When a woman reaches out with interest in working with me, they usually fill out an assessment form before our scheduled call. My first encounter with them is through the answers to these questions and it’s rare that I am in stitches from the replies. But it was, I’ll call her Mrs. Manifold, who not only laid herself bare in her answers but did it with humor and openness. I couldn’t wait for our call. It didn’t disappoint!

Mrs. Manifold, a seasoned woman, is a former journalist and roadie, originally from Chicago, who has toured with notable musicians and bands.  She fell in love with a country lawyer and is now living on a farm in Iowa and currently has a business running a flower farm.  You can’t make this up! It was evident in our conversation that Mrs. Manifold has a certain approachable rawness about her.  She’s someone you feel the urge to kick back with on a porch late into the night and have her tell you lots of crazy stories.  She has mileage, a life that has been filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, and it was hard to picture her now living in the middle of nowhere handling and nurturing delicate flowers.

It was unsurprising that one of the points Mrs. Manifold brought up was a certain issue she was dealing with in building her brand and image as a flower farmer, both across her own personal image as well as how the business presented itself on social media. Given what I had learned so far, I couldn’t imagine her wearing swishy delicate romantic skirts while twirling around, all “the hills are alive,” in a field of pansies. I suggested the idea that she didn’t. “I would LOVE to follow a kick-ass former roadie turned flower farmer with an edge and an attitude on social media! How refreshing!” I told her.

In addition, by fashion standards alone, Mrs. Manifold is a bunch of walking contradictions. Yet, I’d just like to call her wildly interesting. During our call, she told me she was wearing a pair of casual grey fleece-lined jeans and a basic grey sweater that she styled with a French twist, and red lipstick. She’s a woman who was raised with no formative fashion guidance yet possesses an astute knowledge of designers, and knows quality fabrics. Mrs. Manifold is more faceted than a diamond, hence why I gave her the alias, Manifold, which means many and various.

This opened up a whole conversation between us about personal style and the lengths women often go to in order to erase parts of themselves to fit into certain preconceived images of who they are expected to be and how they are expected to look. Women, especially as we age, are complex. We have stories to tell, road behind us with lived experiences that are far too varied and interesting to fit into some preconceived notion or neat style identity taken from a quiz, style program, or book that spits out an organized bento box style formula that is supposed to be used to craft a look.

Women Have Conditioned Themselves Not to Jump Any Higher

This common way of defining a woman’s style is reductionist and like a prison. It chips away from the very things that make a woman fully realized. It devalues the richness of she is and tells her that her experiences are trivial. You’ve lived a quality life with stories to tell? You did a year in the Peace Corps and now work for a non-profit that provides clean drinking water to third-world countries plus you listen to speed metal and do needlepoint to relax? You are an alcoholic in recovery who has found healing through art and you go line dancing? You are the youngest female CEO in your industry and a woman of color and your guilty pleasures include shows like Virgin River and gummy worms? So what? The shoulder pad is back, skinny jeans are out, and your style is classic with a twist of modern.

It’s easy to blame a patriarchal society for why women have been so stylistically marginalized and it’s been proven that the whole conflation of women, fashion, and shopping was basically fostered by men. But it’s also lazy to put all the blame there. Women, especially women who have been around the block a few times, can be like the fleas in the experiment where they are put in a tank with a lid and when the lid is taken away, the fleas have been conditioned not to jump any higher. For hundreds of years, women have been coddled, muted, pushed aside, distracted by pretty things, and fed the idea that this is just who women are; fragile beings who crave shopping and clothes and whose life experiences should always play second to their truer callings of things like building a family or settling down.  No matter what a woman does with her life, it will always be questioned, unlike a man, whether she will have a family and whether she will continue to work if she does.  Her body size and how she is aging will be considered and judged more strongly than any other quality.

It has been drilled into a woman’s brain since she was a young girl that all girls like shopping, clothes, and pretty things, and the young girls who didn’t… well, they were left on the sidelines wondering what was wrong with them — with nobody ever bothering to question how damaging that was.  Yet, as the world has begun to change, as women are waking up and realizing the lies we have been fed, we’re realizing the world is not going to change the space for us unless we demand we be viewed differently.  By choosing to erase parts of who we are in how we represent ourselves to the world, if we don’t lean in fully and embrace all parts of who we are in how we dress and just continue to strive to be cookie-cutter versions of each other based on some baseless style definition, we are limiting ourselves, just like the fleas who don’t jump any higher when the lid is removed. 

It’s Time to Widen the Circle

This is not to say that I am presenting an all-or-nothing type scenario where we either give up that love some of us have developed for clothes, fashion, or shopping. Nobody is asking any woman to let go of the enjoyment of a day spent with the girls at the outlets or a passion for clothes.  What I am suggesting is that fashion become more inclusive, that it becomes an environment where everybody has a place at the table.  I hate the fact that the current definitions dictate that if you have an interest in fashion, you are seen as a shallow, unintelligent, vapid, and self-absorbed twit, and if you aren’t completely into it or it’s a struggle, you are looked like a homely sanctimonious, un-woman who is too above it all to be bothered. Why does the marketing of fashion get to dictate what the experience of fashion is when the entire population of the world has to wear clothes; where it is literally illegal not to wear any? Why is there just this tiny sliver of an identity that defines the person who shows an interest, and why is this person promoted as a skinny, tall, beautiful, often in-debt person without any self-control, with poor priorities, and who appears to be someone who has nothing better to do than shop all day, and track sales and trends like a storm chaser? This is a cheap, thoughtless, and degrading approach to something that is actually rich and deeply personal.

The irony is how we celebrate the Iris Apfels, the Gabriella Karefa-Johnsons, Diana Vreelands, Betsey Johnsons, Bethann Hardisons and the Pat Fields of the world for their unique and individual takes of style. We celebrate these women as bold, courageous, unique, badass, inspirational, and even aspirational while at the same time, doing everything we can to compartmentalize ourselves into easy-to-digest, easy to accept, and easy to please versions of ourselves so that the world is satisfied and comfortable.  Why do we work so hard not to be seen, not to stand out, and not to embrace the parts of ourselves that make us unique?  My thoughts immediately go to days spent trying to find myself and my people in middle school, at a time in my life when I was desperately lonely living inside my own body and how long I spent dampening my spirit vs. nurturing and embracing it.  In many ways, these types of battle scars tend to cause women to want to hide in plain sight, rather than stand out, often referred to as the wounded feminine and what many believe is the reason behind why women bring other women down.

As I am writing this, I am reminded of the book Dress for Success by John T. Malloy, a book written by a man about how women should dress in the workplace, first published in 1977 and updated in 1996, without even a whiff of backlash over the fact that it was mansplaining at its finest. Even when I read and gave it a scathing review when I started my business in 2002, there was barely any pushback to what I was screaming as wrong and offensive then. But now? John T. Molloy, an old straight white dude, and his book would be burned at the stake for even thinking he had the right to dictate to a bunch of professional women what they should be wearing to work. It’s a sign of just how far we’ve come.

Yet, it’s time for the next leg of the journey, a time where we as women widen that circle even bigger and demand more from ourselves and the fashion industry. There’s no more listening in the world for that snitty, exclusive one-look-fits-all brand of fashion. No more patience for desperately trying to keep up just so we can all look the same. No more infantilizing women in the fashion space. It’s old, it’s over, it’s tired. We’re big, we’re bold, we’re diverse, we’re interesting, we’re complex, we’ve got a lot to say, and, dammit, it’s time we wear clothes that support that! There is room for all the unique and interesting stories we have to share, and our style should be a place for us to show the world who we are.