Fashioning Feminism

Fashioning Feminism

Clothes. Clothes are good and quite useful. They work best when reflecting the wearer, not someone else’s agenda…

Does putting feminism and fashion in the same (dressing) room present something of a dilemma? The two, like feminism and femininity, are often presumed mutually exclusive. The second wave feminists of the ’60s, who had a huge bearing on further bringing sexism to light in the western world, asserted that we should reject those female symbols of oppression sold to us under the guise of ‘fashion’, as presented to us through glossy magazines and provocative billboards. But what are we wearing without fashion? Just clothes? Purely functional coverings? Where’s the fun in that?

This billboard photo was taken in the 1970s by activist photographer Jill Posener.

For decades, feminist theories of fashion have warned us of the dangers of partaking in an industry synonymous with subjective, male-centred conceptions of ‘beauty’. These conceptions go hand in hand with incessant consumerism and the impossible pursuit of ‘womanly perfection’. We are cautioned about the dangers of reading fashion magazines without casting an exceptionally critical eye over the preened faces and airbrushed bodies that adorn their alluring pages.

And yet, as Angela McRobbie points out in her book In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music, ‘fashion is of course an almost wholly feminized industry […] a female sphere of production and consumption’. So how do we do fashion while recognising diversity, embracing equality and interrogating subordination?

My understanding is that as a feminist you embrace who you are as a person, irrespective (but not disrespecting) of your gender. With regards to adornment, it’s about a willingness to make fashion follow you; not the other way round. It’s about channelling your inner Judith Butler by breaking out of those dominant discourses which try to tell you how to behave.

Rather than being exploited by being told what to wear, you choose to wear things which reflects who you are, how you feel, and what you aspire to be. It’s about a process of inspiration, selection and expression. If, for you, that means ditching your underwear, then fine. If it means wearing a push-up bra that makes your tight T-shirt look brilliant in your eyes, then do it. Perhaps foregrounding underwear teeters close to once again equating fashion with a sexualised view of how a woman should look, but the point is that it is for you to decide. After all, fashion can be more than just wearing clothes if you want it to be. It can be political. It can be sartorial activism.

Sonia Rykiel aims to design clothing that puts the wearer first.

Today, we can see some fashion designers beginning to make wearable clothes for realistic body shapes – clothes that look good and feel great. Take Helene Cixous’ fervent discussion of her relationship with the clothes of fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, for example. This is one of the most poignant and affecting pieces of writing on fashion that I have ever encountered, and demonstrates the extent to which fashion is – or should be – about individualism. She writes, ‘One day I tried to put on a striped pullover but it didn’t work. The stripes crossed me out’ but ‘the dress by Sonia Rykiel [… ] comes to me, agrees with me, and me with it, and we resemble one another […]. […] the dress doesn’t separate inside from outside, it translates’. Her reflections on ‘dress’ (which she uses as an all-embracing term for the things which she wears) reiterate an important message about fashion; that you should not disguise yourself in clothes, but be yourself in clothes.