Can you be a fashionable feminist?

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Photo: Getty

The phrase "social-themed fashion" might make you think of such things as hemp, comfortable sandals, slogan T-shirts and rainbow-coloured baby slings. And it's hard not to feel a twinge of faint alarm when high fashion gets all conscientious: the US Vogue Hurricane Sandy editorial from earlier this year leaps to mind.

But James Worthington DeMolet, former creative director at The Block magazine and a stylist for high-end magazines such as GQ and Teen Vogue, wanted do exactly this in his sadly unsuccessfully Kickstarter-funded magazine, J Magazine.

(Incidentally, it was really quite brave to put oneself in the same one-letter titled magazine sphere as Oprah.)

Anyway, Worthington DeMolet wanted to explore the theme of "neo-feminism" as his first social theme for the magazine. Faint alarm rising.

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The magazine featured "neo-styling tips"; Q&As on feminism with a plus-size model, a dominatrix, a Playboy Playmate and Aubrey Plaza; and a dissection of "feminine" versus "feminist" dressing.

Without having read the magazine, it's difficult to imagine a feature on the difference between femininity and feminism truly smashing the patriarchy (it's really very possible to be a "girly girl" and also a raging, humourless feminist). But the magazine raises the interesting questions about the uneasy relationship between fashion and feminism.

As Sarah Jessica Parker said earlier this month, the fashion industry is still quite sexist. Recent examples of bad PR from the fashion industry – such as model scouts lurking outside eating disorder clinics, the terrible labour conditions employed by fast fashion chains and the very fact that Terry Richardson is still around – really aren't helping.

In addition to thriving on impossible aspirations, narrow definitions of acceptable beauty and some really fugly clothes, the fashion industry does itself no favours by trying to dig itself out of a hole of its own making.

Models such as Casey Legler, a woman who models for men's high fashion catalogues, and Andrej Pejic, a man walking for women's fashion shows, have been held up as challenging gender norms.

But the result, as commentator Bidisha in The Guardian pointed out, can be that they merely reiterate that you must be thin and beautiful, no matter what skin you are in.

As Clem Bastow wrote, one woman in a suit "does not a gender revolution make". What's more, one beautiful boy modelling a wedding dress doesn't necessarily make it easier for women trying to fit a beauty ideal – nor for men who want to wear wedding dresses.

Also, what's with all the fashion spreads about 'powerful women' that feature models holding briefcases and wearing a tie and striding across the room with their legs straight like a stork?

The weird feelings that we can have about fashion were recently articulated by wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, who shot to fame as a granny-haired 11-year-old fashion blogger five years ago. For Tavi, though, while fashion has lost some of its sheen as she has become more interested in feminism and creative culture with the inception of Rookie Mag, she doesn't think fashion is totally stupid.

As she told AdWeek magazine in April: "Sometimes I even still get embarrassed when people are like, 'You have that blog, right [Stylerookie]?' And I worry that they'll think I'm shallow because I write about fashion, or used to. I definitely think that fashion and feminism can be friends. I even think that fashion can be a tool of feminism and of self-expression and individuality and empowerment. But clearly there are flaws with the industry that still really grind my gears."

So can fashion and feminism be friends? Why, yes, they can. Model Karen Elson thinks there is feminism in fashion, and that there should definitely be more of it. Why? Because if we believe fashion can't be feminist, then maybe we're just buying into the same old tired stereotypes that silence women: that is, the very ones that feminism tries to eradicate.

As Elson said, "I'm also among the models I know who are proud feminists, so I can tell you that it really is possible to be both. If you assume that models can't be political, that we can't have strong opinions and beliefs, you're just falling prey to the popularly held misogynist view that beautiful women are stupid."

But more than that, clothes have long had power to facilitate and accompany change. Look at the suffragettes who provoked with their clothing choices.

Look at the flappers who gleefully flung off their corsets and danced in fountains, and the Riot Grrl movement in the '90s, when the likes of Bikini Kill And Le Tigre front woman Kathleen Hanna used her clothes as way of getting her messages across.

Look at Tavi and all of the excellent young women that Rookie reaches who know that they can love fashion and still be smart. And then see how the fashion industry's vice-hold on dictating how we see ourselves and what we should be wearing may be slipping.

In an interview with British TV presenter and first-time novelist Kristy Wark, a woman who used to wear her Armani jackets as a "suit of armour", Guardian journalist Jess Cartner-Morley asked her about the contradictions of being both feminist and really into fashion. To which Wark replied: "Why would it be antithetical to feminism to be interested in style, in design, in line and colour and cut? Why would a desire to feel good about yourself, to look modern, be at odds with feminism? Look at Simone de Beauvoir! She looked fabulous."

As Wark noted in the interview, dressing for yourself is perhaps the best way to fit your feminism into your fashion. And just like slavishly following trends isn't true style, or indeed your true self, liking fashion doesn't have to mean that you're buying into fashion's worst bits, or opting out of thinking about the wider problems that fashion spits out into the world.

6 comments

  • Can I ask, why are stilettos and high heels still expected footwear for women in business (particularly but also man other parts of life)? They damage your feet and your back, and irrevocably alter your gait. They inhibit free movement (hows that for symbolism?). I think they are really the ultimate symbol of women's oppression. Why do we do it it?

    Commenter
    Nicole
    Location
    Darlinghurst
    Date and time
    June 17, 2013, 10:32AM
    • At the end of the day, Fashion is art and any type of art can be feminist.

      It just requires the right mind behind it.

      Unfortunately, as pointed out in this article, much of the fashion industry is filled with the wrong minds who perpetuate a highly misogynistic culture.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 17, 2013, 10:52AM
      • You know, I say it pretty often, half joking (but only half): if you’re wearing completely impractical clothing, stuff that actually makes it hard for you to perform ordinary tasks, you’re pretty much declaring your status as largely decorative.

        If you’re wearing high-heels and there’s an earthquake, how much use are you going to be digging people out of rubble? If you’re wearing a skirt that forces you to take tiny steps, how much use will you be if someone needs to run an urgent package to the post office? If you can’t walk around in the weather today (either because you’ll freeze from all the naked bits, or because you’ll swelter inside that ridiculous suit that was new and practical 200 years and half a planet away), then what are you going to do if your building burns down?

        But yeah, it’s still half a joke because, pfff, it’s not like my giant belly is helping me do those things, either, and I sure ‘aint decorative. Plenty of lifestyle decisions are impractical. Being free to be impractical is most of what being free is, isn’t it?

        Fashion can be feminist, even that impractical stuff, because being able to express yourself is damn important, and something a lot of women in history couldn’t do, and a depressing lot can’t now. I “got” fashion, at last, a while ago when I started thinking of it as a sort of art. And women being free to make art whenever and wherever they like is a Good Thing™.

        …but high-heels are still stupid.

        Commenter
        Magpie
        Date and time
        June 17, 2013, 11:25AM
        • High heel shoes? Uncomfortable, pinching, movement-restricting, damage-inflicting things which alter your gait, and make your body look tight. They are horrible and you can't run away in them.

          Commenter
          Nicole
          Location
          Darlinghurst
          Date and time
          June 17, 2013, 12:18PM
          • Surely the biggest issue re fashion for feminists are the conditions in which the clothing is produced? The death of hundreds of young women, working to make our cheap disposable clothing (so that we can stay modern and on-trend), deserves far more consideration and action than whether smart women can love fashion.

            That's fine if you really want to make an argument that "...fashion can be a tool of feminism and of self-expression and individuality and empowerment" as the 16 year old blogger states, but to not even mention the conditions under which most of our clothing is produced is pretty sickening.

            Ethical production needs to be our major feminist concern in fashion. Not "self-empowerment". Vomit.

            Commenter
            Eliza
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            June 17, 2013, 12:26PM
            • Fashion is for the young who have too much time (and money) on their hands. Looking good is a health issue and one of self-esteem, following fashion as such is for airheads. Can feminists look good? Size 10, age 46, yes we certainly can. You won't catch us trying to wear tacky fashion like a teenager with half our flesh showing, however. Our looks are not as important as our brains and our actions, but doesn't mean we look like trogs!

              Headline for tomorow: "Can men dress like total dags but still be competent businessmen?".

              Commenter
              Carmine
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              June 17, 2013, 4:01PM
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