August 8, 2011
so, is fashion feminist?
Ever since this post, I’ve been questioning whether there is such a thing as feminist fashion, and whether I can demonstrate that fashion is indeed an indicator and an instigator of feminist ideals. Rachel Rabbit White inspired me to take that thought and run with it. UPDATE: Rachel wrote an ace response: Is Fashion Feminist?
To recap, I posited that co-opting sexually suggestive clothing creates visual confusion that contradicts feminist goals, and that the fashionable bias against provocative dressing is cogent social hygiene. The post ended up being problematic because I tied it into the Slutwalk phenomenon. I’d like to take a step away from that and talk more about the abstract idea of feminist fashion. Why is the visual aspect of fashion so inextricably linked to feminism, and why is it worth considering how to dress like a feminist?
1. Freedom of Movement
Since the early days of feminism, fashion has has been a significant front. One of the initial, most life-improving changes that women fought to claim was literally freedom of movement – the ability to participate in work, sports, and daily activities without being weighed down by long skirts and restrained by corsetry.
Initially, advocates of dress reform were ridiculed. Their efforts lacked style, their models weren’t attractive, and they lacked the ability to sell the public on their ideas. It wasn’t until fashion designers like Poiret and Chanel proposed a corsetless silhouette, with their considerable publicity engines and attractive clientele, that corsetry and long skirts were under serious threat. Even then, the fashions weren’t necessarily feminist – Poiret held women’s mobility under bondage with the hobble skirt. While Chanel’s motivations were more clearly feminist in that she designed for emancipated, active women, Poiret’s were more about novelty and publicity.
Once the massive publicity engine of Paris had set the fashion machine in motion, the corseted silhouette became passe very quickly.
The decline of corsetry provides an interesting study of whether the industry really does hold the power when it comes to fashion. The fading vogue for corsets provoked much panic in the fashion industry. It came to pass that truly, the consumer held the ultimate power when it comes to fashion. Even when women didn’t have the power to vote for their political leaders, the had the economic power to decide what they put on their bodies, and they exercised it.
Now whether the majority of the women changed their attitudes towards corsets because of feminism or fashion is a total unknown – but I think it can be said that the effects were feminist, resulting in physical freedom, and the cause was fashion, a societal consensus which determined what was considered appropriate and desirable, and overall, contemporary.
2. Visual Equality
The next fashionable front involved breaking down the distinctions between gendered clothing – most significantly, the appropriation of pants, trousers, bifurcated garments. The bifurcated garment has been considered a masculine garment since the middle ages. Co-opting it for women was not at all an insignificant social shift – in fact, vestigial laws are still being revoked, and the subject provokes (confusing) debate in some circles to this day.
The leading edge of trouser-clad femininity was celebrity. Amelia Earhart, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich imbued the garment with adventure, charisma and sex. The early majority was youth – young women who were for the first time, were enjoying the phenomenon of “teen years” in between childhood and adulthood. Youth had an excess of casual down-time and the disposable income to exert influence over their own clothing, it makes sense that the popularity of pants – and that notable unisex garment, denim, began to trend during the 40s and 50s even as feminist goals were backsliding due to The Feminine Mystique.
Whether the majority of the girls who donned denim were cognizant of the revolution that wearing trousers represented or not, it can be said that in this case the results were certainly feminist, the visual message being that women can do anything that men can do. I don’t think that the feeling of pulling on a pair of jeans can be discounted either when it comes to developing a mindset that seeks freedom and equality, whether you are male or female. The instigators of the trend were more style than substance – youth and celebrity – and not political feminist or fashion industrial forces. In this case, the fashion establishment was very late to the party – the Parisian designers Yves Saint Laurent and Andre Courreges didn’t put women in pants until the end of the 1960s.
3. So. Is Fashion Feminist?
The powerful role of fashion in feminism is supported by potent symbolism that is almost always garment-or-cosmetic-related. The burning of bras is still an indelible visual memory of second-wave feminism. Third wave feminism is branded with lipstick. This is why I find the scoffing “feminism is not about fashion, duh” so willfully ignorant. So, why is fashion so inextricably connected with women?
The biological reason that fashion is a female sphere is related to the visual nature of male sexuality. Female display is a natural impulse to attract the correct mate – and that goes some way to explaining the peacock tendencies of gay males as well. It makes sense that a feminist movement where the message is delivered from females to males requires strong, consistent imagery to be successful.
The intellectual proclivities of female sexuality have a lot to do with the nature of feminism as well – the obsession with terminology is so constant, more than in any other social justice movement I can think of. Females traditionally take on the role of passing on language to the next generation, so the use of words resonates deeply within us. I think this is why the intramural feminist conversations tend to be so academic.
So when it comes to the question of whether fashion is feminist, what is the answer? I don’t think that fashion as an industry or a phenomenon is inherently feminist – but I think it can be. It has to be if feminism is to achieve political goals. Fashion is viral and international by its very nature, it appeals to the young, and it communicates silently and instantly where words can be too easily misunderstood or ignored. Fashion has a visceral, physical effect on those who wear it. It can be dignified or provocative. It can be easily adopted or discarded. It literally changes how we see ourselves and others.
This is why I believe that the social influence of fashionable taste balanced against other arguably anti-feminist cultural trends – such as religious fundamentalism and over-sexualization of female youth – is useful and shouldn’t be dismissed. As a feminist, personally I’d like to see fashion support ideals directly related to power such as pay equity and social freedom for females worldwide. It is worth considering how we can use fashion as a social tool to accomplish these goals.