Feminism vs fashion (or why the fashion industry wants to crush your creativity)

Ok, I know, I’ve ranted about this before. But this blog post on Confessions of a Fashion Editor got me thinking about it all over again, and an extended comment became an essay and veered off in an entirely unexpected direction… So I thought perhaps turning it into a blog post might be a better option. Here we go again!

So: Can a fashionista be a feminist?

The crux of this debate seems to lie in the idea that women wear clothes for the sake of attracting men, thereby employing the classic “wiles” technique to get what they want. It suggests that to take an interest in what you’re wearing is traditionally feminine and therefore anti-femininst, that to be traditionally feminine somehow undermines your human-ness,  that femininity, indeed is a lesser trait than masculinity. In short, the entire notion of feminism in this model is flawed, in that it is confirms the idea that femininity is the lesser humanity.

As I commented on the post itself, I subscribe to a different brand of feminism. For me, feminism is about celebrating womanhood, making choices to live my life in the way that makes me happiest and not being judged or short-changed by either sex for making those choices. If my choices include fashion, crafting, motherhood – any of the traits deemed traditionally feminine, this should not detract from the fact that I have the power to choose them!

In case you hadn’t grasped the notion from the above paragraph, my brand of feminism is about CHOICE. It is about realising the power held within some traditionally feminine roles. And increasingly, I see the same brand championed by women everywhere.

Fashion vs creativity

I think fashion blogging, in particular daily outfit blogging, has started to break down the suggestion that women dress to impress men already. Afterall, the majority of both bloggers and blog readers in this arena are individual, independent women with their own take on fashion and style that demonstrates creativity and individuality. These are the women I dress to impress on a daily basis. And these, in my opinion, are the traits that the fashion industry wishes to curtail.

Historically speaking, haute couture began to lose some of its power in the late 1940s, when a post-war Europe, determined to regain a sense of feminine style lost to munitions factories and the Women’s Land Army, saw Dior’s 1947 New Look and decided that they wanted a piece of it. Yes, a few department stores had rights to recreate the designs, but Britain, at least, was still entrenched in clothes rationing, and few women across Europe had the funds for new clothes. The achieve-anything attitude of the previous eight years had taught women that nothing was out of their reach. Vogue patterns, which had been available since 1899 and seen their first surge of success during World War 1, were eagerly snatched up by those desperate to recreate the New Look on a budget. Creativity and individuality were the buzzwords of the day – how else were we to create that perfect dress within the constraints of the limited fabrics and notions available?

Feminism vs creativity

Sewing and crafting have always been women’s work, and creativity is often linked to femininity. In stifling our femininity over the last 30 years, we have perpetuated a marked decline in those who know how to cut patterns or tailor dresses, or even simply embellish or alter existing clothing. The high street has flourished, forcing tailors out of business and bringing us identikit outfits in every size and colour, but if we want something individual and of a decent quality and fit, our only options are boutique or haute couture. High fashion and the high street alike profit from our quashed femininity, as they provide us with something we can no longer provide for ourselves.

Which is why we’re seeing the current thriving interest in handicrafts from women who are recognising the old ways as their means to independence. Dressmaking used to give us a means of expression and an outlet for our creativity, alongside the means to impress our girlfriends while sticking two fingers up at the fashion houses. When post-70s bra-burning feminism embraced the 80s power-dressing, closely followed by the rise of 90s androgyny, we shook off the shackles of enforced feminine crafts, but with it lost some of their attached empowerment. We’re only now rerealising how empowering femininity can be.

I am aware that there are uncountable other reasons why fashion is an anti-feminist industry, but from where my vintage heels are standing, it is impossible to deny that femininity, creativity and fashion are interlinked.

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6 thoughts on “Feminism vs fashion (or why the fashion industry wants to crush your creativity)

  1. Spectacularly well put. Amazing. You are brilliant.

    I agree that feminism is about choice – and that that choice goes both ways. I like that now traditionally feminine crafts are just “crafts” for any who choose to to take part in and enjoy, man and woman alike.

  2. This is a really interesting post, and a very interesting topic. I’ve just finished reading two excellent books that consider this point (and others) ‘The Thoughtful Dresser’ by Linda Grant and ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard. Grant argues really persuasively and passionately that of course it’s possible to be a feminist and to care about your clothes. Of course it is! To argue anything else is to suggest that women are simple-minded, I think. You make a very good point when you say that the fashion industry itself can be considered anti-feminist. The industry IS anti-feminist, but caring about dress isn’t. In fact, in many ways fashion has been instrumental in granting women freedom – mass produced leather shoes allowed women to leave the home, and department stores were among the first places outside the home where women could go alone, without needing to be chaperoned by men (a fascinating novel to read on this subject is Au Bonheur Des Dames by Emile Zola, which is about the first grands magasins in Paris) Coco Chanel pioneered comfortable and fashionable clothes that allowed women to move about freely while still feeling attractive – she was one of the first people to use cheap but comfortable fabrics like jersey in her haute couture designs.

    Caring about how we look is not just about attracting men. Adornment is something that is present in every culture, and has been throughout history. It’s even there in the Bible – the golden calf that Aaron made when Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments was made out of the gold earrings his people wore – they wore gold earrings when on exile in the desert! Linda Grant tells the very moving story about how, when the concentration camps were liberated, the women were given lipstick. These women had been forced to go naked, had been raped, had their humanity stripped away – and a bit of lipstick was for many of them the first step to regaining their humanity. Not because it made them more attractive to men, but because adornment is so much a part of our animal selves.

    I don’t entirely agree that feminism is merely a matter of choice, however. None of us make choices in a vacuum. I know that I choose to wear dresses and high heels and to paint my face, and I am happy that the choice is mine to make. But I’m also conscious of the societal influences that frame my choices and I can’t honestly say that if society was different that my choices wouldn’t be different as well. I just don’t know if they would. When I put on high heeled shoes I do it because I choose to – and I am priviliged enough and educated enough to know that these leather shoes grant me freedom in one respect, but that they’re also an instrument of pain. I believe that it’s not enough to say that choice – equality, because there are so many factors framing our choices.

    The anti-feminist nature of the fashion and garment industries means that ‘traditionally feminine crafts’ are now becoming a way of establishing feminism and femininity. If you can make your own clothes, or can find second hand and vintage clothes it means that you can escape the body fascism of these industries, which seek to reduce your body to a number. Again, however, it’s not enough to say this is just about choice. Those of us who have the time and resources to make our own clothes, or to shop away from the high street – we’re the privilged few, really. That’s a choice not every woman has been empowered or enabled to make. I know you’re not arguing that it is – and that this is a much bigger argument – but I suppose it is still part of the discourse.

    Anyway, I’ve talked enough for now I think 🙂

  3. This is a really articulate discussion of the relationship between fashion, craft and feminism, beautifully written as always! I agree totally with what you say about feminism being about choices. I think being interested in crafts and fashion is still a tricky one for feminist minded women as there is always the risk that people will assume you are desperate to snare a man. Paradoxically I think both fashion and craft are outlets for individuality that transcend a gendered interpretation of leisure interests.
    Since I’ve been trying to be more ‘craft-active’ (this totally isn’t a real phrase, I’ve made it up) I’ve felt more feminine and feminist. I certainly feel more empowered being able in crafts than I ever do from simply being financially autonomous, but I also feel able to explore femininity more. Maybe it has something to do with actually knowing I can provide for myself and relish the process of doing so. I think Lauren makes an excellent point about crafts being traditionally gendered activities but are now more accessible and open to anyone. For this reason I’m over the moon that my OH has expressed an interest in sewing.
    This is a brilliant post- love x

  4. I totally agree with everything you’ve said here, Caroline. It really frustrates me when people equate caring about your appearance as “un-feminist”. I consider myself to be a feminist, but I don’t think that means I have to ditch my high heels and stop being interested in fashion: what rubbish! And as for “dressing for men”, most of the women I know are actually more interested in what other women think of their outfits – I know I am, and I think the current popularity of personal style blogs seems to support that: most of the readers of those blogs are female, and, if anything, they’re hoping for approval from each other, not to attract men. Every so often I get comments on The Fashion Police from well-meaning men who say things like, “If you girls only knew how sexy we find stockings and sandals, you’d wear them all the time!” and I just think, “So? I don’t care what you find ‘sexy’, so I’ll wear whatever I like, thanks…” I think most of the women I know are the same.

    Anyway, I’ll try not to ramble on (just for a change), just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post 🙂

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