Monday, 3 June 2013

Pretty on the outside: fuck elegance

I don't drink much these days, but when I do, I wake with The Hangover Of All Misery. It's not physical as much as it is emotional: I am utterly crippled by the knowledge of having done something awful. Sometimes there are specifics - public vomiting or bad kissing decisions have featured prominently over the years - but recently it's just a vague sense of having been a bit of a prick. Too loud, too argumentative, too sweary. Not elegant. Uncouth. Unladylike.

Like pretty much every other mid-20s woman who likes cats and hangs out in Stoke Newington, I am a little bit in love with Audrey Hepburn. The style, the poise, the elegance; the capri pants, the pearls, the delicate little cashmere sweaters. That late 50s/early 60s aesthetic is always at the back of my mind when I gaze at my teetering clothes rail, always what I'm aiming for on a charity shop budget.

But it was only last night, when I was bemoaning my lack of confidence in social situations (it is SO HARD TO BE ME) that I realised that elegance as a personality trait is not actually something I should be aspiring to.

Elegance seems best expressed by the oft-quoted Victorian aphorism about the proper place of children: seen but not heard. Elegant, and its sister ladylike, are about looking fabulous and shutting the fuck up. Which is exhausting.

The 90s moral panic about "ladettes" - god forbid we drink pints and have fun! - has, I think, infected my thinking on this. It's a deeply class-based prejudice, this - I don't actually know anything a bout the family backgrounds of Zoe Ball, Sara Cox, Denise Van Outen et al, but the Daily Mail's objection to them was "they're acting like our nightmare vision of working class women!" as much as it was "they're acting like MEN!".

What I'm worried about when I wake up wracked with shame is that I have acted like a Ladette, desperately needy to identify as One Of The Boys.

So what's the alternative? Smile sweetly and express the occasional opinion in a gentle, womanly tone, too demure to be heard over the Saturday night hubbub? I like getting into ridiculous arguments about sexism over several pints, setting the world to rights as we queue at the bar. I like using my chic little dress, with its teapot-print bodice, to mop up the lager I spilt gesticulating too enthusiastically. I like the contrast between ladylike dress and entirely unladylike behaviour, sitting cross-legged in a foofy 50s picnic frock while punctuating my points by stabbing the air with a cigarette.

It's all very well pointing out that subscribing to the aesthetics and hobbies of the 50s doesn't necessitate embracing their mores, but if I'm still aspiring to elegance, I've got a long way to go.

Hanging out with a gang of feminist types yesterday, I was struck by the brilliance with which the birthday girl synthesised the perceived incongruity of hairy armpits and elegant, feminine frock into something sublime. (Also: spending a hot sunny day with people who couldn't give the flimsiest fragment of a shit that you haven't shaved in a week is so restful.)

And with that, I am - no word of a lie - off to the pub.


  1. :D Genderfucking is where it's AT! I had the opposite thing for the longest time- I was never comfortable in dresses or anything even remotely femme until I shaved my hair off. ALL OF IT. bc I was the cutest little hegemonic beauty ideal before, blonde hair and everything, and i didn't want people to think i was /delicate/ and /feminine/ and /ladylike/. pretty soon realized that no one would think that, anyway, considering how i talk and act, but still- short hair has totally made me comfortable wearing skirts, which is AWESOME, because they are COMFY.

    yay not shaving club! :D

    1. I hadn't thought of it as genderfucking - I associate that more with mixing up gender signifiers in clothing - but yeah, that's a great way of looking at it. Thanks for sharing, fascinating stuff!

  2. Go you. ^_^

    It is not for the same reasons but I must express empathy for the guilt. I have accumulated massive guilt when drinking/hungover for a bunch of reasons that have been a stronger incentive to stop drinking (more than a tiny amount) than the fact my body seems to not be able to handle more than one beer or glass of wine these days.

    I hates it. Good luck with being your awesome self - no guilt. :D

    1. Aww, thanks! I'm pretty rubbish at drinking too, but I'm trying to be less of a hermit these days, so I'm trying to get better (and smash the guilt with my feminist hammer). xx

  3. If you feel you have the time and energy, I'd recommend you look into how people who identify as Femme describe their identities and politics. It's quite a diverse group, but looking to fat femmes or disabled femmes or hard femmes might be a starting point. There's a lot about excess, which I feel like you might identify with. A lot about railing against the cultural message that women shouldn't take up space or have opinions. There's an obvious link to riot grrl.
    This might help as a jumping off point, but I'd personally suggest tumblr and zines for more on how femme intersects with eg disability, and to see the massive range of ways Femme is interpreted.