How Can a Smart, Educated, Feminist, Queer Woman Like You Be Interested in Fashion?

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!”

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“You look so much nicer with natural, softer, more feminine makeup.”

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“You didn’t paint your nails today is something wrong, can’t you just make yourself look nice for me?”

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“I like you best with long hair.”

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“You would look gorgeous with some lipstick.”

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“You look so much more attractive when you’re wearing softer colours.”

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“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!”

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“I just don’t understand why you don’t shave your legs.”

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(AD NAUSEAM.)

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?

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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.

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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.

Originally posted on Good Morning Midnight. Republished with permission.

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41 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    A really well-written post about a question I, too, get tired of hearing. I agree with your sports analogy 100%. The big difference is that sports=men and sports are seen as a healthy diversion from everyday life, unlike fashion, which is frivolous and a waste of time and energy. If I wanted to go work for our local football team, my peers would commend me for putting my efforts to work at an enterprise that promotes our local economy. But if I went to work at the department store here, that’s a waste of my talents.

    But, to me, the big difference between sports and fashion is that it is possible to completely and totally ignore sports. You can live your entire life without having an opinion, one way or another, about the Super Bowl or March Madness. We all have to wear clothes. If we want to leave our houses ever, every one of us spend thought and energy about fashion and I’m not going apologize for enjoying it a little.

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    Thank you so much for bringing this up! I dislike identifying as feminist, because so often feminism = misandry, which irritates me. I support gender equality instead, as evidenced by my playing basketball in glitter pink Barbie heels when I was 5.

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      I didn’t know it was now a rule that in order to show support for gender equality, you have to personally participate in an equal amount of interests and activities typically assigned to each gender.

      hold on, I gotta go tally up my hobbies to see if I pass this test. I’m guessing not since I do identify as a manhating feminist.

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    YES. This is everything I have been trying to say to people, but I couldn’t put as eloquently, plus they wouldn’t stand around long enough to listen. I keep trying to tell everyone that diminishing female tasks or interests is part of their unconscious misogyny. I love fashion and I think the difference is, you can love fashion with a critical feminist eye or you can just accept it at face value. I am also intensely girly and sometimes I feel like that makes other lesbians & feminists nervous.

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    “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.”

    THIS is what I appreciate from this article. Not because I have much of an interest in fashion – I mean, I know how I am comfortable most with my appearance, and it’s always been in jeans and t-shirts, which doesn’t necessarily mean and I can’t or won’t clean up. It’s because I have an interest in crude subject matter and humor as well as strip clubs (and to a lesser extent, porn).

    I’m not sorry if I think jokes about dead babies can and will be funny or if I like to see a wide assortment of women naked without having to actually talk them into my bedroom first. I think I have a pretty decent sense of when something goes over the line and someone isn’t *really* kidding.
    What matters is context, context, context. Nearly everything IS relative to some extent.

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    This is a fantastic article.

    I have always viewed fashion as an art form, something that is an expression of modern society and will always face unavoidable criticism just as literature, theater, or music does.

    I also believe that fashion has had a great impact on women’s lives today. From the invention of bras that rid the world of corsets to Chanel’s tweed suits and YSL’s smoking jackets, I love the evolution towards fashion houses like Rag & Bone and Balmain.

    As a gay woman, I love what the community has done with fashion. I love buying boxer-briefs for my girlfriend, I love ravaging the men’s sections, I love short hair and I LOVE short nails.

    As a make-up artist, I fully believe in the powers of a dab of under-eye concealer . Lip gloss, however, is overrated.

    Standing barely 5’4″ tall, I love the impact of wearing 4-inch heels in a suit and standing face-to-face with male colleagues (or something about taller people earning more)…

    On a lighter note, there’s also blogs like manrepeller dot com. Absurd, refreshing, and laughable.

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    I really like this article! When I’m working, I often feel like my clothing is armor. My job requires working primarily with men, often talking with them about some very personal/frustrating issues. I need distance and find that my typical girly fashion choices have to be nixed in favor of boring black pantsuits. Despite the fact that I’ve done my hair and makeup and read as totally feminine to most people, I sorta feel like I’m in drag because the clothes aren’t the real me.
    And on a random note, this link seems to have found it’s perfect home:
    http://current.com/shows/infomania/92635142_thats-gay-nfl-predictions-with-the-ladies-of-drag-u.htm

    I hope I’m not offending anyone…I just super love the unexpected mix of drag and sports.

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    Great subject matter here. I am not girly at all but I agree with uhmina who just sees fashion as an art form. That’s exactly how I feel about it. I like looking at the pretty things people can make. I like to make stuff myself. I can sew, crochet, and knit. I just see that as being artsy. Artsy things are totally queer, right?

    Also, I am a devoted bitter kitten over on the Tom and Lorenzo fashion blog and I ain’t got no shame about it.

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    You def took my feelings and put them into words. THANK YOU! I used to go back and forth trying to figure out my style and not be too “girly”.

    Same goes with my hair. I’d go through this thing where when I rock long hair, I get so many comments about how pretty I am that I’d want to chop it off because of all the attention. As soon as my hair is short, ppls attitude change and I’m back to incognito me. lol.

    Oh well. Society likes what they like.

    I’ve never once thought about not wearing heels to go to queer parties. . .What’s wrong with that, again?

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    To me, Fashion is activism.

    I think sometimes people disregard “fashion” because they associate it with the high-end designer clothing industry alone. Many people (myself included) have no desire and/or could never afford the luxuries of designer clothing. Yet I constantly witness beautiful, experimental fashion expression, especially in the radical queer community. Fashion cannot be left to the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

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    I found this article excellent. I simultaneouslyy hate and love that being a woman forces you to intellectualize ourselves and our actions to this great an extent.

    Fashion is just that: intellecutalizing / emotionalizing an ordinary part of life, for the better, and I think you expressed it beautifully.

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    Exclusion creates resentment. Compulsory inclusion creates resentment.

    I’m sure there are boys that were forced to play football when they really wanted to take dance or theater. And they probably grew to resent football. I don’t know if that would be called misandry.

    I look at Men’s catalogs and imagine the clothes on females. It’s a mental exercise but that’s all I got. When I was younger I just didn’t want to deal with it, because I didn’t know how.

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    “I’m sure there are boys that were forced to play football when they really wanted to take dance or theater. And they probably grew to resent football. I don’t know if that would be called misandry.”

    I see it as a kind of extension of misogyny and homophobia – because so many parents would rather their son have the hobby that’s seen as tough and manly rather than dance or theatre, which would be seen as too feminine or gay, and heaven forbid that should happen because then their sons would obviously… turn into women? Gay ones? I DON’T KNOW. It’s the kind of “logic” that makes me wish the patriarchy had a face so I could punch it.

    I don’t know if I’d call it misandry, since it’s celebrating/glorifying something considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity (and doing so at the expense of things considered to be feminine), but either way, it’s definitely a really shitty thing to do to a kid.

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      Whoops, that was meant in response to GrrrlRomeo’s comment. Which is probably obvious since it’s directly above mine and I quoted it, so I don’t even know why I’m making this clarification! In conclusion, I NEED A NAP.

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      I got it. :) I was trying to see the other side of the coin. I mean, is not liking macho things the other side of the coin of not liking things that are girly?

      I feel like lots of people just aren’t able to articulate their frustration with compulsory inclusion and it ends up coming out as “fashion is stupid and girly” or “jocks are stupid and boneheaded.”

      My Mom wouldn’t let me wear boys clothes when I was a kid–not even a pair of Converse sneakers. I think if I had just been allowed to experiment with how I looked without gender rules, I would’ve enjoyed clothes more. I complained about fashion a lot when I was younger, but now I realize it’s not all high heels and dresses.

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    YES. Now I don’t feel so bad drooling over shoes :) But really, I have always loved the creative side of fashion, just like any aspect of design. It’s important to realize your fashion doesn’t have to conform to the industry, it can be a form of self-expression and there must be room for every body. Beth Ditto rocks for this reason.

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    I have told everyone I know to read this article. It expresses so much of how I feel about life, except it, unlike me, is witty and articulate and doesn’t get really flustered and start saying “Um, um, sorry, nevermind,” when people raise their eyebrows or make other such gestures of incredulity.

    A++++

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    Yes, this! I really hate that things traditionally coded as ‘for women’ and ‘feminine’ are always perceived as lesser and a waste of time, because things coded as ‘for men’ and ‘masculine’ are always what everyone is supposed to aspire for.

    Just because women were historically not able to partake is as many pursuits as men, just because we focused on fashion and art and beauty, just because we were NOT ALLOWED to have what they had, does not mean that because we can now do the things that men have been doing for thousands of years that we should be expected discard our own history – or herstory, rather. Different, never inferior.

    So of course we can have both, if we want it.

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      This entire article and calanthe’s reply pretty much sums up what I’ve been trying to say to other supposed ‘feminists’ and have failed miserably while trying. I’m not particularly feminine nor masculine. I love my motorcycle with an unhealthy passion, but I also like my dresses and heels. I don’t give a rat’s rear end what anyone thinks of my choices because at the end of the day, I’m not hurting anyone, I’m just being myself.

      It really rubs me up the wrong way (nearing the point of rage) when I hear women regarding others with disdain for wanting to dress super girly, spending money on girly magazines and make-up, or looking forward to marriage and kids. Those things might not be for me, but it’s not my choice to make. If that’s what they really want, then telling them they’re wrong for being themselves is nothing short of being a self righteous a-hole.

      I thought feminism was about letting women be free to make their own choices! Stating otherwise is the exact opposite of feminism.

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    This article is awesome. I’m pretty much a butch girl but somewhere inside I love fantastic shoes, handbags, scarves, etc. I get made fun of for it big time by friends and now I have a clear argument I can give to shut everyone up!!

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      Totally agree. I think we get bound up in thinking about how fashion oppresses women when we can start thinking more about fashion as a means of shaping our subjectivity.

      I also love this whole article!

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    Well, damn, girlfriend! I’m definitely a “girly-girl.” I love dresses and make-up, having my hair done, and all the stereotypical femme things.

    But you’ll find me more often than not in my jeans and a tank-top or T, beat-up sneakers and sweat socks. It all depends on my mood are what my plans are.

    The thing is, I don’t let anybody’s expectations or ideas of what “proper behavior” is for a “girl like me.” They don’t know me, they don’t WANT to know me, and yet they think they have a right to tell me what is and isn’t proper style.

    I’ll keep on being myself, thank you very much, and if anyone has a problem with it, that’s exactly what it is: THEIR problem, not mine.

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    Completely agreed.
    I get this all the time, also “why do you wear makeup if you’re a feminist?”
    Feminism is about women’s equality PERIOD. End of story.
    Treating other women as shallow, vain, insecure or otherwise because they have different lifestyles and interests is the very opposite of feminism. Feminsits are just some homogenous mass of people who are all the same. Criticising a woman for her looks either because she’s “too girly” or “not girly enough” is internalized misogyny (ie. “being feminine is bad, masculinity is preferable” or “atypical femininity is bad”).

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