“Dan, it’s fashion show time.”

“What for this time?”

“Our work gala. Black tie optional. Men will be in tuxedos or suits and ties. They want us all to dress up.”

“Okay, let’s see it.”

I proceeded to try on three different black dresses of differing lengths and differing necklines, looking in the mirror each time to see how I feel, then giving a half-hearted spin in front of Dan on the couch. I put my sweatpants and hoodie back on to discuss my options. We decided on the fanciest of the dresses, which also had the best coverage. I think it was the most appropriate choice for the occasion, but I still had odd comments made to me throughout the evening by male attendees:

“Have you eaten today? Seriously, who are you trying to impress?”

“Excuse me sweetheart, is your pink tulle supposed to be showing?”

“Miss, are you here alone tonight? Do you need a date?”

womans leg with the words matronly, prudish, old fashioned, proper, flirty, cheeky, provocative, asking for it, slut and whore written in ascending order up her leg

I don’t love that I own three black dresses. I don’t love that it seems to matter, really matter, what I wear. But it does matter, and the stakes are high. I am constantly trying to assess my changing context and make fashion choices that will help me be taken seriously, be not objectified and not stand out. It’s hard to accomplish all of this at once. The fashion show before this one, for example, was for a talk I am giving that will be taped and sent out over the internet. The less I know about who will be watching, the harder it is to feel in control of the image I am portraying so that my outfit can get out of the way and my words can do the talking. When I read this blog post on Sociological Images, I found that it perfectly articulated why a few years ago I stopped feeling silly about doing pre-event fashion shows with Dan. For women, it’s a game of inches with inconsistent rules and cruel consequences.