Dresses for Lives 2024: Why women wear what they wear

A fundraising campaign involving wearing dresses for the month of March got me thinking about clothes: why do women wear what they wear?

One morning this last week, I put on a truly strange outfit.

A blue-ish summer dress in cheap yet useful synthetic fabric was underpinned by a pair of black leggings and a pair of sandals (no socks) and completed by a white jersey that didn’t quite work colour-wise.

There were reasons: the dress was because I am doing my annual fundraising stint for Milk Matters; the leggings were because March in the southern hemisphere means chilly mornings and hot days (the leggings got taken off when it warmed up); the sandals would eventually work with the dress once the leggings got removed; and the jersey didn’t match because the black one that does match is lost (and also – I knew I would be taking if off later).

It’s possible that there were un-cooler outfits assembled in Cape Town that morning – but there can’t have been many of them.

And that’s the point of the fundraising campaign: I pledge to wear a dress every day for the month of March, no matter what the weather or what I am doing. I walk the dog in floaty summer dresses and trainers; I go on picnics in impractical frocks; I put on a dress over a wet swimming costume when I’ve been bodyboarding.

I spend a fair amount of time looking slightly odd, out of kilter with what’s happening around me. I am happy to do that: it’s for a good cause (Milk Matters provides donor breast milk to prem babies), it supports one of my good friends and, after all these years, it’s just what I do for one month of the year.

But see what I did there? I have a list of excuses for dressing badly. Because dressing badly is An Issue.

What’s the issue?

The crucial thing is that I am consciously choosing to put on “odd” clothes; on April 1 I go back to wearing clothes that blend in, that mark me as someone who knows how to dress in a way that is “appropriate” to a whole range of circumstances (the weather, my age, the occasion, my perception of the image I present in the world, the question of making sure that colours match and so on).

In short, I dress according to a code for 11 months of the year. Over the years that code has changed: I used to dress in a slightly bohemian fashion. That mutated into the kind of neutral gear appropriate to the office and middle management; now I dress for comfort and, with a sigh of relief, the knowledge that I am mostly invisible.

What lies behind dress codes?

When I say I am invisible, I mean that I have the sense, a lot of the time, that people don’t see me. But that’s not quite true: people in my circles of friends and family are indeed looking at what I wear. And let’s come out and say it: it’s the women in those circles who are looking at me, and me at them.

Status signalling and judging

This all came into sharp focus when I read a recent column by Laura Kenndy (one of the people I follow via their email newsletters).  She describes going to an event where there was a room filled with glamorous, polished women – while herself dressed in “jeans and converse”. Kennedy is complimented on her outfit by a famous novelist who:

“appeared to interpret my objectively inappropriate ensemble as some sort of high confidence power move. The kind of thing you’d only do if you felt immune to or above all of that intra-female status signalling. A deliberate statement of confident separateness. That wasn’t really it at all. I was just chronically underdressed due to a combination of ignorance and a deep understanding that this was a joust I could never win. It felt as though there was little point in climbing onto the horse in the first place. (my emphasis)

There’s a lot more in the column, which explores the way in which “beauty isn’t about attractiveness or sexual appeal… but about signalling and strategy in primarily female environments. It is one more element of ‘passing’ — presenting as a person for whom doors should open.”

In other words, it is not just the gaze of men that pins women into stereotyped corners: it is the gaze of other women too.

When I wear strange dress outfits for a whole month, I am deliberately not “passing”: I am putting myself outside of the rules by which women so often judge each other: the intra-female status signalling, as Kennedy so memorably describes it.

Until I read Kennedy’s column, I wasn’t really aware of the judgements I am unconsciously making about the clothes that other women wear. Or of the decisions I make every day when I pick an outfit to wear.

Mostly those decisions are aimed at “passing”, at fitting in. I feel deeply that Laura Kennedy is right: there are many, many times when it does matter what we wear, and there’s nothing for it but to dress to conform. There’s a part of me that loves the freedom that the month of March brings me though (the same part that decided to get not one but two tattoos in the last year). I’ll be putting on my jeans on April 1 with relief – and sadness. 

To sponsor me for wearing dresses in March 2024, use my code DFL005 here. Even small amounts make a difference.


Charity begins with a dress | Safe Hands

Charity, done in a dress | Safe Hands

Making up with make-up | Safe Hands

Life lessons: what getting a tattoo taught me | Safe Hands

Main picture: Rupert Britton, Unsplash

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