The other day a rather interesting post from the Facebook page “Oxfess” popped up on my newsfeed. It read: “#Oxfess11354: So upsetting when there’s a fit girl sat across from you in the library but then she stands up to reveal her English-student trousers (the flared ones that only make it 3/4s of the way down the leg) and all your hopes and dreams come crashing down”. This was no doubt a throwaway comment, and obviously “just a joke”, but it left an impression on me. In fact, the more I thought about the more I felt left with rather a puzzle: what did it mean? What exactly is wrong with three-quarter length flared trouser? Why did it transform the girl from “fit” (a label she would no doubt be deeply flattered by, and which the writer of the post was clearly entitled to confer as she diligently studied for her degree at Oxford University) to a destroyer of dreams?
#Oxfess11354: So upsetting when there’s a fit girl sat across from you in the library but then she stands up to reveal her English-student trousers (the flared ones that only make it 3/4s of the way down the leg) and all your hopes and dreams come crashing down
First of all, I imagine the garments referred to are what are often known as culottes, a loose cropped trouser which first surfaced as a trending item a couple of years back and have only increased in popularity amongst stylish young women and are today ubiquitous in Oxford. They have a slightly bohemian, avant-garde look beside a classic skirt or more conventional skinny jeans and tend to be worn by the more fashion-conscious. I, like the writer of the post, will assume you know what I’m talking about.
To be honest, I’m guessing that the joke was probably more about English students than about the trousers. The writer saw the garment, associated it with an artsy crowd, and assumed the wearer probably wasn’t their type after all. But it did get me thinking about culottes: the “flared ones that only make it three-quarters of the way down the leg”. Culottes are baggy. They don’t closely fit the female form. They’re also really comfy. Reading that post on Oxfess reminded me of a conversation I had last year. During my internship I worked in an office with two men, just a little older than me. We got on well, but one day we ended up talking about clothes and it turned out both of them were baffled by the idea of a woman wearing clothes not strictly designed to flatter. “The girl who worked here before used to wear baggy jumpers all the time,” one said, clearly perplexed, “and baggy high-waisted jeans. It didn’t flatter her. Surely, anyone wants to wear clothes that make them look good?”
To be honest, I think that’s where he was wrong. Today, the everyday fashion of women is less and less designed to appeal the masculine eye. Last November, Salomeya Gvaradze wrote a spectacular article about this in The Oxford Student. Aided by a new generation of designers, and with social media playing an instrumental role, “unconventionality and ugliness are new and cool.” Gvaradze argues, “Fashion no longer attracts the public eye with feminine forms and beauty.” Women have been objects of the male gaze for centuries, looking our best to avoid the awful fate of spinsterhood. Frankly, I think we’re all sick of it. We should be able to dress how we want. We want to wear things that are comfortable and practical and things that we simply think look cool.
Today, the everyday fashion of women is less and less designed to appeal the masculine eye.
There are a few morals we should draw from this story. As I have already said, I know this post was probably a throwaway comment and meant as a joke, but that is precisely why we need to pay attention to it. The things people say or write or think without considered reflection often reveal more than views they’ve carefully selected for public consumption. Jokes and thoughtless remarks often reveal ideas deeply embedded in our society that we hold without even realising. In the Oxfess post I have just shared, there is more than a hint of a man judging a woman for her looks, and then scorning her for not dressing to his taste. (If that doesn’t grab you, then the blunt classification of her as “fit” should strike you as straight-up objectification.) That the writer made that joke without thinking reflects something deep about how women in our society are still viewed. If this small example seems trivial to you, I invite you to consider a wider context. For hundreds of years in western society, women dressed for men. Tight corsets and layers of heavy skirts restricted movement whilst providing an elegant and feminine silhouette. Over the last century there has been a push and pull of women moving to and from a more liberating style of dress (consider for example the androgynous “flapper” look of the 1920s compared to the prim hourglass silhouette of the 50s). Despite movement from within the fashion industry, women still live in the male gaze. Media industries are still largely dominated by male leaders. Consider pretty much any music video featuring a mainstream female singer: she will almost always be dressed in something sexy, something revealing, something flattering. Think about popular films and TV and how polished the female characters always are. Every remark, however small, that objectifies women adds to this sea of sexism that we battle against.
With all this in mind, I’d like to answer the other question often raised in objection to the kind of argument I am making: “Surely if a man was being labelled “fit” and having his clothes commented on you wouldn’t call that sexist?” Well, for a start it might still be rude or tasteless to call a man “fit” and comment on his clothes, but the thing about the word ‘sexist’ is that it implies a wider context. As I have briefly described, women have historically, and to a degree still today, been objectified and primarily valued for their looks. To make a comment that even indirectly implies women should dress for men, or to call one “fit”, reinforces that age-old and still ongoing oppression. It encourages men to see women and women to see themselves as aesthetic objects, to the detriment of their wider development.
Fashion today, I believe, should be a form of liberation for women. Never before in history have women (or men for that matter) enjoyed such liberty as to their style of dress. Cropped trousers are part of this liberation: so are baggy jeans and sweaters, clumpy shoes, blue lipstick and loud accessories. In short, there is nothing wrong with three-quarter length flared trousers. Let’s wear them with pride.