I recently asked our forum members whether they dressed in a feminine way. This might seem like a straightforward question, but the responses were anything but. They came flooding in and reached much deeper than I had intended. Even the word “feminine” meant different things to different people.

The first sign that this was a complex issue actually came before I even posted on the forum. As I pondered the question I found myself second guessing my own answers.

Feminine means “pertaining to a woman or girl.” Hmmm. Well, I enjoy wearing stereotypically feminine wardrobe items like form fitting clothing, dresses, pencil skirts, low heels, bows, poufy sleeves, pink, sheer blouses, pearls, lace camisoles, flouncy tea length skirts and the occasional ruffle. I also like to carry a handbag, wear lipstick and define my waistline. Chanel and Valentino rock my fashion world. When I think about these aspects of my style, it’s clear that I dress in a feminine way.

Then I started thinking about the stereotypically non-feminine aspects of my style. I have very short hair and don’t wear earrings. I prefer flat footwear and sport short natural fingernails. Many of my favourite wardrobe items have a masculine or androgynous edge: jeans, button down shirts, blazers, flat oxfords, denim jackets, trench coats, oversized watches, biker jackets and flat boots. I adore classic gangster-like pinstripe suits, neck ties, cuff links, cravat style scarves and military styling. I like to surrender my waistline and wear unisex footwear like Converse sneakers and Dr. Marten boots. And on top of it all, I rather fancy looking strict and buttoned up.

Now here’s the interesting part. I still feel completely feminine when I wear boyish clothing and footwear, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t very curvy and doesn’t have a full bust. I attribute these feelings to two things. First, my manner is lady like and that ultimately makes me feel feminine no matter what I wear. For me, feminine dressing is more about an attitude and a state of mind, than it is about the specific items that I wear — I have a feminine attitude and act in a feminine way. So to a large extent for my style, feminine dressing comes from within.  Second, and more superficial, I still wear stereotypically feminine accessories and lipstick along with masculine clothing and footwear. This goes a long way to making me feel like a girly girl.

Having seen the richness of the responses of the forum it is clear to me that feminine dressing can mean very different things to different people. Just like there is no one way to look stylish, there is no one way to dress in a feminine way.

And it can be interpreted as a controversial question, tied into important topics like the empowerment of women and what it means to be a feminist. There was a time in my life when these broad topics were top of mind for me. As a sociology student in the late 80′s and early 90′s I was writing essays about the way stereotypical gender roles shape and affect society, while living through South Africa’s struggle against discrimination and oppression. But these days I’m much more focused on helping individuals look and feel their best. One of the privileges of living in a free society is that you feel free to enjoy simple things, like the lines of a beautiful dress.

What does feminine dressing mean to you? Does it mean wearing stereotypically feminine and romantic items, or is there more to it than that?