If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion

“My passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life,” wrote Princeton University English professor Elaine Showalter in 1997.

And indeed, after these words appeared in Vogue, more shame was heaped on her. Surely she must have “better things to do,” said one colleague.

Fashion, like so many other things associated primarily with women, may be dismissed as trivial, but it shapes how we’re read 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.

When the rhetoric of equality fell on deaf ears, suffragists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made quite literal fashion statements. Green, white and violet jewelry was a favored suffragist accessory, but not because of any aesthetic imperative: The first letters of each color— G, W, V—was shorthand for give women votes.

A century later, in the 1980s, women appropriated men’s styles of dress in an attempt to access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling. So-called career women practiced power dressing, wearing tailored skirt suits with huge shoulder pads, approximating the style and silhouette of the professional male executive.

Yet such adaptations of men’s fashion and styles are rarely without small feminine touches. Sociologist Jan Felshin coined the term feminine apologetic to describe how the pearls or ruffles on a woman’s professional attire serve as disclaimers: I may be powerful but I’m not masculine. Or (gasp!) a lesbian.

The fact that even the most politically and culturally commanding women must walk a razor’s edge between looking powerful and still appearing “appropriately feminine” underscores visual theorist John Berger’s concise description of mainstream society: “Men act and women appear.” In other words, men are judged by their deeds; women, by their looks.

In U.S. politics, Hillary Clinton has experienced the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t double bind for strong women. If she wears a power pantsuit, it’s a “desexualized uniform,” but if she shows a hint of cleavage—as she famously did in 2007—it can ignite a media firestorm that eclipses her political platform.

While all women’s fashion choices are more carefully policed than men’s, women of color endure heightened scrutiny. Racist stereotypes that cast some women of color as “out of control” (the angry black woman, the hypersexual Latina) and others as easily controllable (the traditional Asian woman, the sexually available Indian squaw) serve women poorly in the workplace. Professional women of color thus consciously and unconsciously fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference. One Asian woman interviewed by sociologist Rose Weitz for the academic journal Gender & Society admitted that she permed her hair for work “because she felt that she looked ‘too Asian’ with her naturally straight hair.” A black woman interviewed by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden for their book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America explains that “she never goes into an interview or a new job experience without first straightening her hair. …‘I don’t want to be prejudged.’”

Away from the workplace, in everyday life, fashion policing of women is also racially stratified. Women of color who wear “ethnic dress” are often read as traditional, unmodern and, in some instances, conservative. When similar garments are worn by white women, they signify global cosmopolitanism, a multicultural coolness.

Fashion’s cultural appropriation is nothing new. Sally Roesch Wagner uncovered an earlier moment of appropriation in her book Sisters in Spirit, recounting the little-known history of the bloomer: the long baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles, usually associated with dress reformers in the mid-19th century. While prevailing fashion histories credit white New Yorker Elizabeth Smith (second cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton) with inventing the billowy pants and Amelia Bloomer with popularizing them, Wagner finds that Smith was influenced by Native Haudenosaunee women.

If fashion has been used to introduce new ways of expressing womanhood, it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearances. At a time when makeover reality TV shows suggest that self-reinvention is not only desirable but almost required, and the ubiquity of social media encourages everyone to develop a “personal brand,” the pressure on women to be fashionable has never been more pervasive. Even as the Internet has intensified the desire to be fashion-forward, it has also given outsiders unprecedented influence on the industry. In 2008, a fashion blog by an 11-year-old Midwestern girl named Tavi Gevinson went viral. Within two years, her reviews of new clothing lines were being closely followed by fashion movers and shakers, and famously aloof designers and editors invited Gevinson to their offices, runway shows and parties. Now a ripe old 15, she has used fashion as a springboard to her latest venture: editing an online teen magazine with a feminist point of view.

Today, fashion blogs that celebrate an array of non-normatively raced, gendered, sexed and sized bodies have emerged to challenge the dominant messages of gender, beauty and style. And bloggers are using their clout to speak out against offensive fashion and beauty products.

A blog-initiated campaign in 2010 convinced the cosmetics company MAC and the Rodarte design team to abandon their collection of nail polish and lipstick with names such as “Ghost Town,” “Factory” and “Juarez” (referencing the Mexican border town notorious for the serial murders of women working in local factories). Similar online campaigns have also been waged against designers and magazines that employ blackfacing and yellowfacing, as well as against retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel that perpetuate racist, sexist and sizeist beauty ideals. In the age of interactive social media, consumers have at least one ear of the fashion establishment; we should continue to speak up. Wearing fashion does not have to mean that we allow it to wear us down.

Illustrations by Angie Wang, all rights reserved.

Excerpted from the Fall 2011 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community.

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Comments

  1. I would just like women’s clothing to be as durable as men’s. Everything is thinner! I swear it’s a conspiracy to keep us perpetually cold!

  2. Can fashion be feminist? Yes, absolutely! I struggled with this question for years, and had the chance to ask Gloria Steinem about it. She told me something that I would never forget – that we can make greater changes to a structure from the inside than from the outside. She told me to stop denying who I am, and to go for it.

    I recently launched my third business, one that combines fashion + technology. Your readers will appreciate the name: Third Wave Fashion.

  3. Lisa is right. And also, unisex clothing needed! Fashion choices for women over 40: Britney or grandma! What about those of us who like to look a bit masculine but still fashionable?

  4. I’m quite happily anti-fashion, hand-crafting much of my all-black wardrobe. Mainstream fashion bores me, clothes, on the other hand, are fabulous fun. I borrow from whatever century pleases me, come up with fanciful ideas of what the future may look like, and wear what I want regardless of what anyone else thinks of it. Clothes shouldn’t be about pleasing anyone else but the wearer. Sure, I get “freak” “dyke” and suchlike shouted at me in the street, have been physically threatened a few times and get people making assumptions about Satanism, whoredom and my moral code (Got “WHORE OF BABYLON!” shouted at me in the street by some middle-class woman with her daughter) but I’d rather put up with that than stop expressing myself in my clothes.

    I blog about fashion, feminism, and all sorts of other things.

    I don’t think it’s unfeminist to be interested in traditionally female things if you really like them – after all, if you like them because you enjoy them instead of because of external pressure telling you to like them against your will, then surely that’s a good thing. We’re working to be treated like equals, and that means an equal right to choose for ourselves.

    • @Feathers What is your blog?

      • It’s fairly new and Goth orientated, but it’s here: http://domesticatedgoth.blogspot.com/ there’s just over a month of posts at the moment, but it’s growing, and I keep writing! Personally, I’d rather see style in the hands of the people who wear it – part of the reason I learnt to sew, so as I go on I’m going to be posting more and more about the HOW as well as the why. Making clothes, alongside home cooking, foraging and other useful skills seem to be one held more by my grandmother’s generation than my own, but they’re powerful tools for taking control of your lifestyle out of the hands of corporations, because they mean you don’t have to be reliant on what is available on the high-street or in supermarkets. Clothes are an outward statement of your inner self, and I’d rather make that statement myself instead of use mass-produced designs.

  5. Could we PLEASE have pockets, strong ones? May we please wear comfortable shoes that look nice? Could durable, classic styles please endure for more than one season? And might we large women look tailored, powerful and womanly, instead of like baskets of fruit or Hawaiian punch?

  6. what a fantastic argument in favour of fashion, to not only be accepted as a feminist issue, but as an integral part of identity politics. i’ve been writing about this question for about six years, and have shared a lot of that online. that said, this is potentially one of the first articles on the subject i’ve read that adequately addresses race and class issues… the others i’ve seen (while worth reading) they tend to focus on straight white cis women. yes, the fight to be taken seriously and to talk about fashion as something of substance as opposed to fluff is important, but equally or more important are questions pham addresses here, like cultural appropriation, racism, sexism, class, etc.

    of course, i’m not saying that fashion can’t be a feminist issue for straight white cis women, but not at the expense or erasure of the multitudes of other kinds of people who use fashion as a form of resistance, empowerment, and survival. so happy to read this… i’ll just end by saying that i can’t wait until we can move forward from arguing that fashion IS a feminist issue to simply accepting that as a fact, and moving onwards and upwards from there on in.

  7. I think that the assumption that fashion is trivial is minimizing to the experience of being a woman. Feminism is about self-realizing consciously, in any way you see fit. Trust women.

  8. Interesting that you haven’t mentioned anything about the 4″, 5″, 6″ heels that continue to be found at all the department stores. These shoes basically make fools out of women and put us in the same category as Chinese foot binding if you ask me. Otherwise and interesting article. My other thought is that who’s fault is it that women are portrayed the way they are in fashion? Women’s fashion magazines. Why not create a woman’s fashion magazine that makes sense for the modern woman. You have to educate people after all.

  9. Marjorie Jolles says:

    I love this post and the comments! I agree that fashion is a valuable resource for feminism. Too often it’s understood as inherently oppressive, but the oppression we may experience when we’re engaging with fashion comes from cultural ideologies that may circulate through fashion imagery and rhetoric, not fashion itself. Fashion is better understood as allowing for both agency and constraint, depending on context and the way fashion is used to perpetuate or undermine oppressive cultural forces (just think of how crucial fashion has been to progressive political movements!). Feminists can’t afford to ignore fashion as something meaningless or trivial… it’s a powerful lens for making sexual, racial, and class politics visible and then for confronting them, as Prof. Pham points out. I’m so glad this topic is getting this kind of critical feminist attention. Be on the lookout for the forthcoming book, Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, to be published in September, edited by Shira Tarrant and me, Marjorie Jolles!

  10. Nina van Vert says:

    I can’t afford fashionable clothes so this makes me feel left out I just take what I can get.

    • Yeah, fashion is a highly class-based affair as well! I see blogs advising on “the latest season” or “replace everything after five years” and I laugh. For a fat woman, clothes are either moderately priced and extremely flimsy, or extremely expensive and have to last forever. And second-hand? Forget about it!

    • Rachel W. says:

      Nina, I hear you. This leaves a lot of us out…those of us who are trying to survive and who kind of have to hold onto those “mom jeans” because they fit and haven’t worn out.

      I have nothing whatever against people dressing as they please, but the last thing some of us need is pressure to change yet again from those who allegedly support us being ourselves. Sometimes being ourselves means prioritizing things other than clothes and makeup and back in the day, not having to do that was liberating. I was there. I remember.

  11. Great article. Fashion plays a crucial role in whatever other roles we play in life, and it’s great to see another feminist perspective of it.

    There is a fabulous and fiercely intelligent group of women who have blogged a project called Feminist Fashion Bloggers. It looks like they’ve recently decided to take a hiatus from the project, but do take a look at what’s been written. There are some amazing perspectives from women of all shapes, sizes, socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities etc. all from a feminist perspective: http://feministfashionbloggers.blogspot.com/

  12. A friend tweeted this to me because of what I’d written the same morning: http://www.valleyadvocate.com/blogs/home.cfm?aid=14546

    Burning question: What do feminist preschoolers’ mothers wear?

    I think this is a fascinating topic. And look forward to more discussion.

    • Rachel W. says:

      What we can afford.

      I don’t mean to be abrupt, nor to hurt anyone’s feelings. If style makes you happy, play with it however you like. But by the same token, I don’t think you have the right to put me down for dressing how I can afford. Hoodies and mom jeans are sometimes what moms need to wear, because kids make messes and they’ll wash.

      I can remember when being a feminist meant you didn’t have to have discussions like this.

  13. I think that looking presentable doesn’t mean that a woman is shallow. I like to look presentable, i like to look good but for self satisfaction. We don’t need to spend ridiculous amounts of money on fashion items, but we can dress in a way that make us feel good as a woman, as professional or as an individual in general.

  14. My number one question is, how can we best impact fashion? There is so much that needs to be changed, just look at the comments here and these are comments I see and hear over and over again from women on the net and irl:
    Wanted-
    Pockets
    Comfy, walkable shoes
    Durable fabric
    Good clothes for 40 + and larger women
    Slower trends
    Unisex clothing

    Ps. Very beautiful art in this article!

  15. Honestly, I was really offended by the use of the word ‘squaw’.

    The writer used the term ‘angry black woman’, instead of ‘angry n*****’.
    However, it’s okay for the author to use the term ‘squaw’?

    NOT cool.

    • My thoughts exactly

    • in the context of the article, and the statement, it is quite clear minh-ha is not using this term as a hateful slur, but rather is NAMING racism.

      • Irrelevant. The word is a slur and – as demonstrated by the references to other races – the point could have been made without it. Regardless of the author’s intent, the word is deeply rooted in a violent and triggering history and shouldn’t be used by the author as it is not their word to reclaim.

  16. Great article!

    I’ll throw clothing manufacturing into the mix as well. The clothes of the global fashion consumer are made by women and girls in developing nations, often in horrendous sweatshop conditions. The fact is that by entertaining our privileges, we, the feminist fashion consumers, employ young girls to pick cotton for our t-shirts. Whether we talk about highstreet clothing or luxury brands, the world of fashion stands on an ugly post-colonialist, racist and sexist platform, and as fashion consumers who establish demand for cheap (female) labour, we support an untolerable system. A lot needs to be done for things to change, and voicing out our discontent is the only way forward.

  17. Thanks for the fine article. I strongly agree that fashion is a feminist issue.

    One issue we need to tackle is double standards of fashion and grooming for women and men. Nowadays, it is considered cool for men to look sloppy, even on an Internet dating site, but essential for women to look stylish (especially if they want to attract a man).

    The Mad Men days were misogynistic and no way would I want to go back to them. But at least, men were expected to dress neatly at work and on a date.

    We need to go forward and say NO to men who dress badly but expect women to dress well.

  18. Love this post! Rather than ignoring the fact that fashion matters, we feminists must embrace this and use it to our advantage. However, we must balance this with not spending all of our time and money as advertisers insist. Consumerism and fashion can still be oppressive!

  19. I would welcome a pair of pants that didn’t make my thighs feel like sausages stuffed into a membrane. I’m 53 and at the end of menopause, dealing with more weight around my middle, and yet the only pants I find are made for women with skinny thighs and a large waist. I’ve only got half of that equation.
    And let’s not forget the hot flashes. I laughed when I named my film company after them, but now, 5 years later, I don’t find them quite so entertaining.
    Fortunately I’ve discovered the combination of open necklines with pashmina scarves. Layers are very important as is draping that acknowledges a waistline without clinging to it.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if someone designed clothing for 40+ women.

  20. Awesome article! Loved the history and analysis!

    I’m so tired of feminists trying to conform to the dominant theories — saying that fashion is superficial, for example (particularly as it pertains to women and not to men). We are supposed to be pro-woman, aren’t we? I believe that means defending women, defending femininity, defending our choices.

    Great job in presenting an original and feminist viewpoint. :-)

  21. I love this topic! 2 of my friends and I studied women’s studies in college and have started a blog combining fashion, food, and feminism. Things we love, but felt we couldn’t find in one spot. It’s almost like society says if we wanna say we are a feminists we can’t be into fashion.

  22. I heard a friend whose wife is expecting a baby recently say, “if it’s a boy, he needs to be smart, so he can succeed; a girl just needs to look pretty.” He said this after learning from my wife, who is a dietitian, about the importance of the mother taking essential vitamins for the baby’s brain development. And, because his wife had not yet been diligent in eating healthy he made this comment. I think it’s comments and beliefs like this, and although he meant no harm by it (he is really a sweet and generous man) it still shows that the perception of women is that they must remain feminine as if that’s their most important characteristic.

  23. this is a really interesting article and I totally I agree. Most images associated with women have to do with their clothes or their looks and with men its about success or profession. A ‘girly-girl’ would never be taken seriously in the work place and any sense of power a woman has is always from a masculine perspective i.e. ‘she’s got balls.’ anyways I wrote an article on the link between fashion and cultural oppression and I think the same concept can be applied to gender http://vnk01.com/2012/01/24/accessories-gone-wild-cultural-oppression/

  24. Today, fashion blogs that celebrate an array of non-normatively raced, gendered, sexed and sized bodies have emerged to challenge the dominant messages of gender, beauty and style.

  25. it’s a good thing to have a style.. it’s an eye candy and mark of our status.

  26. Fashion is better understood as allowing for both agency and constraint, depending on context and the way fashion is used to perpetuate or undermine oppressive cultural forces (just think of how crucial fashion has been to progressive political movements!).

  27. Nice style… nice posting!

  28. Tremendous article, I always love reading your essays, Minh-Ha! I wanted to add that part of accepting fashion as a feminist and intellectual pursuit is also accepting that one need not swap out one’s wardrobe every season, nor spend a lot of money to have fun with style expression. A couple commentators seemed to feel excluded and possibly irritated that they didn’t have the time or money to wear anything but “mom jeans” and the like. It’s totally ok if that’s what you’re comfortable and happy wearing; but getting frustrated with women who enjoy dressing and/or talking about style and fashion perpetuates the misconception that fashion is necessarily expensive, this-season, made by a big-brand designer, and therefore only accessible to wealthy women with excess leisure time. I have grown up with (and continue to buy) hand-me-downs and thrift store bargains, and, for me, this is a economic and political expression just as much as a stylistic one. If you care to, check out more of my thoughts on secondhand clothes here: http://www.threadforthought.net/poverty-power-secondhand-clothes-protest/ or on collecting with a conscience: http://www.threadforthought.net/collecting-conscience/

  29. it’s a good thing to have a style.. it’s an eye candy and mark of our status.

  30. I believe fashion is something that defines you and your personality. This is the reason I wear clothes I am perfectly comfortable in. I do not like impersonating celebrities, whether Britney Spears or Julia Roberts. Instead, I believe in making my personal style statement through wearing the clothes that suits me and my personality.

  31. Avice Benner says:

    I’m in high school and it’s depressing for me to never see any kind of girl’s clothes that are not intended for making you look skinnier and sexier. I just want to WEAR CLOTHES. I do not want to paralyze my legs by removing all of the blood from them just to make myself look skinny. And it’s like there’s a national deficit of good pairs of bootcut jeans, and shirts that does not lack the essential qualities of shirtness, ie covering your torso. Seriously, I saw a girl who was definitely not wearing a shirt yesterday, or at least, whatever it was she was wearing could not be defined as a shirt, because you could see most of her bra. These items could not be construed as clothing.
    I’m a militant feminist. I hate this shit. I just want clothes that me look and feel good. Mostly feel good, because that’s way more important. But I don’t think I should have to sacrifice one for the other, but large companies that make clothes seem to disagree, because all they are making is a load of crap that does neither, which, as another person mentioned, is produced without any fair labor laws being enforced.
    LARGE COMPANIES, YOU ARE BEING VERY CRAPPY TO YOUR CUSTOMERS AND EMPLOYEES, ESPECIALLY THE OUTSOURCED EMPLOYEES (I DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE BUYING THE CLOTHES FROM OTHER PEOPLE THAT PAY OTHER PEOPLE TO MAKE THOSE CLOTHES, IT’S STILL CRAPPY OF YOU)
    STOP DOING THAT

    OH AND HEY YOU SLUTTY GIRLS OVER THERE
    YES, YOU –
    STOP WEARING THAT SHIT – BOYS DON’T LIKE YOU WHEN YOU WEAR IT
    THEY JUST LIKE YOUR TITS

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