“It’s not only that you give someone something to wear—it’s also that the wearer really gives something to your creation. And that interaction is really interesting–the identity that you bring to the piece.”
– Iris van Herpen, designer
I went on a date the other night. Don’t get too excited—it was awful. But it did spark some thought processing on the outfits we like to wear versus the outfits we sometimes feel we should wear. With spring-y weather finally upon us, I decided to indulge in a little clichéd femininity by wearing a little black dress, minimalist heels a la Tibi, with a vintage silk top unbuttoned over the top, working as a pseudo-sweater. It was mainly a cliché first date outfit, with only a dusting of me. As I trekked to the subway, I felt eyes on me in a way that was much less flattering than it was irritating. Now that my skin was out again for the world to see, I was ripe for consumption by strange men, some sitting directly next to their loved ones—read: wives, girlfriends, children.
I don’t revel in attention like this. In fact, it makes me feel sort of dirty, or even guilty for bringing it on. The attitude of the patriarchy sometimes seeps in, telling me, “Well, you brought it on yourself.” When I remember to use logic, I don’t agree with this notion—it’s misogynistic and warped. Ideally, I should be allowed to wear what I want to wear without feeling as if I was put through some sort of car wash that scrubs me down to nothing but a sex object. But I also know better than to expect that freedom in the current landscape, which may be why I rarely wear things that blatantly invite the male gaze.
Though I still dress along my own lines of sexy, that personal idea is not much tied up with society’s larger conception of what sexiness is. I do like skirts and shorts on the smaller side—though almost-diapers are not my thing—because, quite simply, they elongate my legs and provide me with an inexplicably powerful feeling when I wear them. Usually, though, I’ve draped a long coat on top of them, or a shirt so large and bulbous it could easily be maternity wear. Having zero boob-age helps here, too.
But I also feel most confident in a scuffed pair of loafers, shorts crafted with the fifty-plus set in mind, a wrinkled button down, hair a (probably styled) mess.
Despite all of these feelings, I’m not immune to should–ing when it comes to getting dressed, especially in light of men and the expectations that some (chill: I said SOME) of them have. I regretted my date night ensemble almost immediately, and when the date in question couldn’t stop showering me with “positive” comments regarding my choice, it took everything in me not to vomit on the table in front of us, or at least tell him about my thoughts on freeform pubic hair in great detail. Compliments are great, but they quickly become cloying and inauthentic when they are half of what comes out of someones mouth, and are built purely on the way your legs look in a shorter dress at night.
The whole ordeal brought me back to an age when I was still so swayed by popular opinion, I would often wear things only to quickly regret them. This may be surprising to those who grew up with me, as I also once went to school casually wearing a bikini top over my tee shirt, and walked around in Doc Martens before they were deemed Hipster-cool. But even with my occasional crowd-bucking ways, I of course wanted to fit in. There was a sense that I should stand out, but not too much. But when I really made efforts to fit in, I felt immensely shitty—sometimes staring at myself in the school bathroom for far too long, my preppy collared top naturally warranting an existential crisis in the middle of fifth period math.
That sense of stand out, but not too much came creeping back to me the other night. I reveled in coming home and ripping off my suddenly loathsome black dress, falling asleep in boring panties and a gigantic t-shirt embellished with a chocolate milk stain from years ago. While I’m not the girl I once was, teeing up my outfit for hours upon hours in the hopes that it makes the grade, she still stops by every now and then to taunt me. This weekend served me a helpful reminder of hours gone by and lost trying to be accepted by an elite I didn’t even respect, by the mainstream culture that I still have little in common with sartorially. I am happier to stand out in a weird way than a way that will find strange eyeballs glued to my backside, applauding me in collective silence. I am happier to go on dates where my legs aren’t the immediate topic of conversation. There’s no shame in that game if you truly, wholeheartedly enjoy it—but I don’t, so why do I ever bother?
I don’t want to be systematically sexy, I want to be sexy in a way that most men see through—that worthy men will have to dig deeper to find. I don’t want my clothes to speak so easily, screaming s-e-x so boldly. I’d rather a man pick my brain about something else before we breach that fleshy banter. The little black dress I wore that night stripped me of that opportunity, and failed as a canvas for the actual me to spill onto. I was legs and then some, not the other way around—and rather than stimulating me, its obviousness had me crawling towards the comfort of sexless.
And that’s certainly no fun, either.