I’ve always had a strong sense of style and embraced showcasing my individuality through my clothes. My style is different from one day to the next and I would definitely use the word “chameleon” to describe it. In university, I was known for having an experimental style with a slight man repeller vibe, before Man Repeller was a thing. I always assumed my style was representative of my own tastes but recently I’ve been questioning how much of an impact society and the male gaze has on fashion and how we dress. And it all started with one dress.
A few months ago I spied this dress in Zara and I just had to buy it. They’ve really mastered the whole ‘buy it now or regret it later’ thing. On face value it was great; I love broderie Anglais for summer, it’s an on-trend midi-length and IT HAS POCKETS. However, when I tried it on at home, I felt completely swamped. Oversized silhouettes are very different to what I usually wear so when I put it on I just didn’t feel attractive. And I started to wonder why that mattered so much.
From my late teens, I’ve hated unwanted male attention and I started using clothing as armour. I spent most of my teens hiding out in baggy tracksuits. Fast forward a couple of decades and I realised that I’m not at fault and it’s not my job to alter what I want to wear for men. I love expressing myself through my clothing and I decided not to change the way I want to dress for anybody.
Clothing choices and owning your sexuality can be empowering but it’s not always easy. Last year, I wrote about the amount of street harassment I receive when wearing over-the-knee boots. Men seem to absolutely lose their mind when they’re within 400ft of a woman in OTK boots. It’s absolutely exhausting to deal with, honestly, but I love how they look and I love wearing them. Before leaving my flat, I just have to mentally prepare to deal with the BS that comes with wearing certain pieces of clothing. It’s pathetic, really.
Going from being embarrassed and using clothing to hide myself to not giving a fuck and wearing what I want is quite a change. Throughout this journey, I always felt like my choices were mine, whether I wanted to hide away or be empowered by my wardrobe choices. It was never my intention to kowtow to men’s preferences but while reflecting on why I didn’t like this Zara dress, I realised that I was indirectly influenced by the male gaze.
We’re all sponges, constantly taking in references and inspiration from the fashion industry, movies, music, magazines, books and society as a whole. And the majority of this is controlled by men and is therefore portrayed through the male gaze. Even the fashion industry, the Business of Fashion commissioned a study into the top 50 global fashion companies and found just seven were run by women. Female designers like Phoebe Philo or Rei Kawakubo design fashion for women which beautiful and not form-fitting while male designers such as Tom Ford or Gianni Versace leaned into high octane sexiness.
So where am I at now? I kept the dress and I wore it a ton over summer. What’s funny is women loved it and I received endless compliments…and I was more or less ignored by men. I found it freeing and liberating, in a way. It is really interesting to consider the relationship between fashion and the male gaze and patriarchal views influence my style. I think I’m going to adopt more voluminous silhouettes into my wardrobe, if only to mix it up a little. Ultimately I want to dress for myself and that doesn’t mean I have to stick to one aesthetic.
Dress – Zara (past season) | Heels – Topshop (similar)
Photography by Kylie Eyra.