In the current issue of Ms. Magazine (Fall 2011) is an article I wrote called “If the Clothes Fit” that explores the everyday uses of fashion as both a tool for women’s empowerment and oppression. This issue should still be available on news stands. And recently, an excerpt of the essay has also been published online, along with wonderful comments from Marilyn Kirschner, Julia Caron, and Marjorie Jolles.
What follows below is the “Director’s Cut” version of that article which includes some ideas and issues that, for various reasons, were cut out of the print article.
In 1997, Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter wrote an article for Vogue magazine disclosing “[her] love of shopping malls, lipstick colours, literary makeovers, and fashion catalogues.” She admits that her “passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.” For this confession, the scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founder of feminist literary criticism was pilloried not only by her colleagues but also grad students at Princeton and beyond. They sniffily remarked that surely, she must have “‘better things to do’ than to write for these magazines”–all while insisting “that they had better things to do than read them, and would not have even read [her] article except in the line of feminist theoretical duty.”
If Showalter’s experience illustrates the vexed relationship that feminists have with fashion then recent and highly publicized calls to give feminism a makeover by pop music stars, “fashion civilian” bloggers, and fashion editors demonstrates that Fashionable Society is equally uneasy with feminism. In the all-important September issue (2011), editor-in-chief of Elle magazine Roberta Myers insists:
In terms of that word feminist, a radical proposal seems in order . . . How about we call someone who’s a believer in equal rights and respect for personal choice something like a . . . feminine-ista. Kinda like a fashionista! A feminine-ista believes that women can work and/or stay home and raise kids and/or run for president—i.e., make her life as full and gratifying as she can in any way she chooses, all while delighting in her ‘femininity.’ Lacy bra wearers of the world unite!
Such examples are precisely the reason fashion people and feminists are so often believed to be at odds with one another. And yet while the relationship between these two camps and their respective F words is complex and oftentimes contentious, neither has ever been entirely able to do away with the other. Consider Showalter’s ambivalence about fashion “as a longtime feminist and a university professor”: “I just can’t seem to adjust. I’m a woman who never saw an earring I didn’t like, who has as many back copies of Vogue as Victorian Studies, whose idea of bliss is an afternoon in the makeup department at Saks.” Similarly, Myers isn’t advocating for a retreat from feminism. Unlike Phyllis Schlafly and her political progeny including Michelle Bachman, the fashion editor wants to revive feminism—albeit with a makeover.
The ambivalent nature of the relationship between fashion and feminism is why the question I’m so often posed as an academic who writes about, researches, and teaches the cultural, social, political, affective, and informational economies of fashion—namely, is fashion feminist?—the wrong question to ask. In fact, it’s a red herring that suggests fashion and feminism might have nothing to do with each other. But fashion and feminism have long been intimately connected, even if that intimacy is (as so many intimacies are) a deeply fraught one.
To be sure, fashion and feminism are laden with their own ambivalences and contradictions. Fashion is a tool of individual self-making and yet a technology of social conformity. Since the industrial age of fashion’s mass production, it has valorized “individual choice” (of sartorial expression and consumer products) yet these choices are circumscribed by a seemingly endless list of formal and informal Fashion Don’ts that reproduce and secure a broad constellation of normative ideologies about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship. Feminism’s own contradictions are legion as well. To begin, its call for women’s liberation has historically demanded the silencing and subjugation of working and racialized women. As we know from bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, and so many others who are less celebrated but no less remarkable in their everyday struggles at the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia, a great many women’s voices, experiences, histories, and needs go unheard by mainstream feminism.
And yet for all these contradictions, fashion and feminism are both concerned with power imposed and power assumed. They are both simultaneously instruments of social control and social transformation. They are both, in the words of Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss, “about signifiers and signatures.”
Fashion’s capacity to draw out as well as to draw on the political power of aesthetics to intervene in male-privileged domains has been proven time and again. In the late 1800s, young women in the U.S., England, and France who wanted to assert their modern sensibilities and independence adapted menswear looks and accessories. The tie, a long-accepted material sign of men’s social status and aspirations, was a key element in the “feminist uniform” of the 1890s. Madeleine Ginsburg explains: “The very high, stiff, stud-fastened collar and plain tie secured by a small pearl pin are uncompromising assertions of a claim to sex equality and mark an assault on masculine privilege.” Almost a century later, we would witness another fashion era in which women again appropriate men’s styles of dress—this time, the era of power dressing in the 1980s. In an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling, “career women” wore tailored skirt suits with shoulder pads in somber solid colors (mirroring the style of the professional male executive). In enabling “women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions,” Joanne Entwistle observes that power dressing “was inherently conservative . . . recommending women to . . . avoid trousers at all costs since these are supposedly threatening to male power.” But in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic Senator from Illinois and the first African American woman elected to the Senate, not only broke a decades-long dress ban by wearing a pantsuit on the Senate floor, she also shattered the masculinist edicts framing women’s “power suits”.
But feminist histories of fashion go beyond women appropriating men’s styles of dress. Suffragists at the turn of the 20th century purposefully employed fashion as nonverbal political statements—a useful strategy when the rhetoric of equality continually falls on deaf ears. Green, white metal, and violet jewelry were favored accessories. The first letters of each color—G, W, V—was understood as a shorthand for their cause: Give Women Votes.
Around the same time, Clara Lemlich a young striker among the more than 20,000 female garment workers of New York City participating in the great shirtwaist strike of 1909 explained to a reporter from the New York Evening Journal that one of their demands included having a place to put their hats during work hours: “Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It is never much to look at because it never costs more than fifty cents, but it’s pretty sure spoiled after its been at the shop . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn’t we?” In her fabulous study of the culture and politics of early 20th century working women’s labor, Nan Enstad explains that for these working women “hats signaled women’s status as workers who earned their own money . . . When women insisted on their own money . . . they insisted that the heretofore masculine label of ‘worker’ be extended to them.” For immigrant working women or the women who were children of immigrants, the fashionable hat had an added meaning: “hats could signal Americanization within the immigrant family, as women adopted modern styles sometimes at odds with their parents’ traditions.”
While these fashionable accessories gave material and aesthetic expression to an array of feminist politics and desires at specific historical moments, many of these expressions are constituted through the subjugation of other women. Returning to Enstad’s discussion of late 19th century immigrant working women’s cultural politics and practices, consider how only some hats had the symbolic power to signal the wearer’s Americanness. Non-Western head coverings were certainly worn by immigrants in turn-of-the-century America but because they didn’t conform to dominant standards of fashion (as determined by early fashion media such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies’ Home Journal) these head coverings were not imbued with the same kind of social value. Hats that were not sanctioned by the fashion elite as legitimately “fashionable” thus marked the wearer as traditional, not modern and not American.
In reserving the category of “fashion” exclusively for certain kinds of white Western bourgeois styles of dress and personhood, the fashion elite have hijacked the term. Styles and practices of dress not sanctioned by the fashion elite are relegated to the broad category of “non-fashion,” which includes everything from outdated clothing styles to “ethnic garb.” In this binary logic, “fashion” is the sign of Western modernity, innovation, dynamism, and choice (a point Myers emphasizes so strongly) and non-fashion is the sign of the unmodern, the uninnovative, the static, and the oppressed. People associated with non-fashions like, say “ethnic garb,” are imagined as “traditional” subjects who lag behind or are situated outside of the modern West.
Fashion’s alignment with “the modern” and, tacitly, white American and Western European culture is a foundational fiction of fashion that passes for self-evident truth in too much popular, vernacular, and critical fashion discourse. But fashion isn’t alone in its imperialist claims on “the modern”. This dominant logic of fashion is part and parcel of what Minoo Moallem usefully describes as “civilizational thinking”: “a powerful modern discourse influenced by the Enlightenment and the idea of progress dividing the civility of the ‘West’ from the barbarism of the ‘Rest.’” Hardly an innocent sartorial designation, the logic of “ethnic garb” which places some practices and styles of dress outside of the category of Fashion (and all the positive connotations that accrue to it) has produced devastating material, social, and physical consequences.
As we have just passed the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we might consider how civilizational-sartorial thinking has shaped recent cultural politics and military policies. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, veils and veiled Muslim women were pathologized as passive victims in need of rescue from their oppressive religion, culture, and men. As I discuss in greater detail elsewhere, it was not just the fashion media but also the news media, politicians, and, yes, mainstream feminists who perceived the veil as the exemplary Other to fashion. Consider this statement by a Salon.com writer: “frivolous fashion is itself a patriotic symbol of America: You may never be able to afford that shredded Georgette Givenchy gown, but at least you aren’t forced to live underneath a burqa.” The veil, within this civilizational logic, is rendered the material symbol of not only Eastern tradition (as opposed to Western modernity) but a tradition imagined as brutally backwards and oppressive. This image of the victimized veiled woman played a large role in substantiating the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. Recall all the ways in which the U.S. State Department’s Report on the Taliban’s War against Women centered on the burqa and its perceived infringement on Muslim women’s freedoms. Civilizational thinking occludes the possibility that the burqa might be a fashionable garment that women wear to express their own identities, worldviews, and choices. In other words, civilizational-sartorial thinking denies Muslim women’s agency and in so doing, it negates important feminist histories of veiling such as the choice of some Egyptian women in the 1970s and 1980s to veil as a resistant act challenging Western and secular cultural domination.
Ironically, on certain bodies (often, white, thin, and normative gender-presenting) “non-fashion” can be transformed into “fashion”. By the latter half of the 2000s, burqas and other kinds of veils were seen on fashion runways and magazines, worn by young white models like the Australian Gemma Ward. But instead of operating as a material sign of unmodern, non-Western, Oriental otherness, the young, white Australian model’s body legitimated the burqa as a cosmopolitan commodity belonging to and circulating within multicultural global capitalism.
The many incidences of fashion’s cultural appropriation are too long to list but some are found in the histories of now iconic and/or trendy garments like bloomers, miniskirts, and name plate necklaces. Each of these items originated in “non-fashionable” locations but came to be later recognized as “fashionable” when worn on the bodies of influential white women.
In Sally Roesch Wagner’s book Sisters in Spirit, she recounts a little-known history of the bloomer, the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles usually associated with dress reformers in the mid 19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by the dress practices of Native Haudenosaunee women. “Smith was among the first to shed the twenty pounds of clothing that fashion dictated should hang from any fashionable woman’s waist, usually dangerously deformed from corseting. The reform costume Elizabeth Smith adopted (named the ‘Bloomer’ after the newspaper editor who popularized it) promised the health and comfort of the loose-fitting tunic and leggings worn by Native American friends.” That the fashion histories and contributions of Native women go largely unmentioned in the popular and critical accounts of this iconic garment—also called, curiously, the Syrian Suit in a report by the 1891 Council of Women and in 1909 the “harem pant” by French fashion designer Paul Poiret—is a reminder of the racial exclusions as well as racial elisions that constitute prevailing fashion and feminist histories.
In the contemporary era, miniskirts and nameplate necklaces—once considered unfashionable markers of non middle-class identities—have been appropriated by fashion elites. Long before the 1960s, miniskirts were popular styles of dress among exotic dancers and prostitutes but it wasn’t until Mary Quant began designing her own miniskirts and selling them in her popular London shop in the early 1960s that its “seediness” was transformed into stylishness. Others like André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent followed Quant with their own miniskirts, helping to launch a distinctive and international style called “Mod” that would define the 1960s.
The fashion history of the nameplate necklace is quite similar to the miniskirt in that its subcultural popularity preceded fashion’s appropriation of it. Throughout the 1980s, “large, shimmering, gold, or silver nameplate necklaces” gleamed on the bodies of many young Black and Latino men and women in urban areas. For young African Americans especially, these nameplate necklaces, as one blogger incisively points out, “married a historical need for acknowledgment and singularity with fashion. . . [N]ameplate necklaces . . . were worn to communicate the importance and individuality of its wearer.” Again, such fashions—though popular in the street styles of urban America—did not gain mainstream fashion legitimacy until Carrie Bradshaw (the television role that made Sarah Jessica Parker a household name) wore one on Sex and the City. Today, nameplate necklaces, while still nodding to street style, are predominantly associated with Parker, a white actor and fashion icon.
In tracing the cross-genealogies and contradictions of fashion and feminism, it’s impossible not to notice the double bind created by the politicization of fashion. From the feminist uniform of the 19th century and onward, the feminist politics of fashion have operated within and been limited by a regime of appearance that has historically impacted women differently than men. If fashion has been a useful anchor—albeit in uneven ways—with which to harness new styles and meanings of femininity it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic, and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearance. Even anti-fashions like grunge and punk which eschew traditional cultural and aesthetic styles of femininity can reproduce other modes of femininity that imply a normative masculinity.
In the age of social media, the speed and scope of the production, consumption, and circulation of fashion’s objects, images, and ideas have increased significantly. Not only have consumer sites been expanded to include any place with a WiFi connection, we have all-day access to fashion images and ideas produced by the fashion establishment as well as by other fashion consumers, notably fashion bloggers. The phenomenon of fashion blogs, vlogs, and apps, like fashion itself, is laden with contradictions. Ubiquitous computing enable and encourage continual image management that, in many ways, reinforce the regime of appearance; at the same time, the centrality of ordinary users in new media has expanded fashion discourse to include new voices, bodies, aesthetics, and ideas with regard to fashion and feminism.
Reina Lewis, an internationally renowned feminist scholar of postcolonialism, made a wonderful observation at a recent symposium held at the London College of Fashion. Remarking on the emergence of the “modest fashion blogosphere,” Lewis notes:
Women’s online discourse about modesty contributes a distinctively gendered strand to the emergence online of new forms of religious discourse usually regarded as a male sphere of activity . . . As women’s products and ideas circulate in the blogosphere, discussion fora, on YouTube, and through sales, we see the development of new networks with the potential to displace discourses about modesty into arenas beyond traditional religious authority structures.
In addition to modest fashion, blogs that celebrate—oftentimes quite critically—an array of non-normative raced, gendered, sexed, and sized bodies and fashions have also emerged to challenge the dominant messages of the fashion establishment. These aren’t always without their own problems but they’ve had an undeniable impact on the fashion system. Recall, for instance, the blog-initiated campaign in 2010 that pressured MAC and the design team Rodarte to abandon their collection of cosmetics with names like “Ghost Town,” “Factory,” and “Juarez” (referencing the bordertown notorious for the mass murders of women, many of whom are employed by the maquiladoras). Ordinary Internet users’ online discourse and actions not only sparked important conversations about violence against women and the role global capitalism plays in enabling this violence, the digital protest had a material effect. MAC ultimately pulled the lucrative line from distribution. As MAC President John Demsey posted on the company’s Facebook page, “We have heard the response of concerned global citizens loud and clear and are doing our very best to right our wrong.”In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment. It is up to us to speak.