Photo of a model wearing Dior's 1947 New Look by Richard Avedon (The menfolk are intrigued!)
I've been thinking a lot lately about how vintage style dressing is perceived - by ourselves and by the world around us. Two of my favorite outfits lately have been my pink swirly dress and my red suit, both coordinated with matching beige sandals and pocketbook. There's something about these ensembles that makes me carry myself slightly differently - in a sort of prim, ladylike way. (It must be the little purse!) And I've found myself being given the chivalrous treatment by men while in these outfits - doors are opened for me and elevator buttons are pressed.
Even the cat calls have gotten polite! (Cat calling is a hobby of many men in New York.) Where I'd gotten accustomed to a "Hey Sexy!" I'm now being called pretty. And the cat callers are noticing my outfits. While wearing the red suit: a man grinned at me in a predatory manner, and then said, unexpectedly, "That's a very pretty suit!" And while wearing the pink dress: "That's a pretty red dress - with a pretty lady in it!" (Everyone thinks my pink dress is red for some reason. Maybe it really is red and I'm the only one who hasn't noticed?).
In light of this, I've been thinking back to the chapter titled "Sex" in A Guide to Elegance. The author created lists of things that men find attractive or not, saying that she would once and for all separate "fact from fiction" on the matter. On the attractive list is "full skirts, tiny waists, and a long-legged look" and "collars on suits and jackets." On the unattractive side? "revealingly tight skirts and aggressively pointed bosoms" and "spike heels." (I find the idea of aggressively pointed bosoms very comical. Do they think our bosoms are going to come out and get them? Brings new meaning to the torpedo look!)
It's a bit of a twist to imagine men being turned off by tight skirts and spike heels. But I do think there's something classically appealing to men about the New Look era of dress even if they're socially programmed to like things short and tight. But truthfully, there does seem to be something girlishly feminine about a lovely shawl collared jacket that men find attractive, especially when paired with a full skirt. And the vintage look is often portrayed as whimsically sexy in movies (think Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.)
But all this begs the fundamental question: do we care what men think about how we dress?
I do care what my husband thinks, mostly because Jeff has great instincts about clothes even though his own sartorial motto has always been "I'm no fashion plate." He'll tell me when my French darts look nipply and when my bow ties are too big. He'll even catch slight fitting issues that take a garment from problematic to perfect. But I can't say that I'm trying to send any covert sexual signals to him through my dress. In honesty, I think I would be disappointed if that were my mission. If I'm looking to "snare" him, the best way is usually through humor and intellect. And I think I'll keep it that way, thank you very much.
As for men on the street? Eh. It's kind of charming to see cat callers suddenly turn gentlemanly and appreciative of a shawl-collared suit, but I'd really rather not have any unsolicited comments on my looks from the peanut gallery.
And, of course, it must be said that all of this works purely on a heteronormative level. (Please excuse the academic jargon.) In other words, labeling what men find sexy is based on the assumption of a heterosexuality in which men are the pursuers and women are the prey, dressing only to claim the prized male gaze for themselves. It's certainly uncomfortable from a feminist perspective, which is why I think so many modern women are loathe to admit to dressing for men.
Now: as for the old adage of women dressing for women? Duh. Who else is actually going to know the difference between a shawl collar and a notched collar? Talking outfits with the girls is one of the great pleasures of being a woman, I think. Plus, it must be said, any compliments from women are generally not considered to have sexual or predatory undertones (because that would make women sexual aggressors and we can't have that!).
How about you? Do you think men find vintage style sexy? Do you care?