Feminism is a grass roots social, cultural, and political movement, whose concern is with gender inequalities and equal rights for women. Ms. Magazine, the voice of feminism for about 40 years, is addressing the relationship between feminism and fashion with a feature in their current issue, If the Clothes Fit - A Feminist Takes On Fashion which deals with the social pressure historically put on women's appearances, the physical scrutiny and significance of their dress and grooming habits (especially in the work place), and the pressure on women to be fashionable. The author, Minh-Ha. T. Pham, is an assistant professor in the History of Art & Visual Studies department and Asian American Studies program at Cornell University, a co-author of the blog Threadbared, and also curates the blog Of Another Fashion .
An excerpt from the article went live the other day: http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2012/01/17/if-the-clothes-fit-a-feminist-takes-on-fashion/ . Among her observations: fashion, like so many other things associated primarily with women, may be dismissed as trivial, but it shapes how we’re viewed by others, especially on the levels of gender, class and race. In turn, how we’re read determines how we are treated, especially in the workforce — whether we are hired, promoted and respected, and how well we are paid. That most ordinary and intimate of acts, getting dressed, has very real political and economic consequences. If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it. Fortunately, history has shown that feminists can, instead, harness fashion and use it for our own political purposes.
Okay, first, let me just say that if a woman wants to wear hooker shoes, that's her choice. If she is only buying them because she is being told they are the height of fashion, she should have her head examined. I have said before teetering on shoes you can't walk in without holding onto your companion is just plain stupid and unattractive. There is nothing modern or chic about that. There are as many great looking flats and low heels as there are mile high stilettos, and not every designer or shoe company proposes only ridiculously high high heels. Secondly, it is not just women who are being pre-judged based on their appearance -- men too. Everyone is under the same scrutiny; it is simply human nature.
That said, I would go a step further and suggest that fashion IS the essence of feminism and, when used properly, it can be the ultimate feminist tool. What is more feminist than something that empowers women? What is more empowering than the confidence that comes from knowing you have what it takes to look and feel your best regardless of the occasion or situation? Informed, smart, clothing choices, especially those things that not only look good but are practical and functional, have the power to do just that.
Clothing is not only required by law (well, in most places anyway), but it's a necessity: protective against the elements, it has the ability to enhance, camouflage and hide those things we want to hide (it's quicker, easier and less painful than plastic surgery though admittedly, not always less costly - LOL). It allows for self expression and let's us be whomever we want, whenever we want. Women wear many hats these days and we have to be quick change artists. When you know you are properly and appropriately turned out, it frees your mind and allows you to get on with life and focus on the more important things at hand.
Sure, if the obsession with clothes and fashion, and all things superficial, spirals out of control, or if it is a dangerously expensive addiction that gets in the way of living a normal life, that is not good or healthy. Luckily, this could not be a better time for fashion and feminism. Fashion is completely democratic and readily accessible at all price points; it's simply ridiculous to suggest one need to break the bank to look great. And only a fool would think they have to buy new things every season or blindly follow trends. Having style has nothing to do with any of that. It's about freedom of expression and freedom of choice, and being true to who you are.
As for dress codes, they basically don't exist anymore and unless you are working in a corporate environment, there is a wide range of ways in which to dress. Traditional sexual stereotypes and roles (along with age old conventions and mores) have been completely challenged and all but broken down. There is a continuing blurring of the line between what is considered traditionally male and traditionally female and, in fact, some of the best pieces each season are completely unisex.
The idea that fashion design is the bi-product of men objectifying women to fulfill their own fantasies is old and passe and could not be further from the truth (though if you want to be objectified, you can do that - it's your choice so go for it!) Just think about designers like Nicolas Guesquiere, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Francisco Costa, Ralph Rucci, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Oliver Theyskens, Helmut Lang, Christopher Bailey, Dries Van Noten among others, who consistently address the needs of smart, chic, modern women without ever degrading or objectifying them. Speaking of which, where would we be without the late, great Yves Saint Laurent who shocked the world when he put women in pantsuits, tuxedos, pea jackets and trench coats? And while women designers may still be outnumbered by the guys, they have been and will continue to be major design forces, who understand first hand, what women need and want.
Where to begin? How about with Coco Chanel, perhaps the greatest designer of all time and a true feminist. She broke the rules and bended tradition with her menswear inspired designs which were meant to be freeing, easy, and comfortable, not to mention truly chic. The names of other revered innovators both past and present: Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli, (both of whom will be honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in their upcoming blockbuster spring exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, May 10 through August 19, 2012), Phoebe Philo, Mme. Gres, Claire McCardell, Donna Karan (she gave us 8 easy pieces and a system for dressing that was modern and highly practical), Bonnie Cashin (the essence of practicality with those amazing pockets), Isabel Toledo, Anne Klein, Norma Kamali, Yeohlee, Maria Cornejo, and Diane von Furstenberg. By the way, the work of many of the aforementioned names (both men and women) will be included in Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA, an exhibition at the Museum at FIT, February 10 - April 17, 2012, www.fitnyc.edu/museum .
Finally, as for the notion that fashion should be dismissed as something frivolous and superficial, let me just say that I always loved fashion and knew early on that I wanted to be a fashion editor. Upon graduation from George Washington University with a B.A. in art history/sociology, I returned to New York to fulfill my dream. After working at Harper's Bazaar as an assistant fashion editor for a little while, I began to wonder if I was wasting my college education and started to feel as though I had to make excuses for pursuing such a 'frivolous' career. I even thought about taking the law boards (truly!). Then I had an epiphany of sorts and realized I did not want to go back to school for at least 4 more years, and really began to apply myself. I found my true calling. But perhaps what really says it all for me is Bill Cunningham. At the very end of the movie, Bill Cunningham, New York, he rejects the notion that fashion is mere frivolity with his observation that "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” I couldn't have said it better.