Am I A Bad Feminist For Noticing What Other Women Wear And Complimenting Those Sartorial Choices?
When I meet someone, be it a new acquaintance at a cocktail party or an old friend for coffee, I subconsciously start running a quick inventory in my head of their outfit, from shoes to hairdo. But with the energy around movements like #AskHerMore taking on sexist red carpet talk and calls to stop asking Hillary Clinton about her wardrobe, I have to wonder: Am I a bad feminist for first noticing what women wear? It seems to be my first instinct, and probably the reason I like writing about fashion. Sometimes I even find myself sizing up women's outfits on the subway.
I became acutely aware of this habit on Monday night, when I had the opportunity to attend to the 2015 Gloria Awards, hosted by the Ms. Foundation. The event is named in honor of one of the organization's Founding Mothers: the inimitable Gloria Steinem, who was also the evening's MC. Steinem wore an amazing black jumpsuit with a strategically sheer top and lace pants, paired with these gold bracelets that looked like Wonder Woman's cuffs, and her silvery-grey hair was styled in a perfectly trendy lob. The event itself was inspiring, awarding hardworking, powerful, strong women of vision for their activism. Steinem was a fabulous MC too, cracking jokes and encouraging attendees to walk around and organize during dinner and generally rabble-rouse.
The Gloria Awards made me excited about the work the Ms. Foundation is doing and proud to call myself a feminist, to consider myself among that group of accomplished women. But the next day, when I was raving about the event to my friends, one detail I kept offering up was how stylish Gloria's outfit was, and once I noticed that I was describing Steinem's outfit before anything else, I started feeling really bummed out. What Gloria Steinem wore to a gala is so not the point, and I was disappointed to think what I took away from seeing Gloria Steinem in the flesh was that she looked great in a jumpsuit.
For the record, I remember much more about Steinem's appearance at the Gloria Awards than her outfit, but I've been getting that guilty feeling a lot recently. Part of this shame of commenting on other women's clothing comes from the momentum of #AskHerMore, which calls for reporters to ask female actresses and musicians about their work rather than their wardrobe. Female celebrities have been striking back against sexist questions, and celebrated for their clever retorts to questions as inane as "Were you able to wear...undergarments?"
Some questions are rude, plain and simple, and it is absolutely sexist to only ask serious questions of men ("What director do you dream of working with?") and not of women ("Do you want to walk your fingers down the Mani-Cam?"). But part of me fundamentally rejects the idea that asking someone about their outfit, even off the red carpet, is inane. Many women — and men — spend a not insignificant amount of time getting ready for events, be it a black tie gala or a day in the office, and refusing to acknowledge what someone is wearing belittles those efforts. As Maureen O'Connor argues in The Cut , "To omit all mentions of appearances would be downright rude, to the designers and stylists and hairdressers and makeup artists and the entire industry that revolves around ushering garments from the runway to the red carpet, and all the altering and tailoring and reimagining that happens in between."
Chiding reporters for not asking more "substantive" questions of celebrities on the red carpet also implies that questions about clothes are inherently insubstantial and inconsequential. As someone who writes about fashion, I find it somewhat insulting to say that these questions don't matter because appearance, and how someone chooses to express herself, are the very things I am interested in learning about.
I take a great amount of pride in what I wear, and feel pretty terrible when I can't wear what I want (like how working in an office with a conservative dress code for two years made me lose my confidence and sense of personal style). So I spend a lot of time thinking about what to wear, and really appreciate it when someone, especially another woman, compliments my outfit choices. For better or worse, I assume that other women are thinking about their clothing and accessories and makeup, too, so I try to give a compliment when I see something I like. If I like someone's skirt or bracelet or sheer lace jumpsuit, I'm going to tell them. And sometimes, people want to make a statement with their clothing, especially at a big event. It seems absurd not to comment on it when there's clearly some preparation involved.
I've been feeling like I have to censor myself to avoid offending anyone, or worry that I'm making someone feel like I'm ignoring their intelligence and personality by starting with a compliment about how they look. The way I see it, though, is that how someone dresses can speak volumes about their sense of self. People spend years figuring out their personal style, and no matter what that style happens to be, it tells a story about who a person is.
Maybe assuming that every woman cares about what she wears is naive, a result of the lens through which I view the world. I often remember people based on what outfit they were wearing when I met them, and remember my own social engagements by my clothes, and I know that's not the way many people think. I need to be more conscious of the implications my seemingly innocuous comments about people's, particularly women's, outfits can have. I don't want to be perceived as being insensitive, putting beauty and fashion ahead of intellect. Still, I shouldn't beat myself up for focusing on someone's clothes first.
The problem comes when observations about someone's appearance aren't followed up with a real conversation, and this is where the "more" part of #AskHerMore comes into play. There has to be a balance between appreciating someone's great outfit and understanding something about the person wearing it.
Noticing what other women are wearing doesn't make me a bad feminist. It just makes me a human being who is capable of observation. But the next time I tell the story about seeing Gloria Steinem, I'll maybe start with what a great speaker she was and then move on to the jumpsuit.
Images: Getty; marcizaroff/Instagram; Giphy