March 3 post by discussing the way I felt my feminism was expressed in my appearance. That little blooper got me thinking though about the variety of ways my appearance has changed over the course of my lifetime and how my appearance did or did not express my values at the time.
Throughout high school, my dress was mostly dictated by the high school dress code and the fact that I was a cheerleader. I truly rejoiced in the fitness of my body and its youth...with sometimes disastrous results. Every semester when my Introduction to Literature classes discuss John Updike's well known story "A&P", the conversation devolves into how manipulative the girls in swimsuits in the grocery store are being. I firmly stick up for teenage girls, generally arguing that their bodies are changing and that they often do not realize the effect of their appearance on people around them. I am definitely in the minority these days for taking that position, but perhaps times have changed.
I started college in 1972 and was free to wear what I wanted. Often, this was a pink leotard with my grandfather's very soft and very faded overalls OR a pair of skin tight boot cut jeans and an equally tight tee shirt, with hiking boots. My hair was long and frequently worn in some sort of braid. By this time, there WAS an awareness of my effect on the opposite sex. The overalls reflected the received ethic of the "hippie" vibe popular at the time, while the bootcut jeans reflected my blossoming desire to head west and become a "mountain woman."
The jeans remained the mainstay of my wardrobe throughout much of my twenties though the tight tee shirts gave way to loose flannel smocks when I began to have children. Through the years that I stayed home with my children, I had ONE outfit for dressing up, a gathered black wool crepe skirt and a simple georgette white blouse. That was all I had for nearly a decade. I owned one pair of hiking boots, HiTec, and wore the same pair for over five years. Though I recognized style when I saw it, my wardrobe reflected two things: I was poor and most of the time I smelled of sour milk and dirty diapers.
During the 1980s, I was part of a conservative Baptist church and developed a separate wardrobe for wear to church. This involved floral prints, hemlines below the knee, and covered arms. I recognized the dictates, but somehow felt that they missed the point of having one's heart in the right place. It was during this time period (I would have been in my early 30s) that I first encountered the idea of modesty for the sake of helping males to control their desires???
As a single mother, much of my wardrobe came from thrift stores. When I first returned to teaching, I was often told that I didn't look much different than my students. I began to work on that by studying my colleagues and thrifting better and better quality items. My pocketbook dictated my choices, or rather my diaper bag gave way to a book bag and then a brief case. For nearly 30 years, I did not carry a purse. A purse struck me as fussy (and an easy target in the dangerous neighborhood where I lived), while a diaper bag, book bag, or briefcase indicated purpose.
By the time I was forty, my daughters were hitting puberty. Though they had never seen me apply make-up, they had an interest in it. They wanted perms and pierced ears and underwear from Victoria's Secret. I realized that their youth had become far more sexualized than mine had ever been. My oldest was given out- of-school suspension for slugging a young man who "felt her up" in the hallways at school. When I tried to speak to school administrators about this I was gently told that boys would be boys. Girls were being taught lessons on sexual harassment in their physical education classes, but the boys were not?
When I remarried my all-female household suddenly needed to learn modesty to share a household with 3-4 young men. We had thought nothing previously of running around in our underwear and wearing ratty old t-shirts to bed. Suddenly that wasn't workable, so even in the intimacy of the home, our clothing choices were shaped for us. My own dress was all business at home and at school. The love of my life thought I was beautiful, while his children thought I was evil and my children thought he was evil.
Up until two years ago, I was still in daily parenting mode. Parenting has taught me that children are influenced by their peers, just as I was. When they are dressing to "resist", they are too often part of a crowd. While I like to think that my dress in some manner has reflected the received values of feminism, it has also reflected a variety of other influences and more often than not, our truest sense of style cannot be reflected for lack of funds, for lack of occasion to wear it, for lack of awareness. Our clothing choices are never absolutely dictated by our values, but tend to be an intersection of many factors in our lives.