Hip to be Square, or: Can Female Academics Have Bodies?

I have decided the only way I am going to be able to keep up blogging is to allow myself to muse, to provoke, to suggest, and not always to present or hold forth. This blog is process, not product — conversation, not oration — so rather than sit on this for a few months before ultimately deciding not to, I am going to write about Marimekko dresses.

If you dig on fashion as much as I do (in theory, at least, if not in practice), you will probably enjoy this article from Alexandra Lange about the “power” of the Marimekko dress. Now, just to be clear, I want one. The loose, arty-farty vibe of the Marimekko dress has Feminist (with a capital F) origins: “Marimekko was made for the working woman who could afford to ungirdle herself, one in a long line of “reform-dress” movements that started with the nineteenth-century feminist bloomer.”

Here is the one I want, if you feel like buying me one. It’s not cheap. (Isn’t this one nice though? I like how the flowers are slightly different sizes, the colors are muted but not boring, and the belting…)

Anyway, I study Hollywood for a living, so I’m used to my faves being problematic, and I’m not the first to call out fashion for being, “like, patriarchal or whatever.”

What I am struggling with is the idea that this “feminist” garment, designed to let the woman move more freely, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And yes, part of that involves the exorbitant price, one of a zillion indicators that lifestyle feminism is as much (if not more) privilege than politic.

But the part that I’m mulling over is this: “Most of these [Marimekko] dresses had loose long sleeves, big pockets, and triangular silhouettes.”

This silhouette, presumably, only sits right on women who are thin: welcome to fashion. But what about Smart Women Fashion (TM)? Clothing marks the wearer as someone and something, and the wearer of a Marimekko dress broadcasts her status as an artist, as a intellectual. If the Marimekko dress is the intellectual woman’s uniform, I want to ask: do intellectual women have to be triangles? How important is it for women to hide their bodies so they can (be seen to) have brains?

“Marimekko is for women whose way of wearing clothes is to forget what they have on,” one 1963 fashion critic declared, but c’mon. We know better. Any woman who has ever dressed for an academic job talk knows what I mean: wanting to look good while also not looking like you care is a lot of work. Back in the day, when I was trying to be a d-girl, I received advice on how to dress the part: basic black with an “interesting” accessory, like a statement necklace or some such. Be unobjectionable yet remarkable? Cool cool cool.

So, the problem is two-fold: first, intellectual women have to look like they don’t care how they look, while also looking good, and the result is not feeling super liberating, nor is it particularly affordable. Second, the intellectual woman uniform is ostensibly one that unsexes the female form. Breasts are distracting; hips are for baby-making; to butcher The Wizard of Oz for a moment, “pay no attention to the (wo)man behind the curtain!”

At any rate, I work in a field where women are asked to “lean in” — better to be isoceles than hourglass (with childbearing hips)? The irony, of course, is that these dresses are designed to let women move freely, but are the wearers only freeing themselves to be brains without bodies?

…Though of course, I still want that dress.

One comment

  1. Let’s distinguish between cut and fabric though. The iconic triangular dress (I’m thinking increasing tiers of gathers, I don’t see a photo in your post) with long flowing sleeves we both love isn’t at all suited to actually working, even in a quiet, relatively clean job like, say, secretary, social science researcher, therapist or librarian. Say that what I want to do involves any kind of equipment, or leaning over anything or anyone, or pointing things out on a diagram, or working with anything moist? Say I want to sit on a chair with wheels and roll around my work area, or get out of my seat a lot? The sleeves and wide skirt get in the way. The dress Marimekko sold in the 1960s was suitable for socializing. Since then Marimekko has also produced straight profiled, short sleeved, more subtly printed dresses which, while not quite so exciting, were professionally wearable and still set one (me) apart from the crowd. Some of us also made (and make) dresses one could actually work in out of our beloved flowers. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, be the change you want to see?

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