SO how political is the personal? My feminism came from a sense that I shouldn't have to behave or look a certain way in order to be celebrated. For instance. It is more important to me to be a euphonium player than a woman, but all too often I am reminded in a euphonium-playing context that I am a woman and will always be treated as woman first. It's not that gender doesn't entangle with music - on a high-brow note, performance and interpretation is necessarily affected by life experience, on a more practical side, women's lung capacity is some 10-20% less than men's - but, how do I explain? Let me demonstrate with an example; I depped for a 4th section band once, when I was in about my 2nd year of Uni and taking my playing very seriously; it turned out there were two other deps on the same row, both euphonium players, so of course the older gent was put on top euph, the young man on second euph and I was given the baritone line. It became obvious fairly quickly that I was a better player. Should I have pointed that out in advance? It hardly mattered, at the standard of band we were helping out, and I wouldn't want to seem arrogant, but it's not the only time that people have made judgements based on my femaleness. I resent that. I put up with it perhaps more than I wish I did, but often even if my skills are not fully utilised the first time I meet someone, they (and my tact) are noted for the future.
So, clothes (and let's apply this to make-up, shoes, image in general). They affect how people treat you. These days I feel my most attractive, my strongest, in formal attire, most of which I bought during Uni to wear on stage*. I think that that confidence comes partly from familiarity of having worn these clothes through innately stressful situations such as complex performances and interviews (and usually having done bloody well), and partly from knowing that people take you seriously in such clothes. I do like to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I don't wear them all the time. I wear what's comfortable and practical - stuff I don't mind sweating in for the gym, and much of my day-to-day wear is a hang-over from when I was a roaming fundraiser, wearing leggings and little skirts because a) they attract positive attention and mostly b) they pack down really small so they are easily transportable, as well as easily replaceable and comfortable to work in all day even if you're wearing three pairs against the cold. It's inevitable that clothes have some effect on how the world perceives you, and it's one thing to engage with that, but I walk a fine line between engaging and capitulating. When my hair is buzzcut (being as my face is vaguely androgynous), my tiny skirts say to my somewhat conservative hometown, look! I'm doing it right! I'm dressing like a girl! -as though the transphobic idiots who think it's any of their business what dangly bits I have will be put off by this. I also wear my stompy boots, and a face that looks like I might kill someone, according to my brother. I don't get hassled like this as much as I did in my first weeks back in my hometown, when I insisted on dressing like a dapper gentleman (with clearly female-fitted coat) complete with awesome purple fedora.
*I had to throw out several blouses last week when I found they no longer fit around my broadening shoulders (I box).
When I was growing up one of the things I got teased with was that I was fat. I wasn't, but the thought stuck in my head sometimes and I developed a problem with my curvy stomach. I'm short-bodied, so inevitably if I do put on a bit of padding some of it goes on my stomach or above my hips. I'm okay with that these days*, but for a long time it bothered me. Equally, when I was about fifteen some awful child on the bus started skitting me about having leg hair. I wore trousers, so he'd invaded my personal space to discover this; I was humiliated and upset. And so every time I shaved my legs, which I did on and off for several years, I was reminded of a boy with an incredible sense of entitlement telling me that what my body did naturally was Wrong and Disgusting. This still pisses me off no end. Nowadays I compromise and trim; handily, anyone who can't deal with that is not someone I'd want to date (see also my posts on women with muscles).
*I'm also more aware of the societally-approved parts of my body such as long limbs, large breasts, high cheekbones; there are a lot of ways in which I'm lucky, or fit into the cultural ideal. I never asked for that privilege so perhaps I fight it through oddness.
So I can see why teenage me was taken with corseting. I was attracted to the glamour of certain types of clothing; the sophistication of really well-made outfits and clothes, and of beautiful curves. I never really wore the kind of styles I liked; I couldn't really afford the kind of quality* I thought it merited, to Do It Right, and I suppose there were things I thought were too cool** for me. Teenage me would have been delighted to own and wear the corset I bought when I was about 19 or 20, with the aid of my sister who knew Sam at FairyGothMother (as was) and also knew a bit about corsets. It was made for me, a shortline overbust purple satin 24" corset, because Sam took a look at me and decided that was what I would wear. It was perfect, at the time.
*On quality in corsets, written by said sister who knows Sam
**where cool = something I think is awesome. also, I never developed the passion about clothes to put in the kind of effort that, say, lolita fashion takes.
Teenage me wore black jeans a lot, but would've loved Criminal Damage trousers. Entirely different style, I know, but I feel it's relevant. I couldn't afford the trousers I wanted and wouldn't have dreamt of trying to convince my parents to buy me such luxury, so I wore black jeans, and was subsequently complimented for being "old school" wearing what I considered boring clothes. It's funny how people read different things into looks, and those who truly admire you will read their best possible meaning into whatever you do.
I still feel like getting dressed up for a night out is, well, playing dress up. It's fun sometimes, and it's relaxing in some ways. I always liked to prove I could do it, the feminine thing, the skirts, the well-fitting outfits in wonderful colour-matches. But I take comfort in the practical, and on nights out it's unnerving how much I get complimented for putting that aside, wearing skimpy dresses and high heels, and these days I don't feel like I have anything to prove. I know all about what makes a good corset, and I know about shapewear lingerie and fit and feel and I understand why women want beautiful things, beautifully made. I know about heeled shoes and how important balance is and that you get what you pay for, mostly, and I even know what a pencil skirt is. My sister owns a lingerie company, and I have been known to work there for no pay, and I have been known to have lingerie from there, and I have even recently started to like the look of the lingerie. Yet what surprises many people is that very little of the lingerie I've had from there stayed in my hands; it was mostly given to friends of mine, to cheer them up, or for their weddings, or because it was end of line and I happened to think it might fit them. I didn't want the lingerie myself. Partly because, yanno, my sister made it, and that would be Weird, but it also ties into the Too Cool For Me thing where basically I used to hero-worship my sister and her sophistication and I guess I reacted against that for a while; it ties into having had to live in very little space, with very little money, and valuing the practical over the pretty; and it ties into not wanting to do what's expected just so's to have the pat on the head and a biscuit. If this body has to be wrapped in ribbons to be attractive to you, I don't want to date you.
You may have read feminist blogs like Shakesville talking about how it seems that all women's halloween costumes have to be sexy these days. I've seen daft things from sexy bees to sexy christmas puddings. Some of my favourite ideas mock that theme; I may yet dress up as a Sexy Paper Bag. At some point though, I plan to invest in a blue boilersuit so that my trademark costume can be Rosie the Riveter. Perhaps I'll organise something like this, too (video of Blondie's Atomic, which may or may not be poignant). Also, I would love to see men compete in this vein. Corsets and skirts and kinky boots are incredibly sexy on men.
*insert sex joke here
**as a rule my mother is not the kind to conform to gender roles, or expect that her family should, so this doesn't affect how I think of her; I was a little surprised at how delighted she was, but then, we've never had this conversation.
***I don't see why handsome and beautiful shouldn't be entirely interchangeable, but I find myself avoiding traditionally masculine adjectives around even my close female friends. Playing it safe I suppose.
I think I've said everything I needed to here. Good corsets are really cool. Lingerie that makes you look and feel good is wonderful. Paying attention to how you look does not make you anti-feminist. Wanting to display femininity for any reason, including the aim of having a sexual encounter, is fine and dandy with me. But I don't want this corset anymore. It's a thing I'm not comfortable with, and it's a beautiful thing that someone else could love. If you are or know someone who would be interested in it, please let me know at @sevenhelz on twitter or below (anonymous comments are screened).