What’s Up with the Business of Clothes?

06 Apr

“Men act and women appear.”

-John Berger

Why does this matter? As much as we would like to deny, women’s appearance holds as much weight as men’s actions. While fashion seems trivial, the act of picking out an outfit in the morning has very real political, economic, and social consequences for women. We become vulnerable in our choice of attire. We risk being too flashy, too showy, too prudish, too not what everyone else wants us to be. In her piece “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion” Minh-Ha T. Phan discusses the appropriation of the power suit and the negotiation of femininity and masculinity, which immediately raised a lot of questions for us.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the show Scandal

First: why is it called a power suit? Where’s the power? The tailoring, silhouette, and colors reflect the traditional male business suit, allowing many women to “access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling” (Phan).

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

So are we taking the power by wearing it or are giving the power to the male fashion? In fashion lore, menswear styles imbue women with status, respectability, and authority. In the real world and the fictional TV universe, suits are seen as serious and professional, as opposed to anything “non-professional.” This goes back to the concept of dualism explored in the introduction to Susan Bordo’s book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo asserts that dualism represents the dichotomy and separateness of the feminine self and the masculine body. In terms of clothing, we use the masculine power suit to neutralize our feminine identities.

It’s hard to think about the brilliant Elle Woods from Legally Blonde and her amazing pink power suit.

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods (left) and Selma Blair as Vivian Kensington (right) in the movie Legally Blonde (2001).

Elle rocked the power suit, regardless of how shocking it was to everyone around her. How dare she add her own style, how dare she add pink, how dare she add femininity to the power suit in law school. It was just unacceptable to everyone around her. She was juxtaposed with Vivian who wore the dark colors that society deemed as professional and therefore acceptable for her to wear.

In our own experiences, especially job interviews, we found ourselves donning dress pants, pencil skirts, button-down blouses, and muted colors. These weren’t attempts to imitate men, but to conform to norms of business attire. Each of us has our own idea of what business clothing looks like, but in general, if any of us hypothetically went into an interview without having dressed “appropriately,” we admit that we would feel uncomfortable and unprepared. This idea of discomfort stems from an internalized association of masculinity and professionalism.

Appropriation can be a tool for women to regain a sense of power but there are other kinds of fashion appropriation that can be harmful to identity on more than one level. Urban Outfitter is one major culprit: they’ve infringed upon Navajo Nation trademarked styles, and more recently their online store sold a dress labeled as “90s Vintage” that bears a striking resemblance to an Ethiopian/Eritrean traditional dress.

How does this serve U.O.’s female market, and what do women try to convey when they wear ethnically-inspired clothing? What does it say about U.O. that they couldn’t even be truthful about where they got the inspiration for “90’s Vintage” dress? What does it say about their business tactics that they completely disregard an entire culture? Going even further, why does U.O. time and time again attempt to appropriate clothing from other cultures when controversy surrounds each instance? When is appropriation okay, and what makes it okay?

Questions to ponder? We think so.

Authored by victoriadan, bluesharphie92, harveymr, pencee, and brandi


Posted by on April 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


7 responses to “What’s Up with the Business of Clothes?

  1. Raina

    April 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    I think discussing the movie “Legally Blonde” would be really interesting. I did a project on the use of branding in the movie when I was in high school, and it was very surprising to see how many beauty and fashion brands are included in most scenes. The movie definitely makes the point that uniqueness in the workplace is a good thing, but also that beauty is extremely important, with Elle ultimately winning her case because of her knowledge of beauty. Vivian, who follows beauty standards, but conforms much more to traditional ones, is depicted as boring and not really having anything to offer. The movie seems to value personal expression, but still put a lot of weight on women’s knowledge of beauty, and doesn’t really leave room for uniqueness that doesn’t involve beauty.

  2. Lilly

    April 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    When reading “If the Clothes Fit,” I found myself really clinging onto this idea of what makes a women look powerful through her attire. For the past three years (almost), I’ve worked in a political office in my hometown, and I’ve always been aware of what I wear to work, the way I look, how presentable I am, etc. Just as the article mentions Hillary Clinton and her low-cut tops, I always reminded myself of Clinton wearing heels. I could be wrong about this, because I don’t quite remember where I learned this, but it was probably during her husband’s run for presidency that this was really focused on in the media. Clinton would wear loafers or flats and would be criticized or not taken seriously because she didn’t wear heels. These days, Hillary is all about wearing the heels, and I usually do not see her photographed without them.

    At times, this makes me wonder why I can’t be taken seriously if I choose to wear conservative flats or non-heeled shoes. I really don’t think the right flats dumb down my outfit or make me look less professional. Why do I have to feel this way? And, why do I have to feel obligated or committed to submitting to these ideas in the future? As a person who is terrible at walking in heels, I find myself knowing that one day I will have to cave in eventually and make that effort to really learn and manage the “art” of wearing heels. Why is this such a process? For now, I pay attention to my clothing to make sure I look “powerful,” but I still choose not to wear heels.

  3. goodyeak

    April 7, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    I found the comment about Urban Outfitters choice to label a dress as “90s Vintage” that bears a striking resemblance to an Ethiopian/Eritrean traditional dress to be extremely interesting. It reminded me of Pham’s article when she talks about how women of color are looked at differently when they wear traditional ‘ethnic’ dress in comparison to the same dress on a white woman. Pham states, “Women of color who wear ‘ethnic’ dress are often read as traditional, unmodern and, in some instances conservative. When similar garments are worn by white women, they signify global cosmopolitanism, a multicultural coolness.” I think therefore in conjunction with the problematic label, the fact that the model is white echoes Pham’s statement. The combination of the two is extremely problematic and damaging to cultural traditions because it suggests that to make traditional dress ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ and therefore desirable, it must first be ‘westernized’ before being sold.

  4. yawen214

    April 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    I think this is an interesting post. As suggested by the post, I am often vulnerable in my choice of attire in situations I am not familiar with or in workplaces dominated by male. In addition to the above, I find places that emphasize gender difference challenging as well. I often need to work on how much I should add femininity in my apparel so that people feel comfortable associating me with the particular gender I am suppose to be. On one hand, I am pressured to be judged by how I appear because I am a woman; on the other hand, I am often not happy with the attire that are usually prepared for women but yet I am not always brave or privileged enough to challenge the norm. As a result, I often conclude myself as paying less attention to clothes compared to “other girls”: I spend less time on online fashion shopping website and I never check out fashion magazines. Here one question is raised: Are women/girls genetically tend to pay more attention to their beauty? Or do women spend more time on fashion just because of the social anticipation and pressure? If the first explanation is absolutely true, why am I, and lots of other girls, show no more interest in fashion than average men do?

    As for the case of Elle Woods, I find that most real life cases applies to powerful men. Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates is one of the real life version of Elle versus Vivian. Though we can’t not draw conclusion about whether Steve or Bill is more successful or favored by the public, we should notice Steve Jobs attract way more attention in terms of his charisma whereas Bill Gates are mostly associated with his fortune and his drop-outs experience. “Man acts, women appear.” While people accept and celebrate Steve Jobs’s deed of challenging the norm, we celebrate a woman who rocks the norm mostly in TV dramas or movies. Except for very few celebrities, most successful women in the field of business, politics or IT industry still have to take care of their “professional looking” in order to survive.

  5. thescotchtapemedic

    April 8, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    The idea of using appropriation in fashion to project a sense of power or ‘worldliness’ in varying environments really struck a chord with me. In my experience as a mixed race woman, where I was living at the time profoundly influenced the way I behaved and presented myself, especially in terms of my race. I would often times amplify or deamplify my ‘tells’ as I liked to call them – the little hints that people could pick up on that I wasn’t purely white.

    It’s something that I have struggled with for most of my life, even before I was fully cognizant of what I was struggling with. I went through varying periods of accepting and celebrating and rejecting and hiding my identity. And I still do, depending on the company I am in and the people I am trying to present myself to.

  6. mollyburness

    April 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    The introduction to the interview with Tanisha C. Ford points out that “groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door.” These non-normative bodies are not blank slates; they are pre-adorned, intrinsically adorned. For such a body to wear this U.O. Ethiopian/Eritrean-inspired dress, she would be exceeding society’s quota of “otherness per person.” I think that this quota is in place so that those with the most social power (white people or males, for example) can still relate to or seemingly understand those around them without having to alter their perspective. Imagine that a Chinese woman wear this dress. A white woman could have the following non-positive responses:

    1.Confusion from mere disorientation: there is too much unfamiliar, non-normative character in one person and too little predictable character on which to grasp. The Chinese woman is already different enough by being Chinese, but to now add in a second ethnicity outside of her Chinese look is altogether foreign and puzzling. The white woman simply does not know how to react.
    2. Fear from feeling threatened: this second reaction is more negative than the first. Is the Chinese woman a threat to the white woman’s power? By wearing this dress, is she implying that Eritreans and Ethiopians are now more “other” than she is and that Chinese people are now part of the norm? I do believe that the Chinese woman empowers herself thus, and I wholeheartedly support it. However, I recognize that, for many, it is not only socially disruptive, but threatening.

    Finally, much of this week’s posts have been thoughtful and perceptive, though overall lacking in positivity. I want to point out that, while the two reactions outlines above- disorientation and fear- are not positive, they are powerful and highly catalytic: both can lead to vulnerability, and true change can only occur when those abusing their social power become vulnerable. Perhaps these reactions feel like a step backward, but I truly believe that they can ultimately be a step forward.

  7. sveslany

    February 12, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Reblogged this on Blonde with a Blog.


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