Are you looking at me?
We enlightened women dress to please ourselves alone. Or do we? Brigit Grant considers the true motives behind our fashion choices
SO WHAT about her?” I ask my husband in a mezzo forte whisper. “Who?” he asks as the woman I’m referring to disappears around the corner. “The one in the brown boots that don’t go with her All Saints skirt. The Kangol hat and Burberry trench? Well, do you think she looked good?”
“Not really,” comes the laconic response, which is remarkable as he clearly didn’t see the woman I’m bleating on about. “No, she’s trying too hard,” I conclude and allow my husband to go back to reading the paper.
“What about her?” I yell seconds later and this time he picks up my lead. “Fabulous,” he says approvingly, as we both visually trail the tall blonde in leather trousers and army jacket up the street.
This is a typical example of our people-watching banter, though when I say “people”, I really mean “women”, because more often than not it’s the females who are the focus of my attention.
It’s not that I don’t notice men — I do — particularly those who at 600 metres have a passing resemblance to George Clooney. But even a greatlooking guy in a savvy suit will never be as fascinating to me as a woman. Not in a sexual way, but the reality is that women spend more time looking at other women than they do gawping at men. The primary reason for this is because females are keen to see what “the opposition” is wearing, how much cellulite they have, what their hair looks like and how thin they are.
Sure, men make comparisons in the locker room (even if they don’t discuss it) but I’ve yet to meet a woman who can resist commenting on a member of the sisterhood, though typically she will couch it in the following way: “She’s got such a lovely face. It’s a shame she hasn’t taken better care of herself.” Sound familiar?
Clocking other women’s shoes, height, imperfections, pedigree of handbag and plastic-surgery status is a common thought process, according to a survey by a swimwear company — interestingly, because women are at their most vulnerable in swimwear. It’s by the pool or on thebeachwhentheclawsreallycome out.
Some of you may be old enough to remember a show from the 1970s called The James Burke Special, similar to Tomorrow’s World but with experiments. Mr Burke made a marked impression on me when he decided to monitor how men and women look at each other. Men, as it turned out, see the whole woman — they don’t look for faults until later. Women, on the other hand, compartmentalise other females the second they lay eyes on them and zoom in on every flaw. It is because of James Burke that I have stayed away from communal dressing rooms and still refuse to try anything on in a cubicle without a mirror. If the only option is modelling the garment on the shop floor for the sales staff, I would sooner not. I don’t think I need their opinion or expression when trying on an illfitting frock in the wrong bra.
This leads to an even bigger question — do we gals dress for each other or for men? Personally, I’m caught between the opinions of Carine Roitfeld, former editor of French Vogue who says she dresses for herself and the view of designer Isabel Toledo who says: “Women dress for men. I do dress for myself because it makes me feel empowered, but I’m definitely looking for (my husband’s) expression, not his approval.”
There are occasions, notably date nights, when a woman dresses with a man in mind. I, for one, will always ask my husband’s opinion and then choose to ignore it or not, depending on the mood. But on a day-to-day basis, 42 per cent of women say they dress to impress their female pals in an attempt to a) win their approval, b) look like them and blend in or c) make a stand-alone statement so they get talked about.
You know which category you fall into, but chances are most of us will behave just like mynah birds and dress in the same feathers as our peers. Talking of feathers, dark or unflattering hair roots are one of the things women look out for most on other women, along with critiquing tans, physiques and spotting wedding rings. One in 10 women have admitted they always want to look better than the opposition, but a more optimistic 40 per cent say they don’t compare themselves to other women in a spiteful way. I think my women-watching banter tells you where I fit in to all of this. But you can always ask my husband for a second opinion.