Do clothes define a woman?

Do clothes define a woman?

The hypothesis that I have as an answer to the question in the title is that,

“While women should definitely not be defined by what clothes they wear, but the reality is that as a society which includes women, women are often judged and defined by how they dress up”.

The rest of this post is going to explain what I mean by this hypothesis. But before you bring start throwing brickbats at me for this rather sexist sounding comment of mine, I urge you to read through the arguments that I have used to arrive at this position of mine and adjourn your judgment on my “male chauvinistic pigginess” till then.

Most of you would agree with me on the following counts:

  • Women generally have a larger to much larger wardrobe than men.
  • The options that are available to men as far as clothes and accessories are concerned are miniscule as compared to women. The same hold true for boys vs. girls.
  • Look up any jewelry store – I doubt that they have more than a few items that men can wear – perhaps a gold chain, some stone rings, or a diamond cuff-link. Jewelry stores are dominated by women’s items.
  • Compare again the number and range of cosmetic items available for women as compared to men. Admittedly, men’s items and their consumption in increasing as an absolute, but even an industry novice will tell you that the sales of men’s cosmetics pales in the shadow of women’s.
  • The fashion industry (clothes) is primarily about women’s clothes. The fashion industry is primarily about fulfilling desires rather than needs.

If desire indeed drives these industries, what exactly drives those desires? Aren’t those desires driven by the aspiration of looking good, looking fresh, looking sexy, looking classy, looking rich, looking fair, looking shiny, looking bright, looking colorful, looking pretty. And doesn’t this aspiration apply far more to women rather than men, whether by default or by design?

The whole fashion and glamour industry of course runs on this desire, this aspiration, this social necessity. Of course, women (and men) are on different places on the continuum of how important clothes and accessories are to them (from supremely obsessed on one extreme to extremely carefree or careless about it on the other end). But the majority women and average girl, both attach a not-so-insignificant importance to how good they look, and how well they dress up?

The visual media, which is all pervasive, tells women 24 x 7 x 365 how important it is to look good. The media is obsessed with how women look and judges them all the time. And this is not just limited to how film stars and models look, who are in the business of being judged by their clothes and looks. Even sports women, politicians, business women, mothers, school going teenage girls and any and every girl / woman that the media can find its hands on, are judged by how pretty or hot they look. And with Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook so many more girls and women are in the race of posting pretty pictures of themselves and getting likes, hearts and muahs.

But why blame the media? They are only pandering to what we demand as a society. Women have been judged for ages for their looks at social functions, at work places, and in the public park. Objectification of women has been happening for ages.

Women, over many centuries, have been making efforts to look better than their competition to attract the most desirable mates (desirable may be powerful, financial, social, physical or perhaps even intellectual). So the conditioning for women to look nicer is very deep and old, and so are social paradigms about ensuring women are “pretty” objects of desire.

But things have changed, haven’t they now? One of the signs of modern civilization is our ability to overcome gender roles and judge each other not by the cover but by our substance. But alas that has not translated into different social paradigms. Evolution has built into all of us, men and women, an uncontrollable “looks and dresses” judgement mechanism that will work almost instantaneously whether intentionally or unintentionally. Most of humanity is unable to push that judgement, that desire aside. And that includes women, who judge other women and themselves.

In fact, a few centuries or even decades ago, at least the concept of good clothes and beauty was diverse. Globalization and instant visual media has severely narrowed our notions of what is beautiful and/or sexy. This has only made stronger the business of first and foremost judging females by their looks. While we are all part of making this happen but women are themselves complicit in bringing us here.

As a result, women all over the world obsess over their looks, their brands, and how new or fresh their dress is. If even by this stage, you still find a hint of male chauvinism, let me address those last vestiges of your reasonable but unfounded doubts about my character by asking this question:

Are boys and men not obsessed with how they look? Well some surely are. And boys especially during puberty and beyond will be vary of how they look. But I have no doubts that there’s a significant gender difference in the way males look at it vis-a-vis females. And those differences start from the very beginning. Let’s look at the number of young boys who love dressing up. They are lesser as compared to girls who love dressing up, which really begins with adults around them wanting them to dress up in the first place. Boys who get compliments for how cute they look or how “princess-like” or “doll-like” they look are even rarer. But with girls it’s so much more common. Therefore girls end up being far more interested in dressing up dolls and dressing up themselves as compared to boys.

Lot of this is also due to the the range of fashion available to girls. If you’re a boy, you are not likely to have long hair and even if you do there are limited ways in which you can wear it. But if you are a girl with shortish or long hair there are so many ways in which you can wear them. The same applies to clothes and accessories. What are those accessories that boys wear? I really can’t think of any except in some places where boys get their ears pierced traditionally. For girls the list is endless with hair bands, rubber-bands, earrings, scarves, dupattas, bellies, slip-ons and so on.

My own experience as a father to a son first and then a daughter, shows that despite no explicit encouragement from both my wife and I, my daughter is far more interested in dressing up than our son was or ever will be. The grandmothers, aunts, wellwishers, nannies, the visual media (even though our daughter has very limited access to) with songs of beautifully dressed women with flowing garments that twirl when dancing, the toys and movies with princesses dressed elegantly are more than enough to signal to her that dressing up is a good thing, that it is important and that it can also be fun (which I am sure it is, for her and for those dressing her up).

Moving to adults, a large proportion of men all over urban world seem to be moving to wearing trousers / jeans / shorts with a shirt or a t-shirt on top; formal wear may include a suit. You are rarely going to be wear kurta-pyjama or dhoti-kurta to work or any other forms of traditional wear. For women however, whether they are working or at home, there’s a large range of options of types of wear compounded by the designs of each of those. For the kurta alone, there can be sleeveless, part sleeves, full sleeves; short, medium length or long; various neck types; a range of garments, embroidered, plain and what not!

Men of course have their own obsessions, perhaps gadgets, cars or when it comes to fashion, perhaps hairstyles. But there’s no comparison with the sheer variety and range of stuff that women have access to – from gazillion hairstyles to multitudinous types of dresses. There’s no doubt that as far as the looking prettier industry is concerned, women take the cake.

So, age-old conditioning, strong social paradigms combine with infinite number of fashion choices to compel girls and women all over the world to devote an inordinate amount of time, effort, money & emotional energy to dressing up and looking good.

On the other hand, we have some public examples of men such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and even Barack Obama who have demonstrated publicly the limited wardrobe that they have, further shrinking the already wardrobe options that exist for men. Why? So that they won’t have to waste their energy in making those choices. Just imagine how much time women spend with so many more options for both dressing up on a daily basis and let’s not even get started on the time it takes to shop for clothes or the amount of time required for beautification before special events.

However the amount of time, effort or even the money that women spend isn’t the biggest issue at hand. The far more debilitating impact is on the self-esteem / self-respect / self-worth of girls and women. When self-worth depends on how clothes make you look, both in your eyes and in eyes of the others, then either your dress won’t be good enough or your friend’s dress will be better.

You can never win a race in which the goal post is always shifting – which the fashion industry and the media openly do so. And that means that your clothes will never be enough to enlarge or even cement your self-worth. The looking good business dents or even disintegrates the self-worth of so many girls and women who are either not “so good looking” or not the “right” shape or not the “right” colour or don’t have the “right” accessories and so on.

The reality of course is that no amount of external beautification in the form of accessories, hairstyles, shopping, new clothes, fairness creams, makeup or jewelry is going to change a person’s self-identity or what they feel from inside. No hole in a person’s heart is going to be filled by buying any number of clothes, branded or otherwise, however varied the source of the hole might be. That hole has to be filled up from within, by actions and thoughts that build self-worth.

In some Sci-Fi movies and books set in utopian worlds, you see that women are as capable as men. In many such cases, women are shown wearing unisex clothes, especially at work, so that women are recognized only for their work and character rather than their looks and bodies (of course any commercial visual media wants to showcase pretty women – so at parties you will still the same women dressed up glamorously).

At the school that work at, I find it so much better that girls are dressed in the same uniform as the boys, which doesn’t allow for fashion or identity experiments, and further de-emphasizes their body shapes to an extent. At least, in school their focus isn’t directly on how a particular dress is making them look. Of course, it doesn’t mean that these same girls (and boys) don’t like dressing up. At least judging from the farewells and Navratris and other such events that I have seen them in, they love dressing up in gowns and backless cholis and the likes.

However, my point isn’t that girls & women should start wearing poor clothes. In fact, I believe there are some women who after getting their finger burnt in this dressing up game, go the other way around and wear poor clothes so that they make a clear statement that they are not their clothes – but that may also backfire on them. We are all into appearances to an extent, perhaps evolutionary. And you will get ridiculed, judged and maybe even ignored if you dress badly. So wear smart no-nonsense clothes for sure – no point in being badly dressed either. But don’t over do it.

But why shouldn’t you look pretty or sexy? Well you might end up looking good, but you run the risk of ONLY looking good, or becoming what you look like rather than what you are, or even worse not looking good enough and that’s where it will end. The looking. At least at first. And then you will have to work really hard to get others to get you to look beyond that. And I am sure that some women are never able to make that happen in areas that matter.

An untouched dimension of this post, as yet, has been the way some girls and women very intentionally use their bodies, their cleavage, clothes, mini skirts, high heels, looks, accessories for various power, sexual, social, personal, financial or even professional gains. They obviously already know and make use of the fact that women are judged by their clothes. The risk they too run, albeit by choice, is that they will always get judged and valued for primarily how they look. It becomes very difficult for people around to look at other dimensions when you’ve established a certain persona already.

I started this post with a hypothesis:

“While women should definitely not be defined by what clothes they wear, but the reality is that as a society which includes women, women are often judged and defined by how they dress up”.

It was reasonably self-evident to start off with, and at least to me, the hypothesis seems solidly evident now. The real issue lies of course in the ramifications of this social construct. I am offering what I believe to be a sequitur of today’s exposition, a bold yet rather untestable hypothesis:

True gender equality won’t be achieved as long as women have more fashion options than men do.

This according to me is a necessary but not sufficient condition (necessary meaning that this condition has to be met, but insufficient means that meeting this condition alone won’t ensure gender equality). And whether the world in which women will have much lesser fashion options (or I beg not, men will have the same number of fashion options as women) will be dull and boring might be moot point, if the more important focus is the growth of humanity, for which gender equality is once again a necessary albeit not a sufficient condition.

Unfortunately, as I don’t see this rather utopian world anywhere in the near future. Changes at a societal level even if happening, will take a lot of time to become significant. Till then, perhaps women at an individual level can choose to a large extent what they would like to be known for.

Disclaimers that might still be needed

Although I might have acquitted myself of accusations of male chauvinism or any other such claims by now, I will still feel safer (and so will my readers I feel) after they read this bunch of disclaimers. Please note that this post:

  • Has been written for people who have the capacity or choice to worry about what they can / should wear
  • Has been written from observations about the Indian society in general, although I do think that the observations apply to large parts of the world.
  • May come across as sexist, and some might even find it chauvinistic, but that would just be missing the woods for the trees (or something like that).
  • Makes no claim whatsoever that even remotely implies that crimes against women are caused due to what women wear.
  • That some of the points made for females may very well apply for males, as I have also tried to maintain where necessary. However, there’s no doubt in my mind of the overwhelming evidence that suggests that females are far more driven by looks and clothes than are males in general.

10 comments

  1. Will not comment on well you have written, because it is accepted that you write really well. 🙂
    Quick critical points:

    If we limit fashion choices, a time will come when people will say every industry has undergone tremendous changes but look at the fashion/clothes industry..it is very much stagnant..( just the way we say for Education) There is no creativity, and we might even blame the Education system for this lack.of creativity in this industry…
    The other thing is that this may limit number of jobs and also jobs for people with creative bent of mind. Clothing/fashion industry is one of the places where such people thrive.
    Another things, the companies compete with each other to survive, stay relevant etc,, and for them making better products, designs,innovation is the key.

    This also make me think that as long as creativity is there , we will keep seeing things which are better than another thing. Creativity/novelty drives comparisons. So I do not see limiting choices could be a solution by any means. Because within those smaller set of choices there would always be a desire to look great, attractive, sexy, classy etc…
    So the way I see it happening is only through changes in societal norms, mental conditioning , changing our own lens of looking and accepting people. As you said’ we need to fill that hole internally not through external fillings.

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  2. The point made about globalization where it says it has narrowed our notions of beauty has given me something new to ponder over as I have never viewed globalization from this perspective.

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  3. Sir, starting with, first of all I think it’s been ages that I got to read finallyyyyy your post..
    Secondly, being in a work culture where you have a bigger ratio of female than male- courageous write up
    And last, but not the least…I am among those who though take hardly 5 minutes to get ready but still try to look the best , so am now gonna add couple of more minutes in my routine for dressing up for the workplace as the head of my job place is someone who has done a thesis (for sure now) on women clothing…of course that’s The Mr. VK…I am definitely going to get conscious now when I will cross you ..until you right a new article…😃

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  4. Good observations. Sometimes the purpose of dressing is not to flaunt but you just like it for your own self. Lot of human psychology and evolutionary biology involved. Attracting the other partner in the animal world using beauty is to spread one’s genes.

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  5. If desire indeed drives these industries, what exactly drives those desires?

    Or these now desires were in the past just their way of caving in to the pressure of being judged, by parents, by boyfriends/girlfriends (Hail Section 377), in work places, etc

    Disclaimer – Completely aware that this is a one sided view but also intentionally like that.

    Interesting article! Always fun to understand what goes on the other side! 🙂

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  6. I think desires are driven by a lack of perfection; the definition of which is collated in our heads due to the combination of all three factors you just mentioned. I also feel after an age, the factor of these desires can be classified (not necessary visual media having the strongest impact) but knowing something is making you act doesn’t mean you can change it in a jiffy!

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