I have been a personal stylist for 18 years. You can probably imagine just how many women I have spoken to about their struggles with style. By this point, it has to be hundreds. Having had all these personal conversations about fashion and style with women, it never ceases to amaze me how similar all these conversations are. To summarize briefly, if you are struggling with fashion, hate shopping, or don’t fully understand your style, join the club, you are in very good company.
Now, obviously, the reason women call me is that I help women struggling with fashion so that they won’t struggle any longer. Certainly, there is going to be a similar theme of fashion struggle in all these conversations. Yet, it’s not these similarities shared among women that are interesting. What’s interesting is the commonly misled belief that being a woman is supposed to mean a natural understanding and love of fashion. I can sense the shame or embarrassment in these women as if there is something intrinsically wrong with them.
Where did the idea come from that all women like fashion and should be naturally good at Shopping and getting dressed?
It began to intrigue me, how did the belief come to be that all women love shopping and fashion and naturally possess complete knowledge about getting dressed? After all, this idea has been drilled into most women since before they could put on their first pink frilly tutu. But why? How did this happen?
I can only theorize, but while I was kicking it around in my head, I recalled a post I wrote about Harry Gordon Selfridge, the man who started the UK retail chain Selfridges in 1909 and was also said to be responsible for creating what has been called the thrill of shopping. You need to imagine the times to really understand how women and shopping became forever commingled through the opening of this store. Selfridges opened shortly after women first gained the freedom to walk alone without a necessary male escort. Prior to this, women who walked alone, known as “public women” were seen as the dregs of society, vile and unclean. To be a public woman—in any sense of the term—was to risk the accusation of sexual impropriety.
Harry Gordon Selfridge capitalized on this new freedom gained by women by creating a shopping environment that would be a fun activity. Mr. Selfridge envisioned the store as a safe, paternalistic, and all-caring mansion, in which he temporarily replaced the husband, father, or brother as a protector. “Why Not Spend the Day at Selfridges?”, was a successful slogan targeted at the female consumer. Prior to this, people in London didn’t shop for pleasure or browse, they went to the shops knowing what they wanted and asked for it. Another revolutionary measure was adding bathroom facilities to the store. In an attempt to get women to come in from the suburbs to shop, not only did Selfridges have luxurious hotel-like bathrooms, but it also had fine restaurants and cafés so a woman could spend the whole day there.
Doing some more research, I found an article written by Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, in Psychology Today, that backs up my theory. In the article she says, “…in the 1920s, women were seduced by a “liberation” movement they didn’t design.” Based on what Young-Eisendrath said, it dawned on me that it was men who created these beautiful adult play spaces for women to frolic and safely enjoy their freedoms. Women didn’t choose this, it was chosen for them, by men, and hence the connection between women and fashion was contrived.
Yet, despite the fact that the birth of women loving shopping was steeped with patriarchy, considering the times again, shopping was the first time a woman could be in control of her decision making. Women didn’t just come to stores to buy things but to make their own choices. As Young-Eisendrath says in her article, “for the first time, [a] woman was being asked directly what she wanted.” And as ready-to-wear became more widely available to the masses and shopping was no longer an upper-class activity. Fashion changed the middle-class woman to act upon her desires.
It is powerful to consider. Shopping gave women their first taste of feeling independent and in control. It comes as no surprise that these women leaned in hard to the idea of spending a day shopping. Where else could they go to get such an experience?
Is a Love of Shopping in Women Evolutionary?
By the same token, some evolutionary psychologists argue that a love of shopping in women is due to our evolutionary past. Men being the natural hunters, will seek out what they want and buy it whereas women, the gatherers of our species, tend to spend more time searching and gathering what they are looking for. Now, being a believer in science, I’m inclined to want to at least give some credence to this theory, but find it too reductionist for my tastes. After all, shopping is hardly a primordial urge. And I can also speak from my own feelings about shopping, I’m way more hunter than I am a gatherer. I’d rather get a root canal than spend the day shopping for leisure. Plus, if evolution proves that women are natural shoppers, how have I been in business for 18 years?
I’m sticking with the former theory that shopping has a deep connection to the independence and freedoms won by women than a binary sexist concept of women enjoying shopping for evolutionary reasons.
Where does this leave us today?
If you are like me and leaning towards the former theory, here we are a hundred years later in a time where women are more complex key decision-makers with greater challenges, greater responsibilities, bigger roles, and more interesting desires. We’re not the little ladies locked away having just gotten the ability to vote, we’re now holding government positions. Yet, as women, despite our advances in the world, we’re still fighting to be fully seen and heard as equals. However, the concept that shopping is the only way to gain that feeling of freedom and independence in a male-dominated world is an outdated model. We want more than a sale rack and a little lunch at Neiman’s to assuage us. The fact that so many women are struggling with fashion is so key to how far we have come as women today. We’re not interested in shopping like we once were because we have so many more avenues to assert our independence and individuality. We don’t need to be coddled in retail safe spaces any longer.
We have reached an era where women want fashion to work for them, not the other way around. Women want to be seen as more than someone who likes fashion simply because she is a woman, and they want to enjoy fashion for the sake of enjoyment, not because she’s supposed to enjoy it. Women want to be kick-ass and maybe look good doing it, or not. Women have choices.
So if you are a woman reading this who can’t figure out fashion, who feels like you missed some sort of class on the subject that all the other women out there seemed to take, who feels like some sort of failure for not being fashionable enough, there is nothing malfunctioning in you, you’re normal, and based on all the conversations I have had over the years, quite the majority. Don’t be taken in by commercialism or the way women have been narrowly painted for generations, as delicate fashion hungry women who would cut a bitch for that pair of shoes on sale. Even for me, someone who makes a living in fashion, there is plenty of interesting things about me that have nothing to do with fashion and I resent the notion when people reduce me down to being a fashion-obsessed individual simply because of how I make a living.
Ladies, we owe ourselves more. We owe ourselves the right to be okay with wherever we fall on the fashion-knowhow spectrum and to go at our own pace if a newfound interest in fashion is discovered. We shouldn’t worry that we’ll lose some imaginary women-card if we don’t want to go shopping and should definitely not feel shame because we don’t know how to dress well. Never was a love of fashion encoded into the DNA of women. In fact, the notion was implanted in us by men, who by all appearances capitalized on the newfound freedoms won by women and shuttled us away to large pretty department stores to distract us from more important things. If you love fashion or you don’t, don’t ever allow yourself to be reduced down to the idea that struggling with fashion means you are missing something. An enjoyment of fashion should be placed at a level of being a tool you can use, like any other, to express just how amazing you are, pretty outfit or not.