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“Dress for Success” – Paris Edition

By April 26, 2011 One Comment

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about my experiences shopping for clothes in Paris. In “My Pinkification-Induced Anxiety Attack,” I spoke about my difficulties in finding smart clothes for business meetings, in a sea of linen blazers and shirts best suited for a day at the beach. Virtually every store that I visited promoted an image of women as delicate, ultra-feminine, non-threatening beings dressed to seduce. I was looking for an outfit suitable for someone like Christine Lagarde, and could only find clothes in the style of Arielle Dombasle. Interestingly, the problem seemed to be limited to French stores, because in the same period I visited Milan, London, and later New York City, and found many options for professional clothes in virtually all the stores I visited.

I would like to try a little experiment this week: revisit the same Parisian stores, looking for shirts, vests, and blazers and document here what I find.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the original post from June 2009, that describes my adventures in Paris retail stores.

My Pinkification-Induced Anxiety Attack

This past Saturday I had an anxiety attack: sudden sense of panic, difficulty breathing, head spinning, stone cold hands… the whole deal.

It happened during an afternoon of shopping in Paris. And I can attest with absolute certainty that it was provoked by the painful awareness of the power of patriarchy. I thought of it as my first feminist panic attack. Or, alternatively, my first sartorial panic attack. It was real. It was a bit scary. At first it filled me with a deep feeling of sadness and resignation, which quickly turned into outrage.

Rewind << My Armor

My ideal work “uniform”: crisp shirt, v-neck sweater or vest, scarf, and a classic Banana Republic blazer over jeans and flat shoes.

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I have grown to love wearing blazers because of the sense of authority and seriousness they immediately confer. And I could really use that, especially in France, a country with rampant ageism and sexism. I experience condescending and patronizing attitudes from men – and some women – on a daily basis. I’m still getting used to it, since my experience in the U.S. and even Italy had always been quite different – the opposite, actually. But for a female, under the age of 40, this is standard fare in France. Even more so in the film business. Some aggravating elements: I tend to look younger than my age. I have long hair, and the exact body type of my grandmother: your typical Italian hourglass figure, with a large bust and wide hips. Not exactly the body of your token film director.

To compensate, I have always dressed in a modern Jane Austen fashion: classic, elegant, a bit preppy with a modern twist. But above all, Victorian (always proper and covered up, that is).

Working in a creative environment, I never had to don a real business suit. Still, the discovery of blazers was almost earth-shattering. Because whenever I wear them, most often paired with jeans, I feel like I’m wearing an armor, giving me strength and respect in the eyes of others: age and gender boundaries melt away a little. And in sexist/uber-feminine/ageist Paris, I have noticed a distinct change in the way I am treated whenever I wear my blazer uniform.

Since I’m currently having loads of important production meetings for The Illusionists, I thought it would be a good idea, with the weather getting warmer and all, to add a couple of vests to my wardrobe. (Because long sleeved sweaters under a blazer in the summertime indicate a propensity for masochism.)

So last week, on two different occasions, I ventured out looking for a very specific item of clothing: a cable-knit vest (preferably navy blue, crimson, or mauve).

Play > Me vs. French fashion designers

In my experience, after Tokyo the city of Paris is the one offering the richest experience in shopping for clothes. There is so much variety: all the world’s best known brands, along with obscure French designers. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement, are shopping Mecca with hundreds and hundreds of brands spread out over two entire blocks / seven stories up.

And there I went last Thursday evening. And then again on Saturday afternoon.

To cut the story short: after hours and hours of walking, scanning, browsing, and pulling clothes off of racks, I came up empty handed.

Everything was ULTRA-feminine, almost in a caricature sort of way: skirts, dresses, frilly tops with plunging necklines. Think: Hawaiian vacation more than a day at the office. EVERY SINGLE BRAND had a slight variation on this ultra feminine theme, but no one offered an alternative. There was simply no choice.

I stared in horror at linen (LINEN!) blazers at Galeries Lafayette.

A ray of hope came from the Italian brand Benetton, which offered one short black blazer and a few shirts (long and short sleeved). But no vests.

This came as a surprise because a month ago I was in Milan, Italy, and I visited the biggest Benetton store in the city center. Displayed prominently everywhere were business suits, shirts and pants (along with feminine items, of course, but the business attire was there and was abundant). Why didn’t I purchase anything then? (Because I’m an idiot. And because they didn’t have any vests. I’m obsessed with vests, if you couldn’t tell)

Back in Paris: Zara, Naf Naf, Kookai, Esprit, Benetton, Sisley, BCBG, H&M and GAP for women are all about flowing, wide cotton shirts most appropriate for sunny weekend afternoons. On the male side, on the other hand, there is always a vast choice of sharp business attire: shirts, sweaters, elegant shoes. I know because in the three years I’ve been living in France, I get envious whenever I go shopping for presents for my boyfriend. There is so much to choose from – and the fabric is comparatively better. Zara for Men looks almost upscale and preppy, with a vast selection of affordable cashmere sweaters. Zara for women has cheap looking Nylon sweaters scattered on the floor. Grrrr.

So, what kind of adjectives can best describe the woman of French fashion boutiques?

Breezy.

Carefree.

Young.

Extremely feminine.

Sweet.

Sexy.

Non-threatening.

You see where I’m going?

I don’t want breezy and sweet. I want professional and serious. A quasi-unisex uniform. And I couldn’t find any of that after surveying more than a hundred different brands. I wanted a simple vest! GAP was the only store that carried one, but it was pale pink and thus too feminine for my taste.

Golfing equipment came close, but not quite. Sleeveless cotton shirts with the swoosh logo were not really my thing. Plus, if I’m in a meeting asking for film funding, I want to look like Allison Janney/C.J. Cregg from The West Wing, not like Michelle Wie.

The sportswear section of Printemps offered a few options: Ralph Lauren cable-knit sweaters, but they were long sleeved, came in hot pink or orange, and at 170 Euros a pop, they were waaaay out of my range.

The panic attack gradually set in about 5 hours later, after wandering aimlessly from a uber-feminine boutique to another. I shivered at the idea that French society would push me to adhere to this caricatural model of femininity. And so my head went spinning. And my hands turned stone cold.

Backlash

The recurring thought of the panic attack was that the pinkification of young girls has spread to older women. Society wants us to look like non-treatening child-women. And it’s starting with clothes.

While walking down rue St. Antoine, after a quick visit to the GAP (where I had seen the only vest of the day, pale pink, which screamed “Barbie girl”) I suddenly remembered a chapter about fashion in Susan Faludi’s wonderful book “Backlash.” To make a long story short, in the 1970s and early 1980s in the United States, business suits for women became extremely popular. There were loads of stories in women’s magazines about “Dressing for Success.

scan10011A book about this issue – a survey of hundreds of women working in the corporate world – revealed that:

[Women] who wore business suits were one and a half times more likely to feel they were being treated as executives – and a third less likely to have their authority challenged by men. Clothing that called attention to sexuality, on the other hand – women’s or men’s – lowered one’s status at the office. “Dressing to succeed in business and dressing to be sexually attractive are almost mutually exclusive.”

Fashion houses started to promote in an enthusiastic way business suits for women. Open any woman’s magazine from the late 1970s–early 1980s and you will see for yourself.

Faludi then noted:

But in their enthusiasm, fashion merchants overlooked the bottom line: dress for success could save women money and liberate them from fashion-victim status. Business suits weren’t subject to wild swings in fashion and women could get away (as men always have) with wearing the same suit for several days and just varying the blouse and accessories – more economical than buying a dress for every day of the week.

Clothing sales plummeted in the 1980s. The fashion industry faced the worst crisis since World War II. And so, in the late 1980s, merchants, with the help of mass media, literally set out to kill the “dress-for-success” loudly proclaiming a return to femininity. Mademoiselle had a story about “The Death of Dress for Success” – and other obituaries in Vogue, Elle, Cosmo and other major publications followed suit.

So, it makes economic sense to keep women away from business suits. That realization managed to dampen my panic attack. It was rational. Awful, but rational, and driven by the economy, just like the beauty myth. I took the bus home and called it a day.

12-14 Year Old American Boy

I eventually found my cable-knit vest. Courtesy of Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren Junior, that is. The boys’ collection. I had to effectively cross gender and age lines to find something suitable.

The girls’ collection – just like the women’s – was full of dresses and frilly, sweet things. But the boys’ was Mecca to me. Lots of elegant sweaters, polo shirts, and, above all, cable-knit vests in navy blue, black, red and mustard yellow. My size corresponds to a boy, age 12-14. In the eyes of Ralph Lauren, it’s a boy full of promise: an active boy, future Ivy League graduate, on the road to becoming a brilliant doctor. I like that. I like that far better than the clothing for a submissive, dressing-to-seduce woman clinging desperately to her youth.

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So, underneath a Ralph Lauren vest made for a 12-14 year old American boy is a bra, and underneath that bra is a heart, still yearning for the big dreams and aspirations of a young girl, now a grown woman. She was never told by her parents that, because of the genitals she was born with, she had to settle for less. And she won’t.