This year, I’m wearing a suit to a May Ball. Not the most surprising statement. Ask half the student population of Cambridge, and they’d probably say the same. But then, most of my fellow suit-wearers will be men.
The gender binary of black tie events is striking because it is so rarely questioned. Men wear suits; women wear dresses. But Cambridge, and the fashion world, should both be ready for more, to think more openly and more creatively. Formalwear is a construct: it tells us what we should wear in a particular situation, and what we shouldn’t. It means wearing the right thing at the right time, and conforming to expectations that are homogenous and presentable.
A code like ‘black tie’ limits the choices we make when we dress ourselves. And the gendered assumptions about suits and dresses only serve to intensify this. The opportunity to dress up for May Balls is one that I’ll relish (as the author of a fashion article, perhaps an unsurprising statement) but there are more important things than keeping to a dress code that today seems arbitrary at best. Ultimately, May Week is about having fun, relaxing after exams, enjoying the sunshine, the parties, and the friends we have around us. Feeling comfortable in the clothes we wear is an important part of that.
For a significant community, the cisnormative bias of formalwear is a significant barrier to that. CUSU guidelines now encourage formal events to provide “a single inclusive dress code”, with the possibility of mixing and matching approved items. The changes that should be normalised in the language of dress codes are small, but the impact on gender related assumptions will not be. A more open wording allows people to express themselves, and a quick Google image search on the word “androgyny” will show you just how beautiful, stylish and inspiring the resultant fashion can be.
As a woman, the choice to wear a suit subverts and erodes a gender stereotype that tells both men and women how they should dress. Increasingly on the red carpet we see women in suits – Angelina Jolie’s twist on classic feminine shapes; Janelle Monáe’s fun, fresh, mod style; Rihanna’s glamorous power dressing. Each is a different kind of femininity, a different statement about how a woman can dress, and what can make her look and feel good. In the hands of these women, the black tie suit is transformed from something of the peg and predictable to a unique and stylish statement that belies any reservations about suit being, well, just a bit boring.
I haven’t told many people that I’m going to be wearing a suit during May Week. Maybe that’s because I like to make an entrance, specifically when it comes to clothes. But the fact that a woman wearing a suit is a statement in itself is striking. But maybe the point is that there doesn’t have to be a point. Sometimes, our clothes are a statement about the way we feel, and the message we want to give to others. But often, our choices are more aesthetic – they look good, and make us feel good. That’s reason enough for me to wear black tie, anyway.