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.

20 thoughts on “so, is fashion feminist?”

  1. THANK YOU for making this post! I think about this all the time and have drawn the same conclusions, but I’ve never written it down in a blog post. Thanks for saying what I’ve had trouble enunciating. I’m glad there’s someone else out there who talks about it. 🙂

  2. your posts are always sooo interesting! I usually have the same ideas, but the difference is that you communicate them perfectly. Love it!

  3. I have to say, I don’t like the paragraph about biological reasoning (I think that there is far, far too much room for stereotype and harmful generalisation in that kind of approach and I think that human history is far too political and cerebral to make it possible to pick out biological behavioural traits like that).

    But I like the rest of this post. I’d also like to see ‘the fashion industry’ be more actively feminist and I fully believe in fashion and costume’s use in furthering or supporting ideology.. But I also think that fashion deserves support as a non-inherently feminist pursuit because of how easy and common it is to conflate “feminism” with “the masculinisation of women” vs how men are not, on the whole, encouraged to be fashionable or to express through clothing. I would hate to see society push towards equality by devaluing clothingjoy for women, until we’re on a level but lowered playing field with the chaps.

  4. Claire,

    I have to say that the biological justification for fashion was a tangent I considered eliminating. I included it because when it comes to sussing out the reasons *why* human beings do anything, I don’t agree that human history is all that cerebral. So many spectacular commercial successes are based more on how humans behave instinctually, while so many political failures are based on notions that human choices are primarily intellectual. To push any idea across, it makes sense to consider that humans are also animals. A complicated but fascinating exploration of the subject is here:

      Century of the Self

    Considering that visual display in the animal kingdom is also often divided sexually, taking that into consideration when thinking about fashion is very relevant.

    I do agree with you that I don’t want to see feminine clothingjoy (love that conflation) devalued. Part of my argument against the feminist dismissal of fashion is that I don’t believe fashion should somehow be perceived as a lesser industry or a lesser pursuit because it is dominated by women.

  5. Fascinating stuff! When I first entered the hairy realm of the blogsphere, I found myself caught up in both fashion and feminist circles, so this overlap occurred to me a few times, although I never gave it the depth of thought that you have here. Running the risk of getting into a feminist argument (which I loathe), I’d say that fashion IS feminist because it follows the precept of allowing women to make their own choices. Fashion lets women choose what they wear and how they wear it (as well as take responsibility for any reactions to their choices). That, to me, is that ultimate goal of feminism – for women to be their own free creatures, and the fashion industry can serve that goal in many ways.

  6. The ‘bra burning’ story is actually a myth:
    I agree that the fashion industry is not feminist. It would be lovely if it was, but it’s not. It’s far too bogged down with sexist imagery, stereotypes and gender roles to be considered anything that advocates for equality. Not to mention the terrible conditions people around the world endure to create our garments. I believe that personal fashion can be very feminist.
    Here is what I find so confusing about your view: You defend fashion as an intrinsic part of feminism due to the fact that women fought to be able to dress how they wanted. I would agree that the roots of modern fashion were brought about by the feminist movement. However, you then go on to argue that women dressing in an sexualized manner is not feminist. But both of these women are selecting of their own free will how to dress themselves. There is no difference except for their taste in personal style. Both are inherently feminist because they are about choice and equality. If you don’t visually like that style of dress, that’s fine. But I find your argument to how this type of dress is ‘arguably anti-feminist’ rather weak, as it simply seems to be based on your opinion and personal style.
    I also think that mentioning ‘religious fundamentalism’ (in terms of fashion) as ‘anti-feminist’ is also problematic. I agree that it is horrible to see women and men forced into wearing things without their consent due to an oppressive froce. However, there are plenty of women who choose to wear the garments of their faith out of their own free will. I don’t believe the concept of these garments is anti-feminist, but perhaps the execution from individual cultures and groups.
    I also disagree with your defense of fashion as routed in women’s ‘biological’ coding to attract males.. For obvious reasons.

  7. Morgan, thanks for those links, love those types of stories! Its so weird how potent, viral symbolism can have so little to do with actual events.

    Re: problematic. I see what you are saying. I think what I am attempting to articulate ties into the apparent vs. actual idea that the bra-burning story symbolizes. The distinction I’m trying to define is what visual indicators communicate the idea of feminism, rather than contradict it – just because it appears that historically, a fashion message is surprisingly effective at spreading ideas.

    Again, I have to state that I think that biological imperatives and gender roles are integral to how fashion functions, ignoring the animalistic aspect of human beings is a counter-intuitive omission to make, in my view. Maybe biological stuff doesn’t play such a key role in feminism, which I don’t know as much about.

  8. I just find it a little bit limited in scope to discuss fashion in terms of ‘communicating the idea of feminism’ because feminism has many different branches and ideas. The one universal truth of feminism is the desire for gender equality, however many feminists disagree on the specifics. So while I can understand that to you, provocative clothing may not be ‘feminist’, I think the very concept that women can choose however they want to dress is feminist.
    I think the problem with linking biology and feminism is that they don’t agree on many aspects. Feminism is about progress and the rejection of the traditional, whereas biology gives justifcation for those traditions which have long made women (and men) suffer. Something along the lines of, ‘women have the biological urge to appear pretty and attract males’ is too simple and broad. That completely discounts the notion that women dress to express themselves, to be socially accepted, to follow trends, to defy trends, to attract other women for friendship or a relationship, to be comfortable or any other of the myriad of reasons. Also, we are evolving creatures, so our base instincts don’t hold nearly as much ground today as they did then. It’s obvious that there is an animalistic aspect to all human beings, but I think you credit far too much to biology rather than personal choice.
    I would also argue that gender roles are incredibly oppressive, as they ascribe certain characteristics to women and men respectively, but there is little overlap. When a man speaks up, he’s applauded for being ‘assertive and aggressive’, which are the typical traits of the male gender role which are reinforced from a young age. The majority of crime/domestic abuse/sexual assault is also committed by men (statisically) which ties into these said gender roles. But when a woman speaks up, she’s often criticized for being ‘over-emotional’, a ‘bitch’ or ‘on her period’. The damage of gender roles is very obvious if you look at the polarizing ideas of the male and the female is modern society.

  9. Fair enough, but it is just a blog post on a fashion blog – limited scope is the name of the game here Morgan!

    And thanks for bringing up some excellent counterpoints.

    And while personal choice certainly does play a role, I think the fundamental assumption that human beings are mostly rational is something I am cynical about. Like, when a woman chooses a provocative outfit and then complains that everyone wants to talk about her body – doesn’t that seem weirdly irrational? Seems to me she’s asking human beings to override an abiding hormonal interest in the form and functions of bodies. Feminism might be able to overcome 6000 years of cultural oppression, but can it intellectually counter 6 million years of hardwired evolutionary “success”? Seems farfetched.

    There are examples of matriarchal societies where the gender roles don’t work the same way they do in ours – because women had the reproductive power, they exerted that power.
    I don’t agree that gender roles – which come down to DNA and the physical differences between male and females – is a problem – its not like it can be changed anyway. I believe the problem is cultural, which is why using cultural tools like fashion can be an effective counter-argument if used wisely.

  10. I don’t think it’s irrational at all. No matter what you are wearing, nobody has the right to sexually assault you verbally/physically. These women aren’t complaining about people finding them attractive, they complain about the way this is expressed. Attraction is not something that can be helped, but the commentary you choose to express to others can be. We are beings capable of choice, reason and logic and we are not slaves to our biological blueprints. Also, arguing that people are interested in human bodies due to ‘hardwired evolutionary’ traits sounds a lot like justication for men to harass women because they simply can’t help their nature.
    When I mention gender roles, I’m not arguing against the physical differences of men and women. I’m arguing about gender roles in terms of the cultural and societal expectations of how men and women should behave and the oppression that stems from that. I agree that fashion can be used as an effective tool to dismantle gender roles. For example, modern designers now create clothing for men which was traditionally ‘feminine’ (Skinny pants, etc.) and the trend of ‘boyfriend’ clothing for women moves away from the tailored towards comfort and looseness.

  11. “Also, arguing that people are interested in human bodies due to ‘hardwired evolutionary’ traits sounds a lot like justication for men to harass women because they simply can’t help their nature.”

    So, are we supposed to pretend in the face of all evidence that human beings of both sexes aren’t obsessed with their own corporeal form? If you think acknowledging a universal preoccupation with bodies – or anything else I’ve written in this post – is justifying harassment… that’s a bit trollish of you, Morgan.

  12. Your original point was:
    ‘Feminism might be able to overcome 6000 years of cultural oppression, but can it intellectually counter 6 million years of hardwired evolutionary “success”? Seems farfetched.’
    In context, we were discussing the mode of women’s dress. So your point follows the logic that while women should be able to dress how they want, feminism can’t undo this ‘hardwired biology’ in men to find them attractive. This type of argument follows the same train of thought that women can’t dress sexy because if they do, men will rape them. I’m not implying this is necessarily what you think, just that that type of argument is problematic.
    Also, the Slutwalk and feminism don’t preach that men shouldn’t find women attractive. They promote the idea of being respectful to others. If a man finds a woman attractive and she is wearing something revealing, that (obviously) doesn’t give them the right to harass them or assault them. Finding a woman attractive and acting on that attraction are 2 different things and I think the belief that men can’t control this behaviour is incredibly problematic and quite sexist to men in general.
    The problem with justifying an idea with evolutionary biology is that it is incredibly difficult to prove anything. Most studies and statistics that are presented are often shot down due to improper methods, discriminatory aims or improper sample groups. People differ greatly between gender, sex, culture, society, race, class, etc. So naturally, if you had a sample group of mixed individuals, your tests results may be skewed. But on the other hand, testing a sample group of similar individuals does not necessarily speak to the majority of all women/men. I also find that a huge amount of these ‘studies’ are done in discriminatory fashions. (Many evolutionary biologists have tried to prove that African Americans are less intelligent than Caucasians, that women are less intelligent than men, that women are more intelligent than men, that Asian people are better than Caucasians, etc.) So I don’t give evolutionary biology a lot of credit.
    So yes, I obviously agree that men and women (by nature) have a huge preoccupation with the human form. But I don’t understand why that should be a deterent for women to dress how they like. It’s fine if men find sexy women attractive, that is to be expected. But it’s not like that ‘occupation with corporeal forms’ makes men (or women) unable to control their behaviour ie. harassment, etc. Again, I’m not saying that is what you think, but I was stating that your argument follows that same train of thought that people have encountered.
    And quite obviously, no, I’m not trolling you. I’m just engaging you in conversation on the topic.

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