In mythology, literature, and films, an archetypal character is like a personality concentrate. They are the purest representation of a given set of values, virtues and sins, and a lot of the time you can tell who they are because of what they wear: goddesses draped in gossamers, bad boys dressed in jeans and white t-shirts, or femme fatales sporting a cigarette and high heels.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, I think we use archetypes to guide our sense of style. If I’m right, it’s because of the semiotics of dress, or the symbolic meaning that is communicated through dress. In the lives of real people, mimicking the dress of an archetype acts as social shorthand—we dress like a familiar figure, and people may feel they have a better understanding of the kind of person we are– and can psychologically intoxicate the wearer, who may feel imbued with the archetype’s qualities.
So let’s talk about adult women dressing like girls, or the “girl” archetype.
This archetype (which can also be described as the infantilized woman) has been around in some way for a while—the virgin, the innocent, the Lolita, anything involving a young naïve female figure. During the golden age of advertising and television, she was the homemaker who was doubtlessly full of love, but not necessarily full of brains. At her most modern (in terms of popular style), she is the little girl lost found in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (because Nabakov’s Lolita is too young and doesn’t sport as many heart-shaped sunglasses)and Lana Del Rey.
This archetype is problematic for many reasons (which I will only talk about for a little while, because if you don’t have a general sense of what the problem is, explaining it won’t make much of a difference). In many media presentations of this archetype, the childish woman is cute is because her follies allow a man more opportunities to show that he is needed. The prioritization of girlishness is often done to reinforce the idea that age has a direct impact on the attractiveness of women but not men. This archetype is frequently sexualized, and although that is a figurative paraphilia (fantasy) and not a framed literally (the photography of Irina Ionesco is an example of this), the connection between the two highlights the unsettling ease with which lines can and have been blurred.
However, women who like girlish style are not always contributing to these problems. To quote Georgia O’Keeffe, “there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore,” and the experience of girlhood is so unique and diverse that I think it merits fascination and exploration. The time of girlhood can represent the happiest, most precious time for women who were lucky enough to have a healthy childhood, and women who were not so lucky may seek the opportunity to access the feeling of girlishness within the controlled environment of adulthood. What’s more, there is simply a genuine appeal to re-connecting with the frivolousness, idyllic universe of childhood. Who wouldn’t want to feel a little more lighthearted if the only thing you had to do was put on a frilly sock?
As the youngest child in a family of four, I know baby behavior. I like girlish style, but my relationship to it is complicated. I think it is pretty, and I enjoy halfheartedly believing that the world feels a little safer and more fun when I am wearing a bow in my hair. Other times, I like girlish style because I like to daydream about tricking men who idealize the infantilized woman, ruining their lives in some way. When my brain is at its darker, I believe in a scam or be scammed world.
Here are some examples of girlish style (note: not ways to infantalize yourself, but examples of a kind of style that some women may like and are allowed to enjoy) that aren’t gingham, because if you are a smart, adult woman who is trying to
a.feel whimsical, or
b. con the world through a thin veil of baby-dom,
you can do better than a picnic table cloth. Gingham is played out. There are more ways. Here they are.
Spaghetti-strap layering (you might be thinking, is this one really childish? I think it can go either way, but my mom used to always make me wear undershirts when I was a little girl.)