Do you dress down for other women?

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Photo: Getty Images

For some time now, I’ve not felt like a ‘proper woman’ when it comes to outfits. All around me I see ‘put-together’ women who know how to match shoes to skirts to fancy tops, and I know that somewhere along the line I opted to for safety rather than chutzpah.

My own ‘dowdification’, the fine art of dressing down, began after my family moved to the whitest, most middle-class suburb in Australia. Once upon a time I’d happily rocked the loud op-shop skirts my mother bought with bright red tights and hand-me-down patent leather shoes. But on arrival at ‘Stepford Primary’, the Queen Bee of Grade Five gave me a daily fashion re-education.

 

Lesson 1. Never show pride. (“You must think you’re so special with those shiny loud shoes.”) 

Lesson 2. There is only one colour: muted. (“Don’t you know that pink and red don’t go?”)

 

I finally saved up enough pocket money for a trip to Just Jeans and never looked back. 

I know I’m not alone in hiding my sartorial light under a bushel. But what surprise me, after a quick survey among friends, was how much people ‘dowdify’ for others – and how much their weight plays a part.

“When I was 20 kilos heavier, I thought I had to deny my femininity", said Veronica, a medical researcher. “Inside I desperately wanted acceptance… but outside I didn’t look like the woman I thought I was supposed to be. I was afraid if I wore something pink for example, people would say ‘who are you to be feminine? You’re not a ‘proper woman’.”

It seems that ‘Dowdifying’ is not just a fluffy sartorial issue, but a complex psychological one. And while there are many and varied rationales for doing so, the one unifying feature is safety. While Veronica dowdified as a way to apologise for her weight and escape ridicule, others dress down to avoid what they see as ‘offending’ others by standing out.

In my early twenties, I noticed that other women were often stand-offish unless I made super-human effort to show that I was not a threat. It didn’t help that I’m very tall, so the effect of whatever I wore was exacerbated. Eventually it just seemed easier to just dress a little bit 'less than' so others felt more comfortable, rather than going in guns blazing and having people say 'Who does she think she is?’

Dressing down made me feel safer. Not only could I avoid male attention I couldn’t handle, but I avoided the competitive gaze of other women. In my rationale, dowdifying meant people would like me more.

But for yoga teacher Donna, who doesn't believe in dressing down, this attitude smacks of egotism. “Not making an effort is a kind of arrogance,” says Donna. “It’s saying that in some way we believe we’re better than others and if we show up, they’ll be threatened by us.” In other words, ‘dowdifying’ can be like a reverse status symbol. The statement being not so much ‘Check me out, I have the legs for this mini’, but “I’m so gorgeous I can get away with dressing like an 80s accountant.”  

Curiously, the ‘Who do you think you are’ syndrome doesn't just effect women. My partner (a gamer, never far from a hoody and a console) recently went to Italy, and started taking a shine to tailored shirts and designer jeans during the trip. “How long did it take you to want to dress like that?” I asked him. (After all, this is a man who has a deep suspicion of collars.) “After arrival?” he asked. “About twenty minutes. But it’s different over there; people dress up just to walk down the street. If you don’t, people look at you like you’ve got no self-respect.” Sadly, the Italian tailoring didn’t last in Melbourne. You'd get called out for being 'stuck up' for making too much of an effort here. 

What struck me in the photos from Italy was that people did not look stuck up. They looked proud. From the street sweepers to the baristas, it was a pride that seemed elevating, not arrogant. When my partner returned to work in the non-threatening hoodies and sneakers of his colleagues, part of me felt sad. I realised that when we dress down, presumably to make others feel better, we all lose out as life becomes a little more colourless.

Donna is right, there is an arrogance in dowdifying. Looking at the hipsters on my tram, I realise we probably spend just as much on our carefully understated outfits of charcoal and steel as the ‘show ponies’ we ridicule, and have less fun doing it.

When I think of the women whose style I admire, there’s no defining trend; no Kate Middleton-inspired waistline, nothing you could quantify in Vogue. Yet there are rules. Whether it’s cut-offs and heels, or a strapless gown and denim jacket, these women 1. Dress unapologetically. 2. Dress in a way that feels good to them. It’s called chutzpah. Respect.

Alice Williams is an author and yoga teacher. She tutors in media writing at the University of Melbourne and blogs at Alice-williams.com @Alicewillalice

29 comments

  • I can certainly identify with "dowdifying" in the office - not sure I agree that it is reverse ego. In my case, it is self-preservation. My boss is a particularly nasty piece of work. One mild example (of which which there have been many, many more over the years I have been working with her) was when I wore a lovely pair of vibrant shoes to work one day and she said "Well, you would only wear those if you want to be noticed". It is those and other comments that wear you down (pardon the pun) to the point where you just want to fly under the radar to avoid the inevitable barbs. I wear the most basic office-acceptable clothing now, despite having a wardrobe full of fabulous gear. However, my weekends are my own...

    Commenter
    Kitchenwitch
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 24, 2013, 7:44AM
    • Seriously. Dressing down to please other people??? That's just sad. I dress down because unless it's for something special I am usually far more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt than in a skirt and heels. Most of that's probably due to my tomboy past (I never did learn the trick of sitting like a lady in a skirt for an entire meal if the skirt hit above the knees...much to my chagrin and several dates' enjoyment) and part of it is simple comfort. I like cut-off shorts. I like jeans. I like shoes with a low heel that I can move in all night. What others think of it doesn't enter into my decision-making process unless I'm going somewhere with a dress code and then I'm definitely dressing up, not down.

      But I guess that's just me.

      Commenter
      TK
      Date and time
      July 24, 2013, 8:01AM
      • @TK: shoes you can move around in are not a symptom of dowdifying - they are a sign you are an active member of the human race. The choice of 'shoes' in which one cannot move easily and the prolonged wearing of which will actually physically damage you tends to suggest an absence of brain.

        Commenter
        Susan_66
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        July 24, 2013, 2:32PM
      •  I am unashamedly a dress up woman.

        I dress fabulously feminine, never girly  *bluh* and really love wearing amazing, stand out clothes. I have some incredible, very beautiful pieces. I really do not give a stuff if I look different or stand out, if it makes others feel uncomfortable, they should lift their game more, not expect me to lower mine.

        Commenter
        AT
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        July 24, 2013, 4:47PM
    • I grew up with the explicit mantra from my mother,"What other people think is the most important thing". It took me thirty years, and a fair bit of therapy, to not have that mantra define my choices & self-expression. I love the liberation that comes from allowing others to take responsibility for their own opinions - what they think actually says more about them.

      Commenter
      AngelaM
      Date and time
      July 24, 2013, 8:47AM
      • You have confirmed my observation.

        I knew that somehow your problems came down to being drilled with the wrong information at home. I am happy for you to be liberated.

        I definitely appreciate liberated women than the down dressed low confident women. Nothing wrong with that imo.

        Commenter
        Not_A_Normal_Man
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 24, 2013, 9:47PM
    • Really? I love seeing women dressed up and looking their best. It demonstrates their high self esteem and pride in showing themselves to the world. Given the rise of style blogs and street style photography, I don't think a lot of people have a problem showing of their personal style. In any case, I dress for me. I choose the shoes I want to wear that day and work my outfit around that choice. Sometimes people compliment my outfit and that's lovely but ultimately it's about me saying damn, I have great taste in shoes!

      Commenter
      MJ
      Date and time
      July 24, 2013, 9:05AM
      • I'm with you as well.

        Women looking and wanting to look at their best makes them real women. That is just providing that they won't be acting like little girls. An adult woman is attractive.

        Too bad if they dress down because of what other people think. This continent needs to gear into the 21st century.

        Commenter
        Not_A_Normal_Man
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        July 24, 2013, 9:55PM
    • I dress to suit myself, but often find that what looks good in the mirror at home looks progressively worse when I venture out. Actually I think Coco Chanel had some good advice: Before you go out the door, take one thing off. In that way, my clothing is less cluttered. It's not a great look to go out blithely wearing a scarf, a belt and a dangling necklace.

      Commenter
      Megan
      Date and time
      July 24, 2013, 9:08AM
      • Good article.

        I've noticed that not standing out is a pressure that is strongly felt in Australia more than any other country I've visited.

        It's not just the clothes you wear, it is intelligence, and it is success. I mean look at the sporting heroes most people admire - Pat Rafter over Lleyton Hewitt.

        The only time people in Australia feel happy to crow about someone's success is when they do it overseas. Heaven forbid you try and be better than anyone in Australia, you'll get accused of a big head, and any success will be compared with their lack of success in other areas.

        I must admit I fall into the problem on wearing dowdy clothes to work. There is an element of not wanting to draw attention to myself, and yes it would be deemed a bit egotistic, but the reality as a woman sometimes it is harder to be taken seriously if you turn up to work looking hot. I'm slowly breaking out of this habit, but it is hard after it has been ingrained in me for so long.

        Commenter
        Blindsie
        Date and time
        July 24, 2013, 10:28AM

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