Shallow artifice

A brilliant post on Needled about historian Catharine Macaulay got me thinking, and I’m going to try to run down the train tracks of that thought now. How much relation this bears to knitting may be debatable, but I hope to get to the needle arts in time.

My daughter is named for many strong women.  We liked the name Eleanor, but we also liked the fact that all the Eleanors we could think of were capable, interesting people.  It’s a name that’s not been very popular since the 1930’s, so the first association for a lot of folks is Eleanor Roosevelt.  This is something we liked about the name.

Which makes it interesting to note that a number of people, hearing my daughter’s name, have commented on that association, not in regards to (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievements or personality, but her looks.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that looks don’t matter, because I think I’d be lying if I did go that far.  Looks do matter.  They matter in all sorts of ways, from the perceptions people form of us, to the way we present ourselves.  But it does mean something that a smart and qualified and capable woman can be dismissed by both men and women on the basis of her face and figure, while men with faces like feet can be revered and even thought sexy for their smarts.

The thing is, while I think looks do matter, they matter in context only.  It makes little sense to comment on the looks of a man or woman when the topic at hand is their work.  When Nancy Pelosi took over from Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House, I saw and heard multiple commentaries on what Pelosi wore.  On the news.  I remember none of this during Hastert’s reign, and it stood out as a stark difference.

I’m not an innocent here.  This is where we start coming back to the realm of needle arts.  I’ve been making some of my own clothing for a number of years now.  I can’t help noticing what people wear and how it makes them look.  I think about clothing more now than I ever did, and that leads in turn to thoughts about how attractive clothing can make a person, and also how unattractive.  I’ve read plenty of little aphorisms about how you shouldn’t worry about what you wear because no one will notice, but I know they are not true, because I notice what other people wear.  I suspect I’m not alone.  I suspect, darkly, that these aphorisms exist merely as comfort, to bolster the true and lovely, but somewhat uneasy position, that we should wear what we want and not worry about what others think.  It’s easier to do that if we believe that others are not thinking of us at all.

While it’s clear that certain sorts of commentary on looks and dress are wrong, there’s a danger of slipping too far the other way as well – a danger of condemning people as frivolous for daring to care about matters of dress or facade.  Early feminists often fell into this trap.  Mary Wollstonecraft repeatedly railed against the frivolities of the women whose rights she defended in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, suggesting that showing any care for one’s looks was akin to moral weakness.  (I used Google Books to search the words “beauty” and “frivolous” in A Vindication, and found numerous passages damning the fair sex for the idiocy brought on by an obsession with loveliness – Wollstonecraft seemed to believe, not without reason at the time, that beauty came at the expense of education.)

We walk a fine line in fashion and feminism.  Caring too much makes us shallow, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of artifice and dressing to please others.  But it’s also easy to fall into the trap of dressing to displease others, without considering our own taste and feelings at all.

Women are still judged unfairly on their sexuality and sex appeal.  If the article by Brian Sewell that is referred to at Needled isn’t enough for you, reading about nearly any female public figure should open some eyes.  But how we are judged shouldn’t be the arbiter for how we present ourselves.  I think the beauty of creating our own clothes, the potential beauty of that edgy obsession with fashion, is that we can choose our own path.  If you want to show off your body, if you want to cover it, if you want to dress for comfort, you can create clothes that do just that.  The point is that you make it your own.

I’m torn here.  I think we will always devote more time and energy to what is easier.  That people are interested in fashion, gossip, and celebrity is less proof of foolishness or frivolity than it is the ease of forming an opinion on such matters.  It’s certainly easier to say what you think of Kate Hudson being named one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People than it is to suggest a solution to problems in Uganda.

But this predilection for the easy, the safe, leads to sad legacies for women such as Catharine Macaulay.  I confess that I did not remember hearing her name until the post at Needled shoved a few bubbling streams of thought up from my memory.  We remember beauty long after it has faded and died.  We forget that which we do not understand, but particularly when it comes to women.  I can name you any number of men whose work I will never really understand, but when I trip blithely through my memory to name you some impressive historical women, the list compresses sadly and severely.

Napoleon dismissed my sex with a flippant suggestion that women should stick to knitting.  Well, I, for one, will stick to knitting.  But I can do so much more.

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5 Responses to “Shallow artifice”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Well said. When I was studying to be a teacher, there was discussion of what was appropriate to wear to work in the classroom. I don’t remember who the teacher was whose work we read, but she related that she always dressed like a professional – not so that others would look up to her as a figure of strength and authority, but to convey to the children that she took her work with them seriously and respected them as she would her colleagues and clients if she were in the business world. And that resonated with me. I think there’s something to be said for taking care with your appearance as a measure of esteem for the people you’re going to interact with – not to please them or make them think you’re pretty, necessarily, but just to show you’ve considered that your interactions with your fellow humans matter, whether it’s the grocer or the librarian or the board of directors you’re meeting. I think of this when I see people traveling on airplanes in their pajamas, or the next thing to them. I’m all for being comfortable and I don’t take any kind of personal offense, but I know a lot of older people who do. It’s a projection of the self-centeredness young folks are so often accused of in their eyes, I think.

    I also find that it can lift my spirits to see a person wearing something beautiful or interesting, just as a blossoming tree or a very clear star-spangled sky can. So why not give a little more beauty to the world, especially if it’s through something you crafted with your own fingers? It’s only artifice if you’re expecting something back.

    And Eleanor Roosevelt was an awesome lady. Your Nora will be proud to share her name, I’m sure.

  2. Philippa Says:

    When I was preparing for my interview for medical school, I sheepishly told a friend that I was worrying more about what I would wear than what I was going to say. She’s a strong lady who turned her life inside out once she’d brought up her kids to the point that they felt safe enough to fly the nest for good, to follow a dream. She is brave and wise and inquisitive; she loves beauty but I don’t think she possesses an ounce of vanity. She looked at me astonished, ‘But of course! How you present yourself is of the utmost importance! What you wear when you walk into that room is your first statement in that interview; it’s a mini resume which tells them who you think you are and where you see yourself in the world, before you’ve said a word.’

    I think that’s the thing – that thinking about what to wear is to consider an aspect of your interaction with the world, and that’s no bad thing. And you *should* wear what you like and not worry about what other people think – because you can never put thoughts inside their head no matter how hard you try, but you can decide what you want to say about yourself each day.

    It’s true that we think about what other people wear because it’s easy. I often read the free tabloid gossip sheets on the way home instead of the text book that’s in my bag, because I am lazy. I don’t even know or care who most of the people on the pages are, but I can easily decide that I like her dress and decry his behaviour, instead of puzzling out a drug mechanism.

    Thanks for this post. Lots of food for thought.

  3. Philippa Says:

    I just read your post again, and it made me smile.

    I know of Eleanors: it’s quite a common name in England. They’re glitzy and creative, hardnosed and insincere, gentle and sweet. The Eleanor I know best is hardworking, clever, organised and ambitious, brave, caring and generous. Her mum was someone I feel honoured to have known. She set up her own publishing house, taught me to expect good food when I cook, grew amazing vegetables in a patch in the garden, knew the value of silence better than I can understand, was a loving, nurturing mother, and read voraciously, considerately, extravagantly, patiently. She wasn’t the most physically beautiful woman, but she loved clothes. Friends of hers from university still talk of the outfits she wore to their exams; when they all had to turn up in white shirt and black skirt or trousers, she would arrive in black and white Biba, with knee-high boots and huge hat. That she chose the name Eleanor for her first daughter is the best endorsement of a name I can think of.

  4. Philippa Says:

    Lots. I know *lots* of Eleanors. Think I’d better go to bed.

  5. wazzuki Says:

    thanks for this interesting & thought provoking post. (and comments!) I do feel that how one chooses to dress can be as much an expression of valid personal taste & predilections as the novels one likes to read, or the pictures one likes to look at. It is the broader cultural domain that is the problem — a still widespread perception of the feminine that deals only in surfaces – and reads clothes as the shorthand of artifice, rather than just a small part of the substance that is the whole woman.
    PS I’m with Philippa on the Eleanors!

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