When I wore this outfit to work, I captioned the low quality photo of it on Instagram Stories with “Little House on the Prairie, but make it fashion”. It’s just the latest in a long line of dresses and skirts that hide the larger proportion of my leg, with fun sandals in summer and an array of boots in winter.
Now, I could write about the rise of so-called modest dressing, but the time for that was at least two years ago. There’s a ton of great writing out there – about the social, economic and even religious drivers for longer hemlines, and some thoughtful (and more recent) pieces about how problematic it is to dress like this and then, oh, I dunno, write about how cute it is to dress like a “sister wife”.
It’s this latter idea that I wanted to explore, after my “lolol” Instagram Story. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books make prairie life sound, like, totes adorbs, but even little Megan knew that had to be some extreme artistic licence. I played Oregon Trail, I knew all about the toll of dysentery (speaking of artistic licence, do not at me about the difference between Oregon Trail and Little House on the Prairie. I’m making a point that I’m totally getting to). Being a woman on the prairie – let’s be honest. It can’t have been great. You’re wearing a g-damn corset while doing manual labour, at some point basically everyone is trying to kill everyone else, you’re having babies with what I understand to be zero access to high quality medical attention, and so far I’ve assumed for your sake that you’re married to a nice man/have a nice dad and are not experiencing abuse.
Fast forward to 2019, and while things are still deeply grim for women as a gender at a global average, things for Megan are generally pretty good. Look at me, voting as much as I please, working in a complex job (thanks to access to education), living independently and opening jars with the muscles I have from going to my gym but also baking muffins for my workmates because I am a complex individual. With all of this privilege, why do I want to wear a dress that makes me look like I may or may not pop out to a shed and churn some butter this afternoon? Shouldn’t I be looking for some lewks that reflect the fact that we’ve moved forward, that I’m less oppressed than my forebear ladies have been for centuries (perhaps ever)?
I do wear a lot of trousers, but it can’t be that simple. I truly do not believe that dressing like a man is proof of equality, or even an approach to equality. If I started wearing suits at work to be respected, all I’ve done is participate in a system and its codes that were designed for someone else. Is my ability to participate in that system, if the system is unchanged, a step forward? I don’t think so. And since pretty much all of the men who work for me are on a life-long campaign to bring an end to wearing suits, that seems like a fairly wide pace backwards.
And I also don’t buy that being able to choose to wear whatever you want is a sign of improved lives for women. First of all, if you think you are really choosing what you wear, you do not understand how sophisticated marketing is. True original thinking is rare, and I count myself amongst those who are being influenced by the seasons and vagaries of fashion. The best I can do is try and make the influences broad. Opting out of fashion also doesn’t do it, since we know that the way we dress sends unconscious signals not only to others but to ourselves. I’d rather at least try to control that messaging, until such time we evolve as a species and no longer need to engage in the equivalent of fanning out our feathers to communicate complex ideas. While I joke about Star Trek jumpsuits, I think humans are a long, long way from being able to cede that degree of individualism (and, interestingly, being able to cede a way to easily message our inclusion in subcultures).
It seems to me that there is no way to dress for your feminist privilege, even in New Zealand. It doesn’t matter what you wear, it’s too loaded with text, subtext and the judgment of a bunch of people who should learn to keep their opinions to themselves. I’m wearing a prairie-esque dress, sure, but the reality is that I will not be churning butter in this dress (unless I feel like it, I guess?). Instead, I wore this dress to the office, where I continued to do a great job of leading my team and interpreting New Zealand’s Listing Rules and other related laws and generally making decisions and completing tasks like a boss. The important thing is to understand the references in the things that you wear. Know where your own boundaries lie and remember to think about the lives of the women who wore those outfits for real.
On that final note, I still remember the profound shock I felt when I came across a fashion spread in a New Zealand magazine that had taken cults as its reference point. I can only assume everyone involved in the publication of that little treasure was somehow sheltered from the dangerous and damaging reality of cults. Remember: not every look is worth emulating.