The words ‘fashion’ and ‘feminism’ may share the same initial letter, but according to some they are just too opposite ever to be reconciled. With all due respect, that’s rubbish. They might be on different sides of the coin, but there is (or at least should be) nothing stopping a feminist from being interested in and engaged with fashion. As I've mentioned before, I define myself as a liberal feminist – believing primarily in equality between the genders. For me feminism is about challenging various archaic expectations and assumptions. It’s what I like to refer to as a choice and a voice (for a more extended definition, please see my piece How to be a Woman). I’m also a great fashion lover. It can be a strong means of empowerment – not only a confidence enhancer, but also a way of defining personality and revelling in display. Writers from Colette to Angela Carter have picked up on the ability of costume to conceal and reveal, rightly noting that what we wear and why is a fascinating topic of discussion.
However, traditional feminist rhetoric has often painted fashion merely as a way of controlling women. See how the slavish masses follow trends! Watch them spend squillions on handbags! Look at the frivolity they are mindlessly trapped in! In among the hyperbole there are some sparks of truth. There are morally questionable areas of the industry that do not easily sit with those interested in equality, body image and women’s self worth. But the more positive aspects bear evaluation too. Alice Blackhurst has spent the last few years researching the intersection of fashion and feminism in France, and she very kindly agreed to furnish me with some incisive observations and opinions on the links between the two.
When talking about fashion, it is assumed that only one of two views can be adopted. Either the industry can do no wrong and people who don’t like it should just leave it alone; or alternately fashion is at the root of many modern evils – including (but not limited to) anorexia, rampant capitalism, cruelty to animals, fear of aging, human rights abuses and general vapidity. What is needed somewhere between these two starkly contrasting judgments is a little nuance. The psychological impact of advertising and editorials, particularly in the wake of Photoshop’s popularity, should not be brushed under the rug. Neither should the glorification of youth and skinniness over all other forms of beauty (see Mirror, Mirror). These are very real and serious issues that do deserve more attention. Nonetheless, an awareness of these problems should not stop anyone from loving other elements of fashion or enjoying dressing each day. As Alice notes: “Whilst the fashion world is far from perfect, current responses intent on combatting the ‘unrealistic’ fashion image feel a little patronising. Presuming that women are hysterically sensitive to what they are shown in the media, it suggests our inability to appreciate fashion shoots’… vision and to turn the page, fully aware that what we have been party to is fantasy.”
I recently saw the Tim Walker exhibition at Somerset House, and wandered from room to room entranced by his imagination. It was a magnificent insight into hundreds of visions and ideas – from dolls to spaceships, stately homes and skeletons – with some very gorgeous clothes involved. Walker transcends reality to provide the purest and most glorious form of escapism. It is quite obvious that his photos are fantasy. Walker is at the more outlandish end of the scale, but we generally accept that fashion shoots do not attempt to portray reality. They are narratives and stories, not photo-journalism. However, this does not provide a ‘get out of jail free’ card to those who claim that the body size of models is beyond scrutiny – particularly if, as a feminist, one is interested in the impact of such a homogenised, super-slender ideal.
And yet, the Internet has increasingly allowed for a wider range of aesthetics and looks to be celebrated. Perhaps the relationship between fashion and feminism bears re-evaluation in the ‘digital age’. Alice observes that current criticism of fashion’s capacity to restrict and suppress women “overlooks… our dizzying ability to curate personalised style profiles online which stand their ground against and alongside the glossies. As well as the unstoppable influence of street and self-style blogs, the collage aesthetic promoted by sites like Tumblr and Pinterest means that fashion today is as bespoke and customised as the suits and dresses it inspires.” This process of creation and projection has always, for me, been at the heart of my love for style. It covers everything from deciding that pink and turquoise is a delicious combination for an outfit for college, to choosing a drop-dead fabulous green satin dress for a vintage ball. Being able to showcase some of these style decisions online through my blog has been, and continues to be, wonderful. It provides an additional reason for choosing my clothes carefully, and really forces me to focus on the visual power of what I wear. Alice also acknowledges that “Rather than remaining slaves to fashion, we increasingly have the power to engage in an active process of self-fashioning. We can… choose how we present ourselves to the world, move towards controlling our own self-image.” The Internet has often been referred to as a platform for ‘democratising’ fashion. I’m not sure if this is the right word – for even among blogs there is still a hierarchy, with those featuring high-end clothes and high street finds often finding the widest readerships. However, the spectrum of style has certainly widened, taking in everything from Vintage Vixen’s simply brilliant seventies get-ups to Barbro Anderson’s luxurious layering. When put together, the range of blogs I read encapsulates style in its diversity, rather than in its similarity – with each blogger choosing how to present themselves to their audience.
Alice continues: "As well as encouraging us to tailor our individual tastes and sensibilities, fashion in the context of the Internet encourages communication.” This reminded me of a piece I read by Elizabeth Wilson in the book Chic Thrills in which she observed that “Dress… is the material with which we ‘write’ or ‘draw’ a representation of the body.” By Alice’s definition, clothing can also be used to ‘write’ or ‘draw’ our personalities – communicating aspects of our selves to others. These are ever shifting aspects though, summed up in her claim that “Fashion… at its best would understand ‘identity’ as a work in progress.”
It was Alice’s final point that struck me as the most pertinent. She argues that: “In their mutual concern for new forms, new structures, and new ‘modes’ of expression in society, feminism and fashion might be allies." But first, she says, we might have to re-define feminism – replacing ‘Feminism’ with a capital F with plural and diverse ‘feminisms’." Feminism encompasses numerous areas requiring different approaches and solutions. It is like a kaleidoscope - multi-faceted. New perspectives emerge all the time, and these must be recognised. That kaleidoscope analogy is appropriate for fashion too. Clothing has varying functions and purposes: to be sensuous, to be practical, to provide a uniform, to be outrageous, to blend in. But for me it's the dressing up, the donning of a costume, that thrills the most.
Thanks to Alice for the fantastic and thought-provoking quotes. The shoot is one I've been wanting to post since it took place over the summer holidays. The stunning model is my friend Caitlin - who is now illustrating for Rookie. She also made a feminist zine a while ago. I thought it appropriate to illustrate a piece on fashion and feminism with a series of images celebrating dressing up and running wild. All clothes are from my wardrobe: a mixture of second hand, vintage, family owned and gifts. I was vaguely inspired by the idea of what Kate Bush might look like were she clad in pastels and rich fabrics.