Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Femininity and Sister Carrie

Since the pants powwow continues, I have decided to throw up my hands (in a very feminine way, of course) and just consider this an unofficial Endless Modesty Debate Week on And Sometimes Tea. Unless something really interesting happens in the news, and I decide to write about that instead. I have the attention span of a fruit fly. But you know this--you read this blog.

Now, by using the term "Endless Modesty Debate," I don't mean to imply that modesty isn't an important virtue (it is), that there aren't important things pertaining to modesty to discuss (there are), or that the role of modesty in the Christian life isn't sometimes overlooked (it is). I'm really just poking a little lighthearted fun at the people out there who think that a rather ordinary, non-smokin'-hot, non-provocative garment women have been wearing for about eighty years now is not modest for them, simply because men wore that garment mostly exclusively for the 140 years prior to that point. In the history of fashion, there were lots of garments worn originally by men which were eventually adapted for use by women--being thoroughly feminized along the way, so that the ability to tell which garments were for men and which for women was retained. This "pants" business is a familiar chapter in a very old story.

But why do so many people really seem to freak out over this? Someone suggested to me that part of the problem might be tied to the fact that there are so many "walking wounded" out there--men and women who were abused sexually as young children, a crime that is far more common than most of us would like to believe. Someone who is an abuse survivor might, on the one hand, be drawn to arguments about garments that somehow protect one's gender identity and virtue--or, on the other hand, an abuse survivor might think that one type of garment would be more of a protection against abuse than another. It's a sobering thought, and one to keep in mind when comment threads overheat and grow to dizzying lengths.

Other reasons may be less serious to consider. For instance, yesterday I mentioned the idea that some men would like to return to a Golden Age of manhood, when men were real men who smoked, drank, gambled, rode horses, and suchlike, and women stayed away from all male pursuits with that flattering demure demeanor that said, louder than words, "Oh, I'm just a little woman! I don't have an idea in my head--except to tell you how wonderful you men are."

Obviously that's a caricature, but in the interest of fairness, I should mention the female flip-side to that romantic notion: the idea held by some women that the modern world is a drab and unpleasant place, compared to the world of the Golden Age of womanhood, when women dressed well, flirted chastely, married triumphantly and were cherished and spoiled from that day forward. This idea, garnered from romantic old books (but not romance novels, which are smut disguised as fiction), leaves a certain type of woman sighing for the days when her most strenuous task for the day would be to order the evening's meal from her domestic staff, shop for some ribbon with which to trim a new hat, and set to work, with elegant handwriting, on the invitations for the party she would host in a few weeks. After all, isn't that what real, feminine women do? And isn't that the sort of thing we lost, when we gave up those luscious feminine clothes?

Of course, the immediate objection is that the cook who had to make the meal, and the maid who ran to the market in a fruitless quest for some ingredient or other crucial to its success, and the shop assistant who quietly measured and cut the desired length of ribbon, were all women, too. The smiling gentlemen who bowed when they saw our wealthy socialite probably passed these other women on the street without really noticing them. Their lives weren't luxury and feminine delight, and if they were lucky they had a not-too-old Sunday dress at home in the tiny press-closet, along with two hats: straw for summer, and a cheap but more substantial hat for the other seasons.

Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie tells us about one of those women. A simple girl from a rural farm, she comes to Chicago to live with her married sister and to work; she meets a traveling salesman named Drouet on the train, and continues to communicate with him after her arrival. She is disgusted by her sister's life of toil, her brother-in-law's rude manners, and the drudgery of her own job. In the midst of this she sees Drouet again, and in an unmistakable act he gives her money, twenty dollars.

She is conflicted for only a short time. Accepting the money, and accepting what it means--her eventual role as Drouet's mistress--places a gulf between her and the honest working girls who surround her in the city. But what girls they are! Their lined faces, red hands, exhausted air--their future of endless toil regardless of whether they marry or not--the grinding poverty that keeps them from enjoying the truly feminine aspects of life--none of that appeals to Carrie in the least. She keeps the money, and Drouet takes her shopping. For clothes. For a beautiful jacket and shoes, feminine treasures. The loss of her virtue seems not to trouble Carrie much at all, as a price to pay for this avenue to the life of feminine luxury she so desperately covets.

It is a mistake to see femininity as itself a desirable virtue above chastity, honesty, moderation. Carrie does, and she is willing to give up everything that makes her an honest and respectable girl for its sake. The working girls she scorns are less than women to her, with their ugly clothes and rough manners. But in the end, they keep something of themselves which Carrie loses: the capacity for real love, for happiness--for joy.

There is nothing wrong with a woman preferring to wear skirts and dresses, to paint her nails (or have them done), to pause at the cosmetic counter or the shoe department when shopping, or to display otherwise her female nature. But none of these things are required elements of being female, either. The woman who wears pants because they are comfortable, flattering on her, and practical for her life, or the woman who never paints her nails and keeps them clipped short because she types faster that way, or the woman who dislikes makeup and seldom wears it, or the woman for whom shoe-shopping is a penance of the most extreme variety, is still a woman--as are the women who can't afford a varied wardrobe, manicures, brand-name makeup, or shoes that don't come from the thrift store.

In other words, to place the concept of femininity solely on the way a woman decides to dress is to make the idea so shallow and mutable as to render it almost meaningless. And that would be a shame--because one of the things a book like Sister Carrie teaches us is that the rough women Carrie views with contempt are more truly feminine than she will ever be, with her fine clothes, soft voice, and complaisant manner. They are more feminine, because they don't despise their virtue and trade it for a few dollars' worth of clothes.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Whenever you mention the periods 80 years and 140 years, I am reminded that those manly Roman men who conquered most of the known world wore what we today would consider little better than nightgowns or dresses. The Germanic barbarians who eventually over-ran the empire, many of them by becoming a good part of the Roman Army first, wore something more like short length dresses, although often with leather leggings of some kind (definitely not pants). I don't recall either dramatic productions or serious archaeology which suggest that Jesus, his disciples, or King Herod, wore pants.

So, if such a garment can evolve for the use of men, who once wore tunics and togas (and don't forget kilts), what reason is there that feminine attire cannot evolve in a similar manner?

Anonymous said...

Love it! (The review) I remember reading it along with American Tragedy and A Place in the Sun, and was so bogged down in the despair, had forgotten the plot.

Personally, I think the issue is jealousy masked with rationalization that Women's Wear Daily can appear womenly despite wearing clothing designated as feminine or masculine, but Gentleman's Quarterly will be a marked man if caught wearing 'feminine' garb. Only the accepted 'masculine' style is acceptable!

I loved to dress my little boy infant in white as white embroidered 'dresses' (easier to change didies), and to construct colorful 'pantaloons' fashioned from trimmed off sleeves of long-sleeved cuffed scrub jackets, and dusters. Very soon after toddlerhood little boy clothes become all sorts of boring.

Yes, I know the beauty of a child cannot be overshadowed by decorous togs, i.e. a custom for a while was to dress them in black, to allow the 'natural' color and drama of childhood show up against drab and somber,

Anonymous said...

Didn't Chinese women wear trousers for much longer than we have in the West?

Anonymous said...

Amen to the comment about women for whom buying shoes is an act of extreme penance! I wear pants out of disgust with how my fitting shoes look with a skirt--I cannot find a feminine pair of fitting shoes, but can at least find a dowdy masculine pair.

I'm still waiting for a fashionista to solve this one for me.

Bedfordshire Lace

Melanie B said...

Well said, Red!

Anonymous said...

I resisted going over to Simcha's yesterday. I was quite happy to have you take one for the team, Erin, and report back here. But, needing a reason to procrastinate and reading here that the to-do was ongoing, I went.

Oh, sweet goodness. What wasn't covered in the first 300 posts that still needed to be covered in today's?

And then I looked down at my ankles. Oh yeah. Too bad I was late to the party for the posts. I like wearing skirts, but it was a rare day this summer that I could wear them without being self-conscious, as my ankles puffed up to the size of cantaloupes almost daily from fluid retention. (Still don't know the cause.) They looked so bad. The only clothing on my bottom half that would cover them up was: PANTS!

I had no idea that pants made the temptress. Yet, for all the many days I wore pants this summer, I had no takers. Now I'm depressed.

--Sad, Partially Anonymous Danielle

miliukov said...

Alrightie, non-catholic, non-conservative, not particularly-God-fearing, backslidden baptist and long-time lurker/enjoyer of the blog here:

You girls go! This pants discussion is the best thing I've followed in ages. If I could donate money to the cause I would. Point me in the direction of the tip jar.

I am sure this whole post sounds snarky, but it really isn't. Misogynists need to be called out and made fun of whereever they turn up.

MightyMighty said...

I've often thought of the odds of being a "lady" back in the day. Given that most people busied themselves about the tasks involved in keeping clean, fed, and alive, most of us would have been red-faced toilers. If anything, it's easier to be feminine today, since a woman today can have children, keep a house, maybe work, and none of it requires lye, or being bled by leeches, or boiling diapers. We have washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, computers, mixers, cars, phones, etc.

I love the idea of calling cards, and being a woman who used them, but odds are, with who my ancestors were, I would have been the maid who spent 12 hours scrubbing someone else's sheets.

Chris-2-4 said...

Pants, Skirts, Dresses. Who cares? Can't we just all agree that flip-flops have no business on the feet of anyone not at or on the way to the pool/beach?

Barbara C. said...

Don't be dissin' my flip flops!! They are so much cheaper than orthopedic shoes, and since I had my most recent baby anything with the slightest heel kills my legs and back.

I think some of the anti-pants stuff is tied into extreme rage against modern feminism. If the goal of modern feminists is androgyny and denying any differences between men and women, then some people see pants as a tool of the enemy.

Personally, Pants!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Danielle,

Have they checked your thyroid? You can have autoimmune thyroiditis with "normal" TSH levels. Get an antibody test and see an endocrinologist. General practitioners and Internists often miss this. I was symptomatic for years before getting treatment, because my ignorant Internist did not test for antibodies. All I needed was one tiny pill a day and within 10 days my world changed.


Toyin O. said...

Psalm 33; A virtous woman.

Nârwen said...

>I love the idea of calling cards, >and being a woman who used them, >but odds are, with who my >ancestors were, I would have been >the maid who spent 12 hours >scrubbing someone else's sheets.

True enough...

In my work, I deal with books from 19th century England most of the day, particularly ones by or related to the to-be-Blessed John Henry Newman . Among other things I have come across letters of his dealing with the problem of trying to keep the confessionals from becoming flea-infested and how to cope with swarms of children coming in for religious instruction at 7 pm, because that's when they got off work at the factories.
There's nothing like actually getting into a period in history in detail to rip away romantic delusions about it.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for mentioning the thyroid. I do have thyroiditis, the hyper version. I am so sorry that you went undiagnosed and suffered for so long - so tragically common for people like us because thyroid problems mimic other problems (especially heart problems, as in my case). The thyroid is the last place docs look, of course, after we've gone through so much time, expense and suffering, and told there's nothing wrong with us. I'm glad you finally found someone who helped you.

The ankle swelling (which I had for a few months in 2008, after which it went away) hasn't been considered part of it. I am going to a new endo on Monday (the first was a waste) and will ask him about it. After what I have been through this year, I have come to realize that we all need to be proactive with our healthcare. Doctors have to earn my respect and trust; neither is a given because they have an MD.

Back on topic: PANTS!

A while back, I'd read a modesty post by a young, married Catholic blogger who was going to switch to wearing all skirts. I cringed when she talked about discussing the issue with her husband...some control issues were there. I've been tempted to send her the links to the Pants Controversy of '10, but I doubt that it would do any good.


JMB said...

I wonder if the grandmother's issue is really one of perfectionism and not that of modesty. It just occurred to me, I'm reading Thomas Merton's "Seven Story Mountain" and the way he describes his mother, reminds me of this situation, in the sense that no matter what he did, it was never good enough for his mother. Perhaps the clothing example is just a visible sign of this "sickness" and that's what it is - not seeing the person for who he or she really is, and using clothing as a reason for rejection.