Whether we are at work, on Oxford Street doing some much needed shopping with the girls, heading to Old Street for early evening drinks or Sunday lunching with family and friends, no matter where our presence may be, our appearance shall always be judged. Where does the fashion sensitive woman’s standards and visual instincts, that she uses to judge herself and other women, really come from? Ayesha Charles Reports.
Jennifer Lopez Versace Grammy Dress

Basic humaninstincts has us judge what is before us with our senses, those of us lucky enough to have all five senses seem to be led instinctively by what appears. What we wear can blur the lines of class, status, wealth, politics and taste, giving us the all the ability to materialise as who we want to be or who we wish to be perceived as. Fortunately or not, depending on your stance, what we wear and our general external appearance plays an immensely significant role in how we are treated in society. Traditionally, as women in the western world we have a far more intense relationship with our external bodies and appearance, this is very much reflected in women’s fashion and it’s enormity and variety in comparison to men’s fashion. We have an insurmountable choice when it comes to ornamenting our exterior. Before we even begin to consider colour, fabric, length or cut, we deliberate over dresses or skirts, trousers or leggings, costume jewellery or precious stones, practicality or glamour. Of the eighty two Oscar ceremonies we have only just had our first woman win Best Director, we are still struggling to diminish the twenty percent extra that men earn over women and the ratio of female to male designers is twenty five percent to seventy five, yet we have a world of fashion and beauty products available to us in abundance, how come?

According to Mr Sigmund Freud, ‘Most normal people desire to look at and derive pleasure from looking at things they find sexually attractive.’ Many theorists would have it that women inherently are to be looked at, to be pleasing to the eye and give the onlooker pleasure in looking. John Berger, art critic, author, painter and novelist made an eminent declaration, stating that, ‘Men act and women appear – If men decide how to behave towards a woman on the basis of her appearance, a woman has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.’ This statement no doubt applies a great deal of pressure to women, our appearance is judged doubly by society; firstly as women, the alternative sex, secondly, as objects of the male desire – but by no means does this make us victims. On paper, Berger’s theory reads far worse than it is in actual fact. The truth is, as women we battle with our desirability everyday – playing it up and toning it down in order to get what we want and to keep away what we don’t. It all sounds so femme fatale, Catherine Tremmel like, but really it’s just another intrinsic skill added to the woman’s list of survival tactics.

In the Black and Blue, a bar tucked away inside Borough Market, a group of us were meeting for after work drinks to celebrate a twenty sixth birthday. Cassandra Jones, a Diary Secretary for the department of health arrives in an oatmeal micro mini skirt, with a long sleeved black t-shirt, black tights and ballet pumps, very tastefully put together. However, the length or lack thereof, of her skirt stirred up some conversation; incredulously, we asked her if she had worn that skirt at work, ‘Yes,’ she said, almost defensively, ‘If I had long legs or was wearing heels it would be a problem, but I’m short – it’s ok.’ In society we discredit a woman for using her femininity or attractiveness as a tool to get ahead, but in this case we know Cassandra, she’s an intelligent woman who is far too feminist to ever endorse such behaviour. Yet instantly and instinctively she validated herself for wearing a mini skirt in the work place and we, as women and her friends instinctively judged her for it. Could these instincts be the lingering remains of the cave man mentality residing in us?
In the power dressing eighties it would have been considered the norm to be irked by a woman dressed in a mini skirt in the work place, regardless of whether she was doing it for personal advancement or sheer self expression, it was completely unheard of. Emma Soames, British editor of Saga magazine says, ‘Thirty years ago we were happy to be accepted professionally – we regarded it perfectly ok to dress mannishly to beat our way to the boardroom…we subconsciously accepted that we were operating in an utterly male world and playing by their rules.’ Even though Emma wasn’t playing up her desirability, with her career in mind she had to pay attention to the fact that she was an object of desire, of distraction, of the alternative sex and tone down her ‘otherness’, which ultimately equivocates dressing for the man’s approval.
I asked a number of women whose approval they seek when they get dressed on a daily basis; the answers were split fifty-fifty between dressing for themselves and for the approval of other fashion conscious women – of course, none claimed to dress for the man’s approval. Gemma Ellen, a twenty six year old prison officer spends ninety percent of her time dressed in a uniform she detests, ‘It’s manly, it doesn’t give me any shape and funnily enough it makes me feel naked,’ she says, ‘I relish the opportunity to get dressed up, put some heels on and feel like a woman.’ Gemma Ellen is lucky enough to have a bra size that could permit her to be a Glamour model, what she fills her bra with is all hers, however, unlike such models she never wears low cut tops or anything that accentuates this part of her body, ‘I don’t want that kind of attention.’ Although this is completely comprehendible and we know the exact kind of attention Gemma Ellen is referring to, it’s still almost contradictory; she hates her uniform because it stifles her femininity, yet when she has the opportunity to dress as she chooses, she plays down an inherently female asset, (An asset that woman all over the world are paying thousands of pounds to enhance in order to feel more feminine and possibly more attractive to the opposite sex) because she doesn’t want the – male attention?
Selina Sydonnie, a twenty five year old ex model, turned English and Drama student has too claimed that she dresses for herself and possibly the women in her life, ‘Men haven’t got a clue,’ she says. Once upon a time she was a Nike, Gap jeans and quirky t-shirt wearer, dressed appropriately for hanging out at her actor, boyfriend’s Caterham mansion. Now, she is a social butterfly and today she wears a black bandeau skirt, with a tunic top, Hogan pumps and an Yves Saint Laurent Downtown bag. ‘Well, I’m a single woman now, I want to get dressed up. I enjoy it. I would never dare to leave my house without eyeliner – even if I’m just going to Sainsbury’s.’ It is to be noted that Selina split up with her boyfriend of ten years, nine months ago and is now actively enjoying playing the field.
If one of the intrinsic roles of the woman is her to-be-looked-at-ness then the women I have encountered are not only enjoying, but fulfilling this prescribed area of their femininity. Of course the codes of good taste and modesty would have it that we keep our exhibitionistic elements to a minimum and dress accordingly.
It’s considered cheap and vulgar to dress too far left of the modesty mark – it resonates sex worker, who emphasise their sexual desirability for capital gains and trade solely on their objectivity to men. On the other end of the scale are women who rebel against their objectivity and their femininity,denying any adornment that plays up their sexuality as women. Fashion sensitive women seem to frown upon anything overtly sexual and contrived and anything that lacks femininity and attention – surprisingly enough, so do men.
It could be considered that dressing for the male approval is so deeply rooted in western society we are now none the wiser we even do it, or we are so accepting of our desirability and objectivity that we just get on with it, using it or not when we feel it to be appropriate. But it would appear that the women I encountered still judge themselves and other women by the very own standards they are confined to, using the man’s process to decide what’s attractive and appropriate. Kate Millet says that, ‘The woman’s image is fashioned by men,’ they may cringe at the thought of dressing for a man’s approval, but ultimately, if women are judging other women on their employability, their performance in the work place, their attractiveness, their ability to get a husband, their femininity and their sexuality, all by how they adorn their external bodies and the woman’s image was indeed tailored by and for men, then dressing for the approval of their friends and dressing for the approval of themselves is no different than dressing for a man’s approval.
‘Maybe I have contradicted myself, and maybe I do dress for a man’s approval,’ Selina Sydonnie admits, ‘but I’m not a try hard and I don’t dress provocatively – at least not when it isn’t suitable. I just love getting dressed up.’

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