Richard Stainthorp's wire sculpture (hat tip to Rabih Alameddine) makes the pain of very high heels visceral: Ouch!
High heels are almost compulsory in fashion photographs, even so high heels that nobody could run in them should a saber-tooth tiger attack. The reason is that they make women's legs look longer and tilt their butts to an inviting angle (for saber-tooth tigers?).
Many items of clothing which are intended to signal female gender hurt*. Think of girdles which American women wore until fairly recently, think of Victorian corsets, think of those high-heeled shoes, think of dresses as tight as fish skin or belts pulled so small that the stomach commits suicide. All those are intended to showcase female beauty.
From the other end, modesty clothes (to hide female beauty), long dresses, niqabs or face veils, abayas or long cloaks, hurt in a different way. Abayas are stifling in hot climates, their bagginess means that they can catch on things which can result in accidents, and burqas, say, make women likely to stumble because they restrict vision . Hearing is harder through several layers of fabric, too. And in the colonial America women's long dresses could catch fire in the kitchens.
What both the "revealing" and the "covering" female-coded clothing share is that they make it much harder for someone to be physically active. A woman or a girl cannot run in them, she cannot play soccer in them, she cannot climb a tree in them. Even knee-length dresses make that tree climbing impossible, if anyone can look up that dress.
Is it female passivity that these gender-coded clothes are intended to promote**?
Never mind. No laws currently require American women and girls to wear girdles or high-heeled shoes or abayas, and it can be fun to take a little bit of pain when dressing up for a wild party.
But not all women on this earth are in an equally free position when it comes to their clothing. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have laws which stipulate that all women inside their country's borders must wear the government's approved version of Islamic dress, including women who are not Muslims.
And then there's this recent British case:
A receptionist claims she was sent home from work at a corporate finance company after refusing to wear high heels.Thorp found out that nothing in the British laws stops firms from requiring that their female workers wear high heels***. I wonder if a British firm could demand that its male workers wear, say, codpieces? They don't seem to have the health risks that high heels do, after all. And I think they would look great!
Nicola Thorp, 27, from Hackney in east London, arrived on her first day at PwC in December in flat shoes but says she was told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.
Thorp, who was employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm Portico, said she was laughed at when she said the demand was discriminatory and sent home without pay after refusing to go out and buy a pair of heels.
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* This tends not to be the case for clothing intended to show that someone is male, though men's business uniform (suit, tie, clunky dark shoes etc.) might be more restricting today than the equivalent women's business uniform (unless high heels are required).
That is an exception to the rule. In my opinion the reason is that the male business suit has not changed for roughly a century. When it was first created it was considerably more comfortable than female clothing of the era. But in the West women's clothes have changed a lot during those hundred years, while men's business suits have not.
** And if so, was it always the case? In the medieval era European women and men dressed more alike than they did for several centuries afterwards, with both sexes wearing tunic-type outfits. Women's tunics were longer than men's tunics, but close enough in style so that medieval wills sometimes leave clothing to individuals who are not the same sex as the person who made the will. I believe that it was the available technology and the great expense of cloth that caused this similarity. Gender was signaled by head-dresses and jewelry, not by most clothing.
It is only recently that the everyday clothing of the sexes has once again become pretty similar.
*** She launched a petition to change this.