Wardrobe Consultation, Professional Women, Bullying, Clothes, and Self Image

Doing a wardrobe consultation is like going through the journal of someone’s personal image and incredible stories come out in passing conversation as garments get taken out retained or chucked. I was doing a consultation for a very lovely new client on Sunday whose husband had inflicted me upon her because he ‘needed some wardrobe space for himself’. She on the other hand had been considering doing a restyle anyway and was happy to exploit my services to relieve her of wardrobe-clogging, dated garments she was finding hard to get rid of and to help reveal a refreshed working wardrobe without actually having to buy anything (except maybe 2 new belts and a pair of bronze heels for the office!). 

The client is a successful PR for a company representing luxury brands. She is funny, strong, intelligent, refined and English in the best possible way . Her clothes showed that she is not a woman who is easily intimidated: bright colours, flamboyant detail, funky fur and sparkle worn over a classic base for work and even glitter for scuffing around the house (her dressing gown had ‘fabulous’ embossed in diamante on the back - an earlier gift from her husband).  All this embellishment worked in her wardrobe without a trace of the bimbo or femme-enfant. It demonstrated to me how a woman doesn’t have to hide her power to be flamboyantly feminine.

When we started going through the dresses something very interesting happened. A group of dresses came out: a red chiffon dress with a scoop neck and a full, floating knee length skirt, a navy and black chiffon dress with a pin-tuck bodice and puff sleeves and a similarly floaty skirt, and a black viscose dress with an overdetail of white lace that looked like it belonged to a ballet dancer. These dresses were all similar in feel: pretty, unassuming, demure…. pedestrian.

The client compliantly put them on for me commenting that there was a story behind them. I looked at them and cheekily commented that her husband was ‘hardly likely to want to ravage her’ …. ‘What?’  she said ‘not even if I got inside his newly empty wardrobe?’. I laughed ‘So what’s the story?’ I ventured…..

‘I was in an important meeting with a client – a gentleman restaurateur. I was the only woman in the room and the head of the PR team. The client didn’t like what was being proposed and suddenly, without any indication as to what was coming, he started laying into me by screaming at me across the table. Every other man in the room put their heads down and no-one spoke up or remarked on the inappropriate nature of the behaviour. I was bowled over with the shock of it, but managed to bottle my reaction and maintain composure by smiling in ladylike and extremely polite way and calmly winding up the meeting’.

…. ‘When I got out someone asked if I was okay and I said yes, but would be taking the rest of the afternoon off. Once out of the office I went shopping’.

The result of this expensive therapeutic shopping spree was this group of dresses: all, demure and feminine in the tamest of possible way. All nice, flattering, well fitting… but none of them suited her.

It struck me that these dresses were exactly what that ugly piece of masculine intimidation had done to her self-image. They were a tactical retreat in the face of aggression and bullying they said ‘I give in’ ‘I don’t want to have to fight this battle’, ‘I shouldn’t have to stand up to this’, ‘I want to be looked after and treated respectfully’.

The dresses are all gone into the bin-liner and off to the charity shop virtually unworn and hopefully the ugly scenario with them. I left her with a wardrobe that really does suit her and to the attentions of a man who thinks she is ‘fabulous’ and treats her with the respect she deserves … especially now that he has a little more space for his clothes! 


5. Carol Vorderman . . . YOU ARE NOT YOUR GALAXY DRESS:

(This blog entry acts either as a single article or as part of a much longer discussion made up of the this and the preceding four entries beginning with 'The Reincarnation of the Hourglass Silhouette' - Have fun dipping in or if you have stamina read up in parts from below. . . . )

If you look up Carol Vorderman on Youtube you will find a group of videos several of which describe her as MILF (Mother I want to F***) and that at the same time seem to break her down into her constituent sexual parts  - the parts diagrammatically designated by the hourglass silhouette  (Boobs and Bum) and re-play these in a grotesque and humiliating way. Top of the bill and only the most recent is the Carol Vorderman - Arse Compilation - Loose Women March/April 2012. In which a series of about a hundred takes are spliced together to show off her back-side to the best voyeuristic effect in an array of tight dresses. There is obviously no sense of what she or the other women are actually discussing on the show (interestingly in reality these are often topics concerning the roles and exploitation of women), that of course is immaterial.

While Vorderman herself claims that being voted ‘rear of the year’ is ‘just a bit of FUN’ , I could not from the point of view of a woman describe as fun, or even funny,  the gaze on display on YouTube. It is very uncomfortable experience watching another woman being turned into an object from an impolite and sexually aggressive standpoint. It doesn’t seem to be the way one ought to treat a ‘national treasure’.  In this televisual underworld the national treasure seems to have become butt of a national smutty joke about older women.  Here the muttonkin and the cougar are more often than not objects of public scorn and lechery. This is definitely a case of ‘Carol gets a phantasy spanking'.

Many of the clichéd and unjustifiable responses in cases of sexual violence towards women come to mind: This sadly appears to be the price the muttonkin has to pay for her pleasures and for the attention she demands by sexualising herself  ‘inappropriately’ in ‘inappropriate’ attire. She has, arguably, been asking for it by performing her gender with loaded dice. This is what India Knight  in the Times 9th Sept 2012: 'Frolic away, Carol, and all you other muttonkins':  


 seems come down to, because having celebrated the SWOFTY (Single Woman Over Fifty) the writer ends  with a quite dramatic crisis of faith: ‘Obviously’ she writes. . .

‘. . .nobody wishes to lie down and cry, “Sweep over me, decrepitude — I long for white hair and wrinkles.” But as we celebrate Swofties we should also ask ourselves exactly what their evolution and our admiration of them say about us [. . .] I think we should perhaps wonder quite how evolved, quite how pro-woman, that really is.’

There is a visual order of things reflected here, one that suggests that when it comes to femininity ‘this’ is desirable and worth looking at and if you can’t keep up the image making and afford to maintain the performance through extensions, plastic surgery, personal training, implants, make-up artists, Spanx and rolls and rolls of toupee tape, or in other words live up to the lines of your Galaxy Dress, you must inevitably bow out gracefully and become gender neutral. And if you don’t choose to disappear into a strategic androgyny or into the implied (and seemingly inevitable) androgyny of old age you are also always fair game for the sadistic public-sport of exposing the marks of ageing beneath the nips, tucks and other augmentations of flesh overly marked by ‘work’. And similarly caricatured and criticised for any over- exposure of flesh that might be considered inelegant, indiscreet and generally too much in a woman beyond a certain age: to wit the paparazzi’s relish for the straining seems and shortness of Vorderman’s dresses. 

Jonathan Leake’s article in the same issue describes women as having the better deal in the new gender/social order, but the Vorderman 'video nasties' seem to me to be evidence and demonstration of the fact that the ‘new (older) women’ we may not be so lucky after all, that in fact having choice could present an even more painful set of physical, moral and political dilemmas. To call ourselves truly empowered women must very much NOT become victims to the potentially un-pleasurable constriction that the hourglass silhouette can create. The famous scene of Scarlett O’Hara, being laced up after pregnancy, angry because the corset won’t go any tighter comes to mind.  As do images of 19th women fainting from lack of oxygen because of the tightness of their stays.  If as modern women we choose to take on these incarnations of self we have to be informed about the terms of the performance, breath in a full lungful of fresh air, ground ourselves and play our roles like divas . . . the best of the best of actresses. Like Meryl Steep we need to be able to slip from new role to new role seamlessly, with critical intelligence and all the strategic use of parody we can muster.  We need to remember, something that Carol Vorderman seems to have forgotten, that as women of substance and dimension we are NOT merely the equivalence of a single silhouette. So as your stylist don’t ask me ‘is it me?’  Because ladies I will have to remind you that, no matter how hot you look,. . . YOU ARE NOT YOUR GALAXY DRESS. 


4. Dita Von Teese and The Hourglass Silhouette as a Fetishised Gender Sign:

There is nothing new about the implied power of the trained vamp with the hourglass silhouette:  you can see it in classic (pre-feminist) cinema from the 50’s in the figure of the woman who eschews domesticity and motherhood for professional power and sexual freedom and, of course, usually gives it all up or comes to an unhappy end.  You can see it again in the 80’s with Joan Collins’ classic and brilliant caricature of the female mogul and femme fatale, Alexis Carrington. Outside the realm of fictional fantasy, the City in the 80s was when this older image first influenced the way women chose to dress. It was a time when women really began to make their mark in the work place:  with big shoulders, small waists and tights skirts from the likes of designers such as Assedine Alaia,  Ungaro, Armani and Moschino. 

What is happening now exists by virtue of that earlier history and it only works because in this play of image and caricature there is a polite very much post-nineties and noughties unspoken agreement between men and women about the terms of the performance of gender.  The play is knowing and consensual. In other words men have come to understand this visual language through direct experience at the same time as women have actively proved themselves more than capable of pulling their own professional weight . . . .

In this way clothes for both men and women are signs for ideas as well as being things in themselves.  In Freudian terms the ubermadchen  in the figure hugging dress, that is synched in so dramatically at the waist, is the classic ‘phallic woman’ the one that renders the masculine player in the game of gender and sexuality just a little bit powerless, childlike and awestruck. While the ‘dominatrix’ and ‘Jessica Rabbit’ are useful uniforms when used as a strategic tools one has nevertheless to remember that the hourglass is a fetishized fantasy of what a woman is supposed to look like . . .  ; in the same way as the business suit is a drawing out of the rigid lines of what a man is supposed to look like. I am reminded of David Byrne’s massively Broad Shouldered suit on the cover of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense album.

Take a look at the burlesque of Dita Von Tease and you can get the idea of the almost cartoon-like woman playing this fantasy for her audience. Her performance through exaggerated augmented signs of gender is gorgeous, benign and titillating because it hovers on a dangerous  knife edge where pleasure, play and empowerment can swiftly become perversion. This is clearly safe when it remains within the conventions of illusion provided by the stage. It is obviously more problematic when these boundaries are blurred and slip into everyday reality.

So here is the rub: The play with images of sex and gender that I am describing obviously butts up (and I use that term advisedly) against something that is not so polite or even consensual. And now we are back to my note about meat and female agency. There is a point at which polite agreement about the signs of gender all too easily become an abusive relationship and this is a problem always already inherent in the game of image and performance I have been describing. On the ground (as opposed to on the stage) the desiring mode I am describing can drive women’s appearance and men’s responses towards it to ever greater extremes of objectification. An effect of this is that any woman who is seen as over-performing her hotness can be open to sadomasochistic punishment and humiliated for her wiles even if it is only in a symbolic and performative sense.


3. Mutton Dressed as Lamb:

Two articles relating to the issue of older women stimulated my interest in the importance of the hourglass silhouette as a subject: A jaunty parody of male lechery: 'Look at her lobes: men now prefer brains to curves’  was the title of an article by science editor Jonathan Leake in the Sunday times 9th September.


In the same issue India Knight’s regular column had the title: 'Frolic away, Carol, and all you other muttonkins':  


Leake's article looks at a new study which suggests that in societies where men and women have increasingly equal rights (i.e. in the West) 'men’s traditional obsession with women’s appearance is in sharp decline,' and men are placing more value on other qualities, such as intelligence, in their search for partners. By the same token with their increasing financial independence women in the west now seem more and more concerned with looks and less with the breadwinability of their partners. This research has the potential to undermine the consensus that the influences on choice of sexual partners are fundamentally fixed, biologically rather than socially determined.

India Knight’s article is a commentary on the media interest in Carol Vorderman as a SWOFTY (Single Woman Over Fifty):  specifically on her recent change of hair to a big haired tousled blonde and her penchant for arguably age ‘inappropriate’ Roland Mouret and Mouret inspired hourglass dresses. As Knight writes , ‘the media’s subtext is very much: behold the perimenopausal woman. She has heels! mane-like hair! A bottom! My God, I think the minx might be sexually active!’

The tone of these articles suggests that as far as the media is concerned Western women, and older Western women in particular, haven’t been let off the hotness hook despite the fact that their prospective partners are supposed to be less driven by the visual cortex. The examples that Leake and Knight use show that emphasis on a particular kind of appearance in the public’s view of womanhood, hasn’t actually shifted a great deal.  Leake’s chosen example of the new breed of woman is the entrepreneur and Jimmy Choo moguless, Tamara Mellon:  at 45 her high glamour and fashion conscious image is part and parcel of her personal and professional success. Recent images of Mellon show that her public persona has in fact become more ‘worked’ with time and level of professional success, rather than less.

India Knight is all gung ho for the freedom of the SWOFTY or ‘Muttonkin’ to enjoy the performance of a particular version of female  potency. . . at least at the outset. The issue (on the surface of it) is about any older woman’s right to have FUN – to enjoy her looks, her sexuality, her financial independence as well as her power to attract attention and plenty of it:  ‘It’s just a bit of fun isn’t it?’ remarked 51 year old Vorderman on her achievement as ‘Rear of the Year’ getting up from her Loose Women anchor seat and shaking her pencil-skirted derrière for the camera . . .  ‘it’s followed me around for 50 years’.

Mellon and Vorderman are unapologetically what would traditionally have been known as mutton-dressed-as-lamb. I feel I need to show my hand here . . . lest we forget . . .  mutton is meat and by implication something degrading for a woman to be identified with; apart from anything else because it robs her (and her flesh) of the agency of the sentient being.  Perhaps the ‘new woman’s’ privileged entitlement to demand greater efforts in their men-folk only comes as a result of hard work invested in their own image. Clearly both these women are willing and able to pay for and display what Knight calls ‘youth at any price’. But from the title of her article this is exactly the attitude that India Knight is celebrating, re-appropriating the term in defence of a woman’s right to choose NOT to give in to invisibility.  . . to be fully and flamboyantly embodied.

No wonder Leake writes with a certain sense of intimidation and India Knight cheers her muttonkin on to ‘frolic away’ in her devil may care power-play. This is a form of pleasurable woman’s liberation in action. You really can burn your bra when you have synthetic boning and high tech fabric holding you in and up in all the right places.  Because of course one has to remind oneself (especially if one has never worn one) that the exaggerated curves of the ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Octavia’ dress’ are not a representation of actual female flesh, they are a silhouette created from tamed flesh, a graphic drawing out (and drawing in both literally and optically) of the supposed lines of the female body with the help of sophisticated cutting, high-tech fabrics, colour blocking and hidden corsetry. . As one stylist puts it in her fulsome praise of the Octavia dress ‘It’s like a stylish scuba suit’ it ‘keeps your meat neat’ and there are of course few things popular visual culture is more squeamish about than unruly, mutable and aging female flesh.


2. Curves in the Office, Professional Women’s Styling and the Influence of Roland Mouret:

 As a stylist who has been lucky enough to help to dress a great number of highly intelligent professional women it is remarkable how many will take on an added aura of purpose and confidence when they put on a well-tailored pencil skirt or hourglass dress and a pair of high heels.  In 2012 the woman sashaying like Joan through the corporate lobby in a Roland Mouret inspired day-dress says ‘notice me I am working it’. She is prepared to embrace being the marked image and not the neutral masculine one that everyone used to take for granted in the work place.  This tacitly assumes that the woman is not (and never was) competing on a level playing field.  But the difference is that now she actually doesn’t want or need to – she is in fact more powerful because she is all woman - more different –not less. The contemporary professional woman says ‘I can perform this version of woman if I choose, but that does not necessarily make me sexually available. I therefore have power because I am not merely performing in order to be looked at:  I am doing my job . . .  I am effective . . . I am lucrative’.

It wasn’t so long ago that a pair of dark tailored trousers and cotton shirt was very much the professional uniform of choice for women. Many of us adopted it for the sake of gender invisibility, in silent request that we be noticed for the work we do and not for the bodies we occupy.  In practice this was a hard task given the fact that masculine sharp-angled tailoring actually fits very badly on the average woman’s frame. On this physiognomic level as well as the symbolic one –the tailored trouser suit is one form of drag that never really worked very comfortably as a style strategy for the majority of women. And more and more it is actually starting to look like a form of drag in the generally ‘curvaceous’ zeitgeist and next to the many contemporary manifestations of the hourglass silhouette in offices around the western world.

A particular kind of sexiness has become a highly effective power tool that post-feminist women have given themselves permission to exploit. This is particularly the case when the woman in question is older and beyond her supposed biologically determined ‘need’ to reproduce  and therefore attract a mate (and it necessarily follows an application for maternity leave – scourge of corporate order!). After all when a woman is pregnant her body shape is the complete antithesis of the waisted shape that is being so foregrounded in contemporary visual culture:  In terms of fashion the polarities of the Old Molly/Antique Batik hippie smock and (post- partem) Boden versus the Galaxy dress and the syling of Karen Millen, for example, might be presented as the polar extremes of contemporary female identity – their varied styles often become signs for a thoroughly value laden waxing and waning of a woman's midriff. As a stylist I think about this a lot because many of the women I work with have already had their children and sometimes (but not always) returned to work or have chosen not to have children in order to concentrate on their careers.