Anne Hathaway and the Different Dress Complex

Last Friday I was in deep conflict.

I needed a cocktail outfit for a fancy fundraising event. Now don’t get me wrong—I am not lacking in the formal-wear department (I have several dresses and a simply smashing tuxedo!). I wanted to wear my tux to this event, except that I had already worn my tux a few weeks ago to a big dance, and even though I love wearing men’s formal-wear, I still have what I like to call the “different dress complex.” This means I feel inexplicably compelled to NOT wear the same outfit twice in a row. Sound familiar?

This can’t just be psychological, though. It definitely has cultural ties. Our society does not expect men to be any more creative about their formal wear than simply choosing a different color tie.

That doesn’t mean men can’t or don’t get creative about what kind of suit they wear, but it is a choice they are left with. This phenomenon is evident in our expectations of celebrities and how we judge them: most male celebrities don’t have to worry about the paparazzi recognizing a repeated outfit from the last big movie premiere, because a tux is a tux is a tux.

Women, on the other hand, are watched constantly and are under enormous pressure to switch things up.

The perfect example of this is Anne Hathaway’s role as co-host at the 2010 Academy Awards. During her stage time as hostess, she wore a total of eight outfits, seven of them elaborate evening gowns and one a stylish tux with a feminine touch. She quite literally changed outfits every time she left the stage. Her co-host, James Franco, also changed tuxes a couple times (switching from a tux with a wingtip collar and bow tie to one with a  lay-down collar and necktie) but nobody really noticed the difference until he walked out on stage in a huge pink dress.


It’s a struggle to avoid going into a rant about the infuriating double standard in this situation (notice that cross-dressing is a joke on Franco but sexy and fashionable on Hathaway), but my point is that people don’t find these costume changes strange. Journalists and bloggers comment on the astonishing array of outfits, but not in the context of gender differences. All reports focus on how impressive it was, how amazing or terrible the dresses were, or how beautiful she looked in them.

Looking back, the Academy Awards has a relatively short history of female hosts.  The first woman to ever host the Oscars alone was Whoopi Goldberg, and she too was famous for costume changes, but they were thematically appropriate—costumes from the movies she was introducing that year. Ellen DeGeneres, the only other solo female host the Oscars have seen, also changed outfits a few times, except that she chose to wear suits. She also commanded the stage in such a way that her outfits were given little to no notice.

Anne Hathaway’s costume changes felt forced and scripted, removing most of her agency as a female host. Rather than explaining and motivating her performance, as Whoopi’s costumes did, or empowering her, as Ellen’s did, they took away from her words and actions, serving as her primary contribution as host and making her someone to look at instead of listen to, which is a great shame.

This is an example of how the different dress complex can manifest negatively: the variety of clothing distracted from the person wearing it.

This instinct for variety in clothing manifests in our expectations of celebrities, but it is very common for all women. Even in high school settings it is quite normal for boys to wear the same shirt three times a week while girls panic about never wearing the same outfit twice.

Isn’t it interesting that the two female Oscar  hosts whose costume changes contributed rather than detracted from their performance are women famous for their independence, strength of character, and somewhat masculine agency? Because they are women they did face the pressure of varying appearance, but rather than submitting to it, they reclaimed it and took control of their presentation.

Anne Hathaway, who is viewed as more traditionally feminine, was unfortunately unable to achieve this balance.

This dynamic plays into gender non-conforming formal-wear preferences in an interesting way. There is a connection in our minds between dresses and variety, but there is no such connection for tuxedos, because that is something men wear. Nevertheless, many lesbians and other gender non-conforming women do choose to be more stylish and creative with their formal wear, whether it be mixing up colors and patterns or wearing a different combination of pieces.

It never occurred to my girlfriend that I would hesitate to wear my tux a second time, because it’s a tux. The fact that I wear suits instead of dresses erased that variety instinct in her mind. But my instinct as a woman prevailed over my instinct as a wearer of suits, and I wanted to create variety, even with my tuxedo pieces. I found it interesting to discover this about myself, because it is not something I ever considered consciously as being a culturally influenced decision, but it must be.

In the end, I wore my tux, but with a different color shirt, tie, and vest. It worked out great and I was able to present a balance between the male and female aspects of my gender identity!

I would love to hear other stories about your formal wear and the effect the different dress complex has on your lives! Do you think  this instinct for variety even in gender non-conforming women is evidence of a purely psychological instinct or is it a completely social construct?


5 responses to “Anne Hathaway and the Different Dress Complex

  1. And yet James Franco was still the worst speaker as a host. Anne Hathaway, regardless of what her change of outfits indicates about her authority on stage, was still the better host in that she spoke better and had a cheerful disposition. James Franco in drag was the highlight of his being a host for the Oscars; before that, he was dull and boring and wasn’t speaking very well, and once he was out of the dress, he went back to being dull and boring. Anne Hathaway should have been a host all on her own, and the fact that they gave her a co-host for what seems to be because she “needed” a co-host tells a lot more about gender than the changing of outfits.

    The double-standard is there and deserves to be addressed, but I think Anne Hathaway at the Oscars is more of an example of how a person can still do things that are expected of one’s gender and still be better than their male counterpart.

    • Yes. Anne Hathaway gave a strong performance considering that both James Franco and her costume changes were holding her back, but most people agree that it was a weak year for hosting. I was mad the whole time, because it felt like she was trying too hard to make Franco look funny and not steal the show instead of just picking up the slack and making it her own. She definitely should have done it single-handedly. She would have had enough energy if Franco hadn’t sucked it up. As Darren Franich said on, “it was sort of like watching a supernova explode next to a black hole.” He’s quite frankly (pardon the pun) not as funny as she is. Nevertheless, I was trying to focus on the dynamic of the outfits. I could spend a few more posts discussing Hathaway and Franco’s sexist dynamic, but I have to make hard choices! 🙂

  2. I don’t actually think the different dress complex is a social construct based in gender. It is based in people’s desire for variety and the implications with that-reflections of cleanliness and wealth. But those are topics for another day.

    Look at how people wear jeans. If they are basic blue jeans, I don’t know a single person who hesitates to wear the same pair two or three times in a week. The hesitation comes when the person starts to wonder if someone will notice they wore the same pair of red jeans two days in a row.

    This then translates to tuxedos and other men’s formal-wear in general. It is not that no one cares whether a guy wears different clothing or not; it is that their clothing is less noticeably different. Had James Franco changed the color of one or two of his outfits, he would have received more attention on that front. The reason men feel the need to change up their ties is because they are what stands out next to the dark suits they always wear them with.

    Dresses have a lot of variety and that is why more attention is focused on them to change. Menswear, in general, has much less that is “normal” and the result of that is less attention paid.

    • I definitely see your point. Variety in a certain sense is a unisex goal in terms of owning and wearing lots of clothing (wealth and cleanliness factors noted). However, I think it says something about gender constructs that men’s formal clothing is “less noticeably different” as you put it. It is normal for wealthy men to own more than one black suit, however wealthy women would probably not own more than one of the same red dress, and if they did, they would never wear them consecutively, whereas a man would definitely have that option. It is true that the clothing designated for each gender is what determines need for variety and our reactions and expectations, but it is also true that the gender constructs determine the clothing designated for each gender.

  3. There’s a specific implication in this sort of discussion which separates women’s focus on looks from their focus on actions. How do the likes of James Franco manage to put their looks to their advantage without being dismissed as less powerful, in a way that many women and a few younger men either fail to achieve or risk being misinterpreted?

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