I got into a minor Facebook spat with a friend. I had posted an image of Kamala Harris wearing the Converse sneakers she has become famous for wearing. And I wrote that I was excited about this clothing choice by a woman at the top levels of government.
My friend objected. She said, why are people commenting on a female politician’s clothing choices, yet again? She feared that my post, and other posts and news stories also commenting on Harris’s shoes, were bringing all women down.
But clothing choices matter. Clothing can restrict the movements of certain groups of people, while freeing other groups of people to move without restriction. Clothing sends signals to others, sometimes obvious ones (like a symbol for a hate group) and sometimes subtle ones (like what color and style of tie a man wears to a debate).
I agree with my friend that shallow gossip about the clothing of female politicians can be counterproductive. But I disagree with the idea that we should shut off the conversation. We can’t just pretend people aren’t wearing clothes (ha! not in that way, that’s not what I meant!). And we can’t just pretend that women’s clothing and men’s clothing are the same. They are not.
I was struck, and still am struck, by the fact that on 9/11 women’s shoes, particularly pumps and other shoes with heels, littered the surrounding area. The women fleeing the burning buildings literally could not walk in their shoes. They kicked them off and continued barefoot. I did not hear of any man having that problem.
I myself, as a runner, have had trouble wearing heels since I entered my 30s. In my teens and 20s, my body was young and able to handle the pressure. But once I hit my 30s, I had to make a choice: (1) be a runner or (2) be fashionable while out on the town. I could no longer be both.
So when I saw Kamala Harris in a professional suit and Converse sneakers, I thought that was the best thing I’d seen in a long time. Does this mean it will soon be socially acceptable for ordinary people like me to wear a professional suit and Converse sneakers?! I hope so.
A character in the novel Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, makes a significant change in her clothing, and this causes a significant change in her life. Megan is a young woman who goes through a process of self-discovery and eventually lands at a place of being gender nonbinary. But first she experiments with her clothes:
“Megan abandoned all pretense at conforming /she wore men’s shoes, black lace-ups, liked how comfortable they were, how powerful she felt when she walked in them, loved that men didn’t eye her up any more / which was liberating”
This chapter, like all the chapters in the novel, is powerful to witness as a reader. It’s wonderful to see Megan grow more comfortable in her own skin, and to think deeply about how she wishes to present herself to the world, even though the world can be harsh when people don’t conform.
We could say, oh, let’s ignore what Megan is wearing. And yes, on a certain level we should! Let’s view Megan as a human being first. But on another level, I feel that we should not ignore the fact that she does something super brave here. She attires herself in a way that makes her feel comfortable, deep down. And her attire is not so much a statement, as an effort to be authentically herself, an effort to be comfortable within her clothing (both physically and psychically), and an effort to effect a certain kind of change in how people (specifically men, in this passage) behave around her.
All of this is not nothing. Let’s not pretend that people’s clothing choices don’t matter, to them or to others. Let’s also refrain from passing judgment on a person for their clothing alone.
Folks, I have a feeling that I didn’t cover this topic as entirely as I would have liked. But Kamala Harris is about to be sworn in as VP (!!!!) so I’m going to get this blog post out. But please leave me a comment and tell me, what did I miss in this discussion? Any angles here I did not cover? And are you comfortable in your clothes today?