sizing up

Let’s Get Real About the Ways Women Use Style to Compete With One Another

Photo: Billy Farrell/ NYC

“Growing up I didn’t have a lot of access to fashion,” Rihanna told the crowd at the CFDAs last night during her acceptance speech for the Fashion Icon Award. “But as far as I could remember, fashion has always been my defense mechanism. Even as a child I remember thinking, She can beat me, but she cannot beat my outfit.”

The shocking honesty of that admission, from someone who, by public estimation at least, hasn’t had a moment of fashion insecurity in her life, was impossible to ignore. It’s hard to imagine Rihanna standing in front of the mirror, piles of rejects at her feet, just trying to get out of the house in something that works. Or worrying about how she stacks up against someone else. And yet she confessed that, like so many of the rest of us, she uses fashion as something more than a tool for self-expression: She uses it as a weapon, as a means of self-defense, as a tool for social jockeying.

Competitive dressing — the act of sizing up other people around you and placing yourself in an imaginary hierarchy based on what you’re wearing — is, whether or not we’re able to admit it, a real thing. And, Rihanna’s use of the female pronoun is notable here: Women compare themselves to each other constantly in different arenas, and style is a big one. What Rihanna touches upon is the unfortunate reality that women are not only dressing for one another, but also to win some subtle war against each other. The audience cheered her, full of recognition for her statement. After all, it was a roomful of fashion elites — some of the most stylish men and women in the world, and certainly a crowd that believes that fashion is a way to express dominance. It wasn’t clear if they fully understood the implications of what she was saying, or if they just enjoyed having someone else admit something they’d never said out loud.

Any woman who works in fashion, and likely many who don’t, have probably experienced this in some form or another. It may not be in an obvious way, such as running mental tallies of what brands someone else is wearing, how much money they’ve spent, or how in-season they look. No, it’s usually something much more diffuse and innate than that: noticing how good another woman looks in her clothes; how confidently she carries herself across a room. How she styled something as simple as a pair of white jeans in a creative way to reveal a sense of adventure; how she uses style to flick at a larger sense of nonconformity. Either way, we are always constantly measuring up where we stand in relation to other women. Sad, but true.

Rihanna’s unfiltered statement, while slightly alarming, called attention to a kind of maneuvering that is ungraceful to discuss. But it was simultaneously refreshing — because it’s true and no one ever says it. She revealed that, for all her self-perceived deficiencies and imperfections, she makes fashion one of the key elements she uses to get ahead. She uses it to help shape her identity; to swing for the fences and surpass them —  one sheer, diamond-covered slip-dress at a time.

Let’s Get Real About Using Style As a Power Play