Can women really win the clothes war?

What does the clothes war mean for women?


If anyone is in any doubt that we women are in the middle of a clothes war, the number of of recent incidents across the globe should change your mind. How women dress seems to be becoming a topic for international discussion. From Olympic presenter Helen Skelton causing public outcry for wearing a skirt in the Brazilian summer heat, to armed police in Nice forcing women out of their clothes on beaches, in line with the unlawful ‘Burkini’ ban. It seems people just can’t contain themselves when it comes to telling women or femme folk what to wear. And then they judge them harshly for their choices.

Now this won’t be new to any of us. We will all at some point had a parent, teacher, partner or even a stranger pass comment on our outfit choices for no reason other than they feel entitled to. It does however still seem shocking that in 2016 a woman exposing some cleavage or choosing to cover her hair can seem to cause the same outcry as an exposed Victorian ankle.
Read: Burkini the latest dress code issue for women

The delicate clothes war line

Let’s look at some of the ways women are still demonised for our clothing choices. We navigate being immodest and prudish in this ongoing and never-ending clothes war.

  #1 Asking for it

Recently prominent Indian politicians sparked outrage by implying that the high number of rapes in the country was due to the clothes women were wearing. Not, you know, rapists. They recommended that tourists stopped wearing skirts if they didn’t want to be attacked. Now this kind of victim blaming can be seen in every society. ‘Well, what were you wearing?’ is never far from people’s lips when a woman is describing any kind of sexual harassment.
We can see the ripples of this thinking all through our lives.  Whether it’s school dress codes that target and sexualise young women’s bodies, to hundreds of pages of advice on how to dress in the office and the street to avoid unwanted attention. Slut shaming and clothing choices go hand in hand.Tweet this As women we are frequently told to ‘leave something to the imagination’, ‘don’t have everything hanging out’ and ‘have some modesty’.
We are taught from puberty that are bodies are inherently sexual and therefore should be covered up. The Free The Nipple campaign as tried for years to remove the censoring of women’s nipples as breasts are wrongly classed as a sexual organ (they’re a secondary sexual characteristic such as a prominent Adams apple or body/facial hair). We are taught that our breasts, midriffs, bums and even our shoulders are inherently sexual. This leads not only to the distraction of males but apparently also robs them of the ability to control sexual urges.
Therefore you would think that for our own safety, women would be applauded for covering up as much as possible? Nope. Can’t win that way either.

#2 Undressed for your own liberation

clothes war

There should be no doubt there is a clothes war for women

The French government recently classed the Burkini ban as unlawful, and yet more and more French beach towns are adopting it as a rule. Full facial coverings are already banned in France and head scarves are banned in schools. The ‘burkini’ is a full wet suit with hood that covers the ears and hair, leaving the face exposed, just like scuba gear. It has given many Muslim women the ability to interact and participate more fully in their local communities as they can now enjoy more water based activities without having to worry about their modesty.

Some local councils, though, believe that the outfit is in fact encouraging segregation and fuelling fears after recent terrorist attacks in the country. Things came to a head recently when three male police officers recently forced a woman on a French beach to remove her outfit in public.
Now as Arundhati Roy said,
‘Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one’.
By not allowing these women to dress in a way they feel appropriate, the French authorities are reducing the amount these women can interact with their communities. Also, in any other situation forcing a woman out of her clothes with implied threat would face serious consequences and would undoubtedly be condemned by the public. There will always be the debate of a hijab, or any other religious dress (as head coverings for women can be found in almost all orthodox major religions.)  Where is the line between the oppression of women and a personal choice? Forcing any woman to remove anything she is wearing, especially in public, is simply a violation of…Tweet this

#3 Too prude to party

One again, women can't win.

One again, women can’t win.

It’s not just covering up for religious reasons that can cause women issues though. The other face of the clothes war is the back lash if we follow the advice to cover our bodies for our own protection, or simply out of personal choice.

The words ‘prude’, ‘frumpy’ and homophobic slurs soon follow. There seems to be an assumption, that if a woman doesn’t want to dress overtly ‘feminine’ or chooses to cover her figure than this is an insult to men and is robbing them of their right to ogle. ‘You should show your figure off more’, ‘how do you expect a man to fancy you in baggy clothes’ and ‘so are you a lesbian then?’ are just a few choice phrases thrown around when a women appears to be dressing for herself rather than the male gaze.

There have even been cases of girls being turned away from their own proms for choosing to wear suits instead of dresses. A personal friend of mine was accused of lying about a sexual assault because she dresses in traditionally male clothing. As one charming commenter put it ‘who’d want to rape a girl that looks like a man?’.

#4 Success offers no protection


The same public who hold Nigella Lawson up for her figure, innuendos and sex appeal, dismissed Amber Rayne’s death as an unfortunate side effect of her porn star career. Shockingly recently when an article was released showing Lindsey Lohan being physically assaulted by her boyfriend, most commenters have either blamed her for her life choices.  Some asked if there were more pictures of her partner exposing her breasts during the attack.

As the iCloud hacking scandal showed, women can be shamed for doing a consensual nude photo shoot (such as Kim Kardashian) and for having private photos, never intended for public viewing. It’s almost as if a lack of consent adds some extra appeal and fuels demand, and isn’t that worrying?

 So can women really win the clothes war?

In short, not right now. From catcalls to classroom embarrassment women still live in a world where their clothing not only dictates their self and professional worth but their right to an educationtreatment in a court case and career advancement. Even women in power can’t avoid the scrutiny. Successful women are still subject to whole columns about what they chose to wear, over their achievements. Even Theresa May, the U.K. Prime Minister hasn’t been able to avoid her clothes stealing the limelight.
Read: Will a casual dress code impact the war for talent?

3 ways to fight the clothes war

#1 Support other women

Don’t comment on that woman’s skirt length or her choice to wear a baggy jumper. Don’t play into the competition game where we judge a woman’s worth on her immediate appearance. Compliment and build up the women around you. Step in when someone makes an inappropriate comment.
Stand up to the bigots that believe they have the right to pull a woman’s hijab off. Without each other as support, how are we ever meant to progress?

#2 Be yourself

Wear what you want to wear. If somewhere has a dress code for health and safety or professional reasons, of course follow it. But if you see it leaning towards sexism, speak up. Public pressure can do wonders as seen in the high heels to work fiasco. Don’t let anyone tell you how you can and should dress.Tweet this Do what makes you comfortable and confident.
Read: Every day sexism and flat shoes

#3 Influence the women around you

Disrupt yourself

Our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends. Help them find a way to be comfortable in their own skin. Don’t let them believe our bodies are inherently bad.Tweet this Don’t let men use them as an excuse for their own actions. The more we stick together and refuse to be divided over something as simple as clothes, the harder we are to conquer.

 So go throw on that dress that makes you feel sexy, or that jumper that makes you feel cosy. Go out with your head up knowing that your body is yours and no one else’s. How you chose to dress is not a reflection of your character or worth.Tweet this

For anyone that says otherwise just remember: not your body, not your business.Tweet this

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3Plus, Board Room Image, Career, Gender Balance, Professional Image and Fashion
Esther Myers
Esther Myers
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Esther Myers is a Drama graduate who teaches children with disabilities and is heavily involved in women’s rights movements. She lives in London but often travels back to Yorkshire to see family and friends. She enjoys going to the theatre, being involved in feminist forums and Motown music. She works in a pub part time and wants to write about work and online issues facing modern women, as well as about intersectional issues.

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