Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Yellow Book

Recently I stumbled across a sentence - one of those wonderful sentences that clarifies or describes something you’ve already thought about, but haven’t quite put into words.

It was this: "femininity, fashion and feminism are not mutually exclusive and neither are politics, intellectual engagement and fashion." I found it in a comment piece by the ever-excellent Invisible Woman.

It was, in its own way, similar to the YES moment I felt on hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say of Zadie Smith in their live-streamed discussion,  “I’ve… really admired that she’s this brilliant woman who’s also a hot babe.”

What both statements demonstrate – in entirely different ways – is that there is (or at least should be) no contradiction between intelligence/ achievement/ academic prowess/ success/ politics and the desire to dress well or look good. Yet I’m surprised how often the two are set at odds, or deemed to be irreconcilable.

Think of Tom Newton Dunn tweeting “Boldly, @stellacreasy has just asked the PM to justify Page 3 – while wearing a bright blue PVC skirt in the Commons chamber.” Because apparently wearing something stylish or interesting disqualifies you from talking about sexism. It’s symbolic of a strange double problem. Female politicians not only tend to have their outfit choices dissected, regardless of what they’re wearing – but those who seem to enjoy what they’ve got on are treated with particular vehemence. I’m not sure what makes me more angry: the focus on female politicians’ clothes above their policies, the judgments attached to those clothes, or the attacks on those daring to think about or actively like their outfit choices. Possibly all three, because they come from a similar place of belittling and diminishment – of focusing only on female appearance, with an almost solely negative slant.

To return to Adichie, I found a brilliant essay of hers for Elle, titled Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? She talks about the difficulty of reconciling a love of clothing with the judgments of the literary world: “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance… the only circumstance under which caring about clothes was acceptable was when making a statement, creating an image of some sort to be edgy, eclectic, counterculture. It could not merely be about taking pleasure in clothes.”

There are some spheres in which my interest in all-things-style immediately  seems to mark me out as frivolous – or at least less likely to be taken seriously. “What a silly thing to profess any sort of engagement with when there are such serious issues out there.  Fashion? Bah - vanity, narcissism and capitalism – that’s all it is, right?”

Well, yes, those are three elements – but their existence doesn’t cancel out everything else. Saying they do is akin to dismissing all interest in conceptual art because of Damien Hirst’s and Jeff Koons’ money-driven attempts at provocation, or like deeming all current music to be a vapid, shallow industry of big egos and even bigger hair on the basis of One Direction.

Hadley Freeman has brilliantly summarized before how much of the dismissal of fashion can be seen as a subtle form of sexism; a kind of upturned nose towards a traditionally female interest. In regard to intellectual activity on the other hand, there has been a strong historical precedent of uneasy response to female education. In the Victorian era it was actually claimed that too much reading might affect reproductive abilities.

I wonder if the subsequent trend of female students and professionals adopting more masculine uniforms to (borrowing Adichie’s phrase) “substantiate their seriousness” – to prove themselves as non-feminine, non-superficial, non-frivolous – has contributed to a kind of dismissive sniffiness. It becomes a kind of either/ or. Either you’re concerned with the mind, and so are above worldly things, or you’re interested in the material and therefore have no brain space left for anything intellectual. Add in to this the fact that a woman who is confident in both her presentation and in her abilities is seen as a threat by some.

The whole subject needs more mulling over, I know. There are so many contradictions and there is also so much social history wrapped up in our modern day perceptions of fashion and what we wear.

To me, what matters is choice. My personal desire to actively enjoy what I wear doesn’t mean I think that that all other women, or men, should do the same. It’s the opposite – an understanding that each of us has different priorities and interests. For me this includes vintage dresses, stacks of books, red lipstick, literary criticism, well made brogues, feminist theory, flouncy skirts, cultural analysis of clothes, ball gowns and long, engaging conversations. They’re all part of a composite whole, and I feel fortunate to be able to exercise such choice. 

This colour themed mix of paperbacks and personal style was a delight to put together. All the books were pulled from our shelves, while the outfit is made up of shorts and a jacket from a charity shop (the latter bought for me by my mum) and a vintage shirt that belonged to a great-grandma. The heeled brogues are second hand Carvela. 


The Pale Female said...

Beautiful outfit and location, your pictures are just so dreamy and lovely xx

Willow said...

This piece so brilliantly and eloquently encapsulates all my thoughts on the matter and why the thought that fashion and feminism can't go hand in hand is utter nonsense. I read that piece by the Invisible Woman too and that sentence really jumped out at me as well.
I detest the fact that I'm often considered to "contradict myself as a feminist" because I'm wearing a fitted velvet skirt. Or my opinion can't be taken seriously because I'm wearing striped tights or a metallic belt. A lot of people I come across don't realise that that's exactly what feminism is about: freedom to be feminine or masculine or a little bit in between, freedom to challenge what femininity and masculinity actually ARE, and freedom to wear and act however you choose regardless of what is and isn't expected of you and your gender. I can't believe how many people think that by wearing something flattering, I'm contradicting my opinions about the objectification of women, cat calling, Page 3, etc. But there's absolutely nothing ironic about being a feminist who enjoys wearing heels and red lipstick, or a feminist whose a stay at home mum.
So I thought this piece was just BRILLIANT!

Ooh, and at your mention of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - she's just brilliant isn't she? - have you read her book 'Half of a Yellow Sun'? It's the most gorgeously written, moving book with beautiful portrayals of compassion and human emotion. I'm currently waiting for my mum to finish reading it so that I can drag her off to see the movie.

Once again: fantastic piece!

Kailey said...

I agree with the above comment - you are a dream <3

Closet Fashionista said...

So true! Why do you have to be "dumb" to love fashion and dress fashionably, it makes no sense.
That little short suit is so adorable! :D

Natalie Suarez said...

this was so well written and i absolutely love you!!! as always! x

Natalie Off Duty


I have been a huge fan of Adichie's works and loved her Elle article when I read it a while back. I will have to check out the livestream. I agree, personal choice is an important element. It's sad, female politicians seem to be analysed (sometimes ridiculed) down to the seams even before uttering their words.

daisychain said...

These photos belong on the pages of Vogue x

Vix said...

I consider fashion to be something we follow whereas style is innate. Fashion to me suggests being part of a pack and merely following the herd.
Whilst I adore beautiful clothes (such as your amazing yellow shorts and blazer) I like to think that intelligent women create their own style rather than blindly follow what the media deign we need to be wearing this season.
Adichie wrote one of my favourite ever books, Half of A Yellow Sun. xxxx

Ivana Split said...

Wonderfully written! You really made some excellent points here and the article as a whole is just perfect.

If woman need to imitate men in order to gain their freedom and achieve success, than we need to reconsider our logic. However, it is not just about imitating men. It seems that we're asked to give up a lot for nothing. Now, men can be quite the dandies. Most men care about their appearance. Most men spend as much on clothes as women do (they buy them less often but the quality of men's clothes is always much better and hence more expensive. I once bought some tops on men's department and they still look brand new. So, for practical reasons we could say we're the same in that sense).

Are men consider shallow if they turn up in an expensive suit? Will someone question a professor or a politician if he follows the trends? I don't think so. We as society have double standards, that much is clear.

Obviously, there should be a choice. Double standards seem to take away that choice. You're just more likely to be taken less seriously if you like things that are considered feminine and that is very sad.

Similarly, when women are being pushed into jobs being dominated by men than it is really not a choice anymore. Some jobs will always be in favor of one gender not just because of what is in our head, because of our stereotypes and etc but because of our biology. I think it is questionable when a woman is praised for joining the firefighters when that same woman has never been outside the firetruck because there is no way she can walk for miles with 30 kg of water tank on her back. But reporters will come and write an article about her not. I imagine (and this is an example from life) she doesn't have much fun waiting in the truck when everyone else is out there doing what they're paid for. It probably doesn't make her feel that great but people do what they need to do. If there is a certain number of jobs in the police, the army etc that because of law need to be filled with women, that they will be even when that is not the best situation. Women sometimes take those jobs not because they want to but because that have to. I don't see much newspaper articles about mothers and I'm sure many mothers would have some valuable things to share.

To conclude, I think that the worst thing is this idea that there is something wrong about being womanly and feminine...and somewhere deep inside is the idea that there is something wrong about being a woman.

That's the core problem I would say. What we're being ask for is not to be more like men (because men care about fashion too) but to be less like woman, to be less ourselves and that's just wrong.

Your outfit today is a triumph of femininity! It's absolutely fabulous!

Sally said...

Thank you for this, my friends and I struggle with these perceptions a lot.

Puneet said...

Wonderful post with beautiful pics, nice photo shouts.
Such a beautiful pics.

Cameron Adams said...

Celebration vs. objectification has always seemed something of a fine distinction to me. Here you've reduced that tension by broadening the context with an eloquence to match your elegance.

Lally said...

OH this is brilliant! I studied fashion history and theory and I can't tell you the amount of times someone has said to me 'that's a subject? you study CLOTHES! hah'. Fashion certainly has a long history of being harangued however I do think it has started to change for the better and posts like this only help it further!

p.s it might be a little frivolous but fantastic outfit!


Kiara Schwartz said...

Obsessed with everything about this!
Tobruckave Blog

Melanie said...

I definitely went through a phase of down-dressing in university when I was studying conceptual art, knowing that I would not be taken seriously if I paid attention to my looks in male-dominated classes where nobody seemed to open their eyes all the way anyway, the studied look of "the intellectual." Now I know better...

This is a vexing problem you write about. I have always believed that the world would be a more peaceful place if all the men and women at the UN wore colourful paisley and hot pants and bell bottoms. Clothes set a mood, which ties into your piece in ways I can't get into here...

You are dazzling among the dandelions. Your mum has a great eye for cool clothes. I can't believe I almost missed this post!