Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reclaiming leather skirts and other 'provocative' clothing

Note: For the next couple weeks, I will be tackling feminism in fashion as a member of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers group. For more information, click here.

About two minutes after this outfit photo was taken, I was propositioned on a street corner.

Walking by a sports bar on a sunny weekend afternoon, I passed by a man who watched my approach on the sidewalk, and stared at my body with interest. "Hey honey," he said, as he reached for my arm, "That's a nice skirt you got there. How about we make some bad decisions together?"  I rounded the corner with nary a reply as his protestations echoed behind me, and then busted myself for not coming up with a fast snappy comeback. Why yes, propositions from random men on street corners are always a good decision. Challenge accepted! or just a plain Eww would have sufficed.

Perhaps I was overthinking all of it, and that I should have just rolled my eyes at his attempts at compliments and catcalling. Perhaps by being confident enough to wear a titillating animal skin on my body, I should have developed my own thicker skin. But I was left feeling exposed, embarrassed at what I chose to wear that day, and with a sinking, guttural feeling of knowing that I had been reduced to a piece of leather clothing and a pair of legs.

It's a feeling I've uncomfortably known for most of my working life. Having worked previously in many male-dominated environments where being a woman was often cause for extra attention, it had become reflexive armor for me to become more modest in my work wardrobe, by shunning short hemlines, v-necks and exposed arms in favor of tightly-styled hair and long layers. By these limitations, I thought I had power over how I was perceived.

But after years of inter-cubicle observation and modest wardrobe practice, I've realized that harassment happens to all types of people, regardless of sartorial choice. And that by choosing to dress to deflect male attention, I was merely reinforcing its so-called importance to my daily style.

I've since grown into my own style and have decided to experiment in more designs. But clothing is never simple, especially in the way its intent and use is interpreted by the wearer and others. There is nothing wrong with wanting to dress sexy or be modest, because style comes in all types. But when those sartorial intentions become misconstrued, especially in cases of sexual harassment and violence, it becomes a universal problem. Too often those who are harassed have to defend their sartorial choices, as though such choices could make them worthy of disrespect, abuse and violence.

So, I ask this: Do you think certain clothing can ever be reclaimed from provocative connotations? Is there a way to reinforce a culture of respect and communication among both genders in regards to clothing choices?

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