by Meg Clark
The overwhelming response to a post I wrote nine months ago -- emails, comments, formspring questions, facebook messages -- ranged from polite to genuinely curious to snarky to straight-up enraged. It all boiled down to one main question:
“How are you -- a smart, educated woman, a feminist, queer, and interested in fashion? How the hell is this possible? Is something wrong with you?”
When people ask me how I can possibly ever think that fashion is related to women’s and/or queer issues, I just can't get my head around why they're even asking me that.
Isn’t it obvious? It’s not that men aren’t engaged in sartorial performativity; it's that infinite attention is called to the compulsory nature of it for women — fashion is about women and women are about fashion.
Fashion is stupid because it’s for girls, girls are stupid because all they care about is clothes and makeup. And while we all feel free to sneer disdainfully at women and their mysterious and vapid interest in clothes, if a woman isn’t dressing like a woman in the way we expect, or isn’t showing interest in the way we expect — SOMETHING IS WRONG HERE. PLEASE HELP. WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
“But you would look so pretty in a dress!"
"You look so much nicer with natural, softer, more feminine makeup."
"You didn’t paint your nails today is something wrong, can’t you just make yourself look nice for me?"
"I like you best with long hair."
"You would look gorgeous with some lipstick."
"You look so much more attractive when you’re wearing softer colours."
"You have a great body why don’t you show it off more? If you dressed like that all the time more boys would pay attention to you!"
"I just don’t understand why you don’t shave your legs.”
Fashion is an epic shitshow of misogyny, female oppression, consumerism, body image distortion, racism, exclusionary and corrupt politics, and, oh, I don’t know, maybe even the root of all evil. It’s the base of any number of humorous epithets and one-liners about the rich and shallow; it’s a central plot focus of Cathy, probably the worst comic in the history of the universe. We get it. Fa$hun is really messed up, you guys.
And yet I still identify vehemently as both feminist and queer. And I love fashion. How is this possible?
Before we get into privilege tennis here or before I even start anything else, let’s throw out the usual disclaimers— I’m white, I’m able-bodied, I’m a reasonably symmetrical ectomorph which is all unfairly normative as well, despite my current state of more-or-less destitution I’m of middle-class background, I have health insurance, I am college-educated, I live in a major metropolitan area in an extremely wealthy and powerful country, and despite being queer I don’t particularly look like a homo in a way that gets me raped with baseball bats or spat at on the train. Relatively speaking, on a daily, personal, and direct level, I do not have to deal with an exceptionally large amount of alterity-related bullshit.
I do, however, have long hair, painted nails, shaved legs which are usually exaggerated by five-inch heels and about 90% exposed because I can’t for the life of me manage to wear a skirt or shorts of decent length and, in general, am reserved, overly polite, unnecessarily apologetic, and prone to offering myself up as a social martyr.
I have terrible hand-eye coordination and I spend an inordinate amount of time barefoot in the kitchen baking muffins.
I wear red lipstick and while I was really into dinosaurs as a kid, I was also usually really into whatever ridiculous sparkly things with matching hats my mother crammed my chubby toddler body into for holidays.
In short, for all practical purposes, enough about me is coded as feminine to the point that it drastically overrides the things that are not (very tall, moderately low voice, higher than average testosterone/cortisol levels, complete and utter lack of noticeable breasts when clothed, no pink, no florals).
In short, I AM REALLY FUCKING GIRLY.
And we, as a society -- even within the queer AND feminist communities -- have serious issues with shit that we think is too girly.
I’m not just talking about catcalls and the wage gap or underdeveloped female characters in film here, I’m talking about men who are “effeminate” being perceived as lesser or weaker; the blank stares or raised eyebrows I encounter when I talk about being interested in “feminine” things; Formspring questions informing me that I don’t “look” gay. The weird paranoia I have where I wonder if I should take some makeup off or put on flats before showing up at a queermo party so that people don’t look at me funny.
I identify strongly as feminist because I feel it is still absolutely necessary, even imperative, in a world where bodies and actions that are coded “feminine” (and the people attached to them) are still required to struggle against harassment, abuse, stereotypes, prejudice, and difficulties as a result.
What this means is that on a daily basis — and seriously, I am not exaggerating here — I am exposed to and made aware of these issues, prejudices, opinions, and problems, and since I have to deal with them every goddamned day of my life, these are unsurprisingly the things that get me riled up most often. In some ways, my concept of womanhood is often defined by the oppositions I encounter and the issues I face as a result of being born with ovaries, and therefore is also closely linked to my concept of feminism.
So what the hell does this have to do with fashion, or why I like it, or why I don’t think that being feminist and queer and interested in fashion are mutually exclusive? The most basic example I like to give people is one that’s been extremely popular on my usual blog circuit in the past year and is admittedly overly simplistic: bathroom doors.
The male stick figure is a head, two arms, and two legs; the female stick figure is a the same, in a dress. Sure, sometimes there’s some variation — a bow tie on the male stick figure, or some cutesy and mildly disturbing illustrations of animals, or some other telling and probably somewhat offensive representation of gendered accessories (a tube of lipstick vs a briefcase, for instance). For the most part, however, every time we gotta do our business in a public place, we're reminded that when you take a human form and put a dress on it, bam! it’s a woman!
With that most basic and reductive of examples in mind, can you really argue that clothing is totally irrelevant to feminism and queer issues? Is feminism really above fashion? Understanding gender construction can be done without thinking about clothes? Clothes and your perception of me as a dumb stupid bitch who must be straight and probably kind of flaky and either manipulative or stupid, because I’m wearing four-inch-heels and doing my makeup with a Chanel compact, are totally unrelated? Really? Really?
The ever-awesome ladies at Threadbared summed it up pretty damn well here:
“Is fashion feminist?” This is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear when someone finds out that I write about fashion. And I have to admit that I find the question tedious – not because it’s not important but because it’s the wrong question. It may be why we’ve never directly answered this question – though all our posts are informed by a critical feminist perspective. A better question to ask is: How is fashion an instrument of gender oppression and how is it a means to feminist liberation?
Nobody here is saying that fashion IS feminist, or that fashion IS queer-positive, or that fashion IS somehow inherently good. The only point, really, is that they are very, very intricately linked — largely by the very problems folks tend to want to say make them irreconcilable — and the eternal dismissal of fashion as shallow and worthless is, besides being damn frustrating, a reductive, incorrect, and I would argue probably misogynistic attitude.
The next question, I suppose, is where do I get off posting editorials and runway photos, writing basic designer profiles for other publications, and talking about personal style with a community of other fashion bloggers etc., when I’m aware of the massive extent to which these things are problematic?
While I can understand the motivations for asking this question, I genuinely believe that its basis usually comes from certain dismissive, misogynistic assumptions about fashion and not from a well-thought-out, critical concern about fashion, feminism, and queer issues. Can we not also derive pleasure from things that are at times either problematic themselves or emblematic of problems more deeply entrenched in our society? Is this concept so alien? Do you watch and enjoy sports, which also promote a mob mentality, unrealistic body images and achievements, and an exaggerated ideal of masculinity? Do you have friends who grate on your nerves or who are occasionally rude or racist or cruel but whom you still love as friends? There is nothing mutually exclusive about enjoyment and criticism, and being aware of problems should not by any means preclude or invalidate a simultaneous appreciation.
Just because we CAN think critically about fashion means that we ought to do that ALL of the time, or that appreciation of some aspects of fashion indicates that our criticism and analysis must be posturing, or that the aspects of fashion that conflict with other issues I am passionate about somehow invalidates either of those.
Because I do love fashion, and I do think it’s fun, and I don’t find it entirely anti-feminist, and I don’t find it entirely anti-queer. I like fashion for all the reasons everyone likes fashion: I love texture and colour and form. I love the social connectivity of it, both the positive (how many friends have I made based initially on being attracted to each others’ style?) and the problematic (how many people have I dismissed, cruelly, because of their clothes? Why do we feel uncomfortable when dressed inappropriately in a social situation? What are the ways that race and class boundaries are defined, illustrated, and enforced through style?)
I like Rad Hourani’s designs, Tisci’s Givenchy, and Rick Owens’ man-skirts because they look nifty and are beautifully made and convey an aesthetic which I am drawn to — and I like them because it calls attention to the ways in which gender binaries are enforced through the convenience of such a polarity in runways, production, and marketing and whether or not their collections successfully challenge anything there.
I like Balmain’s leather jackets because they’re effing gorgeous and remind me of all kinds of ass-kicking female characters I dig, but also because they call attention to issues of overt female sexualization, body image, problems of military inspiration in fashion, and what exactly is going on with the rise of “fast fashion” and what it means that an exact copy of that jacket is on sale at F21 two months later after being produced in questionably legal conditions by a some underpaid underage third-world laborers.
These things are not entirely mutually exclusive, and I think we ought to give everyone a little more benefit of the doubt for having a casual or aesthetic interest in things that are also problematic - or, rather, to re-frame all these perceived conflicts not as a means to invalidate or dismiss, but rather as channels for conversation, constructive criticism, and understanding.