Thursday, May 9, 2013

Plain Dress: Women, Clothing and Personal Identity

I've been reading a great deal about women and clothing lately. First, I picked up the book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work by Deborah Tannen. Years earlier, I had read Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand: Men, Women and Conversation and found the differences between the ways men and women communicate fascinating.

In this later book, she shifts the discussion to gender differences in the workplace.

She discusses the idea that women are always "marked" in the workplace by their clothing choices. In other words, there is no standard style to which women can conform - other than to adop the men's style. For some women, wearing a grey, navy, or black business suit allows them to fit in with the men at their office. They crop their hair or pull it back into a bun. They look: "professional."

Other women wrestle each day with clothing choices. Is my skirt too short? Is my outfit too "sexy" or "dowdy" or "trendy" or "professional"? Even how we style and cut our hair says something about us. It always feels like we are making a statement by how we look.

Tannen describes how, at a recent business conference, she noticed all the men from her office were dressed alike. They all had variations of the same outfit - dark pants, light colored shirt, tie, brown or black shoes. They even had basically the same haircut. By conforming to expectation, they are "unmarked."

Then, she looked at her female colleagues. One looked overtly sexy with tossled hair and high heels. The second looked somewhat matronly with comfort shoes and slacks. The third, a decided feminist had limited makeup and chose earthy fabrics. Each, by her style, was making a distinctive statement about who she was. She was "marked."

Oh the pressure!

In a Christian workplace, the choice is even more bewildering - with added moral pressure. Not only are we to look professional - but godly - the Proverbs 31 woman at the office. We are to look feminine, but not too sexual. Many women, I've noticed, solve this by adopting a more masculine, asexual style. They wear short, cropped hair, dark colors, and conservative clothing choices.

A biography of early Christian workers shows that, to be taken seriously, many of them began to wear the Plain style of the Quakers or Friends. They work dark, simple, floor length dresses. They wore plain dark bonnets. They avoided any frills or fashionable detials. They wanted to be "unmarked" in a sense - but were actually "marking" themselves as set apart from other women - more serious about God and life.

For Amanda Berry Smith (pictured above) - this choice of the Plain style was intentional - I wanted to be a "consistent, downright, outright Christian," she wrote. Many women in Amish and Quaker orders continue this style today - although it makes them distinctively "marked" when they leave their unique and isolated communities.
How are women to dress? Should we care about our clothing? Should we try to be "unmarked" in the office? What do our outward choices of style say about our inward character and identity? Heavy questions.
I don't think I could ever be a Quaker. I love shopping and clothing and style too much. But, right or wrong, I have learned to adapt (somewhat) to my surroundings, to set aside frills when I want to be taken seriously.
I remember one day, when I slipped a bit and wore a leopard-printed skirt to a mainly male-attended business meeting. As I took notes using a pink pen, one of my male colleagues said to me, "What are you doing? Legally Blonde?"
I'm not blonde - not even close - but I had let my feminine self surface in the midst of the sea of navy blue business suits. Most of the time, I keep it in check.
What do your style choices say about you?

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