The idea that fashion and feminism are inherently opposed hasn’t died out in the digital wave. Publications like Bitch and Filament have prided themselves on not being “into fashion”. “No Fashion, No Diets, No Celeb Rubbish.” reads the former’s tagline. Yet the inclination for fashion to oppose feminism seems a bit ironic, considering that in the fashion industry women have long reigned. What’s more interesting to me than the question is fashion feminist is the dialogue between fashion and feminism.
Feminism has affected in trends in fashion. The first wave of Victoria Woodhulls and suffragettes fought for the right for women to own property and to vote, as we begin to see these victories take hold (1920 for the latter) fashions change. Flappers with bare knees and shifty dresses become the image, not of feminists, but of women relishing their newfound freedom. The successes of the second wavers with Roe v Wade and divorce laws are celebrated with mini skirts. And pro-sex third wavers get Paris Hilton. At least this makes for good party banter.
“One of the initial, most life-improving changes that women fought to claim was literally freedom of movement – the ability to participate in work, sports, and daily activities without being weighed down by long skirts and restrained by corsetry.
Initially, advocates of dress reform were ridiculed. Their efforts lacked style, their models weren’t attractive, and they lacked the ability to sell the public on their ideas. It wasn’t until fashion designers like Poiret and Chanel proposed a corsetless silhouette, with their considerable publicity engines and attractive clientele, that corsetry and long skirts were under serious threat. Even then, the fashions weren’t necessarily feminist – Poiret held women’s mobility under bondage with the hobble skirt. While Chanel’s motivations were more clearly feminist in that she designed for emancipated, active women, Poiret’s were more about novelty and publicity.”
What might be worth noting here is the privilege of fashion. While I’ve found some sources that say Chanel began designing for working women in France during World War I (offering men’s pull over sweaters, sailor jackets and plain skirts) most seem to trace Chanel to upscale patrons since the beginning. Regardless, Chanel’s simple designs, her menswear for women was not fashionable when Chanel was accepted by the fashion industry and serving upscale clients. But things that are reserved for the privileged always trickle down to the middle classes, to the mall.
With this trickle-down into the clothing of the every-day woman, feminism didn’t just passively affect feminism, the right to wear pants (outside of the factory) was hard won, Danielle notes:
“The bifurcated garment has been considered a masculine garment since the middle ages. Co-opting it for women was not at all an insignificant social shift – in fact, vestigial laws are still being revoked, and the subject provokes (confusing) debate in some circles to this day. The leading edge of trouser-clad femininity was celebrity. Amelia Earhart, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich imbued the garment with adventure, charisma and sex.
The early majority was youth – young women who were for the first time, were enjoying the phenomenon of ‘teen years’ in between childhood and adulthood. Youth had an excess of casual down-time and the disposable income to exert influence over their own clothing, it makes sense that the popularity of pants – and that notable unisex garment, denim, began to trend during the 40s and 50s even as feminist goals were backsliding due to The Feminine Mystique.”
It’s interesting though, that with the new rights women gained, fashion saw women trying on male-ness. Is it feminist, if women had to bend what they were wearing in order to fit into the “man’s world’? Whether it’s women bobbing their hair after they get the vote, or Chanel’s pantsuit, or the 1980′s power-suit with it’s pointed masculine edges, worn as women really took hold of the workplace it’s all women taking on male roles. (One of the things the third wave seems to have done is take back traditional feminine fashion, in it’s “ironic” retro silhouettes and crinoline.) And yet playing with gender in fashion can be liberating, and helpful to breaking down gender roles and the binary.
But men have not socially been allowed to try on the accouterments of female-ness in quite the same way. While the last twenty years have seen more androgyny on male models, men in skirts have not sauntered into mainstream. But as more and more men begin questioning their gender roles and it’s stereotypes, will be see more ripples in male fashion? With designers like Rick Owens and the mall-level phenomenon of metrosexuality, we are already and I think this is just the beginning.
But that nagging question — can fashion can be feminist– does have it’s arguing points. Fashion is an industry that promotes unrealistic standards of beauty– via underweight models who are overwhelmingly white. Fashion also promotes a culture of consumerism. The logic here often is fashion = corporatism = bad. But as illustrated in the “Slow Fashion” movement of designers hand-making all of their wares, fashion can embody feminist values.
Feminism today is not the feminism of Chanel’s or Friedan’s. In it’s digital incarnation is far more effort toward inclusivity than we’ve ever seen before, and as we align our support with women around the globe, what is the affect? Through it all, there will be a dialogue between the two, whether that conversation is: No, I disagree, I reject you or Yes, yes, yes!