Monday, July 19, 2010

Feminist Fashion?

At the last Wiscon (which I had to miss) one of the panels was supposed to deal with fashion and feminism. Namely, whether one's interest in fashion can be feminist, since the traditional perception seems to be that fashion is a tool of patriarchal oppression. Which to me seems like a proposition based on several assumptions, not all of which are true.

So here's my one person version trying to examine these assumptions. I will also be trying to bring together some of the bits of ideas I talked about before, so there are a few links to old posts -- I'm just trying to put the whole thing together. First, we need to separate fashion as business from fashion as people being told what to wear.

1. Fashion as business. That's an interesting one. If one looks at Coco Chanel and Sonia Rykiel, as some obvious examples, it becomes pretty clear that fashion is just about the only industry where women were (and still are, to the large extent) allowed to become business moguls and make vast fortunes (another one is beauty industry). The fashion world remains largely overlooked by heterosexual men, and thus it very much developed as an industry where women were allowed to be independent and wealthy. Moreover, their wealth was based on catering to other women, primarily.

I heard arguments that this is not significant, that this is an industry based on women selling self-objectification to other women, that even though this industry is women-dominated, it still caters to male gaze. I have to disagree -- more on that later. At the same time, there are men in fashion industry -- many are gay, some are straight. They are often times valued higher than women (case in point: Isabel Toledo losing Vogue/CFDA award to Trovata). On the other hand, women were allowed to flourish, find employment, and even unionize. While the overall undervaluing of women is pretty much inherent in the society, the fact that fashion is such a female industry is at least partially responsible for the fact that it was overlooked by hetero men -- enough to allow women (and gay men) to have this space as their own.

It is of course not free of exploitation, especially now, being an industry and all -- sweatshops, disposable fashion, bargain brands all contribute to environmental degradation and exploitation of people abroad. This is the sort of issue that could be fixed through regulation of trade practices and is not inherent in the industry -- in fact, these practices contributed to the decline of garment industry in the US.

(There are of course other issues -- models, who are often teenagers, are vulnerable to eating disorders and a variety of abuses. The way models are positioned within the society is also deeply problematic. The fashion advertising can be questionable in many ways -- hello, American Apparel. It is not my intent to dismiss the problems, but rather to argue that the fashion industry is not inherently misogynistic.)

2. Fashion as what people wear. This is where many second-wavers often find fault. They are not wrong, of course -- for much of history, women's fashions were very much guided by the male gaze: witness the corsets and other period clothing. So it is tempting to interpret modern fashion through this lens exclusively. However, it is worth noticing that today fashion is much more diverse than it ever was - there's simply not a single dominant silhouette by which we usually recognize period clothing. It is possible to see corsets, flapper dresses, shapeless tunics, long hems, short hems, beaded gowns, flared jeans, mod shifts, high heels, athletic shoes etc etc in a single day, in a single city (granted, in this example the city is likely to be Western and largish, but the point stands.) For the first time in history, fashion is so democratically distributed and cycles so quickly, that everything is pretty much acceptable. As such, options are really not limited to what's approved by the male gaze -- on the contrary, there are quite a few designers that made their name by doing exactly the opposite.

I mean, Rei Kawakubo certainly doesn't lie awake all night thinking about making 'flattering' clothes. Neither does Vivienne Westwood nor Viktor and Rolf nor any number of avant garde designers. There's a pretty widespread meme that women dress either for men or for other women -- and a pretty interesting one, because it lets no option for women to dress for themselves. Sure, our clothing is used to project a certain image; it is also true that women will be judged by the way they dress and inferences will be made about their intelligence, competence, and sexuality based on what they wear. Dressing frumpier became almost a requirement in academia -- because if a woman shows any interest in fashion, it must be the only thing that occupies her limited capability lady-brain. It is curious to see how many feminist academics buy into this reasoning.

This is the process that can be manipulated, however, and in that women may choose to dress in the way that projects a certain image to the world OR they may choose to ignore the outward image completely and dress in the way that makes them happy. (We can, of course, argue how much patriarchy shapes the women's perception of what makes them happy --and it's a valid point, and maybe I'll talk about it some other time.) Fashion can be used as a jamming device -- by allowing one to create a new skin, a camouflage, it offers an unparalleled level of control over others' perceptions. Opting out is not really opting out, because that by itself will be used to judge a person; jamming of the signals, however, is a much more active way of having control over one's perceived appearance. Dressing for oneself (as long as it's examined) can serve a similar function -- people with unique esthetics are more difficult to pigeonhole. And it is certainly more liberating and revolutionary than regulation frump.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

New reader here. I've been thinking through these issues lately myself. For me, the de-emphasis on appearance is a reaction to the emphasis on sexual harassment in the 90's. Now, late in my career, I have begun to emphasize my appearance again.