It’s strange what triggers memories. A couple of days ago I was putting on my gym clothes and pondering whether I needed to add an extra layer before going out in the cold. Thinking about the bare skin of my calves—the area between the bottom of my gym pants and the top of my socks and sneakers—I remembered how when I was growing up, girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. Even on the coldest days, we wore skirts with either knee high socks or tights.
I don’t know why it was considered scandalous, disrespectful, and unsuitable for girls and women to wear pants. By the 1960s, it was not usual for women to wear pants at home or while involved in some physical activities. When I was in elementary school in Dallas, on phys ed. days, or on days when we wanted to play on some of the outside equipment during recess, we wore shorts under our skirts. It was uncomfortable and strange, but we accepted it—because that’s what girls did. Girls wore knee-length dresses, which were considered lady-like, but then preserved their modesty by wearing pants underneath. Crazy, right?
By the time I went to junior high—still in a dress or skirt–we had awful gym suits to wear in our phys ed. classes. My seventh grade gym suit for my Dallas school was a one–piece white cotton bloomer sort of thing. The top part was like a short-sleeved shirt that snapped down the front, and then there were shorts attached to the top. It was baggy in all the wrong places, and just plain uuuuggglly! We wore white “tennis shoes” with it. It didn’t really matter what we wore because we didn’t actually do much of anything in my Dallas classes. We were just expected to be young ladies.
In my Haverford Junior High School gym classes, we were expected to actually vault, play lacrosse, and do all sort of other physical activities I’d never ever seen, much less attempted to master (or in my case, just survive). We still wore ugly gym suits, but ostensibly they were a bit more stylish and comfortable. They were also one piece, but made to look more like shorts and t-shirts. (This was considered a big improvement.) The top part was red-striped, and the shorts were solid red. They were made of a kind of stretchy jersey fabric.
One day when I was in ninth grade, an announcement was made that there would be a special day when girls—perhaps just the ninth grade girls, I don’t remember now—could wear PANTS TO SCHOOL! Of course, we would not be permitted to wear jeans, only “nice” pants. So I went home and went through my clothing. I guess I didn’t have any “nice pants.” I ended-up wearing a too big pair of black pants that belonged to my older sister simply because there was no way I was going to show up to school that day in a skirt or dress. I was determined to wear pants that day, even if I had to keep pulling them up all day.
By the time I got to high school the next year, we could pretty much wear anything. It became the style to wear jeans that were long and dragged on the ground so they got raggedy at the bottom. We also wore our hair long and rarely bothered with make-up. But guess what? I was a good student no matter what I wore, and I’m still a woman, although perhaps I’m not, and never was, “a lady.” I can live with that.
What a person wears can sometimes indicate a lot about him or her. Fashion is one thing. Fashion can be silly, but it can also be fun—but not if it’s coercive. Throughout the ages, both women and men have been told what they could, couldn’t, or had to wear. I understand uniforms and dress codes—you want to know someone is actually a doctor, electric company employee, or police officer before they touch your body or enter your home. I understand that when schools have dress codes (to some extent) or uniforms it often means getting ready in the morning is much easier for everyone and students perhaps are not distracted.
What I don’t understand is that all over the world, women (and it usually women, gays, lesbians, or trans people who are affected) are told that they “asked” to be rape, assaulted, or killed because of the way they dressed. Really? Because I think if a man can’t control himself if he sees a woman in a skimpy outfit, then he’s the one with a major problem. I don’t think the world ended when the girls in my high school started wearing pants. I’ve edited an Encyclopedia of Rape and my Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast will be out sometime in the next few months, so perhaps I see fashion and fashion-related issues in a different way from many people.
I’m not against fashion or dressing up. Although I work from home and normally wear sweats or sometimes even my pajama pants (like now), or my exercise clothes when I go to the gym, it doesn’t mean I don’t dress up. I like seeing what celebrities wore at the Oscars, although if I missed it, I wouldn’t really care. When my older daughter gets married this summer, I plan to wear a fabulous dress (still to be found). However, that is my choice. If other people don’t dress up, I won’t be offended. I don’t think my daughter will care either. As mother of one of the brides, I want to look great. (And when I look back at the wedding photos, I don’t want to be saying to myself, “What were you thinking?!”) I also want to be comfortable though, and I want to be able to dance without a wardrobe malfunction. So I won’t be wearing pants to my daughter’s wedding, but I also won’t be wearing the fashion essentials of the past: a corset, girdle, or a hat. I certainly won’t be wearing an ugly gym suit. That’s for sure.