the most womanly woman
by David Isla
Although men’s interest in clothing has increased in recent years, women’s fashion continues to receive more media attention, and with good reason, as women spend nearly twice as much per year on clothing as men. However, throughout history, as Anne Hollander reminds us in her book Sex and Suits, women’s fashion has largely innovated by borrowing from men’s fashion. this progression usually happens in a slow enough motion that we hardly even notice what is happening. true cross-dressing is a rarer and more inspired phenomenon.
marlene dietrich wore masculine suits in the service of an androgynous look, avoiding femininity rather than exploring it. But she was preceded, and perhaps inspired, by 19th-century French writer George Sand, nee ‘Aurore Dupin (Dietrich was offered the role of Sand in the 1945 film A Song to Remember, but she turned it down).
The arena wore men’s clothing in the 1830s, at a time when both dandy and revolutionary fervor was sweeping Paris. Unlike Dietrich, who wore draped, masculine-looking suits, Sand’s adoption of masculine attire was not an attempt to appear more manly. she affirmed, as most of the people who surprise her with her clothes affirm, wear men’s clothing for convenience. But let’s not be so easily fooled. Hollander writes that she “became an erotic icon because she looked even more feminine in her tailored jacket and pants, not masculine, that is, she looked sexier.” listen to balzac describe her smoking an after-dinner cigar by the fire: she “she was wearing pretty fringed slippers, fancy stockings and red pants. so much for the moral side.” you can almost hear her Catholic scruples loosen.
sand’s writing also represented an expanded and empowered femininity. alfred de musset called her “the most feminine woman”, and i think both parties considered it a complement. Germane de Stael, the foremost woman of letters of the previous generation, represents her contrast in this field. Madame de Stael judged her success primarily in the terms of her male companions: she married lovelessly to gain status, and she left no record of her regrets. On the contrary, Sand’s most quoted words are: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved”. Rene Doumric writes in Sandy’s biography of her that “in order to pity Madame de Stael, it was absolutely necessary to be a woman of genius. For a woman to be defended by George Sand, it was only necessary that she did not love her husband, and this was something much more general.”
It’s a shame, then, that Sand is remembered primarily for her relationship with one man, composer Frederic Chopin, perhaps with an indirect reference to her relationship with actress Marie Dorval. what’s most memorable is her insistence on owning her sexuality without being defined by it. she demanded to stand on her own legs in her pants, instead of hiding them under that oversized fig leaf, her skirt. it would be many years after her death before a woman filled out a pair of pants so well.