Women who dress cute

Stylist Elisa Nalin is seen during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2013/14 on February 20, 2013 in Milan, ...

Stylist Elisa Nalin is seen during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2013/14 on February 20, 2013 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Elena Braghieri/Getty Images) Photo: Elena Braghieri

Ladies: looking for a way to indulge your internalised misogyny but running out of places to apply it? Good news! It’s once again cool to attack other women’s personal style! This time around it’s women who want to be “cute”. Ooh, don’t it make you mad?

Yes, earlier in the month (it took me a few weeks for my eyes to stop rolling enough to see the computer screen, sorry), Hadley Freeman unloaded in a Guardian column designed, evidently, to remind adult women to act like adult women:

To paraphrase the Bible (forgive me and my heathenish ways), when you are a child, you speak as a child and you dress as a child. But when you become a grownup, you put away childish things and among those things are the following: hair bunches; hair bands or slides that are clearly made for five-year-olds; mittens in any pastel colour; tops with writing on them in general but especially writing that refers to the wearer as ‘girl’; shoes with animal faces on them; and most of all, any item of clothing designed to make the wearer resemble an animal.”

Photography student Liberty Dye poses wearing a Topshop coat and shoes with and Urban Outfitters jumper, leather skirt, ...

Photography student Liberty Dye poses wearing a Topshop coat and shoes with and Urban Outfitters jumper, leather skirt, Miu Miu inspired homemade socks with Anglo American glasses and gifted bag at Somerset House during London Fashion Week on February 19, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Ben Pruchnie/FilmMagic) Photo: Ben Pruchnie

Ok, Hadley, having endured your column I would like to quote (not paraphrase) Edmund Blackadder: nah.


It’s an argument we seem to see offered by “feminists” with worrying frequency these days: stop being so feminine, you’re ruining it for the rest of us.

The argument’s candy-coloured bête noire is Zooey Deschanel, who has evidently undone years of women’s lib because she likes floral frocks and playing her ukulele. Earlier in the year, Deschanel herself reached the limit of what she could take as the alleged destroyer of feminist worlds, telling Glamour magazine: “There is not an ounce of me that believes any of that crap that they say. We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a f--king feminist and wear a f--king Peter Pan collar. So f--king what?"

Blogger Susie Bubble is seen wearing Emma Cook and Christopher Cane on the streets of Manhattan during Spring 2012 ...

Blogger Susie Bubble is seen wearing Emma Cook and Christopher Cane on the streets of Manhattan during Spring 2012 Fashion Week on September 11, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images) Photo: Ben Hider


The underlying theme of such criticisms of “girly” fashion tends to be a cod-feminist notion that it’s bad because surely it’s all done for the appreciation of men (you know, men don’t like powerful women, so they must think girly girls are super sexy).

For the most part this is bunkum because in fact you could argue (and many do) that determinedly “cute” or hyper feminine styles of dress are in fact designed specifically not to appeal to the male gaze.

Don’t forget, it’s usually men who roll out the same old body-policing nonsense about women being “more beautiful” when they’re just wearing a t-shirt and no makeup; do you really think that they’re going to be super jazzed by carefully applied and heavy doll-like makeup and a frilly frock?

I can tell you straight that on the nights I have worn pink-on-pink makeup and girly clothes I have more often been called a “drag queen” to my face by men than I have been inundated with tokens of affection.

Check out the comments on photos online of Lolita fashion, Nicki Minaj at her most hyper-feminine, or really any woman who doesn’t subscribe to the so-called grownup notions of sexy glamour that Hadley Freeman et al espouse: there’ll usually be a boatload of men complaining about things like “too much makeup” (and that’s the polite ones).

Additionally, hyper-feminine and girly styles of dress such as Lolita tend to be inclusive of a wide variety of different body-types and ethnicities (Lolita Muslimah Sugarnoor regularly blows my fashion mind online); surely something that we, as feminists, are meant to celebrate.

In a thoughtful response to criticism of Lolita fashion on Jezebel a few years back, Ellie Frye argued, “It's not, as some commenters have suggested, some sort of appeal to men's expectation that women should be childlike, or an attempt to pander to pedophiles. Pedophiles like little girls. They don't like grown women who happen to like dresses with cakes on them.”

Compare that to Freeman’s condescending rant: “Stop fearing adulthood by dressing like a child and stop thinking that you should make yourselves all ickle wickle with no opinions of any value because you're just a little girly-girl in your animal hat with attached paws.”

Guess what, Hadley? Adult women can dress like intergalactic porcupines should they so desire, it demonstrates approximately nothing about their personal politics or ability to exist as a functioning adult.

As the popular internet catchphrase goes, “feminine is not anti-feminist”. Criticism of “girly” or feminine styles of dress often betrays a considerable vein of misogyny; girl hate masquerading as grown up rhetoric or feminist commentary is still girl hate.

Aren’t we beyond policing other women’s personal expression in 2013?


  • I think all of these women look great.

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 6:01AM
    • In the end, is it actually anyway else business how anyone dresses?

      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 9:36AM
  • Hi Clem,
    I totally agree that women can dress as cute as they'd like. I have friends who wear knee socks/bows/frills and their gentlemen friends love them anyway which is quite shocking...
    But I must disagree on your point that clothes express "nothing" about someone's personal politics. I think clothes can send a powerful and sometimes complex message, and this is a good thing. I know a girl who wears faux leopard print almost daily - she believes strongly in animal rights and told me she identifies strongly with ocelots. I think that's amazing. My mum wore a sarong to work for years and refused to buy "office" or corporate clothes - I couldn't cope with the pressure of not conforming. I do, however, see your point that we shouldn't assume girly-girls are non-feminists or just trying to stay young.

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 8:56AM
    • hj, I think clothes definitely *can* express personal politics - the key is not *assuming* that's what someone's sense of style is doing. After all, someone might assume your leopard-print-loving friend is going for a "sexy" look when clearly her motivation is quite different. (Incidentally I'm a big ocelot-print fan!)

      Clem Bastow
      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 9:39AM
    • Clem, I don't know what 'body policing is'?

      Don't think it's as simple as 'dressing for men' vs. 'not dressing for men'. As said here, clothes can convey a lot about your personality - and is often a super strong indicator of how compatible you'll be with someone else.

      To me dressing 'cute' indicates a sort of alt-cool that is *very* likely to attract similar people (of both sexes!)

      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 12:05PM
    • Hi Steve, here's a good rundown of body policing: "The informal practice of policing one's physical appearance because it does not conform to social norms, or is not deemed appropriate for a particular setting." It includes things like telling women to smile, dictating how people should dress, and which is more 'attractive', and so on.

      Clem Bastow
      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 2:30PM
    • I agree that clothes can convey a lot about someone's personality. The problem is the incorrect assumption that girly = bad / anti-feminist / stupid / naive / weak etc. I dress girly all the time: all that means is that I am someone who thinks lace, bows and peals are pretty. I am someone who likes pretty things. I am a bit of a romantic and idealist. I am not, however, anti-feminist. I am not stupid or weak. I have opinions and have no trouble expressing them. I think it's nice when women chose to stay home and raise a family, but I equally think it's great that women can have successful careers and be financially independent.

      Where feminism has got it wrong (and where I think they're losing a lot of support with young women these days, who seem not to want to identify has "feminists") is continuing to promote the myth that feminine and girly = bad. Personally, I think women dressing like men is far more anti-feminist because the message you're sending is in order to succeed in this world, you have to be a man, or at least pretend to be a man. Androgyny is ruining it for the rest of us!

      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 4:35PM
  • "Body-policing nonsense"? I, for one, am more likely to be attracted to a woman in her "at home" clothes, than to one who is done up with all the paraphernalia that "fashion" or "sexiness" demands. I am turned off by bright red lipstick, long painted nails and trowelled-on makeup. Maybe i'm just weird. OTOH, why shouldn't a woman wear what she finds most comfortable, and why is it that other women seem so quick to judge?

    Blue Mountains
    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 9:06AM
    • Mike,

      Unfortunately you're proving the very point you seek to discredit. You're absolutely right that women should be able to wear whatever is comfortable, and that others should be less quick to judge - but "I/men are more likely to be attracted to" or "I/men like...." or "I'm turned off by" are all judgmental statements. You're simply judging other women for wearing what they choose to wear just because it doesn't conform to your preferences - hence the 'body-policing nonsense'.

      That doesn't mean we can't like what we like or that we shouldn't have an opinion about what we find attractive or that we shouldn't tell people close to us about what we like, but try to resist the idea that what you personally like should have anything to do with what women choose to wear - whatever that happens to be.

      Date and time
      February 27, 2013, 9:25AM
  • What's underlying this though is the weak-ass assumption that clothes must necessarily say something - anything - about a person other than what they wear.

    Thinking that cutesy clothing means a woman isn't acting all grown up comes from the same place as thinking that showing some cleavage makes you a slut, thinking that "clothes make the man", that wearing anything less than a suit and tie to work is 'unprofessional' (oh, and that therefore women cannot be as professional as men), or that you can't be elegant without wearing high heels. Not an easy thing to break, especially not while people are still so keen to judge on other physical characteristics like skin colour, hair colour or weight, which are far more immutable.

    Date and time
    February 27, 2013, 9:07AM

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