The Thread: Dress Codes

By

Over the summer, my daughter and her preschool friends were playing “superheroes.” Because her school has a strict “no TV characters” policy, the children came up with their own superheroes based on their clothing. One day, my daughter was “sparkle girl” because her dress had glitter. Another day, she was “rainbow girl.” A friend of hers was “ladybug girl.” The powers they came up with for their superheroes were as creative as their names: screaming power, dazzling power, the power to turn everything rainbow. For the first time, my daughter began to care about what she wore because it dictated what powers she could claim.

To most of us, the word power has obvious meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” It has objective meaning in this sense, but to each of us power also has personal meaning. Women understand power from a multitude of aspects, and we’re taught early that how we present ourselves—our bodies, our clothes, our behavior—can be our own power, or activate the power of others over us.

 

My early Halloween costumes were fortune-tellers and brides. One year, a bear. Soft costumes with my long underwear layered strategically beneath so I could be warm. Halloween at my house was as American as anything, buckets full of candy sorted between me and my brother on my living room floor.

My childhood costumes of fantasy animals and faraway people eventually gave way to Marilyn Monroe. I went dressed as Marilyn one year in early adolescence, blue eyeshadow and red lipstick, my mole darkened with an eyeliner pencil. My developing body that had begun to curve and thicken and protrude, wrapped in a white sequined cocktail dress, to make it all as visible as possible.

I had watched my classmate, Diana Stanford, strut across the stage singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the middle school talent show. I seethed with jealousy, but also a newborn understanding: The attention she was getting could be mine, too. Allure was a kind of superpower. What Diana was displaying onstage was what I needed to become. I decided to dress as Marilyn the next fall, and thus began my nearly decade-long interest in Monroe the actress, but mostly, Monroe the sex symbol.

I tried my best to approximate Marilyn Monroe—sultry, blonde, film icon, slinky dress. At that age, my trick-or-treating was done with friends and no parents. Too young for parties, in that liminal space between sexual maturity and childhood, I floundered at sexy without grace. In my Marilyn getup, I shivered my way through the forty-degree night, miserably shuffling in thrift store heels that bit my feet. I barely got any candy. My friends went as odd characters, too. Emily as a moon-masked person in a black slinky dress. Cheyenne as an awkward robot, but with perfect makeup. A strange mashup of innocent childhood dress-up and sexy adult women’s costumes. We knew what we were supposed to convey on Halloween, but how? I only remember the women on the streets (typically mothers escorting their children) dressed as witches. A hasty costume most of the time consisting of black clothing and a pointy hat. Green paint optional.

 

I do not like wearing panty hose—the itch, the sweat, the snags and runs. The expense. But for nearly two years, I wore them constantly. That’s because for nearly two years—nine months as an extern, and one year as an employee—I worked in a federal judicial chambers, and dressed to protect the “prestige of the office.”

I worked for two different judges, but the pantyhose and other expectations about my appearance were similar. Wearing dresses and skirts without pantyhose in the courthouse was undignified and disrespectful. Tights were too casual. Slacks were, too, on court days. Only skirt suits with pantyhose would do. And I was lucky: there were judges with much pricklier ideas about what law clerks (particularly female ones) could and should wear in their chambers.

Perhaps the court had a written dress code; I don’t recall reading anything aside from my career services handbook, which explained the various dress codes a lawyer might reasonably expect to encounter. There were also the near-constant reminders from my professors, from the students and law clerks that I knew, that my appearance mattered. Nobody ever asked me to send them pictures of my outfits, but in some ways they didn’t need to. Part of clerking is internalizing the idea that everything you do, say, wear, is a reflection on the judge, the courtroom, and the institution of the court. I’ve never worked any place where the relationship between clothing and power was so explicit.

 

The last year I trick-or-treated was my freshman year of high school, and I felt exceptionally old. I was escorting my little brother, still just a middle schooler, on his rounds. I wore a Dorothy costume with ruby slippers: red spray paint and glitter. There was nothing sexy about my Dorothy costume; it had come from a production of The Wizard of Oz I’d done two years before. A modest pinafore over a white dress and petticoat, with smears of green makeup from the witch’s hands on the back that I’d never managed to remove. The adults opening the front doors to their houses looked at me as if to say I was too old for this. As if they were telling me to get with it, grow up. Become.

So I became. Three years later, my costume was a homage to Heather Graham’s roller skating, cocaine-huffing adult film star, Roller Girl from Boogie Nights, a film about porn stars. My “costume” consisted of little more than rainbow striped socks, white roller skates, a denim mini, and a pink screen print t-shirt that proclaimed “I’m Baby Soft, But I’m No Baby.” I wasn’t much of a roller skater, a fact that I should have taken into account. I fell before lunchtime, breaking my right arm and kicking off the avalanche of catastrophes that I would then, and have since, referred to as “worst-day-ever day.”

My parents didn’t say anything about my dressing up as a porn star, even a fictional one. They may have thought “roller girl” was the generic shorthand I’d given my costume. I had plausible deniability that I was just a “roller skating girl from the 1970s” and the winking stares of my peers who knew exactly who I was trying to be.

After high school, I wore a series of sexy-sexy costumes: sexy angel, sexy cowgirl, sexy raver, sexy doll, sexy kitten. All these “costumes” required was a tight, short, revealing dress in the correct color, and whatever accessories made me look vaguely like the thing I intended to be. (Fairy wings, cowboy hat, beaded necklaces, kitten ears.) It didn’t matter if my outfit was original or even very good. It mattered how I looked in it. As a character in Mean Girls famously explained, Halloween is the one night when a girl can dress like a total slut and other girls can’t say anything about it.

I don’t remember thinking much about it. Sexy outfits were just as much a part of my adult experience of Halloween as trick or treating had been to my childhood experience. I was twenty-five, in my first year of law school, the first time I remember giving the sexy Halloween costume any critical thought. This was because in law school, Halloween culture was different.

If you’ve ever seen Legally Blonde, this may not surprise you. The turning point for the heroine, Elle Woods, comes after she attends a law school Halloween party. Told it was a costume party by one of her Harvard Law classmates, and her romantic rival, Vivian, Elle shows up dressed as a Playboy bunny, in pink bustier, fishnets and bunny ears. In this moment, she embodies all of the worst things her classmates think she is: a dumb, blonde, sex object. She leaves the party determined to take herself seriously, even though nobody else will.

The thrill I still get from the film is in watching a woman choose her intellect instead of her attractiveness. And it is this storyline that I was unconsciously embracing when I dressed up as Elle Woods (in a pink suit, with a blonde wig and a stuffed chihuahua) for my law school’s Halloween party. The costume seemed to strike the balance between what the more confident law students were doing (wearing costumes that were legal puns or references) and what I was used to (dressing up as a sexy, pretty thing). I wasn’t ready to glue eggshells all over my skin and attend as “The Eggshell Plaintiff,” but I also didn’t want to wear something that would expose my last decade as a young woman whose primary self-value was in her appearance. The Elle Woods costume let me look pretty, but not too sexy. Fun, and in on the joke. Self aware, and aware of what I looked like enough to choose something not ugly.

If it sounds like a lot of overthinking for something as simple as a Halloween costume, it is. But this is the sort of tightrope women are asked to walk all the time. No matter what our story or our stage of life, women are asked to present themselves in particular ways, or risk ridicule, shunning, disaster.

Nobody knows this better than women who visibly and consistently refuse to conform. Sharon Olds’s poem, “No Makeup,” is about her refusing the “idea of beautyship.” Even when women have aged, the culture expects them to make an effort. Not to be sexy (that’s vulgar) but to smooth away lines and age spots, lengthen eyelashes, freeze muscles to prevent wrinkles from forming, pay thousands for gels to plump the places where natural aging has left us flat. “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people,” Olds begins. We don’t need green paint to be witches; we only need to reject what culture insists is our mantle in order to be who we are. While there’s no magic age at which all women become too old to be sexy, we all have a “last fuckable day.” The question is whether we will learn that it has passed from some outsider, or choose that day ourselves by dismissing the demands of culture and fully standing in our autonomy.

It was something my daughter understood instinctively, selecting and defining her own superpower.

 

I knew before I was pregnant that I wanted to protect and cultivate my potential daughter’s bodily autonomy. I imagined her confidence, growing up with adults who respected her boundaries and helped her enforce them.

The realities of raising a child who expects me to listen to her about her own body are trickier than my fantasies. It sounds lovely to have a daughter who feels entitled to say “no,” but it’s hard when you have to put your four-year-old in a car seat, and she really doesn’t want to be in one. I remember the crying phone call from a friend whose toddler wouldn’t sit in her car seat, and the hours they’d spent in the parking lot of a grocery store, mom begging, child refusing. My friend was unable to hold her child in the car seat while buckling the five-point harness. My husband and I (with our tiny, helpless baby in a bucket car seat) drove the two miles to the parking lot, where it took three adults to buckle the toddler against her will. On the drive back, my husband (who’d been tasked with holding the toddler’s hips down) felt badly. Even though we both agreed that teaching our children that they have a say in what happens to their bodies, we continue, year after year, stage after stage, to encounter situations where her bodily autonomy rubs against her safety, health, or welfare. There are situations where autonomy is less important than one of these other concerns, but it’s hard to explain to a child exactly what the difference is between wearing warm clothes and a coat in the snow, and wearing a tutu to school.

 

When my clerkship term ended, I took a job teaching paralegals at a community college associate’s degree program in Hayward, California.

As a twenty-nine-year-old college instructor, my age was one of my biggest hurdles. Many of my students were returning to school after many years in another field. A solid third of most of my classes was adults in their late thirties to fifties. I had former pastors, former insurance sales people, former nurses. I had many, many students with children. I struggled for the first year in building a wardrobe that would convey my authority, highlight my power, make me look like more than a child myself. At 5’3” with short blonde hair and a babyface, I was hardly an intimidating physical figure, but I did what I could to look older, wiser, more capable. I tried to look like I belonged at the front of the classroom instead of in the chairs.

The school had a dress code, too. Each quarter as I began my classes, I would cover the dress code portion of the syllabus with a mini lecture about how we are judged, all of us, rightly or wrongly, by our appearance. I knew it; I believed it.

In the second episode of the Amazon Prime Series, Transparent, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) addresses her daughter’s allegation that Maura has simply been dressing up as a woman.

“No. My whole life I have been dressing up as a man. This is me.”

How much of gender and identity is about dressing up as the part? Women and men are all in costume, all of the time. But it seems that for women, much more than for men, what we wear may be specifically chosen for its messaging. Some, like my teaching clothes, we select to project a specific image, to convey ourselves as older, smarter, more powerful. And some clothes are called costumes, as though because they’re for an occasion they’re anything different. Costumes are still clothes that we choose to convey something about ourselves.

Yesterday, I found out that yandy.com is selling a “Brave Red Maiden“ (aka sexy Handmaid) costume. As the feminist Internet erupted in furious derision, I felt a strange mix of irritation, disbelief, and disappointment. This was the same afternoon I read that Yale Law Professor Amy Chua (Tiger Mom) had been advising female law students for years that Judge Kavanaugh preferred to hire “model type” clerks. I learned about these two stories back to back, and then found it hard to tease them apart. Someone saw the popularity of the Handmaid “look” within The Resistance and created a totally predictable “costume” for women who wish to flag themselves as feminist AF while participating in Slutoween. A law professor saw that a particularly powerful Federal Judge preferred pretty, well-dressed law clerks and offered to coach her students on their appearance in order to help them land the job. Twisted feminism, but I could see how everyone got there: this is what they want, it’s their choice, etc.

As a young woman, Slutoween is hardly a choice. It’s a way of fitting into the narrowly tailored expectations of objecthood. Failure to “choose” this can result in embarrassment, and rejection. Choosing hypersexualization in the wrong environment can also result in social shunning. Forgetting the pantyhose, wearing a suit that’s too modest or not modest enough. Women must anticipate, digest, and constantly adjust to these dress codes, whether written or implied, and even when they are constantly in flux. In some ways, Professor Chua was merely making the expectations of the Judge explicit. If you want to work there, you’ll dress like this. It’s not all that different from my own law school’s career services handbook, just more personalized.

 

My daughter has loved spooky things for as long as she’s been able to talk. Skeletons, ghosts, and her favorite of all: witches. Last year, for her third birthday, her only request was “witch hats,” which we obliged by providing a box of them to guests.

Last week, my daughter came home telling me witches were scary.

“Since when?” I wanted to know. She said one of her school friends had told her that witches were scary and bad.

“No, they’re not,” I said. “A witch is just a powerful woman. People are scared of that.”

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →