Catalogue of Sorts

What I wear, when I wear it, and how it works on my bike

Overdressing to Compensate

I saw this at Bitch Magazine yesterday:

Today it may be a little more difficult to tell someone’s social class or cultural background from what she wears, but choosing comfortable clothing is still complicated by media and social messages about how women and men should look, act, feel and think.

It struck me as quite true, and I felt I had nothing to add. But then I realized I did. The quote was in an “advice you did not ask for” column, in response to a woman saying she could not take seriously the feminism–or, indeed, opinions–of women who dressed like sluts. I’m not going to get into the weighty aspects of either the quote or the circumstances of the woman judging others for wearing “high heels” and other things “more provocative than comfortable”–I’m going to stick to the superfluous parts of the issue.

High heels are not per se uncomfortable. Clothing with fitted waistbands; clothing with a generally snug fit; suits, shorter skirts, underwire bras, even corsets. What makes something uncomfortable is: fit and whether it makes you feel exposed. Well, inapropriate-to-the-weather clothing is inherently uncomfortable, as are some unbreathable fabrics.

If your high heeled shoe is neither too big nor too small, it probably isn’t uncomfortable. Even for wearing all day. Even for walking. Hiking in the woods? Running on the treadmill? Uncomfortable and inappropriate.

Dressed for clubbing, in the early 2000’s.

Take it from me: if your leather pants are the right size, they aren’t uncomfortable. If they aren’t too small, they don’t pinch or bind, poke or squeeze. You can draw a deep breath in clothes that fit, even when they are fitted to your form. Too warm for high noon in mid July, sure. Definitely not appropriate for work. But if you’re going to a nightclub, have at.

So, physical comfort is relative.

So is emotional comfort. That’s a picture of me, with my name attached to it, in leather pants and a leather corset. That’s provocative. Especially for someone in a conservative profession. It’s an older picture–maybe 6-7 years old–but it’s not a “wild youth” picture. But I wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t going to the grocery store, or an art museum on a Saturday afternoon, or my cousin’s wedding. I was headed to a nightclub. No-one batted an eye. Not even on the subway, actually.

I wasn’t just physically comfortable in my clothes. I wasn’t just emotionally comfortable in my clothes in my surroundings. The context–and the people in the context–were also emotionally comfortable with my clothes. And that’s important, too. Go ahead, totally rock what you’re wearing, own those wild sartorial choices, but recognize that, as human being living among other human beings, you have some measure of duty to their comfort as well as your own. How much duty? I don’t know, but some. Don’t wear a white ball gown to your cousin’s wedding. Don’t wear a skin tight bandage dress to your grandfather’s funeral. Don’t try to lecture to a room full of law students in a shirt that threatens nipple-reveal at any moment. That’s awkward for everyone.

Over-dressing to where your clothes are a little more formal, or a little more fancy, or a little more fashion-conscious than everyone in the room will send a signal. It may signal that you’re more serious than most people. It may signal that you’re more frivolous. You determine what it’s signaling by the comfort levels of the people around you in response to your presentation. Then decide whether to adjust your clothes or work at making people comfortable around you in another way.

Not that I’m necessarily good at any of that, but I am given to understand that is how it ought to work.

Oscar Wilde, of course, is the source of the title for this post. In Dorian Gray, he wrote: “A great many people don’t, but I find him charming. He atones for being occasionally somewhat overdressed by being always absolutely over-educated. He is a very modern type.” In The Importance of Being Earnest, a character declares: “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.” The general sentiment is often ascribed to Wilde simply as “One can never be over-dressed or over-educated.” Today, I feel I am neither.

It’s a  non-work day and I have no volunteering scheduled (Tuesday, I’ll be doing voter protection in Wisconsin) and my one errand needs to be rescheduled. I’m in leggings, wintersilks, and a sweater. Some horrible machinery is grinding outside my sunroom window and I’m now at loose ends.

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2012 by in Taking the day off and tagged , .

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