On numerous occasions, when I’ve told someone that I’m interested in both fashion and modern feminism they not-so-subtlety hint at the possibility that I’m unaware of my own ambivalence.
“Okay, I know you’re really smart and stuff, so why are you so interested in clothes? Plus, how can you condone an industry that promotes fantasy over reality and propagates the objectification of women, as a self-proclaimed feminist?”
Their questions are always valid to me, via my belief that “no question is ever stupid, well…I mean, MOST questions aren’t stupid, etc.” However, what these curiously confused souls often fail to realize is the goal of feminism: freedom of choice. If a woman (or man) chooses to stay at home with their children, chauffeuring them to their carefully planned extracurricular actives, then they have the right to enjoy this decision, regardless of socio-cultural connotations. To claim that a feminist woman can’t wear lipstick or eyeliner because it turns her into a cartoonized male fantasy violates the very freedom of choice that feminism seeks to achieve. What if the woman likes the way she looks, with her lips tinted three shades darker and it has nothing to do with being accepted or being a desirable sexual object? Why should she feel as if she is an enemy to the movement, and thus carry with her the burden of guilt, just because she’s been into coral lipstick lately? If a woman chooses to invest herself in the fashion industry because she is in love with design and beauty, that does not make her a lemming, straddling the tide of low self-esteem and impossible aesthetic expectations; it makes her a conscientious observer, a sartorially devoted anthropologist who recognizes all at once the importance of clothing and its fleeting, material nature.
The argument that fashion is art has been beaten to death already, so I’ll avoid spending too much time rehashing what has been said many times before. I am a subscriber to the belief that fashion can be art, though it’s not necessarily always the case. In the same way that a rectangle is only sometimes a square, fashion is only sometimes used as an honest expression of emotion, truth, and beauty (the best designers make the viewer question what each of these really mean, i.e. Rei Kawakubo, Charles Anastase, the late Alexander McQueen). Runway shows that seem more like an art installation (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylzAVXeVl-s) are the most obvious arguments proving the “Fashion IS Art” dogma. However, individual expression of personal style cannot be overlooked when examining the potential creative outlet that clothing provides. Within the last two years, the personal style blog has become a ubiquitous demonstration that both girls and guys can be smart and style savvy. Conventional beauty is not really a mainstay amongst this online community. Instead uniqueness is promoted as the highest virtue attainable. Of course this has resulted in a lot of “weird for the sake of being weird” ensembles, not unlike the art world being overrun by people seeking an alternative brand of conformity. But most importantly, this community fosters and celebrates expression on the most basic human level. We all have to wear clothes (Well, we don’t have to, but that’s enough material for an entirely separate thesis). So, to take a universal necessity and turn it into something that turns the mundane into the fantastical is something that isn’t required, but is just fun.
This leads to the next question, or contradiction that people point out to me when it comes to my interest in fashion:
“As a realist and a part time cynic, how can you find it fulfilling dressing up for fantasy’s sake?”
I find this one a bit more difficult to answer because it requires me to admit that my realist tendencies and my ever-expanding wardrobe (Each new item I buy seems to be exponentially more strange than the last I bought) suggest an underlying hypocrisy. However, I do have an answer. As far as life goes- decisions, goals, relationships- I tend to be incredibly grounded in reality. I’m not a pessimist, however, but I do value the sanctity of logic and reason. Sometimes, though, I find myself wanting something different, something more, something ridiculous, frivolous, and fun. Herein lies the root of my obsession: a desire to be playful, especially when my life is ruled by limitations and seriousness. I do not believe in full throttle escapism because that leads to possibly being featured on Intervention. I do believe in making life as interesting as possible and, for me, clothes are incredibly interesting. Not everyone has to agree with me when I say that clothes are innately fun, because that’s a subjective truth. I cannot stand Sudoku or Dancing With the Stars, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t value the value that they have for certain people. We’re all entitled to our vices and our little means of making life a bit more tolerable. For some, this means watching the live feed of the Alexander Wang show. For others, it means being resolutely devoted to a sports team. And, neither vice implies something about the person enjoying them. The fashion fiend is not necessarily a vapid clotheswhore just as the sports enthusiast is not necessarily a chicken-wing-eating, sexist drone.
Finally, the notion of comfortability is called into question.
“How can you tell me that high heels are not a sexist accessory designed to make a woman feel uncomfortable? How can you say that fashion isn’t anti-feminist when it stuffs women into sausage casings and tells them that that is the only way they can be beautiful? How can you find lingerie sexy when it disrupts the natural shape of woman’s body?”
Before these questions can even be addressed, “comfort” has to be clearly defined. If we’re talking strictly in terms of physical comfort, then yes, some items of women’s clothing aren’t exactly a dream to wear. The repeated wearing of high heels can lead to the deformation of bones, bras that don’t fit lead to chaffing, and girdles are the garment equivalent to medieval torture. However, if we’re talking about comfortability of the spirit and the general ease of living that comes along when one’s self-esteem isn’t a cesspit of self-doubt, then comfort in relation to fashion takes on an entirely different meaning. For example, I have never felt comfortable wearing “just jeans.” I could sit here and try to analyze the reason why I’ve never felt like myself when I dress down, but really, it’s irrelevant. I just know that I feel most like me when I’m wearing another daily experiment of mine and enjoying my freedom from repetition. Sometimes, this experiment involves shoes of gargantuan proportions, other times it involves dressing to feel like a co-ed in a New England university, just ‘cause. I’ve developed blisters over the years and I’ve been sent home for “inappropriateness” (The first time was in fifth grade when I wore a pinstripe skirt that allegedly showed more pre-pubescent leg than the administration was willing to tolerate). So, in a sense I understand why people don’t get it, why they don’t see the “suffering for fashion” mentality as a fair compromise, especially for women. But if a woman feels comfortable, to her core, wearing a pair of spiky patent leather stilettos, then the bunions she develops as a result won’t seem like much of a nuisance. So long as she isn’t a slave to the image she sees when her legs are elongated, she isn’t giving anything up; not comfort, not her dignity.
Society expects women to be fashion oriented and expects them to buy into the false commercialization that advertises beauty as a woman’s ultimate goal. This is why I think I find so many people, particularly those whose ideals are the opposite of society’s (Neo-Nihilists, Pseudo-Anarchists, New Wave Feminists), who oppose fashion and its adherents. But the thing is, if men and women genuinely enjoy the perpetual motion of the fashion world and the ever-revolving door of inspiration that’s to be found within it, then they shouldn’t be forced to feel guilt, shame, or inferiority. Anthropologists frequently study the clothing habits of past civilizations, recognizing the key role that fashion has on a society’s culture. But today, if you show an interest in modern day clothing, intellectuals may turn their nose up at you and tell you that you are only interested in vanity and being sexually attractive. Their snobbishness is simply a different breed of narcissism, the same narcissism that they vehemently oppose the fashion world for.
So: fashion, fantasy, lipstick, and boobs; not one of these things should elicit shame or guilt. Fashion can be expression and it can be art. Fantasy can be fun. Lipstick can be warpaint or face paint, and boobs can be hoisted and bolstered or they can hang loose and free. The key word here is can and it provides the direct connection between fashion and feminism. Feminism strives for the expression of equality and freedom of choice while fashion strives to provide freedom of expression. They are both about possibilities, and the expansion of choice.