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?