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Throwing off the shackles of modesty

This is a more considered response to the Feminist Fashion Bloggers‘ monthly topic of fashion and sexuality than Wednesday’s rather brief post managed to be. Thanks to the commenters on that post for helping me to clarify my thinking, both those who pointed out that if one is well-endowed it’s almost impossible to avoid showing at least some cleavage unless one only wears high-necked tops (which are quite hard to find, certainly in non-casual styles) and the person who said that she thought any amount of cleavage was totally inappropriate for the office because it would be distracting to male colleagues, which did give me pause for thought (although if that commenter is reading I would like to make it clear that it didn’t take me a couple of days to approve your comment because I disagreed with you, it ended up in spam by mistake).

I have a lot of problems with the term ‘modesty’ when applied to dress; it comes with a lot of religious and cultural baggage about how women should ensure they don’t lead men into temptation by dressing provocatively which I fundamentally disagree with. Men are adults, and they should be responsible for controlling their own impulses just as much as women are responsible for controlling theirs. (Franca has a couple of interesting posts on the subject, if anyone wants to read more.) And if asked, I would have vehemently denied that my preference for tops with sleeves, moderately high necklines, and never going bare-legged when wearing skirts above the knee had nothing to do with that kind of residual Victorian-values attitude. I’d have said it was just personal preference, and maybe partly to do with not wanting to be chilly (there is a certain amount of truth to that, although in fact I am someone who feels the heat more than the cold; but for the last few years I did work in an incredibly cold building).

The trouble with the ‘personal preference’ argument is that none of us exist in a vacuum. Yes, of course in a perfect world we could all make completely free choices, but as it it we’re influenced by a whole lot of cultural baggage we may not even be aware of. And actually, deep down, I know that while I’m happy with my figure, I still haven’t completely made my peace with the actual physical nature of my body; the blotches and visible veins and stubble on my legs, the pudginess of my upper arms, and, particularly, the rather generous proportions of my bust. I’ve never been comfortable with my breasts. I developed very early, and was wearing a B-cup bra in my last year of junior school; a succession of hormonal contraceptives seems to have caused them to keep growing until I’m now wearing a GG and determined never to change pill brands again. And big breasts are problematic in our society, because breasts are so sexualised (I live in the land of the Page 3 girl, and if I was the kind of person to seek explanations for my current issues in my childhood I might wonder just what effect the old copies of the Sun we had to protect the desks in my junior school when we were painting had on my developing psyche), and it’s not easy for me to accept them as just an ordinary part of me. Instead,they seem to symbolise an overt sexuality which really, really isn’t me; I’m quite a private person and would prefer to keep the sexual aspects of myself between me and my other half.

When working through the tangle of my own mind it often helps to try to think of how it would seem to me if I was another person. Do I think that other large-breasted women at work are dressing too sexily and look unprofessional when they show a small amount of cleavage? No, of course I don’t. So would they think that of me if I did? Almost certainly not. Should I allow a culture which views women as primarily sex objects affect my relationship with my own body to the extent that I feel I have to make extreme efforts to cover myself up if I don’t want to be viewed as a sex object rather than an accountant, a manager, a friend, a colleague, a knitter, and above all a person? No I bloody well shouldn’t.

Obviously, I’m not going to stop wearing shawls, because I love my shawls. But it it’s too warm to have a shawl on I’m not going to fret. And I’m damn well going to make a Sorbetto and hopefully wear it to work if the weather is hot, even if it is – shock horror! – sleeveless.

Covering up

I love my shawls for very many reasons. Mostly I love them because they’re beautiful and colourful and soft and cosy, and they make me feel confident because they’re a reminder of what I’m capable of achieving if I put my mind to them. However, I know that I also like wearing them because I know they’re a good way to make sure my neck and chest are properly covered and I’m not showing any hint of cleavage.

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Shawl – Aurantium
Jacket – M&S
Dress – M&S via eBay
Tights – M&S
Shoes – Shuropody

I’m very fond of my jersey dresses, but they do tend to be rather low-cut and even with a camisole underneath they show more cleavage than I’m happy with in a work setting. Which is, in fact, none at all, which possibly explains why pretty much anything short of a crew-neck has a similar effect, especially given that I have a short torso and a large bust.

I do wonder sometimes if this is an overreaction, though. Is even a hint of cleavage too sexualised for the office, or is it really just unavoidable and fine as long as you’re not showing your bra?

(This post is sort of in response to the Feminist Fashion Bloggers‘ topic for the month of ‘Sexuality’, though it’s ended up a bit skimpy as I went to the cinema after work (The Awakening, not bad but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone of a nervous disposition) and didn’t get in until 9pm. You can find links to more posts on the FFB site.)

Edit – I have now written a much more considered response, here.

Like some kind of 50s housewife

This is a belated post on this month’s Feminist Fashion Bloggers topic of dating and relationship. As well as being late, it’s rather more about knitting than it is about fashion, as I thought I’d write about the vexed question of knitting for one’s significant other. Given that people still question whether women who knit can also be feminists, where does that leave women who knit for the men in their lives? How much more traditional and unreconstructed can you get?

I quite often knit for my husband. I’ve never made him a jumper, and probably never will (not because I’m afraid of the sweater curse, but because he’s 6’1″ and solidly built and likes fine-knit jumpers and I am not actually insane), but I’ve made him a woolly hat and handwarmers and eleven pairs of socks so far, with a twelfth on the needles right now.

Tim's socks

However, I would argue very strongly that this doesn’t make me downtrodden. After all, it’s not as though I’m making him socks out of necessity; he can get perfectly good socks in Marks and Spencers. I make him socks because he likes them, and because I enjoy doing things that make him happy, and I also enjoy making socks and don’t have a great deal of use for them myself given that I generally wear skirts with either bare legs or tights. And while I’m wary of the school of thought that says that whatever a woman chooses to do is a feminist act, because we don’t exist in a vacuum and our choices are always influenced by social and cultural factors, and our society and culture are still profoundly shaped by centuries of male domination, I think that generally speaking doing things because they make the people we love happy is a pretty good thing. And I still mutter darkly about the patriarchy every time he asks me to sew a button on for him, and then swear a lot every time I prick my finger with the needle.

The busy girl buys beauty

This month the Feminist Fashion Bloggers are considering women in the media and popular culture. Obviously, media and popular culture is a pretty wide field, but what immediately came to mind was magazines.

Now, I have a pretty ambivalent relationship with magazines, and have done ever since I graduated from the kind of comics which just had cartoon stories in to the ones which had articles on fashion and beauty and pictures of pop stars I was supposed to fancy; I just wasn’t interested in the kinds of things the magazines told me I should be interested in. Even at the age of ten or eleven I could dimly sense that my Girl and Jackie magazines were trying to push a lifestyle that I didn’t really want; eventually I ditched them in favour of a subscription to Doctor Who Magazine, and later the NME and Melody Maker. In my twenties I did occasionally buy Cosmopolitan and later Red and Marie Claire, if only to look at the pictures of clothes and read the career advice articles, although I haven’t done so for a few years; I was getting increasingly fed up with the magazines’ assumption that their readers would all have or want to have children, and the final straw was when my eye was caught by a column on the beuaty pages (which I never really read) suggesting that it was perfectly natural and understandable that men would find ‘ungroomed’ female pubic hair repulsive, at which point I threw the magazine across the room and decided I could do without spending rather a lot of money on something which was trying to tell me that my body was disgusting.

Since then, the only magazines I’ve bought have been craft magazines, but those aren’t perfect either. A lot of the knitting magazines are aimed at more traditional knitters, and are full of patterns for children’s clothes and stuffed toys. I do like some of the newer magazines, though; Knitting and The Knitter in particular generally concentrate on garment patterns in mainly adult sizes, and Yarn Forward (now Knit) has done in the past although recently there have been fewer patterns I’ve liked. I also find that The Knitter in particular has interesting articles about the history of knitting. On the other hand, I don’t buy them all that often as they aren’t cheap and I’ll only buy them if there’s at least one pattern I might want to make. And there is still a tendency to include patterns for children’s clothes and soft furnishings which makes me feel that as a child-free and not-particularly-domestic knitter I’m perhaps not quite the person they’re aimed at.

I feel this even more with a couple of new titles that have been launched recently, Mollie Makes and Handmade Living. Given my new interest in sewing I was initially attracted by the idea of magazines which weren’t limited to a single craft, but in reality the magazines seem to be buying in to the cosily-domestic vibe of Kirstie Allsopp and Cath Kidston which doesn’t really chime with my interests. I love crafting and being able to make things, but I want to make clothes, not soft furnishings or cosies for everything in sight (teapots excepted, but then again teacosies serve the useful purpose of keeping your tea warm). When it comes to interior design, I like minimalism. (In fact, I would say the same thing about clothes; I like simple, unfussy shapes in bright colours or bold patterns, rather than frills.) The domestic idyll just isn’t for me. More generally, I’m a little conflicted about these magazines. On the one hand, I don’t really agree with the way they relegate the mainly-female activity of crafting so firmly to the domestic sphere (what about laptop cosies, or colourful handmade accessories to brighten your office desk? Although of course, as both magazines are so new, those may well come), but on the other I am a great supporter of this modern version of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and want to see it spread, and I know people who get an enormous amount of pleasure from making beautiful things for their homes. But then again, it was mentioned in the comments to a post on this subject a few months ago that crafting is not necessarily a step away from consumer culture, and I think that perhaps one of the things that makes me a little uneasy about the proliferation of crafty lifestyle magazines is that it can be viewed as the publishers trying to cash in on the popularity of crafting and thrifting and to draw what started out as a reaction against consumer culture into the mainstream.

In the end, I suppose all I can really say is that none of the magazines I occasionally read has ever felt as though it was actually aimed at me; instead, they’ve mostly left me feeling like an outsider looking in on a world I don’t belong to. But then, I’m not sure that matters any more. Why do I need a monthly printed magazine when I have the Internet, and can assemble my own magazine from blogs and Twitter and Ravelry and news sites where content is updated hourly or daily and I can tailor what I read to my own preferences exactly?

Cost of living

After a week of warm sunny weather it’s a bit of a shock to the system to be back to more typical April temperatures; today was really quite chilly. Fortunately, although I’ve got my summer clothes out from under the bed where they spent all winter I haven’t actually put my winter clothes away; they’re still easily accessible in case of need, though in fact today’s outfit is mainly made up of spring/summer clothes layered enough for warmth.

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Scarf – Scroll Lace
Cardigan and top – Per Una
Skirt – White Stuff
Tights – M&S
Shoes – Jones Bootmaker

I do feel a little bit ridiculous for having a ‘winter wardrobe’ and a ‘summer wardrobe’. Surely that just means I have too many clothes to fit in the wardrobe all at once? Even though I’m generally quite good at managing my money, and rarely go overdrawn, I often feel guilty for spending on frivolous things like clothes and yarn; even though pretty things make me happy and I’m not sure what else I’d do with the money anyway (my ‘spending money’ is half of what’s left of the household income every month after covering all the essentials, so I really don’t have to feel guilty about spending it). It’s quite rare for me to buy clothes that aren’t second-hand or on sale, and I’m still struggling to get out of the trap of buying multiple unsatisfactory cheaper options because I feel I can’t buy the more expensive but perfect version instead, even though once I add up the cost of all the cheap versions I’ve probably actually spent more (the Vimes Boots Theory in action). And yet I don’t feel so bad about spending money on things which bring me much less pleasure: haircuts, for instance, which are simply a dull necessity if I don’t want to look like an Old English Sheepdog. It’s silly; I quite like my job, but I wouldn’t carry on doing it if I didn’t need the money, so surely I should accept having a bit left over to spend on pretty clothes and yarn as my reward for getting up at 6am five days a week and spending eight or nine hours in an office (and of course, having pretty clothes and handknitted things to wear in the office always helps too!). I certainly shouldn’t feel guilty about spending my money on things I enjoy!

(The Feminist Fashion Bloggers are considering how financial concerns intersect with fashion and feminism today. I’m not entirely sure this post has enough of a point to really count as addressing the topic, but I’m up to the eyeballs in budgeting at work and clearly suffering from an inability to write a coherent post on a serious subject.)

In a brown study

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Scarf – Flowers in the Rain
Necklace – made by friend
T-shirt – BHS
Dress – Per Una
Tights – M&S
Shoes – Jones Bootmaker

This week sees the last in the Feminist Fashion Bloggers’ series of posts celebrating Women’s History Month; this week’s topic is feminist ideas that changed the way we thought about things or the way we behave. It’s so hard to pick one thing when I honestly can’t think of a single area of my life which hasn’t been influenced by feminism!

Of course, that might not have been the case if my mother hadn’t been a feminist first. It’s entirely down to her that I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember, and given that it’s Mother’s Day in the UK this coming Sunday it seems quite appropriate to write about her.

Mum and me

My mother wasn’t a career woman. She married my father when she was eighteen, and has been married to him ever since. She left her job in publishing when I was born because she didn’t want to miss out on seeing me grow up and for the first eleven or twelve years of my life she was a stay-at-home mother (although she did other things I didn’t really know about at the time, such as being the secretary of the local CND branch for a while and a magistrate). After my youngest brother started school she went to university as a mature student and ended up getting a First in English and History of Art, followed by an MA and then a PhD – pretty impressive when she still had teenage and pre-teen children at home making the thoughtless demands of children everywhere.

She’s been an enthusiastic reader for as long as I can remember (the amount she reads puts me to shame, I have to say); she certainly had copies of The Female Eunuch and The Second Sex which I can remember dipping into from quite an early age. She never for a moment encouraged me to think that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, or that there was any difference at all between me and my brothers in terms of ability and aptitude. She doesn’t wear makeup, and that taught me that not wearing makeup was OK when all the magazines said it wasn’t; I can remember having long conversations about body image and societal pressure when I was teased at school for having hairy legs. She encouraged me to read and learn and question; she bought me the books that were banned by my school and took the time to read them herself and talk to me about them. And even though my father worked long hours and my mother was at home for several years, she never once gave me the impression that marriage was anything but a relationship of equals. Once she started studying we all had to pick up a share of the housework and cooking; she never bought into the pernicious myth of the ‘Superwoman’ that was such a feature of the 1980s.

So this post is for my mother, who gave me the best start in life I could possibly have asked for. Thanks, Mum!