The year before I left DC to head to fashion school, I worked at a celebrated public radio program that was run entirely by women. It was pretty glorious -- a cadre of educated, ambitious and unapologetic female journalists, dissecting the day’s news, analyzing the larger implications of major events, and deciding what was important enough for us to discuss during our hour on the air.
Did I mention -- looking fabulous while doing all of the above?
Oh yes, there was fabulousness walking those hallways on the daily. Custom wool coats, flouncy red blouses, sweeping maxi dresses and incredible stiletto heels, racing back and forth between the newsroom and the studio when news broke. Staff members were both lauded for their work and celebrated for their personal sense of style. And the show’s open embrace of fashion spilled over onto the airwaves; we regularly produced segments about how fashion intersected with race, culture, current events and local economies. (Guess who had the pleasure of producing many of those fashion segments? Yup, yours truly.)
There was a segment about a designer’s push to bring fashion manufacturing jobs to a dilapidated Detroit; there was the interview with a designer whose first runway show was underway just as the 9/11 attacks began. We had a discussion about whether designers who used “tribal” prints were appropriating the textile art of West Africa, and a reporter’s profile of a male model regularly used in women’s runway shows.
In that office, fashion wasn’t at all considered a superficial interest of vapid girls with too much time or money -- rather, fashion was readily respected as the potent cultural influence and massive global business that it is. And by extension, being a woman who enjoyed dressing well was not mutually exclusive from being a woman who took pride in her intellect and work. (And you opted out of fashion, hey -- that was respected too.)
Now, as I watch the Internet’s collective mind explode over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer posing for Vogue, I’m saddened by the realization that the environment of the office I worked in was but a rare treat -- a place where career women could openly be “women” without fear of maligning said career. Elsewhere, it seems, women in powerful positions or with perceived smarts are discouraged from public displays of what’s usually associated with femininity -- in this case, interest in fashion and beauty.
Here’s a fun fact to consider through all of this: fashion has become a “women’s interest” only fairly recently in history. Up until the mid-1700s, the idea of fashion, trends and “dressing to impress” were entirely the domain of men.
It wasn’t until the appearance of Marie Antoinette that fashion shifted its focus to the feminine, thanks in part to Marie’s daring and forward-thinking taste in clothes, and also in part to her husband’s dreadfully boring loyalty to dressing like his dad. The men of Rome wore togas to signal aristocratic status (women and poor folk were forbidden from wearing them), medieval armor was carefully forged and intricately engraved to be as unique as the man wearing it, and in the late middle ages, black became the new black thanks to the Duke of Burgundy. Men wore lacy neckties to signal status, high, powdered wigs to signal seniority, and codpieces to suggest virility. They dressed as ornately and as fashionably as they could to signal how important they were, and, I suspect, all of it was taken very seriously.
To that end, fashion is the perfect example of how something, once it becomes aligned with women, inexplicably morphs into a “superficial” and “inconsequential” interest.
And we see that now -- in the flurry of online columns that followed Mayer's Vogue cover, everything from the CEO's pose on the lawnchair (valid) to the fact that she even decided to do Vogue (invalid) has been pulled apart and dissected.
On CNN.com, Pepper Schwartz wishes that a woman with brains “wouldn't need, perhaps would not want, to have a very public glamor shot.” Inc. magazine posted a particularly nasty and misogynistic piece that refers to Mayer as Marie Antoinette and groups her Vogue cover with Martha Stewart’s criminal history and Paula Deen’s racist meltdown, arguing that all three could and would lead to the demise of corporate leaders.
Did you catch that? Inc. Magazine is suggesting that posing for Vogue is just as bad as calling people the N-word. I was completely unaware.
And in another CNN piece, there is a quote from a female CEO who voiced her disapproval of the Vogue spread, saying “I like to separate the fact that I am a woman and I am a professional.”
I’m sorry? WHAT?
There are reasonable debates to be had about the way that Mayer posed, and the fact that she downplays her own ambition in the Vogue interview. (She says her ascension to CEO just kinda happened. Nah, girl. That doesn’t just “kinda” happen.) But I’m tired of the notion that anything associated with "femininity" should be considered a liability, and should be avoided by “serious” or professional women at all costs. Femininity itself isn’t what holds women back -- society’s problem with femininity is.
To that end, I find it kinda revolutionary that Marissa Mayer would openly up-end all our lingering notions about what it means to be a woman in charge, and publicly embrace all aspects of her womanhood -- stilettos and all -- while running the C-suite. Whether you choose to participate in this thing we call fashion or not, just know it’s so much more liberating to be able to perform womanhood in the way you choose, rather than having to contort or compress to someone else’s idea of what it should be.
You can find Veronica occasionally tweeting at @veronicamarche.