Can fashion be feminist? It’s a question that’s gotten some traction now that Ms. has a full-length article about it in their most recent edition, excerpted here. My take on this perennial question is that it’s asking the wrong question. Asking if “fashion” can be feminist is like asking if English can be feminist. Those on the “no” side could always point to the sexist history of the language that persists in certain common words, but at the end of the day, it’s not like feminists in English-speaking countries are going to stop speaking English to make a point. A better answer is, “Language is dynamic and therefore neutral, and we can manipulate it for feminist ends.” For instance, we can write feminist things. Or we can replace words like “chairman” with “chairperson”.
Same thing with fashion. One problem is that people tend to think of fashion and think of high fashion only—or maybe high fashion mixed with a little bit of trendy but cheap fashion—which is like thinking of English and only thinking of literary fiction, with a couple well-regarded genre novels tossed in for flavor. Because of this, people mistakenly think they can opt out of fashion. They do this by saying things like, “I don’t care what I wear, clothes are just for covering the body.” (That clothes cover the body is true enough in cold weather, but honestly, people could just walk around naked in the hot weather if clothes had no value as a semiotic system. Their value as preserving modesty is over-rated; even cultures that don’t fetishize “modesty”—including some parts of America—have clothes.) I’ve read enough on this subjec to know that the sociological view is that clothes’ primary function is as fashion, and concerns like comfort are less important. Honestly, even modesty is a semiotic function of clothes; that you conceal your naughty bits doesn’t mean that people don’t know they’re there. Which is why different cultures define appropriate modesty differently.
But I digress. The point is there is no opt-out clause. If you don’t care and just thrown any old thing on, the message you send the world is, “I don’t care and just throw any old thing on.” Which is fine, but don’t pretend you aren’t sending a message just as surely as someone who carefully selects and color-coordinates an outfit is doing.
Nor is fashion strictly a female thing. High fashion pays more attention to women than men, but because all people wear clothes, we all participate in the system. Personally, I find what’ called “street fashion”, i.e. fashion put together by ordinary people without a lot of money but who put a high value on self-expression and creativity, to be the most interesting fashion of all. It tends to be more interested in what is flattering, and more fun to look at than 90% of what fashion designers put together. If you take this view of fashion as a whole, then, I would say that of course fashion can be feminist. Even fashion that puts an emphasis on flashiness and beauty can be. Samhita and I discussed this on our recent podcast. Personally, I’m a big fan of using fashion to reclaim and subvert strict gender norms put on women. For instance, I love it when women reject the obnoxious pressure to be subtle in order to be considered “classy”; bring on the bright colors and flashy accessories. Some times we all have to be subtle for certain situations, but I love not having to be.
While there’s often a lot of discussion of these issues on an academic level, one thing I find that’s often missing is direct, pragmatic discussion of how to make fashion choices that express feminist values, especially if you want to be both feminist and look good. For that, I really appreciate Greta Christina doing a once-a-week look at fashion from a pragmatic point of view. She’s not doing it as an expression of feminist values, but I think that’s a byproduct of the project. For instance, yesterday’s post is about the difference between fashion advice geared towards concealing the supposed flaws in your body and fashion advice about putting your best foot forward.
The distinction between the two can sometimes be hard to grasp—part of the problem is most fashion magazines conflate the two—but aside from learning that you don’t have to be mangled and uncomfortable to look good, it’s probably the most important aspect of doing fashion in a feminist way. One really good example is the question of high heels. A lot of short women are drawn to really high heels because they think it conceals how short they are. This is bad for two reasons. One, high heels are painful and should be used only rarely, if at all. Two, it actually looks kind of weird for short women to wear really tall heels. It’s out of proportion with your body, and looks like you’ve been jacked up, making your legs look out of proportion. Tall women actually tend to look better in really tall heels. If you approach fashion as embracing your body instead of trying to “fix” it, it’s much easier for short women to see that it’s just as well to wear low or no heels. And of course, tall women are better off not trying to hide it, I think, though there’s no shame in wearing a shoe that says, “I won’t be leaving early tonight because my feet are killing me.”
In my experience, feminists who embrace fashion tend to look awesome, because they eschew the push towards conformity and embrace their bodies as-is. Big boobs? Flaunt ’em. Fat? Sweet, you can get away with big accessories. Flat-chested? Lucky you (or me, in this case), you look great in those loud prints that others tend to overlook. It’s way more fun that way.
Style guides I’ve read that try to be more “embrace yourself as-is” and less “oh my god, hide your shame!” and can recommend are anything put out by the publishers of Lucky, such as The Lucky Shopping Manual: Building and Improving Your Wardrobe Piece by Piece or The Lucky Guide to Mastering Any Style: How to Wear Iconic Looks and Make Them Your Own. They’re a little more conservative than I am, fashion-wise, and they do screw up on occasion, but by and large they embrace the idea of embracing your body as-is. For instance, they advise fat women to wear string bikinis instead of try to cover up, on the grounds that most bathing suits that are more modest tend to just cut you off in awkward places, whereas bikinis you tie on create a more clean line. More gleeful and provocative is The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men, which also briefly addresses men’s wear, as well, and can be used for women who prefer that kind of clothing, though there may be better style guides out there for that. She also has a couple of moments of reflectively treating certain features as flaws, but she mostly stays away from that and puts the emphasis on flaunt-what-you-got positivity. I learned a lot from that book, especially in terms of not being afraid of colors or patterns.
Other thoughts and recommendations welcome in comments!