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A couple of years ago, while out of town for a work event, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to zip up my own dress — a task that was something of a nightmare, given the length of the zipper, the awkwardness of its back placement, and the tightness of the fitted garment. Yet after a few minutes of struggle, I managed to complete my mission. Glancing at myself in the mirror, I felt liberated and accomplished; a confident, successful professional who didn’t need no man to help her zip up her chic sheath dress. I could almost hear strains of “I’m Every Woman” playing in celebration of my empowered womanhood.
The celebration was short-lived. Mere minutes into my self-congratulatory festivities, it dawned me that — however proud of myself I felt that morning — the thing I was crowing about was such a tiny, pathetic little achievement. Being able to dress yourself? That’s an ability we expect grade schoolers to have mastered. How was it that, well into my 30s, I still felt pride at my ability to put clothes on my own body?
If you’re someone who dresses in womenswear — particularly dresses and other high-femme items of clothing — you probably already know the answer. With rare exception, clothes for women prioritize form over function, treating comfort, accessibility, and even wearability as secondary considerations. When I reached out to women asking for examples of clothes that are nearly impossible to get into alone, I got a litany of complaints: Complicated, strappy tops that get twisted up when you put them on. Bracelets and necklaces with lilliputian closures. The ridiculous design of bra hooks, which many women told me they’re forced to put on backwards and then adjust. And, of course, there were tales of zippers, which can be as difficult to unzip as they are to zip up. Over Twitter, writer Lilly Dancyger offered up a quip that summed up the state of affairs for most of us: “The real reason women are so into yoga: the shoulder flexibility to zip your own dress.”
Men may huff and puff over pants pockets that don’t accommodate their lifestyles — remember the fury over the discovery that skinny jeans might warp iPhones? — women, on the other hand, treat pockets like a luxury item, and often one we don’t really deserve. How did we get to a place where so many of us see clothes that meet the most basic level of functionality — easy to get into, able to carry our stuff, and actually made to fit real human bodies — as aspirational at best, and unattractive at worst?
According to Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, a designer and member of the Rational Dress Society, my sartorial woes have deep roots. Many elements of clothing design are merely the legacy of a decision some designer happened to make a few decades — or centuries — ago.
Button closures on women’s clothing, for instance, began as a luxury of the rich; because rich women were generally dressed by other people, the buttons were placed on the left side, for the ease of (presumably right-handed) servants. Men, on the other hand, were presumed to be dressing themselves; as a result, men’s buttons are on the opposite side of a garment. Dress-pant closures operate in a similar way: Women’s pants have a closure that’s the opposite of men’s, favoring a second-party stylist over the actual wearer of the item. (Jeans, interestingly, have the same closure regardless of gender — perhaps because they were adopted by women much more recently than most other garments.)
My foe the dress zipper has a more complicated history. In the mid-20th century, zippers were most often found on the left side of dresses, where they’d be hidden by the arm, preserving the line of the dress. As zipper technology advanced, with bulky metal zippers giving way to more subtle nylon coil and invisible variants, concerns about zipper placement shifted. Suddenly, the center back became the preferable location. Though the move seems baffling to me, Glaum-Lathbury points out that center-back zips do have their merits: side zippers don’t play nicely with sleeves, for instance, and as convenient as a left-side zipper might be for me, it can be nightmarish for left-handed dress wearers. Unless we embrace front-zip dresses, dress zippers will always cause some degree of accessibility issues — Glaum-Lathbury, for her part, suggests avoiding the whole mess entirely by opting for a wrap dress.
But while some accessibility issues are due to legacy design elements or unavoidable structural issues, underlying these design dilemmas is a deeper tale of our ideas about gendered apparel. Even in the modern era, women are still seen as things to be looked at, while men are treated as people with things to do. As a result, women tolerate inconveniences in the name of fashion and aesthetics — if a dress that’s impossible to put on is celebrated as beautiful, some women will flock to it no matter the pain or suffering it might cause.
Granted, not all women prioritize form over function — and when customers treat wearability as a necessity, clothing designers pay attention. Lizz Wasserman, who serves as fashion director, vice president of fashion and concept at Modcloth, tells me that, although their in-house line is inspired by vintage styles, they’ve radically simplified many of their designs and improved their wearability and accessibility, largely because of community feedback. “We’re constantly on the site reading what [the typical Modcloth customer] has to tell us about what we’ve made already made for her, so it can be better in the future," she tells me.
Wasserman offers up a particularly memorable user comment as an example of the feedback process: “One woman wrote about a bestselling dress, what we would have considered a really easy piece. She was like, ‘Do you think I have a handmaiden? How am I supposed to button those two buttons at the back neck?’” In response, the Modcloth team took another look at the buttons, examining what could be done to improve their accessibility (larger buttonholes? Elasticized openings?) in future versions of the dress.
But while Modcloth shoppers may advocate for more rationally designed womenswear, from what Glaum-Lathbury’s seen, most women aren’t. She illustrates this point with an anecdote about a buyer who was interested in a pair of canary-yellow pants that Glaum-Lathbury had designed: “She was like ‘I love these, they’re great; we’re good to order them. Can you take the pockets out?’”
Glaum-Lathbury was baffled by the request, but after a bit of back and forth, she ascertained that the issue lay not with the line or design of the pockets, but with their perceived bulk. According to the buyer, her boutique clientele would almost certainly take the pants to the dry cleaner to have the pockets stitched up and the pocket bags cut out. “Heaven forbid that you see the outline of a pocket bag,” Glaum-Lathbury sighs.
As much as I want to scoff at those self-sabotaging women, prioritizing the silhouette of their legs over the ability to eschew a purse, I know that my dresser is stocked with pair after pair of super-tight skinny jeans, whose pockets are more decorative than functional. Sure, I could act in my best interests and wear pants that actually accommodate my lifestyle. But I look so cute in skinny jeans – and purses aren’t that bad, right?