A receptionist was fired this week for refusing to wear high heels—we aren't rid of this nonsense yetby Jessica Abrahams / May 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
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The news that emerged this week of a receptionist being fired after she protested that she could not run between meeting rooms all day in high heels—while her male colleagues were able to do the same shift in comfortable flats—is a reminder of the way in which women are expected to live with discomfort and impracticality in a way that men are not.
Women’s clothing, far more than men’s, is focused on how it makes us look rather than how practical it is to wear. As the weather warms up, shops are now full of a new season of clothing, and it’s the same as ever: transparent work shirts that have to be worn with a second top underneath; clothes that have to be taped into place to avoid embarrassment; and shoes that make your feet ache after the first hour. The reason women take so long in shop changing rooms is because we’re not just checking whether the clothes fit us—we’re running all sorts of experiments on them: stretching our legs to see if we could feasibly run for the bus in this pair of trousers; standing directly under the light to see if this dress suddenly transforms into a see-through nightmare; and bending forward in a new top to see if we could pick something up without exposing ourselves.
My favourite example: the case of the disappearing pocket. It is a source of constant annoyance to me that, as mobile phones have become ever bigger in size, the pockets on women’s clothes have gradually shrunk, forcing us to find new and inventive ways to carry our phones—in our bras; up our sleeves; even, once, stuffed into my sock—anywhere except the place that was specifically designed for such a task. My Samsung Galaxy no longer fits into the pockets on my trousers or my coat. Meanwhile, I watch with envy as my boyfriend fills his pockets up like Mary Poppins’ handbag—water bottles, umbrellas, snacks, various electronic items all slip in comfortably. Pockets have disappeared entirely from many items of women’s clothing, while others taunt us with hoax pockets which look like they’re there but aren’t. I can only assume that the pocket has been sacrificed to style—a bulky pocket stuffed with phones and keys does nothing for the silhouette; and in any case, when clothes are so tight, there isn’t much space for them.
This year, Levi’s has released a new range of “Wedgie Fit” jeans, solely for women, which “hug your waist and hips, showcasing your best assets”—in other words, they place your bum in a denim clamp to make it look better. The fashion magazines were enthusiastic, sending their writers off to test them out, and the reviews were generally positive that The Wedgie fulfils its commitment to give you “a perfectly round derriere.” A couple of writers, though, were more forthcoming with their reviews. “They definitely delivered on their wedgie promise,” reported Chrissy Mahlmeister of Buzzfeed, but “trying to sit down was truly a trip to hell and back.”
Women’s clothing has long been designed to be impractical. From foot-binding in China to corsets in Europe, women’s bodies were deformed or restricted in the name of style and beauty. Historically, it has often been taken as a sign of social status. Women were bound into clothes in which was difficult to move as a symbol of their family’s wealth; to show that these were women who did not have to do things for themselves and could dedicate their days to being pretty. In The Circus Lady, a 1926 book by acrobat Josephine DeMott Robinson, the author recalls meeting a woman who had servants to pick things up for her when she dropped them because, in her tightly-strung corset, she was unable to pick them up for herself. In the case of both foot-binding and corsetry, what was a sign of social status also came to define beauty norms; but working-class women who had to clean and cook and work always settled for more practical attire that was less associated with attractiveness.
We’d like to imagine we’ve moved past all this nonsense, and to a certain extent we have. But though the degree may differ, women’s fashion continues to deform and restrict. Aside from making it difficult and painful to walk, high heels can permanently damage a person’s body: according to the American Osteopathic Association, regularly wearing heels can lead to irreversible nerve damage, back pain, muscle spasms and bunions. Women’s clothes are tighter, more restrictive and more revealing, limiting our ability to move in multiple ways, inevitably taming our gestures to make them more “feminine,” and forcing us to think through our movements in a way I imagine is alien to men. We make numerous invisible calculations as part of our daily lives—can I lean over this table without revealing myself? Can I raise my leg high enough to hop over this fence?—until it becomes second nature to pull our skirts down or hold our tops in place as we make certain movements. And this is in an era when all women both need and want to move—we don’t have assistants in more practical clothing to pick things up for us.
This is a plea to the fashion designers and the high-street stores. Women need clothes that have been thought through for their functionality as much as men’s; clothes that look good, sure, but that also make our lives easier rather than harder. And for God’s sake, give us pockets.
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