Clothes Maketh the Woman

By Cobus Fourie

I have cross-dressed only once. It was for a social awareness project that one of my graphic designer friends had chosen.  It was a horrifying experience. I was a horrifying experience. Stockings, high heels, hideous skirts and tarty tops aside, I could barely breathe. I fell off my platforms down a flight of stairs and felt like Tori in Playboy Mommy.

With the added benefit of a sprained ankle (and the terribly restrictive clothes) I hobbled almost like Courtney Love to the location of the photo shoot. I didn’t have to be in front of the camera to feel like I was on display. Everything I wore felt like a display item. I had to be terribly careful of how I sat, walked, the way I conducted myself. I had to make sure makeup didn’t smudge. I was for the first time acutely aware that unless you dress in a curtain just draping over everything, that you really have to be mindful to avoid wardrobe malfunctions and exposing yourself unladylike (whatever that means).

Last shot was taken of me, concussed drag queen, lying in a bath with my legs dangling out, sort of like I was thrown in, like a deadweight large and uncomfortable mess. One of the assistants shouted something along the lines of “maak toe meisie!”

Despite the obvious disturbing nuances of gender-based violence and identity-based hate crimes, which was the theme of the social awareness project by the way, I realised there was another evil at play: the Patriarchy enforcing itself on the female with something as simple as clothes.

We take clothes for granted. We obsess about this matching that and fashion and other practicalities, but we never or hardly ever examine clothes as a social construct. We take for granted the rules clothes impose on us, maintaining the status quo and keeping the masses submissive.

I could feel, tangibly, how the male gaze and the accompanying sexist mind-set was imposed upon me.  I realise on a daily basis how the power asymmetry is enforced by fashion, de rigueur, norms, traditions, heterosexism and an array of prejudices. I can see women subverting themselves by projecting gender norms and patriarchal structures upon other women, while feeling superior doing so. It never ceases to amaze.

Take a look at what you are wearing. Now stop thinking of it as a fashion statement. Think of it as an employment uniform of sorts, like a doctor’s scrubs, like a prison jumpsuit, like a curtain. These “garments” each have its own social significance and connotations. It is not by chance that doctors are required to dress formally, it is all about perception.

I feel rather restricted in formal wear required for work and cannot wait to get out of it each day. Why do we do that? If I were a woman I would have scoffed at the patriarchal hegemony and its requirements and impositions. Alas I am not. I am writing as an outsider. Women out there, you really know what it is like, why don’t we discuss this more? Will we be relinquished if we at least know and are aware but nevertheless remain oppressed? Something to think about…


1 thought on “Clothes Maketh the Woman”

  1. Hi Cobus. I should write a piece about my thoughts on this, especially the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head since sometime last night.

    OK I’m gonna. But here’s a glimpse of it — what are you, as a man, doing to unknit the clothing rules that the patriarchy lays down for men?


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