During a recent morning constitutional, a particularly fit man glided quickly past me, his t-shirt tied to his waist bouncing up and down like a jersey cape. He had a beautiful, sculpted athlete’s body — he knew this, I noticed. I tried not to stare, but for the six seconds or so that he was in my eyesight, I did anyway. His shirt was off because it was hot outside; I was looking because this man was hot outside. There is a delicate balance between admiring a human form and harassing it.
I also wonder what power, if any, that I had as a woman, as I looked at this man? What was the social, political, sexual politics at play as I watched him move?
Summer means less or lighter clothing for many. However, the all-seasons consideration of why we are wearing, what, where and how we are wearing them, comes into play.
For example, unlike any other time of year, dressing for the corporate office takes on new levels of finessing with office dress codes when the temperature rises. A sweater may end up around our waist or shoulder only be to put on again in an overly air-conditioned office. As a woman, if your office commands you to wear stockings with skirts and dresses, no open-toed shoes, and the list goes on and on. What to wear in the summer can be a tricky balance to strike between comfort and conformity.
Women with Afro hair or naturally frizzy/kinky hair may opt for braids, headwraps, and other protective styles, if their business allows them to do so. The assault on natural hair and policing of women’s bodies is all too real. It took until February of 2019 for New York City to pass a law against discrimination based on natural hair of people of African descent.
Growing up and being subjected to unwanted verbal comments on my appearance of what I wore in the summer was especially impacted by the prospect of the male gaze. I couldn’t control if someone would look at me, but would play certain dressing games to avoid being catcalled — especially in those tween and early teen years as I was trying to establish a sense of self, place, and getting comfortable with my body. This process was not helped by being yelled at by grown men. I still cringe at the memories.
But summer is a great time for celebration of the sunny season and of self. Hopefully we live in a time where people understand that catcalling is sexual harassment and the knowledge that there are many reasons why all dress. While the desire to Attract may be one, it is only one in a long list. And Attract does not mean Attack with words, verbal abuse, or comments.
Here are seven major reasons why we dress, and thoughts on how they change during the summer:
Modesty: At the warmest of warmest points of the year, we still have to cover specific parts of our body. Women and femmes' breasts are generally not to be shown in public, breastfeeding aside. While men, like the runner I saw, can easily go most outdoor locations topless.
Protection: Human beings need to cover our skin. In the summer, we need to protect our skin from the sun, rain, wind, and water (depending on what summer fun we’re getting into). We counter this challenge with lotions, skin creams, and sunscreens. New technology fabrics also can weave sunscreen into the very fibers we wear on our bodies. Even some hair care products contain sunscreen now.
Identity: This can be in terms of job — so when you’re at Kennywood and you’re looking for someone to help you clean up the ketchup (Heinz) you just dropped in the path, you can easily spot someone in uniform. Identity could also mean the multiple personal identities we embrace throughout the week — the work, play, dressing up. Similar to challenges of office dressing during the summer, some uniforms don’t have summer variations. At best, you may end up with short sleeve polyester top, when a natural fabric is a better option all around, all year.
Status: A specific version of Identity, in a hierarchical system your status is often presented through a garment or something wearable. It may be a name-tag, pass that you may wear, bracelet, fabric, and cut of a suit or something that says crew, VIP, staff or backstage access.
Attraction: The spring and summer is a great time to get boo’d up. You’re on the go, people-watching and other outdoor activities, people often get dressed with the intention of attracting attention. Maybe it is the next someone: “Are they looking? I hope they're looking, not don’t turn around yet.” Or it could be the ex-someone, “I ain’t thinkin ‘bout you. But I know I look good, right?”
Adornment: Unlike possibly any other creature on earth, humans just cannot leave well enough and our bodies alone. We have to adorn: clothing, jewelry, tattoos, piercings. We just love to festoon our bodies. Maybe in the summer, we finally get to show off the tattoo we got over the winter that is healing or we get new one now.
Affirmation: This is connected to adornment, but with an even greater focus on the self. The sense of “I look good, I feel good.” It is a sense that I am dressing first and foremost for myself. Something that is very important to consider, especially in consideration with the Attraction factor. For a deeper look, revisit a City Paper column from last year, in which women and femmes expressed their motivation to dress first and foremost for themselves.
So, consider not only what you’re wearing but why — and in that vein, have fun with it, because summer does not last forever.