Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cross-dressing for conservatives

Another day, another article about how things aren't made how they used to be. To give Christina Binkley's piece credit, she has a new angle: women should dress like men. (Via.) And it's one I can kind of get behind, if only because, as Binkley notes, "If comfort were the top criterion for selling womenswear, Jimmy Choo would be out of business." The notion that clothing must be uncomfortable for it to be formal or feminine is, as I've held forth about before, both irritating and, in careers other than corporate law and acting-in-ballerina-movies, largely avoidable. And I fully support women shopping for clothes in places other than the women's department.

But Binkley isn't waging a war on stilettos or skinny jeans. Her complaint is with the poor quality of womenswear. Here I'm less sympathetic - why, exactly, should we care if our clothes are well-made, unless we happen to get pleasure out of owning beautiful things? (That, and the item of clothing I own that's pilled the most dramatically is a coat from Uniqlo's first +J collection, which is praised in the article as an exception to the fast-fashion rule. From the menswear side, even.)

"Logos don't guarantee fine craftsmanship." True, and the people - men and women alike - who justify designer purchases on the basis of quality are often enough just making excuses. But if some get more joy out of logos than craftsmanship, what are we going to say, that these women are too materialistic? Isn't all of this materialism, quite literally? As for comfort, this can be achieved without "quality." Don't buy stuff that's too small. Choose ballet flats boots, or loafers over heels. Dresses!

Binkley makes the case that "tailoring should matter" as follows: "Women are always looking for clothes that will lift their bottoms and smooth their bulges. That's exactly the kind of magic that tailoring works."

No. Perhaps it's not great for the environment, but it's otherwise a good thing that women are more interested in experimentation with dress, with trends (and with grown women, we're talking trends-as-fun, not wear-the-right-jeans-or-you'll-be-shunned-at-recess), than with not looking fat.


Miss Self-Important said...

As you know, I fully agree with you re: "investment pieces," but I think this particular column is not aimed at an audience of, well, us. This isn't about buying the highest quality, individually-tailored pair of harem pants. Binkley seems to be speaking to women with jobs that require the wearing of suits or other items that are boring, mostly unflattering, and actually do need to be reasonably comfortable and last for a while (if only b/c they're really expensive).

Having occasionally needed to wear suits, I can attest to the failure of the women's clothing industry to provide me with much that doesn't make me look like a man-shaped sack. And the quality of suits actually does matter for their appearance--polyester pants and skirts cling, and awkward jackets make you look like a retired football player or military general. There are entire books out there about the subtle ways that certain cuts and styles of men's suits flatter different morphologies, while women have the option of straight, boot, or flare at Ann Taylor (and needless to say, all of them have a strange ass gap). If Binkley wants to help us out with this problem, I see no harm in it.

Britta said...

Speaking of comfortable, durable, and affordable clothes that might not be in the women's section, I wondered if you had any good suggestions for wool/wool blend tights that are not really expensive (like, $10-$20 range, not the $40+ range). LL Bean seems to have them, but considering I am a child's M, I am hesitant to get the women's S/M, especially since the size chart shows it as being too big.

Phoebe said...


Point taken re: the target audience. Not "creative professions," certainly not sweatpants-wearing grad students. So I'll accept that this holds for work clothes in the relevant careers. It doesn't carry over to non-work outfits (are Jimmy Choos corporate or nightclub? why is the article about "trendiness" if it's about suits? do stuffy-dress-code women's suit styles change that frequently?), but if the women being addressed work 80-hour weeks, their suits matter more than whether their jeans are skinny or relaxed fit. Somehow, though, I'd imagined that the women of this demographic already wore super-nice tailored suits, and weren't bothering with H&M, Zara, or other such chains in the first place. But what do I know?

At any rate, if the issue is definitively workwear for corporate types, I'm not sure it's better to make womenswear more like men's, or to allow a greater set of what women wear in non-corporate-board-meeting settings into the workplace. Such as: jersey-material dresses, ballet flats, cardigans. Not tube tops, but also not the menswear-for-women that currently defines corporate attire, and that requires exact fit to look right on curves. Would women be taken less seriously in these jobs if their dress, though still conservative, was more easily distinguished from men's? Again, not really my area.


No idea. I never buy kids' tights, because I can't begin to imagine what size they'd be. I'd say not American Apparel - I got the "bamboo" ones, which ended up with a hole from the first wear.

Britta said...

In terms of professions like law or banking, to what extent does looking slightly frumpy actually help a woman as being seen as more "professional"? I'm sure it's a fine line, but my guess is there's something about an androgynous vaguely form-concealing outfit that would be read as "I mean business" or "I'm serious." It kind of brings to mind that woman who claimed she got fired from a banking job for being "too hot," though the company claims it was because she dressed unprofessionally.

In my field in academia, people are known for being very laissez-faire in terms of dress (jeans are popular, as are for some leather pants and tube tops, so literally I guess, anything goes), however, I feel as a young woman who wants to be taken seriously that I would not wear anything too form-fitting or revealing in the department. There are definitely outfits I would wear to the pub with my friends (that are not meant to be obviously slutty) that I would hesitate about wearing to a seminar or to meet with my advisor. Of course, it is interesting that I would consider a shirt slightly too cleavage revealing when there are professors in skin-tight leopard print. Maybe when I'm tenured...

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure you have to be an established, 80-hr/wk workaholic to be part of this audience. I've had occasion to wear suits to interviews and occasionally to jobs, and I didn't have the money to get tailor-made stuff. I assume you have too. I doubt very many women who work at places that demand business attire are getting their clothes tailor-made, or Ann Taylor and the Limited would be out of business. I think the column reads more like a guide to buying at places like these--not a guide for people shopping on Savile Row (do they even make stuff for women?).

The point about shopping (not quite, as you say, dressing) more like men is to suggest to women what components to look for in mass-produced clothes. I don't think Binkley is really saying much about trends except for that one-liner about Jimmy Choos, or that frumpy comfort trumps all. But it's useful to point out that price and brand name don't necessarily convey quality (at least quality in the sense of "this will look good and last a while") and that minor alterations are possible, typically quite inexpensive, and can do much to make a particular garment hang better on your particular body. I'm surprised that the Limited, for example, can get away with selling 100% polyester suits for $200. On the other hand, H&M does carry perfectly good cotton blouses with darts that accommodate the female form better than some of the blouses at J. Crew. The point is that, if you have some idea about the way clothing is made, you will be better able to find items that look (or, with some adjustments, will look) good on you wherever you happen to shop. I don't think it's any more ideological than pointing out that horizontal stripes don't help out fat people, and that the thread holding the pleats in your skirt or coat together when you purchase it IS NOT MEANT TO BE LEFT IN.

As to whether the dress code itself should be liberalized or modified for women, that's kind of beyond Binkley's control. Different workplaces have different expectations, and if some expect women to dress conservatively at least on some occasions, any individual woman is hard-pressed to flout these expectations because "the internet said this was ok." Besides, although I think most offices (that I encountered in DC, at least) have no problem with flats, cardigans, etc., it's still nice to be able to look good in a suit in addition to all those things, and to do that, you still have to be able to find a suit that looks good.

Btw, last time I checked (two years ago), H&M carried wool-blend tights.

Phoebe said...


As I've repeatedly demonstrated on this blog, much to the amusement of women with more experience wearing suits, I haven't the slightest idea what goes into women's attire (or men's, for that matter) in the high-earning professions. All I can picture is Cuddy on "House," who always looks sexy and sensible (well, occasionally more the former than the latter) at the same time.


Shopping, but also dressing, like men. The further womenswear strays from a men's suit (exception: heels), the less professional the woman looks.

As for having had to wear a suit... kind of? Most of the occasions I can think of, I really ought to have just gone with dress pants and a sweater I already owned. To reiterate, I'm a bad example.

In any case, my question, if the article's not only about women in the upper echelons of businesswomanness, is what the male equivalents are wearing. Don't they, too, wear a whole lot of Banana Republic, Zara, Uniqlo if one's nearby? Are the men buying suit-books and really considering these matters doing so for interviews or midlevel jobs? Do men care what % polyester their work-wear is any more than women do? Are they any less inclined to use labels as a proxy?

Or, to take a break from being contrarian, I'd be more sympathetic to Binkley's article if she herself (as opposed to her readers) laid out exactly which demographic, which setting, she was referring to. If her point was that women in certain professions would do well not to confuse leisure-clothes-shopping (fun-shopping) and work-shopping (where flattering fit, good materials, etc. would be more important), and should thus "invest" (alas) in a few good suits, rather than go wild at Ann Taylor, fair enough. But are women going wild at Ann Taylor? Does the notorious female love of trend-inspired shopping carry over to formal office-wear?

Finally, no, Binkley doesn't get to declare jersey-material-dresses OK for office dress codes that would have none of that. Corporate types have no reason to take fashion cues from my blog, but I don't think they were planning on it regardless. Perhaps my fault here was reading too much into what was, in fact, an incredibly dull article about what women who see dress as utilitarian ought to wear to work. But, once again, I'm struck by her claim that women are blinded by brands and trends, which doesn't, to my mind, square with what Ann Taylor, say, is all about.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, my husband, who is the only man whose clothes-shopping habits I'm familiar with, does pay a lot of attention to how suiting items fit him, and is mostly oblivious to labels (although he often shops at expensive stores without realizing that things are cheaper elsewhere). He also has things altered all the time, often at stores like Banana Republic, because this is standard for men's clothing. I think that, given the lack of variety in menswear, subtle differences in cut and construction stand out more than among women's clothes. As for reading the suit books, again, my sample size is small, but I recall a heated discussion on either FLG's or A&J's blog last year all about which suit books are the most definitive. So yes, I think men--even mid-level office worker types--do care more about certain aspects of clothing that women overlook.

I don't think that it's necessarily true or Binkley's point that "the further womenswear strays from a men's suit (exception: heels), the less professional the woman looks." Skirts are also feminine and professional. And wearing actual men's officewear usually makes women look like boxes, not professionals. Many of the things you list--flats, dresses, etc.--are already pretty mainstream. But women have more not fewer options if they embrace the suit and get one that looks good on them. And how to do that is less obvious for many women (for example, me) than how to buy a cardigan. (And Binkley never says it has to be an investment or even tells you how much a good suit should cost, which men's fashion guides often do.) I think you're making too much of the male/female-and-therefore-subtle-sexism-must-be-lurking thing here. Binkley is suggesting that you examine the hems and stitching on pants, not get a gender-reassignment.

Her advice is for the most part boring, but only because you already know about button-holes and probably don't care about getting pants with waistbands that can be taken out. But the project in principle--breaking down how women's clothing is made so that I can figure out what it should look like and what I can get altered--is a positive good and should be expanded to encompass more clothing. I, for one, would like to know what the most flattering blouse cut is for different chest sizes, and how to get rid of that unfortunate gap between the second and third buttons that makes my bra visible, and which blazer cut is best for me and how many buttons it should have, and whether wide-leg pants can ever look good on short women, and so on.

Also, Ann Taylor is SO about trends, as I'm sure our friend JFred, who is one of their brand manager-type people, would attest.

Phoebe said...


You win this one. I don't have any idea about suits, nor a man with much need to wear one.

The best argument for Binkley's argument, I think, came from a commenter there, who pointed out how lucky men are that their clothes come in measurements rather than sizes.

As for getting things let out, I have a whole stack of pants I've accumulated over the years (well, maybe 4 pairs) that will go to the thrift store if I don't look into that possibility. Somehow, though, I'm thinking riding pants from eBay and $20 non-dress-pants from Uniqlo aren't contenders for this procedure.

PG said...

Predictably, I'm with MSI on this one, especially on the desire to find blouses without that bra-exposing gap. I'd add that when my law school class was going into its first interviews with firms, there was fevered discussion about whether pantsuits were "permissible," or a good idea for all interview days, or particularly disfavored on days when you'd be interviewing with more conservative/Southern firms. For some reason, the pantsuit is actually treated as slightly less "formal" for women than a skirt suit (complete with hose and heels) is. This doesn't mean that you want to look overtly sexy in a job interview -- blouses were generally buttoned up -- just that some interviewers' idea of what is appropriate office wear for women predates the pantsuit revolution of the 1970s. *Good* fit, which I'd say is not exactly the same as Cuddy-style form-fit, is part of looking like you've put effort into your appearance. If the shoulder of your jacket clearly extends a few inches past your own shoulder, or your skirt's hem goes a few inches past the knee, it just looks sloppy.

But there are signs that even the law, possibly the most hidebound profession in America, is liberalizing its views on how women could dress. Before Elena Kagan's Supreme Court appointment, she was Solicitor General and thus responsible for showing up at the Court regularly to argue cases. Traditionally the SG and his/her deputies were supposed to wear "morning dress," i.e. tails, for morning Supreme Court arguments. However, the Court appears to have advanced to the point that they told Kagan to wear whatever she wanted, because they didn't care.

Britta said...

The one problem with men's measurements though, is that they are just as susceptible to vanity sizing as women's are. I read some article where I guy went to a bunch of different stores, bought pants that were all 34"s, and then measured them. The actual inch number was off by as much as 8" from the supposed size, and I'm not sure if any of them were actually 34". I think Old Navy was the worst offender. My boyfriend has also had this experience, where he is different sizes at different places, but also, he is slowly shrinking in terms of pants sizes, but his waist has stayed pretty much the same. To me, that's almost worse than women's vanity sizing, because at least a size 8 or whatever doesn't pretend to be an actual objective measure.

Phoebe said...


Your thoughts on the matter are indeed what they thought I'd be, but I'll mention again that I already declared MSI the winner of this round. For someone whose entire household is close to suit-free, I've encouraged an awful lot of suit-talk on this blog! I still find the connection between trend-shopping and suit-shopping baffling, and am having trouble seeing how women's clothing or shopping patterns for work clothes would have evolved to be different from men's, but this isn't because you, MSI, or Binkley have it wrong - it's because I know Ann Taylor exists (one was on the route between my old office and the building where I taught) but would be hard-pressed to say what's inside.

Anyway, it's good to hear that lawyer-clothes are getting less restrictive, if that means they're more comfortable.


Good point. This is certainly true of women's measurement-labeled clothes - I have a pair baggy jeans that are two inches smaller in the waist than a pair I can only button occasionally. What would be ideal would be stable measurements or, my personal favorite, clothes that aren't so measurement-specific.

Miss Self-Important said...

You will have cause to buy a suit within the next five years, when you are on the job market and subsequently employed. Then you will learn of the mysterious contents of Ann Taylor. (Which, btw, you should learn of anyway b/c they do sell nice blouses and sweaters and things, not just suits. They even sell jeans, but I don't know anyone who buys them.)

Phoebe said...

Perhaps so. There's always a chance I'll be able to squeeze into the Banana Republic one I got at the end of college, but this is not something I've attempted in a long time.

As for Ann Taylor, not sure this holds for profs in my field, but as Britta mentions, this may be a tenure vs. everyone else distinction.