I’ve never had my own personal uniform. I suffer from an (apparently au courant) millennial anxiety disorder and as such, I’ve always fretted about getting dressed in the morning. Specifically, I work myself up about not repeating an outfit. This was the case in high school (even with a strict dress code), when going out in college, and now in the real world, where I work in a fashion-centric office. Let’s be clear: I realize that it’s virtually impossible not to wear the same thing over the course of a week or month, unless of course you have a closet and wallet the size of Paris Hilton’s. But how deep does society’s judgment of an outfit repeater really go? Furthermore, why do women seem to care about wardrobe replay more than men?
Michelle Obama raised this difficult-to-dissect subject last week when she told the crowd at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference that former President Barack Obama wore the same suit for nearly eight years. “That’s the unfair thing,” she said. “No matter what we do he puts on the same tux. Now, people take pictures of the shoes I wear, the bracelets, the necklace—they didn’t comment on that for eight years, he wore the same tux, same shoes.” The scrutiny of a First Lady’s wardrobe is nothing new. In fact, it’s a deeply rooted tradition in American culture, but Michelle Obama’s statement certainly makes you think. Whether in politics, business, or celebrity land, women have to constantly change up their look while their male counterparts tend to get a pass.
Susan Bordo knows this all too well. As a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky and author of the 2017 book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, Bordo has spent her life not only studying the societal disparities between men and women but living them too (she almost lost tenure for wearing a tattered skirt inspired by Flashdance). In her book, which aims to decipher the causes of Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss in terms of outside media and political influences, Bordo touches on the fact that even when Clinton adopted the repetitive uniform of a man—the famous pantsuit—she was judged. Sure, she wore slightly different cuts or varying colors, but the suit was part of her professional persona and to many voters, it felt unapproachable, if not unenthusiastic. As Bordo writes, “While many male politicians can relax with a pretty standard professional dress code and are rarely criticized for being too ‘serious,’ ‘gruff,’ or ‘ungracious,’ women have to calibrate their outfits carefully to avoid being too schoolmarmish and too sexually provocative, and to regulate their emotional presence to be both warm and charming and ‘tough enough to handle the job.’”
The double standard is real. Clinton thought she was being steadfast and trustworthy in her go-to pantsuits and in the end, the judgment overwhelmed. But these biases and stereotypes towards how men and women should dress, particularly in the workplace, go way back. In one way or another women have always been taught to dress in such a way as to please or attract a man, not to be his equal or—the horror!—his superior. It makes sense then that a woman will be scoffed at for adopting her own uniform or wearing the same thing over and over again, something that makes her feel strong and sturdy but is also comfortable.
The fashion industry is a bit more forgiving than politics, celebrity, or business. Many designers, men and women, have created signatures for themselves through singular ensembles—Karl Lagerfeld’s sunglasses and black suits, Carolina Herrera’s white button-down shirts, and Michael Kors’s aviators and black shirts, to start. One up-and-coming female menswear designer, Astrid Andersen, believes there’s no such thing as the double standard when it comes to repeating an outfit, and if there is, it’s our fault as women. As she explains, “I wear the same outfit every day, all year long. I have never once felt like people judge me for that and in fact, I feel the opposite.” She adds, “Perhaps I dress the same way each day to avoid judgment, from myself and from others. I feel like the only reason this would ever be an issue is because women still judge each other within my generation and it has to stop. Feminism is about unifying men and women and the judgment is so toxic.”
Daniel Webster-Clark, the cofounder of the recently launched and humorously polarizing men’s romper line RompHim, disagrees. “I think a double standard certainly exists, especially when it comes to men and women in the public eye (former President Obama, Steve Jobs, and other men with a ‘personal uniform’ come to mind).” He continues, “Part of this could be because menswear doesn’t always provide as many fashion options as womenswear, and so wearing a similar button-down shirt and pair of pants has become the norm. I think this helps contribute to both genders expecting women to continually change things up, where as there are often lower expectations for (or less interest in) when men to do the same.”
As men’s fashion month starts to kick up this week, there’s sure to be a few wild cards to throw into the atypical male aesthetic mix. In fact, men’s fashion has gotten more and more eccentric over the last few seasons thanks to innovative designers like Craig Green and Grace Wales Bonner who aren’t afraid to take risks. This is sure to eventually trickle down to the suit-and-tie, Bonobos-wearing crowd at some point, but when, if ever, will it become less acceptable for a man to repeat an outfit than a woman? As genderless fashion also becomes more culturally visible and financially viable in the fashion market, there’s definitely a bigger avenue for acceptance.
Personally, I know may never stop questioning whether or not I should put on the same pair of jeans that I’ve worn the last five days in a row. But I’m going to try! As Mrs. O would say, “when they go low, we go high”—and in this case, wear whatever the hell we want.
This story originally appeared on Vogue.
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