By Allison Horrocks
Male staffers in the White House have purportedly been told they must be “sharply dressed.” The women, meanwhile, have been told “to dress like women.” But what does it mean to “dress like a woman?” The question of how to dress is not a trivial one, though matters of fashion are often easily dismissed as superficial and apolitical. In fact, the notion of being able to “dress the part” to “do the job” is more complex when viewed in historical context. From early female federal employees to Civil Rights protesters, what some citizens have to say is often measured only after an analysis of his or her self-presentation.
There are countless examples of other moments in 20th century history when dress has mattered. In particular, the weight attributed to one’s appearance has not escaped the notice of leaders within many activist groups, including the early 20th century suffragettes. The perceived need for “proper” dress has arguably been heightened to a greater degree within minority groups, particularly those that historically have been denigrated for not meeting the standards of those in power. To take just two fairly recent examples, consider the importance attributed to clothing in Civil Rights demonstrations, or the ways that Black Power activists conveyed their anticolonial sympathies through self-presentation. Some forms of dress have served as evidence of respectability in social movements while others have worked as symbols of an ideological rejection of such politics.
Dress has also been critical within the working world, particularly as more workplaces became open to heterosocial. Perhaps a government-related example is illustrative, so we’ll begin there. Claire Marie Hodges is considered the first female park ranger with the National Park Service. I was recently speaking with a youth group about the history of NPS. In providing an overview of the agency, I mentioned that Hodges (and her peers) did not have the same uniform as the men, in part, because it had been unfathomable that a woman would wear one. Hodges was undeterred by this issue–as some might say, “nevertheless, she persisted.” Instead of precisely replicating what existed for male colleagues, she made her own uniform. Before we celebrate this moment, let us pause to consider whether this is equality. Perhaps for Hodges, finding her own clothing intervention was at least a form of equity–a way of finding a place, and maybe in time, a path toward belonging.
Wearing a crisp white linen dress for a protest, a prim suit for a mugshot, or a garb made of Kente cloth to a demonstration does more than simply cover the body. Such acts communicate an internal truth to the world. Yet we must not essentialize such choices or presume too many similarities. Whenever women enter public political arenas, their appearance is likely to be a topic of discussion. For some, a dress considered to be in line with middle-class standards is a preemptive strike, a way of defusing the criticism of one’s appearance that seems to come with crushing inevitability in times of turmoil. For others, a choice of dress is not about playing defense at all–it is a direct rejection of mainstream values.
Still, it would be an error to assume that women’s dress has always conveyed straightforward, or even consistent messages. Consider, for example, the white women who–without apparent contradiction–wore cotton dresses (produced through the toil of both enslaved women and low earning wage workers) along with brooches proclaiming their allegiance to the cause of abolition and sisterhood. We need not look for other, far-reaching historical examples of such conflicts, though there are many. Much of our own current fashion market for women is built on the backs of modern day wage slavery. As with marginalized groups of the past, the women who make such clothing are not often heard, though the fruits of their labor are everywhere, clothing those who may have more of a chance to be seen, politically.
There are so many other aspects to the question of what it means to “dress like a woman.” It is not hard to find, on the one hand, critics bemoaning the increasing casualness of women’s dress, a way to denote that women are simply not “feminine” enough in appearance. On the other hand, celebrations of figures such as Rosie the Riveter, a character who has only temporarily adjusted the industrial garb of the 1940s remain pervasive. This most recent comment from the new administration therefore exposes the extent to which there is an underlying anxiety surrounding how women (and to a degree, professional men) dress within the workplace.
Allison Horrocks is a public historian who studies 20th century concepts of race, domesticity, and politics through the history of Home Economics. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.