How going to a women’s college changed how I dress
“Do I dress androgynously?”
My friend recently asked me this as we walked to class at Smith College, the women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. I hesitated before opening my mouth, unsure how to address her question.
“Do you want to dress androgynously?” I eventually asked in return. And I meant it: I really was asking if she viewed dressing in an agendered style as a good thing. It turned out that she did.
Only two percent of American college students go to historically women’s colleges — like Smith, Wellesley, Barnard, Mount Holyoke, and Bryn Mawr, to name a few prominent ones — and I have observed a similarly unique culture on these campuses. Women’s college students tend to have a noticeable lack of self-consciousness. These campuses are places of empowerment, where one’s gender will never hold anyone back from an opportunity. They are also environments that encourage their students to have strong opinions on social and political issues.
And then there’s the way many students at women’s colleges dress. Women are generally taught to dress a certain way: to wear clothes that fit so as to no look too “drab” but not clothes that are too tight or revealing lest women attract unwanted attention from men’s wandering hands.
Many women at women’s colleges dress in a way that transcends gender, in ways that do not align with societal expectations of how women are supposed to look. Our individual styles go beyond gendered expectations. Smith students don’t generally judge each other’s clothing based on how feminine our aesthetics are, but rather on how they reflect our personalities and sense of comfort. Without any male presence to perform for or a male gaze that judges whether or not we look “girly” enough, we can be ourselves.
Of course, people dress androgynously in environments other than women’s college campuses. In fact, it seems dressing androgynously is even trendy. But for me, it took coming to Smith’s campus to find that I am both confident that I identify as a woman and also certain that I like to wear silky blouses with taper-legged trousers and the men’s wingtip oxfords I bought at a thrift store.
At first, I struggled with this. When a friend casually labeled my love for elegant blazers as an “androgynous style” in my senior year of high school, I froze. I took that comment as an insult. Was she saying I wasn’t feminine? That I was somehow failing, even though dressing in a super-feminine style isn’t one I feel comfortable in?
But now I understand that gender doesn’t have to control my personal style and self-expression. And having realized this, it has become easier to understand how gender also doesn’t have to control how I exist in the world in any capacity.
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