Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Dressing Up - Fashion and Feminism

The words ‘fashion’ and ‘feminism’ may share the same initial letter, but according to some they are just too opposite ever to be reconciled. With all due respect, that’s rubbish. They might be on different sides of the coin, but there is (or at least should be) nothing stopping a feminist from being interested in and engaged with fashion. As I've mentioned before, I define myself as a liberal feminist – believing primarily in equality between the genders. For me feminism is about challenging various archaic expectations and assumptions. It’s what I like to refer to as a choice and a voice (for a more extended definition, please see my piece How to be a Woman). I’m also a great fashion lover. It can be a strong means of empowerment – not only a confidence enhancer, but also a way of defining personality and revelling in display. Writers from Colette to Angela Carter have picked up on the ability of costume to conceal and reveal, rightly noting that what we wear and why is a fascinating topic of discussion.  
However, traditional feminist rhetoric has often painted fashion merely as a way of controlling women. See how the slavish masses follow trends! Watch them spend squillions on handbags! Look at the frivolity they are mindlessly trapped in! In among the hyperbole there are some sparks of truth. There are morally questionable areas of the industry that do not easily sit with those interested in equality, body image and women’s self worth. But the more positive aspects bear evaluation too. Alice Blackhurst has spent the last few years researching the intersection of fashion and feminism in France, and she very kindly agreed to furnish me with some incisive observations and opinions on the links between the two.

When talking about fashion, it is assumed that only one of two views can be adopted. Either the industry can do no wrong and people who don’t like it should just leave it alone; or alternately fashion is at the root of many modern evils – including (but not limited to) anorexia, rampant capitalism, cruelty to animals, fear of aging, human rights abuses and general vapidity. What is needed somewhere between these two starkly contrasting judgments is a little nuance. The psychological impact of advertising and editorials, particularly in the wake of Photoshop’s popularity, should not be brushed under the rug. Neither should the glorification of youth and skinniness over all other forms of beauty (see Mirror, Mirror). These are very real and serious issues that do deserve more attention.  Nonetheless, an awareness of these problems should not stop anyone from loving other elements of fashion or enjoying dressing each day. As Alice notes: “Whilst the fashion world is far from perfect, current responses intent on combatting the ‘unrealistic’ fashion image feel a little patronising.  Presuming that women are hysterically sensitive to what they are shown in the media, it suggests our inability to appreciate fashion shoots’… vision and to turn the page, fully aware that what we have been party to is fantasy.”

I recently saw the Tim Walker exhibition at Somerset House, and wandered from room to room entranced by his imagination. It was a magnificent insight into hundreds of visions and ideas – from dolls to spaceships, stately homes and skeletons – with some very gorgeous clothes involved. Walker transcends reality to provide the purest and most glorious form of escapism. It is quite obvious that his photos are fantasy. Walker is at the more outlandish end of the scale, but we generally accept that fashion shoots do not attempt to portray reality. They are narratives and stories, not photo-journalism. However, this does not provide a ‘get out of jail free’ card to those who claim that the body size of models is beyond scrutiny – particularly if, as a feminist, one is interested in the impact of such a homogenised, super-slender ideal.

And yet, the Internet has increasingly allowed for a wider range of aesthetics and looks to be celebrated. Perhaps the relationship between fashion and feminism bears re-evaluation in the ‘digital age’. Alice observes that current criticism of fashion’s capacity to restrict and suppress women “overlooks… our dizzying ability to curate personalised style profiles online which stand their ground against and alongside the glossies.  As well as the unstoppable influence of street and self-style blogs, the collage aesthetic promoted by sites like Tumblr and Pinterest means that fashion today is as bespoke and customised as the suits and dresses it inspires.” This process of creation and projection has always, for me, been at the heart of my love for style. It covers everything from deciding that pink and turquoise is a delicious combination for an outfit for college, to choosing a drop-dead fabulous green satin dress for a vintage ball. Being able to showcase some of these style decisions online through my blog has been, and continues to be, wonderful. It provides an additional reason for choosing my clothes carefully, and really forces me to focus on the visual power of what I wear. Alice also acknowledges that “Rather than remaining slaves to fashion, we increasingly have the power to engage in an active process of self-fashioning.  We can… choose how we present ourselves to the world, move towards controlling our own self-image.” The Internet has often been referred to as a platform for ‘democratising’ fashion. I’m not sure if this is the right word – for even among blogs there is still a hierarchy, with those featuring high-end clothes and high street finds often finding the widest readerships. However, the spectrum of style has certainly widened, taking in everything from Vintage Vixen’s simply brilliant seventies get-ups to Barbro Anderson’s luxurious layering. When put together, the range of blogs I read encapsulates style in its diversity, rather than in its similarity – with each blogger choosing how to present themselves to their audience.

Alice continues: "As well as encouraging us to tailor our individual tastes and sensibilities, fashion in the context of the Internet encourages communication.” This reminded me of a piece I read by Elizabeth Wilson in the book Chic Thrills in which she observed that “Dress… is the material with which we ‘write’ or ‘draw’ a representation of the body.” By Alice’s definition, clothing can also be used to ‘write’ or ‘draw’ our personalities – communicating aspects of our selves to others. These are ever shifting aspects though, summed up in her claim that “Fashion… at its best would understand ‘identity’ as a work in progress.”

It was Alice’s final point that struck me as the most pertinent. She argues that: “In their mutual concern for new forms, new structures, and new ‘modes’ of expression in society, feminism and fashion might be allies."  But first, she says, we might have to re-define feminism – replacing ‘Feminism’ with a capital F with plural and diverse ‘feminisms’." Feminism encompasses numerous areas requiring different approaches and solutions. It is like a kaleidoscope - multi-faceted. New perspectives emerge all the time, and these must be recognised. That kaleidoscope analogy is appropriate for fashion too. Clothing has varying functions and purposes: to be sensuous, to be practical, to provide a uniform, to be outrageous, to blend in. But for me it's the dressing up, the donning of a costume, that thrills the most. 

Thanks to Alice for the fantastic and thought-provoking quotes. The shoot is one I've been wanting to post since it took place over the summer holidays. The stunning model is my friend Caitlin - who is now  illustrating for Rookie.  She also made a feminist zine a while ago. I thought it appropriate to illustrate a piece on fashion and feminism with a series of images celebrating dressing up and running wild. All clothes are from my wardrobe: a mixture of second hand, vintage, family owned and gifts. I was vaguely inspired by the idea of what Kate Bush might look like were she clad in pastels and rich fabrics.


Page Song said...

so pretty! the scenery is beautiful

Caitlin said...

aaaaah this seems like so long ago- how embarrassing! <3

Helen Le Caplain said...

Gorgeous pics - nice to hear other women thinking that fashion and feminism can go together like tea and cake :)

Anonymous said...

Roz it is a pleasure to have read this post as it encompasses so many important points and your consolidation of them all makes for a delicious and provoking piece of writing. Other points to add to the debate could obviously be the wearing of heels; some people question whether it's an empowering statement to want to be taller and therefore more likely to be on an even height level with men, some accuse heel-wearers of wanting to make their legs look longer and slimmer and some acknowledge that it is simply a preference of shoe design and wear.

Personally, I, like you, get a thrill from creating an outfit with wonderful contrasting colours or beautiful textures. I see my style as a representation of who I am and different outfits can, of course, give off different vibes. I feel at my most confident in bright colours which is why I chose an outfit of mustard chinos and bright pink jumper to wear to a recent school event.

At other times I am aware that I will appear at my best being dressed smartly or casually - it depends on the situation. If I were to have a typical outfit it would undoubtedly be a tea dress cinched in with a belt and full skirted, tights, chelsea boots, a woollen cardi and a bright scarf tied in a bow in my hair. Just because I'm a feminist I don't have any weird issues about having my legs on show - I just enjoy wearing dresses!!

You're right too that the media need to see past billboards and magazines for female representation and instead make a study of blogs and online media. Because that's where real people wear real outfits. It is good though that we realise this as many people still don't, which in itself is a shame. Finally, the photos of Caitlin are marvellous - the last being my favourite. I was delighted to have a piece I submitted to her third issue of Boom Zine published in it - my own take on feminism - so it's lovely to see it mentioned here. I'm proud to have contributed to a collection of writing and drawing which is so positive in its outlook. The Tim Walker exhibition sounds fabulous - I actually posted earlier about my experiences of the Bond exhibition which I can thoroughly recommend if it is still on! Hope all is well. Alexandra xx

Pearl Westwood said...

Funny I should read this after just seeing a piece in Grazia about how page 3 should be banned - on the next page a feature about Victoria's Secret and their grueling training for the show. I think with many of the arguments people put forward forget the one thing which matters most, that of free choice. It makes you no less a feminist being a fashionista, just a victim of yet another prejudice.
The lighting in the first photo is wonderful x

Tara said...

This is an excellent post that really gets to the heart of not only what it means to be a "feminist" today, but also how this facet of one's being and beliefs seems to - though it really shouldn't - clash so wildly with having an avid interest in fashion.

Though I do not agree with everything she says, the new director of the Girls' Schools Association – Charlotte Vere – makes a rather pertinent point about feminist debates being solely conducted by women and all women’s rights issues being heaped into one lot, which doesn’t remedy anything. We cannot go into a debate, intending to talk about “women in the workplace” and quickly get “sidetracked” by other, equally pressing, issues such as “female genital mutilation and rape crisis centres”, for all this does is fuel the matter of the victimisation of women (when feminism should be about equipping people with the knowledge and belief that they can make a change and boost equality) and dilute the potency of the points made as they now seem like supplementary arguments that couldn’t stand up on their own, which is far from the truth. Each matter should have its own forum - that way, case studies, views and solutions can be properly heard without being inhibited by the other not quite related ones.

Also – super photographs! Caitlin looks absolutely wonderful – from contemplative and meek in the first photo, to statuesque and defiant in the second. I love living in London – it being, arguably, the best city in the world – but it is difficult, if not near impossible, to find the beautiful, ethereal and rugged scenery that you have on your doorstep.

Best Wishes,


Emalina said...

I can really relate to what you're saying here Roz, I'd also call myself a liberal feminist. There's sadly a particular strain of feminism that takes a hard line against anything that reveals the vulnerability, joyful ripeness and beauty of femininity (don't even get me started on the likes of Dworkin and her view that sex with men is a form of rape, for in the very act of penetration we cannot help but 'submit'. Luckily we've moved on from her radicalism at least). To me such a hard line about how we choose to clothe ourselves misses the point entirely. We are not women wishing to 'become like men' by taking on their qualities and in order to do so denying our own. Instead we need this patriarchal society to allow all aspects of our gender identity, all strengths, all vulnerabilities, all contradictions, to be accepted with equanimity. Just as they need to be allowed in men also.

What about those men who dress as women and women who are in the process of becoming men? They seem utterly left out of the simplistic and ridiculous notion that fashion is a bi-product of 'female neurosis'. By contrast, your idea of using clothing as a kaleidoscope for the identity allows opportunities for growth in both genders and all those people in between.

I think men's clothing choices, the new nike trainers etc, say just as much about the values of our capitalist society as women's do. And yet it's always the women who social critics and feminists worry about in relation to fashion, as if men don't have any part to play in structuring their identity through their image and clothes. Or structuring civilization through image and clothes, for that matter.

Alice makes a good point that in trying to protect women from 'unrealistic' beauty you only patronize them further. When I look at a painting of a beautiful woman, such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli or a Rossetti portrait, I don't stand there inflamed with hatred towards myself because her lips are bigger than mine, her hips are smaller etc etc. No, I stand there revelling in the beauty of the image, finding it inspires me as any image of woman proud and comfortable in her own unique beauty does. I feel proud to be a woman when I see such images. So why do we expect our fashion shoots to look especially 'real' when we have such a different value system for art? Is it any less real? And whose definition of 'real' are we working with here anyway? It would be someone unlike you and me, both slim tall women who just happen to have the figure deemed 'model' but are nonetheless just as real as someone shorter and curvier (and just as damn gorgeous). The key seems to be surely that magazines and the fashion world have a responsibility to show a wealth of images representing difference: many ages, many figures, many different unique beauties, rather than the same ubiqutous blank eyed russian rag doll again and again and again.

Images of beauty - whether in the magazines, in the art galleries, the garden - they empower me to appreciate the world around me, and to enjoy my body, whose supposed feminine 'softness' is actually one of its greatest strengths.

p.s. sorry about the very long comment. great clothes and wonderful photos too, especially the first one!

Zoë said...

Another post I enjoyed reading! Society seems to want to score points against us for enjoying the supposed "frivolities" of life, I think the quality of your blog, inspiring imagery juxtaposed alongside stimulating debate proves that feminism and fashion can co-exist.

The body is politic, clothing is worn close to the body, an outward expression of how we want to present ourselves to the world, or not. In queer culture, similar to feminism, clothing is a large part of identity, it is not trite, it is a non-verbal alliance with a certain sector of society. You can see a lot of this on tumblr, as you mentioned. Its fascinating to see that we have a lot more freedom of expression with how we dress now, seeing as the internet provides so many resources in the forms of blogs - for every niche. Being a part of such a diverse community is so uplifting. And to have people want to actively engage in a dialogue around this is equally as wonderful.

Zoë said...

Another post I enjoyed reading! Society seems to want to score points against us for enjoying the supposed "frivolities" of life, I think the quality of your blog, inspiring imagery juxtaposed alongside stimulating debate proves that feminism and fashion can co-exist.

The body is politic, clothing is worn close to the body, an outward expression of how we want to present ourselves to the world, or not. In queer culture, similar to feminism, clothing is a large part of identity, it is not trite, it is a non-verbal alliance with a certain sector of society. You can see a lot of this on tumblr, as you mentioned. Its fascinating to see that we have a lot more freedom of expression with how we dress now, seeing as the internet provides so many resources in the forms of blogs - for every niche. Being a part of such a diverse community is so uplifting. And to have people want to actively engage in a dialogue around this is equally as wonderful.

The Foolish Aesthete said...

This is such a beautiful photo shoot, from your design and eye (Tim Walker, watch out!) to your lovely friend who graces the camera.

I think the Internet, and the blogging world in particular, has liberated women from the constraints of commercialism and the magazine idea of beauty. I, for one, barely glance at my fashion magazine subscriptions now. Instead, I've taken an interest in exploring my existing closet to see what I might define as stylish, for my own body, and for whatever I am feeling at the time. And it is thanks to people like you and other creative bloggers that I broke through these manacles of mall-culture and label-slavery. Thank you for being a youthful voice of reason for women (and men) who strive to be unfettered! - J xxx

Isa said...

"With all due respect, that's rubbish." - love it, so true, and perfectly put.

Natasha Gregson said...

I'm so glad you have posted this as it is an issue that definetely needs to be addressed. I too describe myself as a liberal feminist and love fashion. I think the two can work together. Granted, like you mention body image is a serious downside to the fashion when discussing it in terms with feminism. The way I see it is that feminism means freedom and independence for women-surely that means choosing the clothes we want to wear, and being told that we can't wear this because it goes against feminist priciples is hypocritical. When I wear a short dress is it for me, because I want to wear it, not because I want to appeal to the other sex.

I found this piece inspiring, beautiful pictures too :)

The Cat Who Walked by Herself said...

so refreshing to see a grey argument.

Sasha said...

Just lovely! Almost like an editorial!

Anonymous said...

This photoshoot is so inspiring and I'm glad to see Caitlin posing, she's stunning!Everything you wrote is so true, I especially liked the part about how the internet has customized and celebrated a wider range of styles and allowed more aesthetic types that were usually not considered by the industry, but sometimes I feel that (maybe more in my country, Italy, where culture hasn't prevailed on the crowd) a real female emancipation is still far.
Congratulations for your work, I really apprecciate it!

SabinePsynopsis said...

Wonderful pictures - which transport perfectly what fashion/clothing can be: a means to express yourself, of freedom. But when it becomes mindless consumerism it's just sad.

Marla said...

Your pictures are so beautiful, better than most magazine photos. You are stunning.

Sacramento Amate said...

Wonderful photos, Tim Walker would be proud.
You can, and should be anything you want without people labels.
Much love always, dear Rosalind.

losttinafairytale said...

pretty photoshoot. so inspiring.


Zoé said...

Very interesting - I have many feminist friends and, while some of them need no convincing, it is a hard job explaining to others that fashion and feminism can be compatible.


I've always felt the same as Alice's definition, that "clothing can also be used to ‘write’ or ‘draw’ our personalities ..." I also appreciate everything from the tone to the pose about the first shot. Great post, marvellously expressed.

Melanie said...

My view is that whenever we enter the public sphere we engage in fashion. The things we put on our bodies are our identifiers, so even by opting out of fashion, we are still choosing non-fashion fashion, which I think is scary because I regard conformity, the mask of uniform or the grey slate as an ultimate tool of mass control.

I believe that our actions determine our strength, male and female, and I believe in laws that uphold gender equity which give us the freedom to dress in whatever we like!

I enjoyed reading this thought-provoking piece, and of course I agree - "it's rubbish." Thank you!

Your photo essay is a wonderful illustration of freedom and the pursuit of beauty, the escape from the mundane. Your friend is glowing.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! Couldn't have said it better myself. I'm sick of people think it's contradictory or odd to be a feminist and enjoy fashion.

Fashionistable said...

Thought provoking piece as always. Alice has some great points to make and I loved her image of a kaleidoscope of feminism. I for one am all for stylish feminism no matter what platform is comes from. Your images complement your words and are beautifully imaginative. Xxxx

e.heart said...

Lovely shoot, and I completely agree with you, fashion and feminism are by no means mutually exclusive. I'd draw from yours and Alice's insights and say that they can be mutually perpetuating. Great post=)


Willow said...

I agree, it's rubbish. I very much enjoyed reading this post and Alice has a lot of great points. The views in this piece sum up my own, with a few points that I had not thought of but definitely agree with. I was brought with feminism and I also call myself a liberal feminist.

How wonderful that you got to see the Tim Walker exhibition! He is my all time favourite fashion photographer.

These photos are gorgeous, and Caitlin is an absolute stunner! I especially love the first two images. Those hills are absolutely amazing! What I'd give to be there running around with a camera! Preferably in that to die for blue and pink chevron dress, or the hot pink embroidered jacket.
Also, Caitlin's feminist zine is amazing, she is very talented!

Milex said...

I could stare for hours, love.

Michelle Elizabeth said...

All of your photos are so pretty and peaceful. I also like that you incorporate a strong dialog on a subject the general masses don't understand or see as a negative idea.
Good work!
Mod Fox

Anupriya DG said...

The pictures are B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L, girl!! <3

And yes....dressing up is always the most fun part....irrespective of what you are wearing! :)

Izzy/Bella said...

I'm too exhausted to take this in at the moment, but I have to come back to this when I have a chance. I'm struggling with this exact quandary at the moment. I just found some more of my modeling work online (lovely how they never give you your pictures or tears and you've got to hunt them down!) But made me nostalgic a bit, wishing I could reconcile those two "characters" I play. I even use slightly different names so as to not get in trouble with either side (Isabella for the one and Izzy for the other)-- the "serious" writers or the "frivolous" fashionies. Something I've always liked about this blog is how you reconcile those two seemingly impossibly disparate elements within one coherent character that is YOU! Well done.

kanghanlom said...

sooo wonderful pics <3 I like it!

Olivia Gagan said...

Hi Roz, I've only just come across your blog and have really enjoyed reading it. I completely agree that fashion and feminism seem to have very binary relationships with one another, both in the media and in society in general - i.e. 'feminism good', 'fashion bad' (or vice versa), 'feminists=fashion haters,' 'fashion lovers = women haters'. Personally many of the people I've known working in fashion are some of the most informed people you could hope to meet with regards to representations of women (and many other subjects) and are often very happy to have a conversation with you about it. I think we need more of those conversations and less of the name-calling that often seems to exist when you try and raise the issue of what it means to identify as both a feminist and a fashion lover. Great writing, keep it up! x

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