I Choose My Pearls: On Feminism, Fashion, and Disneyland

By

“We fought for years so you didn’t have to dress like that,” said the woman next to me waiting to board Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

“That” was a kitten-patterned red circle dress, a style lifted straight from the 1955 opening day of Disneyland Park. I spent the space of a nervous guffaw examining this woman in her maybe-sixties, wearing a weathered-to-velvet gray t-shirt and jeans. Was she joking? Her plunging eyebrows and thin-lipped frown dimmed that possibility.

“I thought feminism was about the choice to wear whatever you wanted, whether it was shorts or a dress?” I lilted high and airy, a tone designed to sound far less intelligent and defensive than I felt. This was a perfect off-season February weekday with hardly any crowds and freak abundant sunshine. I didn’t want to spend my mini 36-hour Disney vacation inside the park’s underground guest detention center.

“You could still say thank you,” she said, still unable to meet my eye.

I said nothing.

One hundred and eighty seconds later I held back at the exit gate, letting her pass me and vanish into the average 44,000 people that visit Disneyland on any given day, while I waited for my husband Matt to catch up. “Did you seriously hear her give me shit for wearing a dress to Disneyland?” I asked.

“Yeah, but the difference is, I wouldn’t have answered her,” he said, barreling back toward New Orleans Square and the Haunted Mansion. That’s the thing about Matt, my engineer spouse who’d rather spend forty thousand billable hours dissecting the inner workings of his company’s infrared cameras than an extra five minutes analyzing a stranger’s random diatribe.

A week after unpacking my suitcase, I can’t stop thinking about her.

Just like I have never forgotten the coworker that said my cat-patterned high heels were “too much to stomach,” or the random woman at the Portland farmer’s market who marveled at how “tacky” I looked in a Halloween-themed skirt while I was just trying to bag some artisanal Fuji apples.

I want to give these women the benefit of the doubt, a courtesy they failed to extend to me. It could be terrifying, after all, to be in Frontierland with its shooting gallery and racks of cowboy hats, dirt paths, wooden sidewalks, and canyon sight lines obscuring Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Space Mountain, while the president and his administration were steamrolling women’s rights back to the 1860s. She may have just finished reading about Oklahoma Republicans passing legislation requiring that women secure a man’s permission to obtain abortion services when she found herself lost in the Old West. A woman in line wearing opening day throwback attire may have been too much to handle.

“Or maybe she was just a bitch,” Matt said.

And yeah. Maybe she was just a fucking bitch.

*

Pants-wearing women weren’t unheard of on Disneyland’s opening day on July 17, 1955. In the candy-hued Technicolor photographs of the park’s first years, you’ll spot stylish Katharine Hepburn wannabes in tailored black trousers and kicky cropped capris flashing pale heeled ankles, although they’re sizably outnumbered by Betty Drapers and Jackie Kennedys in their full Sunday Best. Pants were an option, but not the usual one. It was the choice that might earn you a few extra side-eyes and off-the-cuff line comments, like showing up in a circle dress in 2017.

Although notoriously strict with their park employees (forbidding multiple ear piercings, facial hair, and nails longer than one-quarter inch in length), Disneyland has traditionally exercised a light touch with guests. Today you’ll only get turned away at the gates for arriving in full head-to-toe cosplay, wearing a t-shirt graphically depicting your Kristoff/Prince Hans slashfic, leaving your Kristoff/Prince Hans slashfic tattoo exposed, violating a vague and problematically objective “inappropriate amount of skin” clause, or deciding that traipsing around Orange County barefoot is a good plan. As a result, the dress of Disneyland is much less “code” and much more “culture.”

And though women have legally been allowed to wear pants without fearing fines or imprisonment for decades, they haven’t been culturally encouraged or even permitted to do so. Just as, say, wearing your favorite pair of Target yoga pants today won’t have you arrested, but might incite a man who can’t stop staring at your ass to write an op-ed in the local paper about how brazen, sloppy, and slutty you and your ilk have become. Culture influences public and private policy, and restricts women in less visible, more insidious ways.

Take the aforementioned yoga pants, which have replaced low-rise jeans as the slut-shaming device of the zeitgeist. The barbs come from all angles: Lululemon blames women without thigh gap for “rubbing” their products to death and being unsuitable legging-wearers, United Airlines deemed young girls too inappropriate in the common pants to board a plane, schools have outlawed them in dress codes and placed the blame on girls “distracting boys” by existing in their bodies, and religious vloggers bloggers have quoted scripture in claiming that leggings stir lust in otherwise upstanding married men. It’s not creative, but it’s effective.

Women don’t need laws to repress their fashion, comfort, identity, or preference. Our society’s deft ability to shame does all the heavy lifting. Frontierland Feminist didn’t dismantle a patriarchal demand to regulate clothing; she picked up the baton.

*

My hatred of pants is rooted in the same place as most anxieties: adolescence. Over a single summer between the fifth and sixth grades, my body quit cooperating with most of my clothes. My new C-cup breasts gapped buttons and nipped in my favorite tees. I remember the first brush I felt of one thigh against another in a swimsuit, thinking they’ve never been close enough to touch before. And that bulge of hip that guaranteed that pants never hit my torso right again.

Pants: They go low. They go high. They ride up my crotch. They hover above my ankles as dreaded high-waters or drag below my heels in a look that only worked in 1996. They broadcast my German pancake ass to the world. They obstruct the beloved curves of my calves.

The next summer, when I was thirteen, my family went to Disneyland. I’d spent that year of my life in damage control, gathering shirts that were enormous enough to hide the shape of my body, the flesh that the ill-fitting denim shorts (complete with carpenter pant hammer loop for when I decide it’s time to bust out the woodworking moves) dammed at the top hem. I hated my clothes, but there were no other options. Denim shorts and t-shirts were what teenage kids wore on vacation.

What would my mom have done if I’d spoken up in line at Mervyn’s while we waited to buy those Levi’s shorts and Titanic movie poster t-shirt? If I’d told her I wanted a floor-length maxi dress or floral-print sundress to wear on vacation? Even if she was willing to indulge me, my preference didn’t exist. This was the late nineties. Old Navy, GAP, The Bon Marche—the mall stocked clothes that we were “supposed” to wear. Dresses were for little girls on Easter and high schoolers going to prom. I’d have as much luck telling her that I wanted to spend vacation in a full kimono set. Plus, dresses were never in my size. When we have no options, we can only be the manufactured expectation.

I’ll never forget the first grown-up sundress I found my junior year of high school. It was at Old Navy in spring, on a rack I passed on my way to stock up on more graphic tees describing places I’d never been and restaurants that don’t exist. It was Jadeite green with a smattering of pink flowers, in a simple shift style topped with requisite 90s spaghetti straps.

They won’t have it in my size, I thought as I flipped to the back to read the tag marked with the Honus Wagner of dress numerals: 16. I tucked into the dressing room with my unicorn as fast as possible, lest it spontaneously combust en route. The mass market cheapie fit me in a way nothing had clung to me before: a tapered waist that proved I did indeed have one without mutilating it, and enough room in the chest and shoulders to zip and pivot. In the mirror I was feminine. I was, without a doubt, a girl. I had a swath of skirt to twirl and swish. I looked a tiny bit like the fuzzy sketch of a fully realized adult self in my head.

I wore it until the green turned gray and the spaghetti straps stretched out and slumped. It would be years until I found a replacement.

*

“I can’t believe she would say that to you,” was the common response to the Disneyland story from modern-day feminists who understand the concept of choice, from my coworkers who like my dresses, and from my mom who’s endearingly defensive.

The thing is, it isn’t what Frontierland Feminist said that surprised me. If you are a woman of any kind of size who leaves her home, if you are a woman who dictates her own personal style, if you keep your eyes up and don’t apologize, if you bisect any of these lines, bystanders are going to comment. You will get positive comments about how much they “love your outfit” or “would kill for that coat.” You will also get shitty, mean-spirited projections. Then you’ll get the strange, backhanded compliments from people who will use words like “brave” to describe your decision to dress up and go into the city.

It wasn’t what the woman said, or that she felt compelled to remark at my appearance. It was where we were that caught me so off-kilter. Disneyland may spend millions of dollars marketing itself as the Happiest Place on Earth each year, but there’s more than on-target messaging that earns that reputation. A day at Disneyland is a rare day of freedom. If you have a ticket, you have the world. You can stay as late as your feet will carry you, ride as many Mountains and Mansions and Cruises and Carousels as you wish. You can have Dole Whips for lunch and Matterhorn Macaroons for dinner. You can let yourself believe that the college student in a wig you’ve waited forty minutes in line to be photographed with is actually Cinderella because she is Meryl Streep-level committed to the role. A hundred fireworks end the day not because it’s special, but because it exists.

On top of that, you can wear whatever you want.

Parking yourself underneath Walt Disney’s hub statue for a full day of people-watching is worth the (admittedly hefty) price of admission alone. You’ll see every sensibility imaginable. Coordinating goth couples. Three generations’ worth of family reunion in the same matching t-shirt. Leia buns. Athleisure and Armani. Sweatshirts from every other tourist destination in the states. Backpacks, jackets, and vests encrusted with so many Disney collector lapel pins, they look like chain mail. There are Disney Bounders, who build the colors and textures of character designs cleverly into their outfits with Little Mermaid scaled leggings, Snow White apple brooches and Minnie Mouse red and white polka dots. And I’m hardly the first guest to take a trip to Disneyland as an excuse for a vintage fashion show. Custom character poodle skirts and cat-eye sunglasses are so popular in the Southern California destination, Disney accommodates an unofficial “Dapper Day” twice each year to give retro fans a chance to showcase their outfits and flood Instagram.

The freedom that the park creates is real, but it is a microcosm of reality. It is a lovely diversion that exists within the confines of our wider world. I was at Disneyland, but it was still February 2017. The anxieties, anger, and ugliness of our age is a toxin; an airborne gas that pays no admission. I could be whoever I wanted to be, but so could she.

Which left me with a choice, the same choice that I am constantly making when someone takes umbrage with my appearance. I can bow to the pressure that this woman claims to have defeated and rework my suitcase and my closet into a more conventional, neutral palette. I could spend energy I don’t have asking myself whether the rest of the world will accept my conformity enough to ignore me. I could recalibrate my feminism to look the way random strangers believe that it should. I could stop being challenging and contradictory for all our sakes.

Then I remember that twelve-year-old girl drowning in her t-shirt and dreaming of tulle, and my heart shatters into steel.

I choose my petticoat. I choose my pearls.

***

Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.


Tabitha Blankenbiller’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, Catapult, The Establishment, Hobart, Brevity, and other such places. Her essay collection Eats of Eden is upcoming from Alternating Current Press in March 2018. She Tweets about writing, gaudy patterned dresses and overdressed crepes @tabithablanken, and more of her work can be found at tabithablankenbiller.com. More from this author →