Womenswear and the male gaze

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Why are some affluent young city women dressing like members of religious cults? A look at the new “modesty” in fashion, and how women architects dress to express a “total design philosophy.”

Should women consider their clothing choices when working in the world of men?

That’s been one of the many heated questions raised amidst the sexual harassment furor.

Gymnast Gabby Douglas, fashion designer Donna Karan, Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik, and now actress Angela Lansbury have all managed to enrage many women in recent weeks, for suggesting they might bring on unwanted attentions from men if they wear highly provocative clothing. Each has had to walk back comments that they say were taken out of context.

But clothing does project a message (as I tell my 13-year old daughter when she wants to wear leggings to school: just consider where you want the focus – on your brains or your buttocks!).

So this DnA talks to women in design and fashion who are using dress to express their “purpose” while “managing male expectations.”

We learn about young, urban women who are dressing in expensive but “modest” clothing evocative of a religious cult, or loose fitting Eileen Fisher-style garb typically preferred by older women. And we hear about female architects and why they tend to choose garments that emphasize detail and idiosyncratic style.

Joan Barton, contractor with Dirty Girl Construction, explains why she won’t dress to impress for the building site.

She candidly states that she is very aware of how she could use her looks to get what she wants but believes she has earned much more respect by being true to herself.

“If I do dress it up and put on the heels and the makeup and the hair and do the whole thing to go to a job site, then what I’m asking for is for people to pay attention to me in a different way. I’m not asking them to assault me and I want to make that very clear. But I am changing the tone of my goal,” Barton said.

Naomi Fry ruminates on culture and fashion. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The “tone of the goal” is explored in a fascinating article by Naomi Fry, entitled “Modest Dressing, as a Virtue” in the New York Times’ T magazine. Fry tells DnA about the “metropolitan, sophisticated, upper middle class professional women” who are dressing down, in costly and unflattering garb that evokes religious cults, designed by the likes of Céline, Rachel Comey, No. 6 and Maria Cornejo — “clothing that would be in a different context considered dowdy. . . maybe unflattering, sacklike, maybe even cultish.”

She cites as an example LA gallerist Hannah Hoffman, who told Fry she prefers to dress in a way that keeps the minds of the male collectors or curators “on the art and not get confused about what is being transacted here” while at the same time questioning why it fell to her to “manage these expectations.”

At the same time, Fry ponders whether this trend, similar to the “Menocore” trend for young women to dress in Eileen Fisher-style, loose-fitting clothes typically aimed at older women, is a “humblebrag,” embraced largely by attractive, young women who can put the proverbial “sack over their heads” and still look gorgeous.

Ingalil Wahlroos Ritter wears: pants by Ripley Rader; necklace by Oropopo and bracelet both from Carol Young Undesigned; glasses by L.A. Eyeworks; ring by Yeh Design Lab; shoes, Trippen (photo: Frances Anderton) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, dean of Woodbury University’s School of Architecture, is very interested in the semiotics of clothing. She tells DnA how women architects staked their place in the profession a couple decades back by donning equal-opportunity power suits. Now she feels they have the freedom to dress in idiosyncratic outfits that express a “total design philosophy, from the smallest scale — the jewelry, the glasses, the shoes — and then on up to the city and the design of people and how they operate in a city. Those are all design opportunities. And I think that clothing for me is exactly that. It’s one other layer of design opportunity.”

For her this takes the form of “celebrating my womanhood through clothes full of color and texture” instead of the black on black that is de rigueur for many architects. She supports local designers, many of them trained as architects. Above, she wears: pants by Ripley Rader; necklace by Oropopo and bracelet both bought at Carol Young Undesigned; glassesby L.A. Eyeworks; ring by Yeh Design Lab; shoes, Trippen.

She talks about architects’ love of detail, a word rooted in the French word for tailoring, and how this expresses itself in designs with unusual profiles, inspired by designers like Comme des Garcon and Yohji Yamamoto that are not necessarily about “form hugging” but about “showcasing an artistry and craft.”

Florencia Pita and Jackilin Bloom don architects’ stylish black as they display their Detroit project at A+D Museum. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)