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Does anyone else get really, really annoyed at hearing fashion described as flirty?

Cute tops are flirty. Flowery dresses are flirty. Pencil skirts are flirty. (How can a pencil skirt be flirty? It’s tight and lies flat and doesn’t move. (Maybe that’s the idea.)) The first image that jumps to mind is some kind of vague, wafty, brightly-coloured chiffon thing. Just like the woman it’s meant to contain. In any case, they’re clothes. They can’t flirt. People flirt.

This ties in to the idea that clothes are indicative of a certain type of person or behaviour. You’ve all been there: someone brings up a rape, there’s a brief silence, then someone asks, ‘was she out by herself late at night? Did she flirt with him? Was she wearing a short skirt?’ Enough with the victim blaming, enough with the supposedly helpful preventative suggestions. What the survivor is wearing is simply not a factor, it’s all about the rapist’s actions. A recent survey by the British Home Office on attitudes towards violence against women asked if the survivor should be held responsible if she ‘is out in public wearing sexy or revealing clothes’. 6% said she should be held responsible, 20% thought she should be held partially responsible and 72% said she should never be held responsible. (More at The F-Word; I originally heard about the survey at Feministe.) It is bizarre that anyone could think that a survivor is to blame for someone else’s actions. Irrespective, clothing is not behaviour: it can’t flirt and wearing it doesn’t dictate what you do.

‘Flirty’ also is reminiscent of the rubbish idea sold to girls about how they should grow up. Once girls hit their pre-teens (or tweens, as we’re apparently calling this period now) there’s a new big, scary focus on making sure you grow up to be a proper woman: suitably flirty, but not too flirty, just enough so the boys will like you. (And heteronormative, too.) The pinkness and sparkles are replaced with cherry lipgloss and the drive to get the cutest pencilcase in the class. The characters on tween-targeted TV wear only certain kinds of clothes as they go about their fun/romantic/cool adventures. And the magazines tell their young readership how to talk to boys and how to conduct yourself and ten tips for this and what to look for in a good kiss. You’ve got to be interesting, but not too talky, ’cause boys don’t like that. You’ve got to be pretty, but not too pretty, because everyone will think you’re a slut. What about what you want? What about growing up to fill out your own boundaries, map your own likes and behaviours and pleasures? All subsumed in practicing the arts of flirtatiousness and ideal girlhood.

This model of flirtation requires a woman’s display of only certain kinds of behaviours. You can be bubbly and titillating, but not sensual, not “frigid,” not passionate about your convictions, not smart. It’s a poor means of communication because the primary thing conveyed is not self-expression but a command of a set of social expectations. And what if you’re not a flirter? It’s good for some people, to be sure, a way of sussing out social dynamics without letting out too much of oneself for comfort. But I am not a flirter. And the expectation of flirtiness feels like a substitute for self-expression.

Describing clothes as “flirty” evalates an action quickly done with to a mode in which women must always be switched on. If you wear this, you will give off a flirty vibe. It’s telling that clothing can be described as such, because this is a case of qualities being shoved onto a frame, just as with women themselves. I don’t know if women are meant to be passive and let the clothes do all the work or allow themselves to be a blank canvas on which their prescribed behaviours will be painted.

I can’t believe I actually live in a world in which I am moved to write this stuff. Even one little word sets off a storm of connotations. The whole world is coded.

This is just another way of making women feel insecure and empty. Patriarchy is intent on working grooves into women in a million ways.