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One of the most amazing true stories I’ve heard is about a man in early modern Europe who went to the public baths, but was unused to bathing in groups. He was concerned that if he removed his clothes and was surrounded by other people, he might actually lose himself — he may not know which person in the bathing pool was him, strange as it sounds. His more educated and worldly companions laughed as he very seriously fashioned a cross out of reeds that he stuck to his thigh. When he entered the water, the cross began to float away and he panicked.
Unlike the man experiencing the public bath for the first time, we moderns know that clothing and nudity can’t instantly alienate us from our true selves, but clearly the fear of losing one’s self via missing symbols persists in some form. We recognize that a woman has the ability to pull on a garment without it being pulled into her mind to transmute her personality. I read Jennifer Wright’s “Grown Women, Please Don’t Dress Like Toddlers” op-ed here on Racked with great interest because it deals with the role clothing can have in changing one’s mentality. On the soccer field as a child, I was told to tuck in my jersey because “look right, play right.” There’s a persistent sense that looking the part will help you fake it til you make it.
But can childish clothes work in the opposite direction and result in the unraveling of one’s adulthood? I think not.
Don’t conflate so-called adult dress with adult behavior or the reverse, as if a woman who wears a Polly Pocket shirt isn’t able to tell that it’s time to make calls to Congress. The fact that women have the sense of self required to wear their childhood interests on their hearts quite literally suggests to me that we’re not relying on clothes, but relying on our mature and purposeful actions in order to be adults. Moreover, women have the ability to adapt to different social situations. I can wear Lisa Frank Pajamas to bed and walk out of the house for work the next morning dressed appropriately by even the judgiest standards. A closet that can’t accommodate rainbow unicorn dresses alongside pantsuits sounds like a hilariously bad techbro invention.
We can even wear cute stuff while being dead serious, sometimes sinister. When I taught college while wearing hair bows and kitty t-shirts, the point wasn’t to suggest to students that I was someone to be underestimated, but someone to be feared: don’t attempt to go up against someone so out of fucks that they ate the concept of professional dress as a Powerbar between lectures. One of the great kitsch icons of our time, Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series, deploys pink ruffles and bows to great effect while torturing students as the headmistress of Hogwarts. When grown women turn to outlandishly childish garments, that’s a time to fear us, not write us off. In some cases, the inspiration for wearing seemingly childish clothes comes from a hard-won understanding that the world as it stands today isn’t going to give us the power we need by playing by the rules and wearing the right uniform. If that’s not a lesson for the past year, I don’t know what is.
The Trumps are always dressed like adults while acting quite contrary — and they can make clothes do the work of adulthood for them because they already have power. You’ll never see Melania or Ivanka in something as whimsical as a Lilo and Stitch shirt in the course of serving as complicit consorts. The president has terrible tailoring, but he’s always in a suit or polo and khakis on the golf course. The image of seriousness, polish, and maturity through clothing seemed to be enough for some voters. It’s a veneer, a shell of adulthood that disguised the president’s man-babydom long enough to squeak by with just enough votes to win the presidency. Meanwhile it’s people like Takiyah Thompson, who wore casual clothes while helping to pull down the Confederate Monument in Durham, that are providing Real Adult leadership these days.
I’m not sold on the idea that the emergence of mermaid and unicorn clothing has some great cultural meaning; it’s a trend we’ve seen in beauty and even food already, and it’s likely just ’90s nostalgia trotted out at the right moment and in different ways to capture millennial money. If the trend does continue and morph into a rejection of all dress clothes, the development would parallel the great hippie resistance to standard forms of adult dress. Long hair, jeans, and casual clothing in general became popular as a reaction to the starched, square, and suited political leadership and parents of the ’60s and ’70s. In the same way, the rejection of the pantsuits associated with corporate jobs and the corporatized government would be political, not politics-avowing. The White Supremacist fondness for polos and the twentieth-century Nazi rejection of kitsch seem like good arguments for embracing a more anarchic dress sense.
2017 has been a crap year. In the last fortnight, we’ve had nuclear war fears followed by Nazis out in numbers. It’s like a time machine broke and started vomiting out trash. Low-rise jeans are coming back, for fuck’s sake. If a grown woman living through this wants to sleep in a neon tiger nightdress that resembles her third grade Trapper Keeper and your reaction is judgement, keep it.