On "Masculinised" appearance

One or two of the years when I was an undergraduate, I used to watch Dallas reruns right before dinner with several couches full of men (& occasionally one or two other women) in an all-male house in my dorm, Upper Rickert.  Here's a quote I still remember, because the whole audience was impressed and quoted it at each other from that day forward.
Bobby:  "Nobody ever gave me the power!" 
Jock (his dad, the patriarch): "Power isn't something somebody gives you!!  Power is something you take!" 
The image of this scene (both on screen & in the dorm lounge) seems an appropriate lead in to addressing why I found last summer's discussion of masculine women in academia so personally offensive.   I also found it intellectually wrong, which I've already discussed in the blog post I was offended to think that the fact that too few women in academia went to extremes to not appear "masculine" (and what does that even mean? jaw size? dress? lifestyle choices? interaction styles?) was being seen as putting women off from going into academia, when nearly as many men as women were making that same choice.  In this post I wanted to discuss the prejudices women experience because they choose to (or just do) project identities that seem more masculine or feminine.  But what I wound up documenting instead was just the reasons I project the image I do.
Before I had much say in the matter (I'm in the blue coat.)

My own basic assumption concerning dress (& many other aspects of personal choice) is this:   Wherever there is a trade off, there is an infinite diversity of equally good solutions.  So I am not claiming that people have chosen the wrong archetypes for being academics as best and that mine is/are better.  I'm claiming that there's a wide variety of solutions that may be valid, including mine.  I'm also complaining about masculinised solutions / approaches being set forward as a negative, as lies or as necessarily off-putting. The investment made in appearance, reproduction, career, and any other domain (other extra-career social investments, entertainment, artistic pursuits, "citizen science", governance, athletics...) are a matter of individual choice. But that choice is not entirely arbitrary.  For any individual it is partially lead by individual biological realities such as gestation, testosterone, health, dexterity, intelligence, predisposition for cognitive control, any number of things, as well as on social realities e.g. care-taking obligations, early educational provision, the reproductive capacity and predisposition of one's partner (if present), and cultural expectations.

What brought me to thinking about dress is this:  A couple of months ago I attended my first Girl Geek Dinner, and I was surprised to be the only one there not dressed up, and one of only two not slim and dressed seriously femme.  The other woman dressed somewhat "masculinised" and I were possibly the oldest women there.  Is spending a lot of time on clothing and other aspects of dress, and wearing shoes designed to hobble you and make you dependent, the future for women but not men?  It is of course wonderful and beautiful to see well-dressed people, but what is the daily cost?  These decisions are orthogonal to whether or not you have children. I know someone who is a full professor in physics, has two children, is completely geeky, enthusiastic, moderately athletic (cycles to work) but like me doesn't take time to dress up much even for classical concerts.  But she is my age.  Is dressing attractively a liberty and responsibility of more modernised feminism?   Or is the "geek" title now something trendy, are there still ill-dressed hackers out there who don't turn up to dinners with other women?  The women at the meeting did seem truly geeky, they were makers, mostly from high tech.  But I was very surprised to be in such a slim minority in terms of projected gender image.

70s formal
I don't think that dress is the only aspect of masculinity, but since the reporters were concerned that final-year PhDs worried about potential role models appearing masculine, let me focus on the history my own appearance. Here are the learning experiences I recall, roughly in order:
  • Carol Stream, Illinois, 1970-1982
    • Feminists (people who think women are as good as men, like my me & my mom) wear trousers sometimes, anti-feminists don't like it when they do that.
    • If you wear trousers you can run, play & get dirty & get in a lot less trouble than when you are wearing a dress.
    • If you wear a dress you have to be aware of your legs & keep them together all the time, at least when you are sitting.  You also have to remember to put a slip on in the morning (yes, I learned this before the Lady Di photo incident.)
    • There in fact seem to be no reasons to wear dresses (or, as I got older, skirts) except cultural expectations (my mother certainly had no narrative explanation for it.)  
    • I was more likely to be teased for wardrobe errors at school on days I wore dresses or skirts.
  • Hyde Park ("urban" southern neighbourhood of Chicago), 1982-1986
    • When I'm biking, I don't like to be told "sit up and let me see how you're built".
    • 80s formal
      When I'm riding the elevated trains / subways, I get hassled less if I wear scruffy clothes.
    • Watching TV (soap operas, Remington Steel) in the women's dorms is a lot more boring than watching TV (Dr Who, Batman, even Dallas) in the men's dorms.
    • Men (at least from Lower Rickert) spend dinner talking about how they would change the world if they took it over, while women talk about each other.  Men are more interesting.  (Though by my final year, 2 women friends and I wound up being the core of all-women tables with younger women who did enjoy discussing more random topics.)
  •  Downtown & North Side Chicago, 1987-1991
    • I'm pretty offended when I'm told that a colleague would rather look at me in skirt than have me crawl around on the floor "helping him" fix computer equipment (he actually couldn't fix anything.)  I finally stop wearing skirts to work altogether, except when the temperature is over 35C.
    • (one of two useful things I ever read in a woman's magazine) Women with small breasts don't actually have to wear bras.
  • Edinburgh, Scotland & Cambridge MA 1992-2001
    • From my partner:  
    • 90s, "official" wedding photos
      • it's a lot easier to wear the clothes of someone the same size as you than to go shopping, especially if they enjoy shopping anyway.
      • It's OK to wear men's clothes.
      • Men's clothes come carefully measured & sorted by those measures, so if you do have to shop by yourself it is faster, easier & less humiliating to shop in men's sections.
      • Men's shoes are awesome, last for years, & many come in my size.
    • Women who actually dress nicely try on orders of magnitude more clothes than I do, they don't just "know" what looks right by looking at it, or what stores to go into (found out on an assisted emergency shop for a "little black number" when I was a consultant.)  NB: my mother didn't seem to know this either, or she would have told me.
  • Bath, 2002-present.
    • Nothing actually bad happens to your hair if you completely stop getting it cut.  There used to be some weird myth about how if you really must at least trim it -- my mom told me it as a child, and an Austrian friend of about the same age as my mom also reasserted it recently.

So there it is -- my explicit path to my current style of dress & appearance.  I never, ever wore make up, and I have no idea why it never struck me as the right time to start.  As a teenager I sort of thought I might when I got married, but I didn't.   It's pretty clear that some of what made me dress the way I currently do was implicit culture, some was biological predisposition (like my jaw size), some was explicit teaching, and some was response to my own body type.  Was any of it bad or good?  Probably not.  I personally dislike unwanted sexual attention and wasting time more than I like the benefits of dressing up.  I do wonder if dress is so much more efficient for men if that isn't also a part of their greater capacity for power, because they have more time to do other things.  But I do appreciate seeing people well-dressed and realise it also has benefits for both power and self image.