Back in the 1980s I designed clothes. It was the era of Margaret Thatcher and women were storming the workplace. I found a niche making suits that took them from boardroom to bar – big of shoulder, short of skirt and boldly sexy. Professionals loved them. A great suit changes the way I walk and talk, my customers would tell me, it makes me feel strong. Damn right, I remember thinking at the time, that’s the power of fashion, that’s my contribution to feminism. Back then, sexy was synonymous with having the confidence to compete with men. Now, sexy has become bogged down in the trenches of blame and recrimination.
The #MeToo movement has jump-started a new revolution. The question of how we treat each other is causing a bitter rift as men’s behaviour goes on trial and women square up to the two-way mirror in which they view themselves and, more controversially, through which men view them. What we wear is an expression of our identity. But if how we dress reflects our place in the evolving culture, then how will this hashtag activism affect the choices we make? That question is particularly acute in the workplace, where the revelations of the past 18 months have shown that many women still struggle to be treated as people rather than sexual objects. Will the fallout from #MeToo embolden women to bare that extra inch of skin, or are we heading into a puritanical future where “sexy” is in danger of being treated as a dirty word?
Back in the 1950s, women were accessories in a man’s world. We had autonomy over babies and white goods, but most of us dressed according to men’s expectations: soft, kitteny, pliant. Then came the sexual revolution. Fashion, similarly let loose, rose magnificently to the kaleidoscopic character of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980s was our dressing-up box. From new romantic to skinhead to punk princess, identity was something to try out, even if just for the weekend.
Dressing according to others’ expectations is a thing of the past. Now, the clothing choices we make transmit signals, not just about our character, social and work aspirations, but where we stand on the issues we care about. Fashion’s approach to workwear has also transformed since the 1980s. The formality of a two-piece suit – menswear converted into clothes for women – is no longer de rigueur. Rules of professional acceptability have become increasingly fluid. Our clothing preferences are governed by the subjective disciplines of good taste and common sense. Many young women were already worrying about how to be taken seriously, look professional and project just the right amount of personality before factoring in another concern: how to dress safely.
I am a white, privileged, middle-class, working mother of four who spent 13 years in the fashion business before becoming a writer. I’ve smarted through a hundred counts of sexism, a dozen instances of inappropriate behaviour and one rape during which I was repeatedly drugged over the course of a weekend with what I assume was Rohypnol, and, for some of that time, kept in a locked bedroom. This doesn’t make me any more qualified on the subject of abuse in the workplace than anyone else, but I do know something of the confusion and self-recrimination that swirls around it. In the bewildering aftershock of my incident – by a leather manufacturer who had flown me to Germany to consult on his range – my 20-year-old self was left wondering what I’d done wrong. For a while I felt uncertain about everything – not just how much skin to expose or how mini was too mini, but what facet of my looks or personality might also have been a contributing factor. These are the very same questions that the daughters and granddaughters of women’s lib are still struggling with.
Young women at the beginning of their careers with little experience, status or power are the most vulnerable. I spoke to a group of students at university in Boston, including my own daughter, Mabel, who is studying criminal justice and psychology. Along with her fellow classmates, she’ll be entering the workplace full-time this year. The students’ responses to the fear of harassment vary. Natalie, also studying criminal psychology, says: “Now I feel threatened standing on the street after a party, so I cover up with a big baggy sweatshirt.” When she starts working in an office she will try to show as little skin as possible, she says: “Intellectually, I know that men who are going to offend, will offend no matter, but I intend to minimise my odds.” Alessandra, who is studying marketing and fashion, has a different perspective. “I have friends who have decided to dress as provocatively as possible to prove a point. First, because they believe they have the right, but also because they believe that, post-#MeToo, nothing bad should happen to them.” But, as my daughter says, “shouldn’t doesn’t mean won’t.”
Fashion labels ought to be catering to the job market. But, says Ellie, a junior partner in a London law firm, professional dressing for young women is difficult, because well-tailored and stylish clothes are expensive. “Trainees are likely to struggle,” she says. Many affordable high-street shops are more focused on sexy rather than professional: blouses are too sheer, skirt slits too high. “Younger women often dress more sexily when first working in an office, often without meaning to or even being aware of it.”
Employers have not always handled this issue sensitively. In 2011 Allen & Overy, a corporate law firm, sent a reminder of their dress code out to their trainees. “HR have received numerous complaints about the way female trainees have been dressing,” the email stated. “The main problem seems to be very short skirts and high heels and generally looking like we’re going clubbing instead of to the office.” Though the email was addressed to “all trainees”, it put the responsibility for looking professional in front of clients squarely on the shoulders of its female staff. Deb, a trainee with A&O at the time, remembers being incensed: “The article seemed to be saying: ladies, the biggest threat to us appearing professional is your overly sexual dress. Undertone: the men cannot be held responsible for their reactions, so take yourselves in hand or risk being shut out of meetings.” A&O were not the only culprits. In 2010, UBS, a Swiss investment bank, published a company dress code that was more than 40 pages long. It instructed women not to wear skirts that were “too tight behind”, and included a directive that women’s underwear should be “skin-coloured”. Once again, the firm was sending a message that female employees should not draw attention to themselves. Small wonder that, as the #MeToo movement has unfolded, we have heard from so many women who say they did not speak up about harassment for fear that their complaints would not be taken seriously.
Fashion designers are aware of the shift in mood. In the early days of #MeToo in 2017, I noticed that dresses formerly described as “sexy” were often being re-labelled by designers as “empowering”. Same style, new politically safe designation. But are sexy, empowering and professional really mutually exclusive? At a photocall last year for her film, “Red Sparrow”, Jennifer Lawrence, an American actress, wore a revealing, halter-neck dress. The shoot was outdoors in London in the dead of winter, and Lawrence, the only woman, was surrounded by her male co-stars, who were wrapped tightly in wool. The feminist orthodoxy was quick to point the finger: she was being used and objectified by sexist movie executives. Lawrence, the highest-paid woman in Hollywood, was having none of it: “I’m a grown-ass woman and I can wear or not wear whatever I please,” she said.
But if women accept that fashion is self-expression, how much responsibility should we assume for those choices? “If you go into a meeting with a plunging neckline, it is going to signal something,” says Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue: “If it is our right to dress how we want, it is other people’s right to think what they wish of that decision.” Charlotte Alter, a 28-year-old journalist at Time in New York, works in an office she describes as being full of “woke” men. “I never want the first thing that anybody thinks about me to be ‘wow, she’s hot’. I want it to be ‘what’s her idea that she’s bringing to the meeting?’” In the evening the dynamic is reversed. “I want to look cute in my life, but not in my work.” She’s scornful at the idea that this sends mixed messages and believes men should be capable of separating the two. Yet the #MeToo movement has made it clear that not everyone agrees on exactly what distinguishes flirting from harassment.
Today, reflecting on my own experience of abuse, I understand that there are no clear lessons about the clothes choices I made. Harassment in the workplace isn’t about dress, any more than rape is about sex. Both are about the raw power that men have over women whether through leverage, rank, muscle or simply the savage entitlement that comes from a long history of subjugation.
Designers are feeling the pressure. In my experience, fashion doesn’t lead, it follows. The skill of those in the industry is picking up the scattered threads of the Zeitgeist then spinning them into something tangible and desirable. But many designers also have a wicked sense of irony. They take society’s apprehensions seriously, so long as they can subvert them. In the aftermath of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein in late 2017, the Spring/Summer catwalks in 2018 were rich with visual references to subjugation and uprising. They exploited the tension between the new puritanism and old-school sexuality, often combining them within the same garment and blurring the gender divide by sliding corsets and garter belts underneath exaggeratedly mannish suits, as though to fuse the sexes together sartorially.
Women, the ones who buy the clothes, will determine whether they are successful. And that gives us our power. Hold our ground and we’ll get what we want: to feel both comfortable in our own skin and comfortable – and safe – in the clothes we choose.