Clothes that Shout Back

We’ve all heard of catcalling. The inexplicable phenomenon of men yelling sexual obscenities at women in the street, and calling it a compliment.

These men seem to think that what women want most is to be attractive. When they yell ‘nice arse’ at the object of their affections, they think they are improving her day. In their minds she leaves smiling, knowing that her new pants are doing the trick.

But in reality, women are not constantly looking for validation. They are wearing those new pants because they feel good in them, or because they are going to a party tonight, or whatever.

It’s not often that a women steps outside with the desperate hope that a stranger will reduce her to her appearance, for the fifth time that week (or day, depending on where you live).

But what about the flipside? What if you delibrately choose to dress in a way that men don’t find attractive? If men are just trying to compliment women, then surely ‘unattractive’ women get to walk the streets in peace.

Wellington fashion designer Tess Norquay created a collection based around this very idea.

Tess has always had eccentric fashion sense, and over the years has collected a great deal of ‘feedback’ from men who don’t find her style appealing.

The stories range from absurd, to well, pathetic really.

Once a group of guys in a car drove alongside her, yelling that she was ‘an ugly slut.’ Then apparently not satisfied with the first performance they drove around the block to yell again.

Another time, in a pet shop, Tess stopped to pat a dog, complimenting the owner on how beautiful it was. The middle aged man yelled back ‘I wish I could say the same for you! What are you wearing?!’

Early design for the Dog incident.

This is because the purpose of catcalling isn’t to compliment women. It comes from the systemic belief that women dress and put on makeup for men, rather than themselves.

A women will be catcalled whether or not she is seen to be attractive. When a man calls out ‘Hey! You (don’t) turn me on!’ there is an assumption that the women values this opinion, and will adjust her appearance accordingly.

This attitude is obviously sexist. You don’t see women yelling, ‘nice bucket-hat you ugly bitch’ at men in the streets and going home to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

“I sometimes see my clothing as a small, insignificant attempt to opt out of the male gaze, and the anger this miniscule piece of activism has caused has been, honestly, astonishing.”

This gave her the idea for a collection titled “author unknown”, a series of child like designs with misogynist commentary embroidered into the fabric.

Tess Norquay’s collection, ‘Author Unknown’

Tess was interested in the ways women’s identities are moulded by society. Just as women are objectified for their sexual appeal, Tess was objectified due to her unusual appearance. She likens this objectification to the way academics interact with a piece of media.

‘ I realized my identity- at least, my identity as dictated by physical appearance, is not solely mine. It is shaped in parts by my intention and what I physically project, but also how it is percieved by those who consume it.’

Women’s appearances are rotinuely treated with scrunity. Like an art critic in a gallery, people feel comfortable reviewing and critiquing women’s bodies. Women are not art, and yet these comments are supposed to be treated with genuine weight.

This gave Tess the idea to accompany the embroided comments with APA referencing. For example ‘you’re an ugly cunt’ is referenced (2013, personal communication, unknown author). This disjunction draws attention to the destructive ways sexist opinions are treated like fact in our society.

The project is a subversive take on the idea of affirming a patriarchal oppressor. He has been made important, because his comments are given pride of place on the clothes. But conversely, he has been forced into participating in the very display that so disgusted him in the first place. The clothing is infantile, bulbous and colourful and not attractive in a typical sense.

Tess likes the thought of the contributors finding the collection more offensive than the things they originally said to her.

“I wanted to poke fun at all of the comments I received on the street, online, almost anywhere. Believe me, I have never once gone home and wept because a grown man in a shiny, polyester suit called me an ugly bitch. I imagine him going home to his wife and two point five children and crying himself to sleep, because he “saw a girl wearing more than two colours today! And she wasn’t very polite to me when I called her vermin! Even though I am an important man and I deserve respect, even though I haven’t extended the same courtesy to her!””
Do you know you’re vermin?

Tess believes it is important to critique the parts of society that we aren’t happy with.

We cannot talk about a post-feminist society when women are routinely being objectified, shamed and harrassed for what they choose to wear. It’s a mistake to sit around, pat ourselves on the back, and accept the world the way it is.

‘Remaining stagnant, I think, is the biggest killer of wellbeing.’
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