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Between Practical Presents and Transformative Futures: What Can We Learn from Organizations that use Professional Clothing as a Tool for Feminist Empowerment?

While helping low-income women gain mobility, stable income, and autonomy, professional dressing nonprofits leave uncontested (and in some ways leverage) the very structures that harm their clients. As critical feminists oriented toward the future, how do we negotiate between strategies that intervene in our world to make it more live-able in the here and now (however imperfectly) and our visions for an anti-racist, anti-austerity feminist future?

Professional dressing nonprofits provide workplace clothing to low-income women who do not have access to it in order to increase their chances of success in job interviews. After collecting new and lightly used clothing donations, volunteers work with clients to help them select quality clothing that matches their workplace environment and helps them feel comfortable and confident. Professional dressing nonprofits recognize that women face specific challenges in the labor market and seek to reduce gendered and racialized inequity by providing the clothing needed to make a strong first impression. These organizations do not necessarily seek to address the structural conditions of persistent low paid work which shape the challenges faced by their clients; instead, they are designed to help low-income women improve their lives by giving them a tool that creates the possibility to mitigate the effects of structural inequity.

Doing fieldwork at a professional dressing nonprofit left me grappling with new questions about the complexities of feminist praxis. For the clients that I spoke with, the services offered by these nonprofits were helpful and meaningful; being able to appear in professional clothing helped them feel confident in their abilities, navigate racism and harassment in their workplaces, and assert belonging and value among their peers.

At the same time, the foundational assumption of this strategy for feminist empowerment – that getting low-income women into work reduces poverty and minimizes their need for social support – is both misguided and harmful, as it justifies austerity policies of disinvestment (which hurt low-income women of color the most). Because only women who are striving toward paid work are eligible for support, professional clothing nonprofits exclude those who cannot or do not wish to enter paid work, often due to disability or familial responsibilities. In this sense, insofar as the organization re-articulates the hyper-valuation of economic self-sufficiency (prevalent in both mainstream politics and strains of neoliberal feminism) to frame and justify its services, it also re-articulates a framework where moral deservingness is contingent upon aspiring towards gainful employment.

The strategy is also limited in its practical effects. Although professional clothing may help Black women (and other racialized women) distance themselves from negative stereotypes, clothing does not insulate them from experiencing racist harassment or eliminate the effects of structural racism (as one Black client explained, dressing in “nice” clothing made her feel good in her body, yet she could always feel the eyes of others seeing and reacting to the darkness of her skin, regardless of how she was dressed). Additionally, by embracing the terms of respectable femininity, this strategy sidelines queer people who don’t want to present themselves in a feminine way, as well as trans people who don’t have the same assumed access to femininity that cis women do. Finally, the selection of clothing in larger sizes is often quite limited, meaning that larger bodied women are much more likely to leave an appointment without their needs met.

These challenges undoubtedly emerge because professional dressing organizations have limited resources, little control over donations, and no control over the forces that shape the opportunities available to their clients. Simply put, these organizations do meaningful work in an environment of multi-layered challenges. Nonetheless, this model of feminist empowerment may not be accessible, effective, or affirmative for all people who need workplace clothing, let alone all people in conditions of poverty and immobility. As such, even as this practical strategy is meaningful for many low-income women, it is also inherently limited, provisional, and implicated in the reproduction of structural inequity.

I am not interested in exposing or critiquing the models or practices of professional dressing nonprofits as a research goal in itself, however imperfect they are. Instead, I find that thinking carefully through the tensions and limitations presented within this example can be a useful way to explore the inherent complications of feminist praxis. What can the specific context of professional dressing services tell us about the relationship between social disinvestment and the practical strategies that vulnerable people are offered to access mobility?

The setting of professional dressing nonprofits shows that the potentialities and limitations of practical strategies that vulnerable women can use to survive and thrive are necessarily inter-related and co-constitutive, not contradictory. Access to respectability is unstable and contingent (especially for Black and Brown women) precisely because respectable, professional femininity gains coherence by stigmatizing those deemed “disrespectable.” To assert value by claiming professional respectability is necessarily to distance oneself from the devalued labor and appearances of poor women (often migrant women or women of color) who perform undervalued, “unskilled” work. In this way, the emotional, social, and material benefits of claiming professional femininity are rooted in the devaluation of poor, racialized women. This is not paradoxical, but instead an inherent feature of intersectional systems of oppression: when gender, race, and class devaluation are interconnected, the tools that vulnerable people have to contest their devaluation and claim inclusion always implicitly rely upon the stigmatization and devaluation of other vulnerable people.

Nonetheless, it would be misguided to abandon claims to social value altogether. For clients at professional dressing nonprofits, having access to professional respectability not only made hostile social worlds more survivable; it was also pleasurable and affirming in environments of constant devaluation. If we are committed to making our current world more livable, we cannot easily abandon strategies that mobilize social value in order to contest oppression. As critical feminists oriented toward the future, how do we negotiate the constitutive tension between strategies that intervene in our world to make it more live-able in the here and now (however imperfectly) and our visions for an anti-racist, anti-austerity feminist future?

In Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Black feminist theorist Lola Olufemi challenges feminists to imagine a radical, transformative future within the present moment. Olufemi argues that the terms of “practicality” often work to curtail imagination and limit feminists’ demands for a better future. Rather than consigning radical visions of the future to the horizon and intervening according to what is practical in the present, Olufemi imagines the present and the future as cotemporaneous. She writes, “the future is not in front of us, it is everywhere simultaneously: multidirectional, radiant, spontaneous. We only have to turn around” (35). For Olufemi, the practicalities of the present and the imaginations of the future cannot be pulled apart.

One example or author cannot provide the answer to how feminists can or should negotiate the interrelation of what’s practical in the present and what’s possible in the future. I do not have a satisfying answer even within the particular case that I studied, and of course any answer could not be universal, as each specific context raises unique considerations. Instead, the example of professional dressing nonprofits shows how incredibly necessary it is for feminists to think carefully about how feminisms “inevitably collapse into depoliticizing and hegemonic frameworks” because oppressive structures are interrelated and co-constitutive. It is urgently necessary – both for bringing about equitable practices in the present and for creating a more just future – that we constantly examine, question, and resist the ways that feminist strategies may leverage or even legitimize austerity, racism, and classism while seeking to make the present more live-able for vulnerable people.

Image credit: Tima Miroshnichenko 

About the author

Lindsey Gearin (she/they) recently completed the MPhil in Sociology of Marginality and Exclusion at the University of Cambridge, where her research focused on nonprofits that give professional clothing to women who do not have access to it. They are interested in systems of social support, cultural imaginaries of mobility, and intersectional inequality.

Twitter: @GearinLindsey

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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