I love to think that women throughout time have left the women of our time clues about how to feel that our spirits are powerful, passed down to us little treasures learned over millennia just waiting to be excavated. Sometimes we look to the stories and artifacts about how powerful women have lived and still live; sometimes we can also look to what women have been forbidden to do. Our culture is peppered with little taboos, mostly that I remember from childhood, but some that are still common. As I consider these taboos, especially those concerned with dress, in relation to what I know about women spiritual leaders, I can see how each can be seen as a way to make women less powerful and how breaking these little taboos can be an avenue to feeling, looking, and being our strong, creative, confident selves.
Certain colors were never or rarely worn when I was younger, in particular, bright red, except as an accent, and black and white except for funerals, weddings, graduations, and other formal occasions. The association of red with “immoral” women was well-established for years and years. Remember the scene from “Gone with the Wind” where Scarlett finally gives up all pretense of respectability by going to a party wearing a red dress? Red, white and black are, of course, colors associated with goddesses all over the world. Fortunately and perhaps not coincidentally, red is now considered to be a “power color” and one that all job applicants should wear somewhere and black and white also have a power of their own as they are more commonly worn.
Clothing taboos have always divided women by class, making it possible to know exactly what strata of society a woman was from by looking at her clothing. Rich women from more aristocratic classes not only had better clothing, but also clothing for a wide variety of formal and informal events. Of course, being wealthy has not meant that women were more personally powerful, but by having women dress differently, it certainly helped keep them from seeing how they as a group lacked power and doing something about it. Dressing outside your assigned class has been taboo (“who does she think she is?”), as is mixing pieces of clothing from different class styles. How many times have you see any woman wear khakis and a silk jacket with pearls to a business meeting? When I was a teen, the owner of a consignment once gave me the fashion advice to wear rhinestone pins with my plain flannel workshirts. At the time I thought that was trendy, but maybe it is a statement about women’s unity as well.
Let’s talk hair. Traditionally, long, unbound hair has been considered to be powerful in itself. Medusa comes to mind. Young women were allowed to have such hair, but as soon as women began to come into their power as they grew up, taboos required binding it. Even now older women are supposed to cut off their long hair altogether and certainly never leave it long and loose. Gray hair, which could be considered to be a sign of wisdom, must be colored and covered up. Makes you want to keep your natural gray and let it grow long, just to see what happens, doesn’t it?
What about jewelry? We can see from ancient tombs of powerful women that those folks liked jewelry and had a lot of it. They seemed to wear tons of the stuff all at the same time. No one who studies the qualities of various metals and gemstones will be surprised that jewelry, especially beadwork, is supposed to carry a kind of spiritual power in itself. Too bad that real “ladies” are supposed to wear a piece or two only, unless they are royalty or really rich, that should match. And why is it that we aren’t supposed to wear two different kinds of metals or gemstones at the same time? Could it be that if we wear as much jewelry as we like we might just feel a power we are not meant to?
Ignoring society’s little taboos is certainly a statement of personal freedom, but I also wonder if it may also be a bit more. When something is repressed for centuries, it almost seems to gather energy over the centuries, just waiting for women to rediscover it. Breaking a clothing taboo feels fresh and new, a step into the future, simply because I have rarely dressed that way before. When I wear red, I not only enjoy the color itself, but it seems to hold the vibrant energy that I also sense in mixing up styles, wild hair, far too much jewelry and other broken taboos.
Maybe clothing taboos aren’t the only ones that are worth breaking. If we broaden our sights and think of other things that are considered not quite right for no real reason, perhaps we will find other avenues to power. One post that many readers seemed to feel a connection to is about being a hermit. Our society praises and encourages extroverts and discourages those who are more thoughtful and solitary. It isn’t hard to see why – if you think too much you may begin to think for yourself. Being by yourself, meditating and contemplating yourself and life is essential to the kind of self-knowledge that leads to inner illumination.
People who enjoy the night rather than daytime, who prowl around in the dark, are also considered not quite reputable. Now, let’s see, what is out at night that isn’t in the daytime? Oh, that’s right, the moon, that potent symbol of women’s spiritual power in the west. If we go and bathe in her mysterious, enlightening light, what mischief might we get into?
Can it really be this simple? Can we really uncover reservoirs of our own power just by doing those things we aren’t supposed to? Probably not. But they can help us recognize the hundreds of ways that women’s power is taken away, bit by bit. As we can see by how quickly red has been embraced as a power color, releasing the force of a taboo can be very freeing. Give it a try. Next I’ll be wearing white shoes after Labor Day…
~ Carolyn Lee Boyd