3.27.2014

style notes: on feminism and fashion

via the epitome of quiet
"I had learned a lesson about Western culture: Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance."
–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 
"Why Can't a Smart Woman Love Fashion?"

i just love this essay by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. can a smart woman love fashion? (it's disheartening that this question is still being asked; but you only have to look to my interview series and the rest of LAM for my answer.)

department of inspiring women: Chimamanda Adichie via 
Lupita Nyong'o (via nymag)
Gloria Steinem (who makes 80 look phenomenal) via

i was working one day last week when i happened to hear a snippet of Adichie being interviewed on NPR. usually i tune out the background noise during the workday, but i found myself turning the volume up and nodding along throughout the conversation. at one point, Adichie recalls the process of finding the confidence to embrace her personal style:
"I grew up being told that I had to look in the mirror. You know, my mother made history. She was the first woman to be head of the administrative section of the University of Nigeria, and she was very concerned about her appearance, and she brought all her children up to care about how we looked. And so I came to the U.S. and I realized serious women were not supposed to, and that if you did look as though you cared, it was a reason to be dismissive of you ... 
I think I just really have come to understand that life is way too short to pretend to be what I'm not, and it sounds very New Agey and clichéd but I just really want to be my true self, and this is my true self. I think, for so long, when I would find black shapeless shifts for every event, I was just being false, that was not myself, but I was thinking, 'I have to look serious.'"
if you haven't seen it already, i highly recommend watching Adichie's inspiring TED talk. i can certainly relate to many of the points she raises – but one story in particular stands out. Adichie recalls that when she was younger and preparing to teach a writing class, she felt compelled to edit her outfit lest she risk not being taken seriously by her students. so instead of putting on what she wanted to wear (a colorful dress, lip gloss, fun jewelry), she opted for a conservative black suit instead. 

i feel like so many of us can recall instances when we're expected to 'tone down / cloak / masculinize' ourselves in order to project gravitas, intellect, 'seriousness'. and it's complicated, because in certain situations – a job interview, an important work event – the risk is all too real; we just don't feel like we have the option to choose between how we want to present ourselves vs. how we 'need' to.

what do you think? have you experienced this dichotomy in your own life/career?

P.S.: can't wait to get myself a copy of Americanah this week.

35 comments:

  1. Given that I started my business career in the American chemical industry in 1984-ish, um, yes to the masculinizing etc:). In tech, in 2010+, much less so.

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    1. it's fascinating to track how the gender politics have changed/evolved, no?

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  2. I work as an advertising copywriter and I completely agree with the notion that there is a conflict between being taken seriously and expressing personal style! While there's less of an emphasis on business professional attire, I've noticed a sartorial version of slut-shaming at work when a female coworker made disparaging remarks about another female coworker's high-fashion look (which, I might add, was work-appropriate and looked great on the person!).

    Personally, I've made my peace with it because I choose to dress for me (while remaining work-appropriate, which is just a practical thing) and I think that in itself is a small step to break the dichotomy.

    As usual, a wonderful and thoughtful post on personal style and the self. I adore your perspective and always look forward to new posts!

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    1. thanks Grace - that's very kind of you to say and i'm so happy to have you as a reader :)

      i find it really disheartening when i overhear one woman deriding another like that. sigh. but i like your motto of dressing for yourself while remaining professional.

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  3. I also want to add that all this reminds me of an excellent maxim I try to live by from Oscar Wilde:

    "You can never be overdressed or overeducated."

    Perfect.

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  4. This is so true. When I dress up for work, people think it's weird, but this might be that I am usually the only (young) female in my department.

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  5. I loved 'Half a Yellow Sun' and 'Americanah' both, so I'm sure you'll enjoy the book immensely. On another note, I never let anyone at work know how feminine I can be and how much work I put into taking care of myself -- it just seems like the immediate reaction to a woman upkeeping herself is that she has too much time and is vain.

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    1. i'm definitely bringing Americanah on my trip. and it's frustrating how this style/substance thing is so dichotomized.

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  6. Ditto to what Amanda said. I fear that if my colleagues knew how much interest I have in fashion and personal style, they would not take me or my ideas seriously.

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    1. a thousand ughs to this. ugh ugh ugh.

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  7. I don't deal with it yet, but once I (hopefully) transition into a different field, I may encounter this. But just watching videos or seeing scholarly men...how it's totally acceptable for intelligent men to dress like slobs vs how women should look perfectly groomed and so on.

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    1. P - the double standards for women in this context are really frustrating...

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  8. I did a blog post recently that touched on this a little, using philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum as a style icon. I take heart from the fact that if people took her less seriously because she likes clothing and fashion, she hasn't noticed. However, it's definitely a "thing", but you're damned if you do (frivolous??) and damned if you don't (frumpy??). So you might as well be true to yourself, whatever that is.

    Thanks to linking to Adichie, her essay looks right up my alley!

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    1. LP - martha nussbaum is fierce! i know a few people who took her classes and were in awe of her formidable intellect and charisma as a professor.

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  9. I am a teacher and I work at a very casual middle school. I wear dresses and heels everyday (I teach chemistry and physics) and I get comments all the time from my colleagues (how can you wear those high heels, why don't you wear sensible shoes, how much money do you spend on clothes...). I just ignore them because I could never come to work (or even go to the grocery store) in sweats. The thing is, I have no problem with parents like other teachers do. I would have to prove that I CAN'T do my job because parents and administrators assume that I can by the fact that I look like I know what I'm doing. There are teachers in our district that are amazing teachers but they dress like slobs and so district officials dismiss what they have to say. This is not an attractiveness issue but more of a professionalism issue. If teachers show up for work looking like babysitters, that's how they'll be treated. I want my students to know that I'm proud of my job and proud to be their teacher. I show up looking like I want to be there, not like it's a stop between waking up and going to sleep.

    Thanks for sharing the TED talk.

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    1. MrsJ - i love that you dress up to teach. i had a wonderful and brilliant English AP teacher in high school who was always stylishly turned out, and she always made such an impression on me for her sense of style + her teaching chops.

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  10. I work in a physics lab and feel pressure to dress 'down' much of the time. I mean, I'm familiar with a lot of people interested in fashion and still feel vain... I can't imagine what they'd think! But I also have so much admiration for women who go out and kill it both in work and dress in traditionally male dominated fields. Someday!

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  11. So far I have been really lucky when it comes to this. but then again I work as a graphic designer and I think we might be expected to be a bit.. vain :) My colleagues know that I have a blog and they know that I write about clothing and makeup (among other things), but they also know that I'm good at what I do and that I can out-nerd most men at my firm. We're a very small and close-knit company though, so that might explain it.

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    1. you know Maja, i feel like this issue must be somewhat mitigated by the fact that you're in a design field where aesthetics are part of the work culture. but from your instagrams i love your office culture vibes! :)

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  12. I currently work outside the US( more specifically Korea), and as more time goes on I've come to the opposite conclusion. I've become more aware about my appearance because of my professional life. When I come to work appropriately dressed but in pants, I usually get no comments at all (except if I'm wearing a pretty scarf or jewelry). But if I show up at work in a dress or a skirt ( even if it's colorful), I receive encouraging comments and most importantly I'm taken more seriously-even by my students. I've also seen a similar reaction happen in France as an intern/student.

    I will admit that I've spent a vast majority of my time outside of the US in countries that are famous for their emphasis on personal aesthetics. Not only that, I look younger than my age, so dressing up works in my favor rather than the opposite notion. However,I really do believe that this observation about feminism and fashion is more US-centric than not- although I can see this attitude being present in other countries as well, but definitely to a lesser degree. It would be great if one day everyone could wear what they want to wear and their actual/potential work capabilities not be judged by their fashion choices.Alas, that is not our current situation. :/

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    1. i think you bring up a really interesting point here – and Adichie discusses this – the Americanness of this fashion/feminism dichotomy. i hope that this changes someday as well...

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  13. The older I get, the less time I have for insecure, petty commentary - whether about my clothing choices or anyone else's.
    I am a little more careful about showing skin now than I was a year ago, because I am now in a leadership role and wearing a short dress or a sheer tee just seems inappropriately "young". I assume that if I were a guy, now would probably be a good time to swap tee shirts for shirts, for pretty much the same reasons.

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  14. SO interesting! And so relevant. Isn't this something that we struggle with even in politics? Hilary Clinton's (and even Sarah Palin's) wardrobe choices being discussed during presidential campaign for goodness sake. I've never (NEVER) heard a man's outfit dissected instead of his politics/ideas. Unfortunately this makes women rethink what they are wearing so that people hear their voices instead of just seeing their clothes.

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  15. i love Adichie's TED talk, and had the pleasure of reading the Elle article a couple of weeks ago. i do think this is a very US-centric model about having to dress down or "man up" your dressing, and it does seem like you'd get the side eye if you worked in tech or other STEM fields. as someone in medicine, i don't notice it a ton. we are expected to dress very professionally, but i don't think that means "manly" per se. HOWEVER, i can't help but think about residency program directors that are female--ones i have seen definitely cover their bodies more and wear more suits. i'm not sure if it's a power thing, an age thing, or simply a lack of style issue. for me, having pride in my dress is something that projects confidence and a look of having things together; i think patients like that, and they tend to compliment my dressing. i am careful to not go too short with my dresses and skirts. i'm already young, so i do have to think about being taken seriously as a doctor. people just loooove to ask me my age.

    love love love Americanah. enjoy! recently read The Thing Around Your Neck, and might have even loved it more. a collection of 12 or so eerie and powerful stories that are as poetic as they are substantive. i have read her Purple Hibiscus, which is beautiful. sadly, haven't read Half of a Yellow Sun--trying to borrow from a family member, but it seems to be THE book to lend out!

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  16. I think I struggle with the whole masculine/feminine thing in the courtroom the most. It's not such a big deal in the law firm I work in because, let's be honest, my firm's a total matriarchy, with my boss being completely absent-minded about what his workers wear so long as it somewhat fits into 'business casual.' But court is a little bit different. You're being watched and judged all the time. As it turns out, court in the contemporary world is exactly what you'd expect from court in 1700s France--it's a place filled with eyes.

    You need to make friends, even alliances, with judges/law enforcement/prosecutors/clerks/etc. And, honestly, it's just not somewhere where you want to be seen with a Cartier watch--at least, not in this locality. There's an obvious distrust of the flashy attorney and so, of course, I'm more somber and funereal in my looks. Dress too young, and you'll get asked by the bailiff if you're an attorney at all. Dress too rich, and you'll get distrustful looks from the officer you're talking to. And dress too old, and you'll be sneered at by your peers. And you never, ever, ever want to make enemies with a clerk by looking too prissy. Court is a surprisingly superficial world and I think it's hard for women to get ahead unless they dress exactly like they bought everything off the rack in the blandest suit shop you could imagine. Which, you know, is what most of us do.

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  17. I thoroughly enjoyed Americanah, which is the first book of hers I've ever read, and I'm now keen to pick up on her other books! I've been lucky in the sense that I rarely encounter people who give me attitude about how I dress and my work environment is pretty tight knit and accepting of how anyone chooses to dress. Also, I am a big, tall person, and my resting face tends towards serious/bitchy so that helps me feign quite a bit of gravitas even when I'm nervous as hell, hah. But many of my friends feel this dichotomy so I am so heartened by Chimimanda Adichie giving voice to this issue and providing a rallying point for women to know it's ok to stand firm and feel confident about their sartorial choices.

    I sometimes feel that men face the same issue - they don't want to appear like they care too much either because they get judged for being too much of a "dandy" - my male colleague gets a fair bit of ribbing for his meticulous sense of dress and his hair style. But of course, women are more much susceptible to be considered frivolous since we've been burdened with that stereotype since what feels like forever, reinforced by pop culture.

    Excellent, thought provoking post and I love reading all the experiences shared here!

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  18. I think the worst is how this professional vs fashion is so deeply rooted in our thoughts and from such an early age!
    Even if I never had comments about my appearance, I had this image of how a professional woman is supposed to look like and for a while I submitted myself to it. Even my natural hair was in my mind up to debate and it took me a few years to ascertain myself.
    Also I don't think putting women's appearance under scrutiny is not an American "thing", it's pretty much the same in France at least. For instance, politician women's looks are under the microscope.
    As for Chimamanda Adichie, I'm really glad that her genius's acknowledged and that her voice is heard. Hoping she will get more recognition in France especially!

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  19. I work as a management consultant associated closely with an university, in an office with many academics. My job involves a good amount of client interaction and business development out of the office, mostly in east coast cities. I am both academically oriented and fashion obsessed, which makes me a curiosity with my colleagues. Fortunately I bring in work so my personal style is not up for negative scrutiny, but I get many questions on where and how I get my wardrobe, jewelry, hair style upkeep, manicures, etc.

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  20. I'm in STEM academia, and I'll tell you first-hand that I've never seen a female academic in my field wear lipstick and I've seen close to zero dresses. As others have said above, frivolity questions your gravitas as a academic, so most women steer clear of fashion and primping in favor of frumpiness, or at least comfort. I just attended a conference with many European attendees and I have to say the European academic women are so stylish! I spied little bit of Acne and a little bit of Marni;) It made me so happy that there are at least a few places in the world where fashion and success don't have to be at odds for women.

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  21. I'm in STEM academia, and I'll tell you first-hand that I've never seen a female academic in my field wear lipstick and I've seen close to zero dresses. As others have said above, fashion is a sign of frivolity, so most women steer clear of fashion and primping in favor of frumpiness, or at least comfort. I never wear anything blatantly fashion-forward and definitely have attempted to dress more masculine in hopes of getting more respect (even from students). I just attended a conference with many European attendees and I have to say the European academic women are so stylish! I spied little bit of Acne and a little bit of Marni;) It made me so happy that there are at least a few places in the world where fashion and success don't have to be at odds for women.

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  22. Love this! So true that you should wear what you want, not what people expect of you. Incidentally, I'm reading Americanah now :)

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  23. I think we have the same issue here in Australia. My manager and I both enjoy fashion - we dress appropriately for work but also fashionably. I realised this was making our peers think less of us when, in a recent workshop designed to help everyone in my department understand different modes of thinking ( eg detail oriented, big picture, analyticall...) my manager and I were described as 'vain, vapid and vacuous' - totally off topic! Of course nothing could be farther from the truth, but it seems this is an assumption made of those who pay attention to their clothes or appearance. Since then I'm sad to say we've been dressing down and wearing lots of black...

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  24. I come to this post late but thanks so much for this food for thought! It's a struggle that I can relate to. Nice to find a forum here. (Love Chimamanda Adichie!)

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