A tuxedo on a woman: What it says and what it means

Equal rights activist Constance McMillen speaks after accepting a Woman of the Year award from actress Kelly Osbourne, left, at the 20th annual Glamour Magazine Women of the Year award ceremony in New York City.
Equal rights activist Constance McMillen speaks after accepting a Woman of the Year award from actress Kelly Osbourne, left, at the 20th annual Glamour Magazine Women of the Year award ceremony in New York City. (Lucas Jackson - Reuters)

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

NEW YORK

Constance McMillen finally got to wear a tuxedo to the ball. It wasn't her high school prom in Fulton, Miss., as she'd originally hoped. No, she had been banned from wearing a suit to that. Instead, McMillen, 18, wore a custom-made Isaac Mizrahi tuxedo to Carnegie Hall, where she was honored at Glamour magazine's 20th Women of the Year awards.

Of all the accomplished and stylish women applauded Monday night at the annual girl power celebration, none more aptly illustrated the importance fashion plays in defining who we are to the passing stranger, the next-door neighbor and even our closest friends. The simple act of wearing a tuxedo -- or at least wanting to -- was a statement of self-confidence and self-acceptance. And her school district's rush to prohibit such a display speaks to the reality that fashion can provoke anxiety, fear and hate.

McMillen, who is gay, rose to national prominence earlier this year when she wanted to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend. The two young women planned to wear tuxedos. The Itawamba County School District forbade them to come as a couple and decried their fashion choice.

Undaunted, McMillen contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. The Itawamba Agricultural High School, feeling the heat of a lawsuit, canceled the prom. As one might imagine, this did not go over well with her classmates. This is the age, after all, when something as minor as wearing the wrong style sneakers can leave a kid open to marauding bands of hormonal teenagers. McMillen was pegged a prom killer and promptly bullied.

But the plus-size brunette with the gentle Southern accent stuck to her guns, and this fall, the school district finally settled, which included giving her some $30,000, plus legal fees.

The sticking point in all of this was that McMillen wasn't merely planning to show up at a party with a girl as her date, she was going to do so dressed in a manner that directly defied cultural definitions of gender roles, femininity and sexuality.

No matter how often we attempt to deny the notion that clothing exerts such outsize influence over how we define one another, episodes like the one is Mississippi serve as a reminder that we still use clothes as a way to signal to people how they should react to us.

'Le smoking' revolution

The tuxedo isn't just a woman's sophisticated alternative to an evening gown. Indeed, when it was first offered up on the catwalks in the 1970s by Yves Saint Laurent, who referred to it as "le smoking," it was a provocation. The sleek pantsuit allowed a woman to dabble in a man's world and leave her frothy universe behind. In taking on his evening uniform, she assumed his mantle of power and his cloak of charisma. In some ways, she was teasing him, displacing him and making him moot.

Often, when "le smoking" was photographed in fashion magazines -- most famously by Helmut Newton -- it was on a woman with an especially haughty demeanor. Perhaps she was literally smoking. She was almost always glaring. "Le smoking" represented a terrifying and tantalizing combination: a woman's emotional power and a man's physical strength.

Fashion is an essential player in the social pact. Just let a man swagger into a room wearing a skirt. Or have him saunter into a business meeting dressed in a gray flannel suit and a pair of high heels. What would we think? Would we titter nervously? Stare? Or self-consciously pretend not to notice because that is the politically correct and cosmopolitan thing to do? It doesn't matter that historically men wore high heels -- and all manner of plumage. And, of course, in some cultures, it's common for men to wear skirts -- they simply refer to them as sarongs and kilts.

In our small corner of the world, each gender is assigned particular pieces in the fashion closet. (She gets frilly blouses; he gets wingtip loafers.) And while there can be vast variations on certain themes, the rules mostly are set. A host of stereotypes that connect gender to attire then proceed to help us make sense of the world. They provide a shorthand for understanding relationships and hierarchies.

Who wears the pants in your house? Woe to the emasculated man who has to admit that his wife does.

A particularly crass way of referring to a woman in corporate life is to reduce her to an inanimate object: a skirt. Where are the skirts? It's a favorite insult dished out by the abrasive director Billy Walsh on the HBO boy-power series "Entourage." "Hey, skirt," he'd say to the take-no-prisoners publicist played by Debi Mazar.

Men's apparel owns the language of power and authority. The clothes are in service to the man. They are tailored to him -- designed to make him look good and feel comfortable. Men's suits are stitched to be easily altered. Pants are sold unhemmed. The clothes are not finished until the gentleman says they are. Menswear aims to make men feel like they are the masters of their destiny.

Womenswear all too often is constructed to make women feel manipulated, shamed or unworthy. Comfort? Often it's an afterthought. Something as simple as a pair of pants, hemmed to a particular length, that do not fit, whisper to a woman: You are the wrong size for this perfect pair of trousers. You have failed. Women, in a fit of insecurity and self-flagellation, all too often believe they have to alter themselves -- fix themselves -- to fit the clothes.

A men's suit

Forty years after Saint Laurent introduced "le smoking," a woman can wear a menswear-style blazer and have it be perceived as merely a fashion statement. The blazer might be tweed, but as long as it follows her curves and emphasizes sex over swagger, it is part of the feminine vocabulary.

But if she wears a blazer purchased from the men's department, the cut is altogether different, and so is the message. She has chosen a garment styled to emphasize strong shoulders and a sturdy chest, not one meant to accentuate an hourglass shape. She isn't making an aesthetic statement as much as she is commenting on something far more fundamental: what it means to be a woman -- or for that matter, a man.

It was no small thing that McMillen wanted to wear a tuxedo to the prom. She did not want to go as the sweet girl with a quiet smile. She wanted to arrive cloaked in confidence -- wearing a garment that declared her the master of her destiny.

When she walked on stage Monday night at Carnegie Hall to accept her award -- and offered a shout-out of thanks to both God and family -- she was wearing a black tuxedo with a white waistcoat, black flats and a white boutonniere. The suit didn't have any boldly feminine flourishes. It wasn't a "take" on a tuxedo. It was the real deal.

McMillen's stylish turn forced a reassessment of what masculine and feminine are supposed to look like. And why, after all, do we need such unforgiving definitions of each?

Clothes help us categorize people, and that tidy ordering helps us to communicate easily and without so much static. But when someone challenges those assumptions, the wise and humane course of action is to declare the fashion rules wrong -- rather than the person who has reason to break them.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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