspoon of gentle curve. I love the soft brush of a powder compact, the caress of a thick mascara, and the smooth soufflé of a lipstick. The lines of a bias-cut skirt appeal to me, and I appreciate a close fit through my hips.
I could put Pope’s Belinda to shame. Shallow frippery? Why, yes. Hand me those blue dangly earrings—the ones that float like cumulus clouds.
Elizabeth I’s cousin, Arbella, once remarked, “I must shape my own coat according to my cloth, but it shall not be after the fashion of this world but fit for me.” I’m with her. I may not be Juicy, but I try to be refined. If I must be one of our culture’s peacocks (female, ironically), I will select my feathers with care, and I will attempt to flutter them with grace and discretion. I remain pretty naked underneath the fancy tail.