Let me preface this by saying this has been an extraordinarily difficult post to write. The terror is completely out of proportion to the actual magnitude of the topic; and that tells me there's something deep and significant here, and that it is manifestly important to talk about despite any deep-seated terror over what light it casts me in.
See, here's the problem. I'm going to WorldCon this year, and I am freaking right the hell out about what to wear.
This may strike you as a petty, shallow kind of thing to be wasting my precious mental energies upon. Frankly I agree with that. I'd rather be channeling all of this mind-juice into plotting and writing, or at least hustling up a project for the fall. But... it's killer important.
Fashion is a language -- a way of telling other people what kind of person you are. Not everybody is fluent at speaking that language, but saying the wrong thing can nonetheless have consequences. (Don't believe me? Show up to your next job interview in a swimsuit, or an elephant costume.)
I'm not going to WorldCon just to make friends and have a good time (though that is of course an awesome side effect I'm looking forward to a lot.) I'm trying to map out the lay of the land in professional SF/F publishing, and, you know, maybe lay the foundations for a career in writing genre my own self. If I strike the wrong tone to the wrong person, if I wear something that subtly signals that I just don't belong to the varied tribes of fandom, that could have long-term negative ramifications for my career.
So what to wear? This is what I'd wear to an ordinary conference. Because I've been to conferences before, of course. Tons! I've done so much speaking in the last few years! I'm an old hand! Naturally I've developed a general look I tend to stick to.
The message I'm trying to send at most conferences is "creative professional." I want to seem competent, authoritative, creative, reliable, and a little fun or quirky (but not too much.)
Clothes: Dark boot-cut jeans and a dressy top. (Sometimes a dress, but for the purposes of this post let's not get into that right now.) Another time of year (or if the A/C were on) I'd add a jacket.
Accessories: Wedding and engagement rings; a statement necklace (or sometimes a scarf.) Another day I might wear bracelets.
Shoes: Closed-toe oxblood t-straps with a stacked wooden heel.
Makeup: Dramatic eye make-up (black liquid eyeliner winged out at the corners), but everything else tending toward fresh and natural.
Hair: Down, loose and curly.
This outfit is walking a lot of lines. Attractive and feminine... but not too much. Not too businesslike, not too casual. Put together but not "trying too hard."
This outfit is all wrong for WorldCon.
WorldCon is primarily a fan event and not a professional networking event -- and I'm going as a fan and not as a part of programming, so bringing the polished-professional look would be presumptuous and out of place. It's weirdly too formal, like showing up in a tux to the company barbeque.
There's a cultural factor at play, too. This outfit was developed for fitting in among marketing and entertainment media professionals and making them feel like I am one of them. But when it comes to geek fandom, there's nothing here that shows that I belong.
And yeah, that opens me up to accusations of being a fake geek girl who doesn't belong at a place like WorldCon. But... what you wear is important even interacting with people who aren't territorial and kinda sexist. Quietly signaling with clothes that you're the same kind of person is important to making people feel comfortable with you. And if people don't feel comfortable with you, even if they can't quite pin down why, it's going to be a lot harder to make friends.
I know how to do "geek girl," of course. Or at least the way I used to do it. Here the look we're after is a studied rejection of whatever is on-trend in the mainstream, with a few subtle markers of geek pride worked in to taste.
Clothes: Straight-leg jeans and a boy-cut t-shirt showing affiliation with a geek-credible entity, be it a tech preference, a fandom you belong to, or maybe a geek-culture inside joke.
Accessories: Wedding ring and pewter earrings in the shape of battle axes with tiny red stones set in them. (No jewelry is also acceptable.)
Shoes: Purple Chucks. (Not yet adequately scuffed up. They're new, so sue me.)
Makeup: Minimal to none.
Hair: A loose pony-tail. Low upkeep, eh.
So with this outfit I'd fit into WorldCon just fine. In fact, I speculate I'd fit in so well I'd be nearly invisible -- perfect camouflage. This is about how I dressed when I was 19, though at the time I'd have worn the t-shirts a couple of sizes too big.
This outfit is very nearly gender-neutral, and would probably stave off a lot of the fake-geek-girl stuff by that virtue alone. Androgyny is a kind of defense. And if I may be so bold: this outfit is not particularly flattering on me; it seems to me being too pretty is one of the things that can bring on that fake-geek-girl accusation.
I expect there will be tons of women (and men!) at WorldCon rocking variations on exactly this.
There are other more feminine geek-acceptable looks out there; I'm not quite prepared to write a dissertation on geek subculture fashion -- in fact I'd be poorly positioned to do so -- but in general you're looking at longer skirts in lightweight fabrics, lots of patterns, motifs reminiscent of New Age or inspired by traditional Indian or Chinese attire, or perhaps references to period attire, like lacing or exposed corsetry.
Of course there's outright cosplay, too, which is another topic entirely.
But the problem in my case is: This isn't really who I am now, and it hasn't been in fifteen years or more.
So why not just... be myself?!
Here's an outfit I'd wear on a weekend, to meet a friend for coffee, etc. This is me in my natural habitat, so to speak.
Clothes: A short polka-dot chambray dress buttoned up the front and black stretch leggings.
Accessories: None but my wedding ring. Another day I might wear chunky earrings.
Shoes: Tall wedge sandals.
Makeup: Dramatic! Black liquid eyeliner winged out and blazing red lipstick.
Hair: Twisted up and clipped on each side Swedish-style.
Part of my journey into feminism has included an outright embracing of the extremely feminine. Where once I shied away from feminine gender markers like pink or ruffles or lace, now I've turned into a regular girly girl.
I love this outfit. Probably you can tell this from the expression on my face.
The problem with this outfit is that it is too much. Too feminine, too bold, too short, too slutty, too too too.
Take that bright red lipstick as an example. I love it; it makes me feel powerful and brave and in control of my destiny. I have at least half a dozen equally bright lipsticks. But I've worn a shocking crimson lip color even to an event like SXSW and noticed a subtle difference in how people treat me -- not making eye contact in the halls and sidewalks where they did before, not making small talk in lines. And that's among a group where saying someone pays attention to fashion isn't kind of an insult... in the way that it sort of is in geek spaces.
So I can be myself, sure. In a perfect world I would be myself and it wouldn't matter, because we're all too evolved to judge someone based on what they wear.
But we're all still monkeys. Of course we're going to judge people on what they wear. So the question is: how to balance what makes me feel good against what will be context-appropriate and send signals that will make people feel like I'm one of them?
This isn't just an issue that affects women, of course. Men, too, can suffer a sartorial misfire. A gentleman who wears sweats and a football jersey to WorldCon... also might not be immediately welcomed with loving kindness. A gentleman in a power suit. Worse: the guy who shows up in his hip-hop finest, or a sharp sherwani. Geek spaces are male-dominated. But they're even more white-dominated.
And the worst part of all of this is that even acknowledging that this is something I'm concerned about, something I'm wasting a lot of my time thinking about enough to write this damn essay, opens me up to criticism. I've already shown myself to be the wrong kind of girl, the kind who thinks fashion is something worth thinking about. Not a geek at all.
And this is one of the ugly double-binds of patriarchy. A woman is supposed to be pretty, because there's no value to an ugly woman... but not too pretty because then she's at best shallow and brainless, and at worst a whore. You can't pay attention to fashion or vanity because the only kind of person who does is not a person worth knowing. But you can't not pay attention, either.
It sucks and it's not fair and I've written over 1500 words about what to freaking wear to a conference. And at the end of the day it just shouldn't matter.
...But it does.