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Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault 

The things we wear are often weaponized against us in instances of sexual assault or harrasment- but what if we could weaponise fashion in our favour? There is nothing someone could wear that deservingly incites sexual assault, but maybe there is something we could wear that would protect us from it, either through prevention or self defence. 

It must be said, the following article is not insinuating it is the women’s responsibility to prevent sexual assault- our government and education system holds the primary responsibility to keep us safe, however I will personally not hold my breathe as these institutions continuously fail us.

The Need For Protection

When Sarah Everard was brutally murdered at the hands of somebody who’s job was to protect us, it ignited a movement across the nation which was way past due. She was sadly only one of a series of murders and crimes against women, with school teacher Sabina Nessa being murdered months before in a London park.

Violence against women has not just been normalised, but decriminalised, with London’s prosecution rate for domestic violence claims plumeting to the lowest figure in 3 years, and only 1 in 60 rape cases resulting in a charge or summons.

When our justice system does not serve us, it is no surprise that women have taken it upon themselves to protect or prevent assault. One way this is being done is through fashion items that multi-task for anti-assault purposes.

Why Men Attack

The quest to understand why people commit crimes will forever be ongoing, but I believe when it comes to crimes against women, the answer may lie in the misogynistic attitudes and beliefs ingrained in our society. A major theory in Psychology named ‘Social Learning Theory’ by Albert Bandura could explain why gendered stereotypes can fuel such crimes. This theory explains that from a young age we are taught what are ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviours, through observing, modelling and imitating. Once these beliefs and attitudes are internalised, we encode them as schemas (cognitive frameworks that help us understand and interpret information).

According to this theory if you had positive role models, congratulations, you’re probably not out there murdering or hurting women. However, if you grew up with role models that often spoke about women in a derogatory way, hurt women themselves or altogether taught you to not have respect for women, chances are high that you’ve internalised dangerous beliefs and in turn behaviours.

There has been research conducted exploring whether social learning theory can work as a predictor of sexual violent behaviour later in life. It was found that the experience of physical and sexual victimisation at home was strongly associated with the development of sexual deviations or traits of psychosexual disorders. 

There is good news- according to behaviourist theories, what can be taught, can be untaught. Therapy and re-education is a great place to start.

Locker Room Talk

Furthermore, it isn’t just familial role models that can impact attitudes and behaviours-  one study explored men’s adherence to male hegemonic norms in conversation, or as more commonly known ‘locker room talk’. Findings indicated that exposure to peers who sexually objectify and disrespect women decreased prosocial behaviour and heightened misogynistic behaviour.

The media is also a huge contributor to warped ideas that women are inferior and for men to take advantage of. A very telling study by Middlesex University gave participants phrases to look at- half were taken from interviews with rapists and half were taken from ‘Lad’s magazines’.

The participants had to guess which phrases came from which source- having taken this test myself it was shocking to see how difficult it was to correctly identify the correct source as they mirrored each other in both language and sentiment. Some phrases included ‘Go and smash her on a park bench’ and other vile, derogatory language. 

This shows exactly how men are taught the misogynistic ideals that leads to violence against women.

So what can we do as women to protect ourselves? Many products have hit the market in recent years to try and combat this issue, here are just a few:

Anti-Rape Shorts

This company has designed shorts resistant to pulling, tearing and cutting whilst still being comfortable to wear during normal activities (e.g running, clubbing). The waist, thighs and central panels are protected with specially designed, cut resistant straps and webbing with the waist secured with a unique locking device- this makes it virtually impossible for somebody other than yourself to take them off.

Their idea stemmed from research that showed resistance increased the chance of avoiding a completed sexual assault, so designing an item which allows girls to passively resist an attacker was their goal. 

Xantus Drinkcheck Band

This wristband uses science to let us know if our drink has been spiked- all you need to do is place a few drops of your drink on the test field, and if it turns blue your drink has been spiked. Although not the most fashionable accessory, this wrist-band can help keep you safe on nights out by keeping you informed on exactly what you’re drinking. 

Night cap scrunchie

This ingenious design combines two things girls need: protection from being spiked and a hair tie (isn’t being a girl fun). The scrunchie opens up and can be stretched around any cup or glass, apart from allowing for a straw to be inserted, it provides air tight protection so your beverage can stay rohypnol free! 

Invisawear Charms

This brand aims to positively empower users in feeling safe, secure and connected. They do this through their necklaces and bracelets which have several functions to ensure our loved ones know when we are in trouble.

For instance, once you activate the button on the charm, it sends up to 5 of your loved ones a text message with your location and lets them know you are in trouble, enabling them to act quickly. There is even a feature which links your contacts directly to police near you, sharing your profile details in order to make it even easier for the police to find you- all at the press of a button.

Raising Self-Efficacy in Women

Although I am thankful these products exist, it is infuriating that they need to. But these items may have more than one use; along with actually protecting us, they might also have a great impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy without even having to use them- ‘Perceived self-efficacy is concerned with people’s beliefs in their ability to influence events that affect their lives”, as explained by Bandura.

Research shows women have worse perceived self-efficacy than men, feeling they are less able.This may be because we are constantly reminded of our (false) inferiority to men.

However, if we are able to feel more empowered by protecting ourselves, or knowing we could if needed, using wit instead of brawn, our self esteem and positive view of our female identity can be improved through anti-assault fashion.

When discussing female empowerment, the feminist movement and its success in improving women’s wellbeing within patriarchal societies, the impact of clothing and fashion might be pretty low on the list. However, as we have highlighted on this platform, clothing can play a pivotal role in driving political conversations, in forming group dynamics and just generally improving the confidence of women the world over. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we have identified 4 garments that have all positively impacted the lives of women in one way or another.

Boots

Fashion Psychology
Image Source: WashingtonPost.com

The ones we hate to love, high-heeled boots. No one will deny that high-heels are a health hazard. ‘As early as 1881, a British physician reported an occupationally related backache caused by “the wearing of high-heeled boots, which necessitates the continuous action of the muscles of the lower part of the spine, in order to maintain the proper balance and erect position’ (Linder, 1997). Despite the associated pain, women continue to wear high heeled boots for one reason; they make us feel powerful, or if you’re Elle Writer Estelle Tang, they make you feel like a “Powerful Witch”. In a survey conducted by MIC respondents noted that heels helped them to “flip a switch” in their minds that took them from “girl” to “woman.”

Psychologically speaking, it can be the case that high-heeled boots evoke a sense of power in women simply due to the fact that it makes them appear taller. Indeed, in US presidential elections the taller candidate is always more likely to win because we simply process taller people as being more authoritative (McCann, 2001). Interestingly, studies have also found that powerful people overestimate their height. If by adorning those few inches you can be perceived as more powerful, feel more powerful and even be more likely to win an election then as the saying goes: no pain, no gain.

Slogan T-Shirts

Fashion Psychology
Image Source: Essence.com

For years, slogan T-shirts have allowed women to literally wear their hearts on their sleeves and take centre stage in many political spheres. As highlighted by Phyllis Martin in her 2004 book ‘Fashioning Africa: Power and politics of dress’, clothing has always had the capacity to “be threatening to observers and even dangerous for wearers. As sensibilities about gender, sexuality, age, and status converge, the dressed[…]body may be a site for contestation”. From ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘Time’s up’ women have being utilising clothing in the form of Slogan T-shirts to ignite social change for several years.

British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett is often credited as one of the first to create a politically charged slogan T-shirt. When meeting the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 she unzipped her jacket to reveal a shirt with the anti-nuclear sentiment that read “58% don’t want Pershing”. Since then, several female fashion designers including Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney have all created slogan t-shirts that allow women to express their political viewpoints.

Sadly, a study by NatWest found that when voicing their opinions, a fifth of women have been negatively described as ‘opinionated’, while one in 10 has been called ‘feisty’ or ‘vocal’. These perceptions can often negatively impact a women’s confidence, forcing her into silence. Luckily, Slogan T-shirts can lift the burden of vocalisation by speaking for women in a way that cannot be misinterpreted or go unnoticed.

Bras

Fashion Psychology

A controversial entry on the list, bras has often been seen as an antithesis of female liberation; an instrument created to contort women’s bodies for the male gaze. When digging a little deeper though, you’ll find that bra-burning is less of a feminist staple and more so a trope pushed by anti-feminist media. According to author of Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism W. Joseph Campbell stated that the during the event in 1968 when the burning happened, bras certainly weren’t the only garment thrown into the fire.  “Invoking bra burning was a convenient means of brushing aside the issues and challenges raised by women’s liberation and discrediting the fledgling movement as shallow and without serious grievance,” Campbell wrote.

When looking at the history of bras you’ll find it has always been routed in providing women with increased comfort and support during times of increased activity. The first bra patent was granted to Mary Phelps Jacob in 1914 in New York who, upon fashioning a bra made up of handkerchiefs and ribbon celebrated the fact that she could “move more freely”. Whilst studies have shown that bras, particularly ill-fitting ones can cause back pain, not wearing a bra when exercising means that your back, neck muscles, and trapezius (a major muscle in the back) are also going to have to work a lot harder to balance out your weight. Similarly, Livestrong reported that ‘sports bra helps minimize the movement of your breasts, which can help to reduce pain and discomfort caused by stretched skin and ligaments caused by working out’. 

The number of women playing sports regularly are increasing and after Nike’s recent impassioned ad featuring Tennis Champion Serena Williams, we’re sure these numbers will continue to climb. There’s no denying that bra’s, particularly Sports Bras have played a significant role for women in this arena.

Shoulder Pads

Fashion Psychology
Image Source: TheDollsFactory.com

During World War II the epaulettes that graced the shoulders of soldiers manoeuvred their way into the fashion industry as women donned shoulder pads as symbol of solidarity with the brave fighters abroad as they contributed to the war effort at home. In post-War times, psychological research has found that shoulder pads have a positive by-effect for working women. In the 80s-movie classic Working Girl, Melanie Griffith’s character dons larger than life shoulder pads to legitimise her new position as a respected business woman and thus the era of power dressing was born with designers such as Alexander McQueen and Dolce & Gabbana showcasing the style on the runway. In the 80s and during its revival in the early 21st century, shoulder pads were the clothing equivalent to the ideology of ‘leaning in’ – taking charge and embodying power in male dominated industries. But why do we associate shoulder pads with power?

Broad shoulders are typically associated with males, with studies showing that men with broad shoulders are not only perceived to be more masculine but they also possess higher testosterone levels (Kasperk et al, 1997). As shoulder pads broaden shoulders, when wearing them women can also be perceived as possessing more masculine traits. It’s certainly true that women should not have to ‘man-up’ their wardrobes in order to level the playing fields. Shoulder pads could lessen the impact of the negative stereotypes that some men hold of women when applying for roles in traditionally male-dominated workplaces.

Did we miss any wardrobe staples? Let us know in the comments

Header Image Source: Variety.com