A couple of weeks ago I set up a collaboration blog called The Summer Blog Project, with the aim of improving my writing and getting the chance to discuss interesting and topical issues ranging from politics to current affairs to women’s rights to pop culture. This week’s topic is ‘fashion and gender’, and so bears some relevance to this blog. My entry for this week can be found here.
Good girls are sexy, like, every day
I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay
I don’t follow many fashion blogs, mainly because they do little to lift my spirits. This is for two reasons: firstly, relying on my student loan and being the kind of person who prioritises my food budget over my clothing allowance, I can hardly afford to change my look as frequently as is demanded; and secondly, because there is only so much energy I am willing to devote to caring about what famous people are wearing. I’m certainly not one to subscribe to bitchy columns about celeb fashion mishaps – the kind that use words like ‘celeb’ and spend half their word count speculating about whether the pop star of the moment is eating too much or eating for two. So it is perhaps surprising that my new favourite blogger writes often about her extensive closet of Chanel, Louboutin, and her own creations.
Enter Leandra, the self-styled Man Repeller. As for an introduction, it’s perhaps best to let TMR speak for herself:
outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive way that will result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to: harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full-length jumpsuits, jewellery that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.
verb (used without object),-pell·ing, -pell·ed.
to commit the act of repelling men:
Girl 1: What are you wearing to the party?
Girl 2: My sweet lime green drop crotch utility pants!
Girl 1: Oh, so we’re man repelling tonight?
*DISCLAIMER: the above conversation is not a dramatization; it took place in this room 5 minutes ago.
My love affair with this sartorial force of nature began one evening when I got caught up in that procrastinator’s favourite pastime of following links from blog to blog in the hope of finding something sufficiently distracting to prevent any real work from being done. Arriving at a Dazed Digital article about a collaboration by SIX with six (who’d have guessed?) of the blogosphere’s most influential style commentators, it was TMR who finally succeeded in holding my attention. In all honesty, I am not sure whether it was the name or the accompanying photograph of her designer offering that intrigued me more: a pair of navy suede ankle boots with a line of lethal-looking spikes down the back. An aggressively titled creator of footwear that doubles as lethal weaponry? I had to know more. It was then that I began to learn about the enormous potential for fun to be found in clothes that I had previously dismissed as either hideous or laughable: jumpsuits, harem trousers, bow ties and furry boots.
My dedication to fashion may be limited, but I am forever grateful that I live in a time and society that allows us to choose what we wear. Trade in the global village allows us to pick and choose our materials, styles, and their sources; technological advances make choice affordable. Our clothing choices are not prescribed by the law, and we are not bound – in the most literal sense of the word – by the necessity of uncomfortable undergarments layered beneath our everyday outfits. Gone are the days when ankle-length skirts are the norm. We now have the glorious freedom to choose what we wear. Hooray! But with choice, it seems, comes social pressure, and we are surrounded by forces seeking to manipulate us into thinking we are choosing what has already been decided for us.
Perhaps my least favourite of all these forces is The Women’s Glossy Magazine. Let us disregard those, for a minute, which contain anything resembling decent editorial. I am talking about the kind that loves to herald the emergence of the Empowered Working Woman under the premise that: in a (largely white, educated, hetero-normative) modern world, women have the vaguely defined freedom to do whatever they want. What they want, of course, is to be successful and sexy: to have the high-flying job and the perfect guy. These magazines are easy to spot thanks to the abundant use of phrases such as ‘power dressing’, often used shortly after ‘career woman’ and ‘how to please your man’. Snarky observations aside, why not feel attractive at work? I am not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with that. But these magazines make the crucial mistake of equating empowerment with physical attractiveness. We are often told that empowerment through freedoms such as financial independence go hand-in-hand with the ‘empowerment’ of feeling attractive. One necessitates the other, and if dressing for work should curb my freedom to feel sexy, I am deemed to be a figure worthy of pity and condescension.
Herein lies my problem. It’s all very well and good being told I have a right to feel sexy all the time and anywhere I want – but sometimes, frankly, I don’t want to. Why should I? Surely this is no more empowering than being told I am duty-bound to feel prim and demure at all times.
This paradoxical faux-feminism is everywhere. It is arguably no more prevalent anywhere other than in advertising, and the sex-equals-power-equals-happiness formula seems to underpin the sales of everything from yoghurt to bathroom suites.
It’s a formula with which we are all familiar. An attractive woman just doesn’t feel sexy, owing to her dry scalp/constipation/oversized sanitary towels. An improbable lunchtime discussion leads to a smiling, equally attractive friend producing the solution from her handbag, implausibly managing to shoehorn the brand name and product details into the exchange. As a result, attractive woman #1 is restored to her capable, confident self, often shedding items of clothing as a display of her rediscovered sexiness. Now that her problem is solved, there’s no reason why she should be bound to this inexcusable frump.
Now, I’m not saying any of these solutions are inherently bad. But it’s interesting that these ads seem to regard physical discomfort less as a problem in itself than as some kind of obstacle to achieving maximum sex appeal. This points to the seemingly widespread belief that ‘not feeling sexy’ is symptomatic of a larger problem. It’s seen to display a lack of self-esteem – even a lack of self-worth. It’s the idea underlying everything that many of the aforementioned women’s magazines value, as evidenced by the production of ever-growing lists of ‘ways to feel sexy’. We are told we have a right to feel sexy. Maybe that’s true. But I, for one, certainly don’t feel I have the responsibility to do so – which is convenient, because honestly I just don’t feel the need. Cue TMR.
Flipping through the pages of Derek Blasberg’s Classy sequel, “Very Classy,” I can’t help notice the plentiful references to the iconic little black dress. Sentiments re: said dress include the following: Coco Chanel. Wear with anything. Feel sexy regardless…But I’m here to squash predisposed theory about the LBD. Yes it’s true Coco Chanel is a sentiment and you can most certainly wear the little black dress with anything but uh, you don’t have to feel sexy if you don’t want to. Some days we just want to look like astronauts and that’s okay.
Finally, it feels like someone is talking some sense.
A friend once said to me that she was uncomfortable with the idea of dressing with the specific purpose of preventing oneself from being attractive to men. A fair observation, but I can’t help but feel that this misses the point. Delivered with tongue firmly inserted into cheek, The Man Repeller’s message is to dress for yourself: creatively, selfishly and unapologetically enjoying the clothes you wear. It is less about actually repelling men, and more about avoiding getting caught up in the mentality that we should always dress for someone else. As Leandra has said, ‘Man Repeller’ has “a meaning that extends far beyond just a gimmicky title… This is about embracing yourself, dressing for yourself, loving yourself, confidence. All that Oprah shit I never explicitly project”. Surely this is far more liberating and empowering than any magazine-approved ensemble could be?
As far as I’m concerned, The Man Repeller has her priorities sorted.
Visit TMR at: www.manrepeller.com
Originally published here on 2 February 2012.
 Robyn – Who’s That Girl?
 I’m choosing not to tackle the ethics of certain labour practices or the throwaway culture this can encourage in this post… That is another can of worms entirely, to be opened at a later date.