blogging · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 327: What do you mean, “Patriarchy”?

I awoke this morning to numerous suggestions of clothing retailers that make women’s clothing with useful pockets; I also had a message waiting for me from a close friend who took issue with my use of the word “patriarchy” and also contended that it’s not society’s fault that I value different things than most women.

I first used the word “patriarchy” facetiously when explaining to K the history of women’s clothing and how it affected our pockets (or lack thereof) today. But as I explained it, I realized that I wasn’t wrong… but “patriarchy” is a word loaded with a lot of things I did not mean.

I think some clarification would be helpful.

My theory, in a big nutshell:

The value we place on women’s appearance is a natural result of women’s role in a patriarchal society, and these beliefs persist even as women’s rights and privileges have expanded. The fashion industry, therefore, is still generally more concerned with the appearance of clothes than with their utility (form over function, in other words) and so are many (if not most) women. I’m not saying that designers or clothing manufacturers are trying to keep women down; I’m saying that they (and we) have inherited certain beliefs about women’s clothing that stem from a social construct made necessary by societal rules in centuries past, and these beliefs inform both the work of fashion designers and the buying habits of female consumers.

“What do you mean, ‘patriarchal society’?”

By “patriarchal” I mean that men hold primary power and predominate in privilege, property, and politics. You might feel that it’s no longer the case in this day and age—don’t women own houses, vote, have careers, and control their fertility? Yes, in some countries they do. But even in countries where women are pretty much equal to men, these things are relatively new developments: up until 1974, American women who applied for their own credit card would be asked to have a man co-sign the application. Until 1993, spousal rape couldn’t be prosecuted in many states. This is not ancient history, folks. In 1993 I was thirteen years old—and I’m no elderly pensioner.

(If you’re wondering why a Canadian blogger is writing about American law, wonder no more: I’m a bit lazy and U.S. information is easier to come by.)

But I digress (sort of.) You want to know what this has to do with pockets, right?

A very short, very selective, very Eurocentric history of fashion

In yesterday’s blog post, I briefly mentioned the idea that women didn’t need to carry money because money was the man’s concern. Perhaps this was an upper-class phenomenon; a few years ago, my research led me to conclude that servants and working-class women had pockets in their clothes. Nevertheless, fashion is, and always has been, dictated by the upper classes.

(Did you know that women’s shirts button on the opposite side of men’s? This is a holdover from the days when upper-class women would have maids to dress them. The buttons are placed for a right-handed assistant’s convenience.)

So upper class women’s clothing was (still is, really) designed to show their figures to best advantage, and full pockets would disturb that line. But why did that concern dominate?

Why value form over function?

Let’s be blunt: in the not-too-distant past, a woman relied on her father or her husband for financial support and social protection. To lack a male protector mean a lifetime on the fringes of society, and economic uncertainty if not outright poverty. In that light, it was imperative to attract a husband. And what did husbands want? Beautiful wives. (Why? There are theories that physical beauty and symmetrical features are good proxies for fertility, but I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet.) The most beautiful women would be most sought-after, and would therefore probably end up marrying the richest, most powerful men. Or, in the case of my ancestors in some Polish shtetl, the most beautiful girl would marry the most brilliant Torah scholar.

When you think about it that way, that being beautiful was a matter of survival, it’s a bit easier to understand how we got to the point of women wearing clothes that “look good” even though the clothes are highly impractical and even uncomfortable. Most women’s pants pockets are too small to hold a phone, wallet, or anything else that might break the “line” of the silhouette. And that’s if the pants have pockets to begin with: many have fake pockets that are stitched on for appearance.

But if that’s in the past, why don’t clothing manufacturers make more practical clothes now?

Well, because beliefs change slowly. If even a hundred years ago women still had to trade on their beauty to be assured financial stability and social standing, that means my grandmothers were raised by mothers who lived, courted, and married in that social reality. Their adulthoods weren’t much different, and even my mother came of age before women could sign their own credit card application or attend an Ivy League university. While it’s true that she also came of age at the same time as feminism was gathering steam, it would have been hard to discard all the lessons learned at the knee of her mother and aunties about how a girl should look. Now here we are, in my generation, and even though we understand much of this, we still can’t completely shake the feeling that our physical appearance is still the primary way women are judged nowadays.

Supply and demand (or lack thereof)

My dear friend whose message prompted this blog post was confident that clothing companies would sell clothes with pockets if women actually would buy them, and the fact that they don’t implies that I value clothing differently from most women. That’s probably true. But because of the history I mentioned above, among other factors, most women will still value looking good over feeling comfortable. Sure, we’ll complain about how the high heels hurt our feet or how painfully tight Spanx are, but it’s still important to have that particular leg shape and a slender midsection, so we’ll just suck it up and complain to each other in the ladies’ room.

It’s not just the women, either. Men will also say in one breath that high heels are stupid, and in the next they’ll admire a particularly shapely leg that is only that shape because, well, high heels. Mr. December might hate being constantly asked to carry my stuff in his pockets, but I see the appreciation on his face when I wear my tight jeans instead of something more practical. He, too, is living with the legacy of patriarchy that once declared loudly (and now whispers) that beauty is the most important attribute a woman can have.

I believe that’s why there’s so much demand for women’s clothing that lacks useful pockets in order to be sleek and accentuate the female form. Nobody is “at fault” here—it’s simply the legacy of our history.

Okay, so what’s your point?

I guess my point is that, as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in his book Homo Deus, precedent and history affect our current beliefs and choices far more than we think. In his book he used the example of monoculture lawns, but I think his argument applies to the pockets-in-women’s-clothing issue too.

Am I telling people that women should stop caring about looking good and that we should all walk around wearing cargo pants? No. Absolutely not. But if we know that these beliefs are actually products of ages past, rather than some universal truth, we can decide whether we want to pass them on to the next generation. And we can start making things better for this generation, too, maybe even by demanding usable pockets in women’s clothing.

3 thoughts on “Day 327: What do you mean, “Patriarchy”?

  1. While I agree with a lot of your comments about how it is now that women find it easier to buy figure-hugging and pocket-less clothing, I suspect cost minimisation also plays a role. A lot of clothing I see in stores is flimsy fabric, poorly made, cheap (but not always!) and clearly not designed to last. Who would bother putting pockets into clothing like that? Probably no-one.
    There are exceptions though. When my daughter started high school not so long ago (at a public school in Australia) she was delighted to discover the uniform options included unisex navy cargo shorts with heaps of pockets. She’s worn them almost every school day since then. I wish I’d had an option like that when I was her age.

  2. Women’s clothing is more expensive than men’s and made more cheaply. The impact of the patriarchy is massive, older women are less employable at earlier ages than men and being “pretty” or ‘cute’ helps in getting employment opportunities. Women’s pay is not equal to men’s for the same job nor are advancement opportunities ~ to this day. Women’s health is not decided by medical science but by men who do not legislate equally constricting medical laws against men’s ability to control their bodies. In fact, laws are structured to victimize female crimes and to lessen the penalties against the men who cause the crime, using the statement that’ the man’s future could be damaged’. (see coverage of the Stanford rapist and the impact of SAY MY NAME book for current example) Add in the issues of racial heritage and, oh my goodness, it gets worse. See current news about how POC girls in all public school grades are treated compared to ‘white’ girls……. pepper spraying a handcuffed 9 yr old girl just last week when she is sitting in a police car!!!!
    You are correct about the patriarchy’s impact on women’s wear. AND, before one claims fashion world is only responding to female demand, it would be important to have the fashion world support demand for pockets and freedom in equal advertising budgets, news coverage, AND AVAILABILITY OF PRODUCTS. Real pockets in pants for women did not exist at Nordstroms or Target the last time I was able to enter such stores and I do not believe that has changed AT ALL in the past year.
    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

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