Why style suffers in gender equal societies
Updated: Oct 30, 2019
*I wrote this piece with the title 'Equality is bad for your style' for 'Fabric', a friend's zine (let's bring those back!), which she created for International Women's Day this year, where the theme was 'balance'.
I don’t necessarily believe that full ‘balance’ across all areas of life is a good thing. Particularly when it places limits on the human capacity for self-expression. Let me explain why…
I live in Denmark. It’s a great place. Lots of nice clean air, emphasis on the ‘life’ side of the work/life balance, pastries galore and compared with the UK (where I am from), a noticeably greater emphasis on gender equality.
Well, that sounds very nice, you might be thinking. What have I got to complain about? In terms of social and work opportunities, it really is marvellous. But it’s funny how when you live in the ‘dream’, there are times when you want to be shaken awake. Inequality has its upsides.
There are many aspects to this, but the one I want to talk about is how it affects the way we dress. Overt equality is sartorially dictatorial: it limits our clothing options and flattens individuality.
In the UK, less gender equality (comparatively) means that the typical roles of men and women are more distinct, and consequently there are discrete differences between something being ‘female’ or ‘male’. This extends to objects, cars, jobs… even cocktails.
Of course it includes clothes, meaning that in the UK, there are more typically ‘feminine’ styles available. Waist defining dresses, figure hugging outfits, low cut tops and high heels: styles that enhance the aesthetic singularities of the female form. Certainly, you could argue that they simply serve to degrade women, reducing them to mere sexual objects. But the point is that in countries like the UK, these options sit alongside every other possible style you could ever wish for: goth, preppy, office chic, glamazon, architect black, sports-chav, and so-on. There is choice. There are identities available to mix up and play with.
In Denmark however, androgyny is the most powerful undercurrent of style, and anything remotely figure hugging is a genuine struggle to find. You want black? No problem. Asexual? You got it. Want to look exactly like everyone else? You’re in the right place! Bodycon dress or outrageous coloured prints? Not likely, mate.
And even if you wanted to brazenly display your physical features, it is considered a social affront because it’s not required as a statement of female power: gender equality is much hyped in Scandinavia (although in truth not always living up to the hype).
On top of the gender parity, the social emphasis is on being a part of the collective. Therefore, to be different, or to stand out, is not a good thing. Jante’s Law is still referenced as a driver for this: a set of social ‘rules’ that determine the codes of conduct for daily life. “You're not to think you are anything special. You're not to imagine yourself better than we are.” It originates from a 1930’s novel but stems from deeper, more ancient cultural values of equality and humility. It’s still very present today: everyone has the same things: the same home interiors and the same clothes in the same colours (neutral). It is incredibly boring and actually rather depressing.
Gender balance is crucial to achieve, and equality is a wonderful goal in many aspects of life. But the truth is that whether you like it or not, society will always dictate much of what you do, including what you will be able to wear.