Today it is rokjesdag, which is the National Skirt Day in the Netherlands. This means that, for the first time after a cold winter, the citizens of the Netherlands massively wear skirts with bare legs on the street. Rokjesdag is often associated with the columnist Martin Bril who was fascinated by this day and wrote some columns on this phenomenon. Therefore, after his passing away on March 22, and to honor Martin, this day is often held as national rokjesdag. However, the 'real' date of rokjesdag depends on the weather. This day made me think about an experience I encountered when wearing a leopard print skirt.
The experience of the leopard print skirt
I put a lot of effort in how I dress, not only because I like fashion, but also because I am very aware of the impact that clothing may have. This became even more time-consuming when I started my Master's at Tilburg University. The way I see it, this place demands another kind of discourse than, for example, when going shopping with your friends. I don’t want to give off the wrong impression of myself, such as being more interested in the way I look than in getting the most out of my education, I choose to dress more conventionally.
However, I just bought a new skirt that I really liked (comparable with the skirt below, Figure 1) even though I knew, when buying it, that this would probably not be appropriate to wear on campus. After a long fitting session and a staring contest with this leopard print skirt, I gave up. The skirt won and so did my ‘fashionable identity’ from my ‘student identity’. What I did not know at this time, is that all of a sudden, I gained a new, unwanted, identity too: that of a trashy person. On my way to the train station and back, I received all kinds of unwanted comments from men (e.g. “You look like someone who would be a lot of fun in bed”). This is exactly what I was afraid of, and the reason why I was not sure of wearing the skirt in the first place. Shockingly, I’m just one of various women who receive unwanted attention, partly because of what they wear, but also simply because they are women, as the #metoo discussion illustrates.
What happened here?
We are all aware of the fact that our clothing influences what people think of us. Clothes are a piece of discourse and can give an insight into someone’s identity. That is why we put a little more effort into our appearance when we’re preparing for a job interview or when we’re going on a date. Additionally, we also decide which pieces of clothing to wear for any specific occasion and we make such choices based on assumptions of how others will judge us, e.g. social conventions. A good example of this is the dress code that no one but the bride wears a long white dress at a wedding.
We make choices like these on a daily basis, not only when dressing ourselves, but also in the way we speak or how we behave. This is called ‘reflexitivity’ which means that what we do, we do by reflecting on how we think that others will think of us. Foucault (1975) explains a similar process which he calls the panopticon, which means that you are subjected by the judgments of others.
Women ‘love’ the skirt and even unknown women asked me where I bought it, because they want to own it too. While men, on the other hand, continued to make comments with a sexual undertone.
These judgments are grounded in norms that are subjective in nature and that arise from continuous interaction between people, to whose judgment we submit ourselves. Thus in the morning, the reflection you see in the mirror is not a reflection of what you look like, but a reflection of how you want to be in the eyes of others (Gorp & Veeneman, 2018). Cicourel (1973) also states that our behavior is programmed by the behavior of others. We are constantly looking for a response and evaluation by others. At the same time, those others do this as well. This is, therefore, a non-stop process and one of the reasons why we spend so much time on organizing our behavior, for example by choosing the way we dress.
The mobile identity
Each specific timespace configuration have their own sets of norms; they are chronotopic, which is a notion coined by Bakhtin (1981) that points out that social life develops in a range of timespace set-ups characterized by specific norms and identities. Therefore, considering that we are mobile, when we encounter a new moment in our lives, we have to change in order to fit in the new timespace configuration (Blommaert, 2005, 2017a, 2017b). We can anticipate this by using our identity repertoires that consists of all the resources we have available for communicating and knowledge about their conditions of use in an individual or community (ibid). Therefore, as Blommaert (2005) stated, our identity and the ‘who and what we are’ depends on context, occasion, and purpose and it almost invariably involves a semiotic process of representations (p203). In other words, in reality, we are more than just one real person and we have different ways of being ourselves. Therefore a shift from one chronotope into another involves a massive shift in identity opportunities and criteria of judgment (Blommaert, 2017).
At least I get to choose if and when I want to wear this skirt, which possibly has ‘trashy’ connotation; at least I have other repertoires (other clothes), but what if you cannot influence your appearance and receive an unwanted identity?
In most cases, it would be kind of strange to change clothes during the day, just because you encounter a new moment. So when you left home in a particular outfit, you have picked your ‘identity display’ for that day. Nevertheless, how one will judge you and ‘label’ you, may differ depending on the situation. However, there will always be the dimension of ‘sharedness’, since an individual is the effect of unique aggregates of experiences in social groups (Blommaert, 2017a).
That is why I performed a small experiment by wearing this skirt at different places and different occasions and I found, among other things, a difference between the ways men and women react to it. Women ‘love’ the skirt and even unknown women asked me where I bought it, because they want to own it too.
While men, on the other hand, continued to make comments with a sexual undertone. Of course, I cannot claim much based on this experiment, since classifying something as a compliment or insult may also be biased by your own norms. However, it seems that there are different frames, which are shared by different groups in different settings (women ‘understand’ the skirt as I intended it, while men do not). Additionally, we should not generalize because there were also a lot of men who did comment my skirt.
Clothing as identity work
Since I wear skirts all the time without getting these kinds of comments –the only difference between this skirt and the others is that this one has a leopard print– it appears that the print of the skirt functions as an emblematic feature that directly points to a specific group in society and triggers an entire set associations. There seems to be a shared frame and this frame contains things that by association belong together (Blommaert, 2005).
This ‘linking process’ or ‘framing’ appears to operate as follows: 'She wears leopard print while she knows that this has a trashy connotation. Then she must be trashy, cheap, a tramp, loose etcetera'. Additionally, there seems to be a link between skirts and women, however, this is also a norm. Women should not be forced into skirts and men should not be excluded from wearing skirts. That is why I really enjoyed the picture of five men (Figure 2) who believe that Rokjesdag should not be for women only.
From the leopard print skirt to discrimination
Nevertheless, after a few days facing lots of repulsive remarks, I had an epiphany. At least I get to choose if and when I want to wear this skirt, which possibly has ‘trashy’ connotation; at least I have other repertoires (other clothes), but what if you cannot influence your appearance and receive an unwanted identity? What if you get discriminated because of your looks? What if, for example, your skin color, religion, way of speaking, or gender differentiates and excludes you or makes you feel bad about yourself?
I guess one might search for places in society where this doesn’t result in negative associations towards your ‘identity’; places where one is included and appreciated instead of excluded. However, and I may be cutting corners with this conclusion, but isn’t this one of the reasons that people live in separate enclaves? I strongly believe that we should try to avoid this from happening.
Bakhtin, M. M. 1981). The Dialogic Imagination (ed. Michael Holquist). Austin: University of Texas Press
Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blommaert, J. (2017a). Durkheim and the Internet: On sociolinguistics and the sociological imagination. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies.
Blommaert, J. (2017b). Ludic membership and orthopractic mobilization: On slacktivism and all that. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies.
Cicourel, A. (1973). Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interaction. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.
Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et Punir. Paris: Gallimard.