Can you be a fashionable feminist?


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.


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.