Clothes maketh the man but destroyth the woman?

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
July 20, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

Last year I was interviewed on a (now defunct) morning television show. I rang my mum as I left the studio.

The bright lights must have fooled with my brain because naively I assumed Mum would say something about the interview. Silly, silly me. Instead, her very first words were, “Why on earth did you wear those boots?”

Those boots are a pair of black knee-highs. Patent leather. Apparently not the ideal choice for a TV interview about feminism and infidelity. Maybe I should have realised. Afterall, once upon a time on a first date, in his thick Northern European accent, my companion remarked that the shoes looked like “boots of the whore”.

A decade-and-a-half ago I was in Year 10 at high school. Like any mouthy teenager worth her salt, I was on the debating team. I only remember two things from my short-lived debating career. One. Our overzealous debating teacher who – when no other adults were around – surreptitiously tried to put drops in our eyes to make them “sparkle”. Two. That one interesting debate topic: clothes maketh the man but destroyth the woman.

No eye-drop wielding bandit needed to explain the topic to us: as fifteen-year-olds we were acutely aware of how women are judged by their clothing in ways men never are. And it’s a lesson we’re all retaught daily. A male PM in the same suit day in, day out and few will bat an eyelid. A female PM in an unflattering print dress and the public ponder a clothing allowance.

Aside from a few Islamophobes going berko about the burqa and aside from the wowsers with too much time on their hands wailing about raunch culture, most people agree that women can wear whatever they want. At least in principle. In practice and the whole situation gets a little fuzzy.

Last week The Drum ran an article I wrote about the conservative agenda driving sexualisation of children discussions. In the reader comments and in an interview I did afterwards, one theme kept replaying: responsibility. Women, apparently, must take responsibility for their clothing choices. A week on and I’m still wondering if I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

While there was certainly no sexual motive behind my wearing those boots on David and Kim, I certainly can’t plea naïveté to knowing their fetishistic connotations. Neither can I plea innocence to knowing that some people might judge them as inappropriate, as slutty; judge me as inappropriate, as slutty. Expecting comments and idiotic preconceptions however, is a very different thing from accepting them. It is most certainly a different thing from a woman having to take responsibility for them.

A theme evident in commentary about my last Drum piece was if girls – and, presumably women – dress provocatively, then they need to be prepared for the consequences. If a single reader needs convincing that gender equality is but a flight of fancy, please, allow me to show you the error of your ways.

Telling a woman that she is dressed provocatively tells her that she is provoking men. To advise her that she dress more chastely is to suggest she best not arouse men; best not tempt their libidos. The rationale behind such spurious advice? Apparently men just can’t help themselves.

If I believed that all men were rapists or sexual harassers, I wouldn’t get up in the morning. I have never believed this and those feminists making such claims do us a all a great disservice. However, this is the exact thinking underpinning criticisms about clothing choice. When clothes are condemned as provocative, when girls are told to dress more modestly, the inference is that something might happen to them. Not only is there an inference that a man’s bad behaviour might happen, but far worse, that she is somehow complicit.

Research consistently shows that both men and women believe that apparel can encourage rape. Underpinning such drivel is not only the flawed notion that a woman can apparently thwart rape with baggy tracksuit pants and a cardi, but that if she’s dresses provocatively – if she dares stir the lust of men – then she should expect poor treatment because she encouraged it. Because she deserved it.

By focusing attention on clothing, we are doing what we always do – blaming women and girls for their own abuse. In turn, we are swallowing the fallacy that men’s bad behaviour is inevitable and that to participate in public life women must acknowledge that they are always under threat and should dress accordingly. I don’t want to live this way.

My pain threshold for conservative claptrap has been crossed. The same freedoms that allow wowsers to judge a girl or a woman’s clothing are the very same freedoms that let her wear whatever she wants. And that’s where the buck should stop. If bad things happen while she is dressed sexily, then, as my grandmother would say, let us have a word in his shell-like ear. To blame the woman is retrograde, offensive and downright misogynistic.

© Lauren Rosewarne