Is Fashion Feminist?

Me, being a fashionista on Tumblr.

I haven’t been around here for a few days, mostly because I’ve been buried under a pile of papers that needed to be graded. Incidentally, they were some of the best papers I have ever read, but more on that later. While I’ve been absent here, I found myself more present on other sites, specifically Pinterest and Tumblr. I find it easier to be active on those sites, because I don’t have to think so much about what I’m writing, and I can use them from my phone easier than I can WordPress. So it makes sense that I’d be active on those sites while neglecting this one.

Pinterest has truly changed my life, though. It has made me see that everything about my world – my home, my food, myself – can be prettier. It has me thinking about ways that I can put in a little effort and very little money and yield huge results. (So this is what the DIYers have been doing for years? And to think I shunned them!)

Since I don’t yet have a house (we close June 5!), those ideas are theoretical. Since I’ve pretty much mastered the art of cooking for friends and family (pun intended), I don’t look for recipes as much as I do other things. Since I do have myself and a closet full of clothes I’ve neglected for years, I’ve been focused a lot on my fashion lately. In fact, I’ve even started posting some of my own fashion ideas on Tumblr.

As this weekend is the This Is What A FACE Looks Like campaign, and we are focused on making women feel comfortable with themselves without putting in the extra work that makeup requires, I find myself wondering whether or not my new obsession with fashion is, in fact, feminist.

On one side, it is exhausting to be perfect all the time. But the message that we send young girls and adult women alike is that you have to be perfect. All the time. If you don’t pick that perfect outfit or if you dare leave the house without makeup, you’ll be called out by every major tabloid in the nation, or worse in Hillary Clinton’s case – she was called out by a major news outlet. As women, we truly are judged by our appearance, and that isn’t fair. Men aren’t judged that way, and they definitely don’t feel the pressure to strive toward aesthetic perfection that women do. And let’s not even get started on the ways women are marketed to. Ad companies and corporations play on women’s insecurities – insecurities that they have created to sell products – to make them buy all of this fashion and makeup stuff to begin with. If more women fought against the patriarchy and refused to be “pretty” all the time, the norm would, hopefully, slowly shift toward women wearing whatever made them comfortable rather than whatever made them look the best.

On the flip side, my personal belief is that, if your day isn’t worth looking your best for, then what is? When my Fearless Females did the no makeup day this year, I told them that I felt like it was a throw-away day from the beginning. When I don’t put the effort into putting my best face forward, I feel like I might as well have just stayed in bed. And this wasn’t a philosophy of life that came about due to insecurities, I think. When I was in college, my fashion sense consisted of whatever the hell I felt like putting on, and always Birkenstocks. When I started student teaching and had to learn how to dress professionally, my best friend visited and threw away all of my hippie clothes. As I went through my first years of teaching, I encountered (and still do) many, many people who believed that teaching is not a job worth dressing up for. I, however, believe that, if you want to be treated like a professional – whether you are a man or a woman – you need to dress like one. So I do. Furthermore, my fashion sense is not made up of stilettos and skirts. I’m also not spending a ton of money making myself look good. I’m just learning how to tie scarves in new ways or rolling up sleeves on blazers. Most of these items have been collecting dust in my closet forever, and I’m pulling them out after being inspired to use them. In that way, I’m not spending money trying to fill my insecurities; rather, I’m responsibly recycling old clothing.

In short, I don’t have an answer to this question. All I know is that I like feeling put together; it makes me feel confident. Whether that is because I am a product of a society that has told me this is how I must feel or not, I don’t know. I’m not the first to wrestle with this issue, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But what I do know is that, for now, I like feeling good about myself, and clothing is a vehicle for that.

What do you think? Is fashion feminist? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Is Fashion Feminist?

  1. I do think fashion can be feminist. I think becoming comfortable in one’s own skin, learning how to dress in a personal style, and resiting the temptation to follow every fad (and spend a fortune) can be feminist acts.

    As my friend K at the gracious gaze (www.graciousgaze.blogspot.com), a fellow feminist, points out, simplicity and style and art and beauty can be feminist. Simple style cuts down on the waste and social and environmental destruction of rapid-response fashion (ahem, H&M, F21). Art and beauty are critical elements of fashion and how we present ourselves. So yes, I think fashion can be feminist.

  2. (I tried to comment once before, but WordPress mumbled something about cookies. WP doesn’t like me. We shall see if it works this time.)

    I struggle with this question a lot. I consider myself to be a feminist. I have for as long as I can remember. I am also a fashion merchantising student and a fashionista. My own personal style is important to me. Do these two parts of me fit together? Do I tarnish my feminist cred by being so into fashion?

    I try to avoid some of the recent facile arguments. Feminism is about choice, but not about just any choice. It’s possible to have the power to choose but to make non-feminist and even anti-feminist choices. I don’t want my choices to be like that.

    So I have no answers either. I think that perhaps the fashion industry as a whole is non-feminist and perhaps even anti-feminist. I think at least parts of the industry work against the best interests of women and for the perpetuation of male privilege and power. I have to examine my own involvement in this industry, even as a comsumer (which is all I am now) to determine whether I am helping those ends. I don’t want to.

    I hope that my personal fashion choices might at least not work against feminism. I follow the “eco-fashion” (responsible and sustainable) movement, and I try to bring those principles into my buying decisions. I try to buy only what I need, and like you (good move!) to repurpose what I already own. Wherever I eventually find myself in the industry, I hope I can bring my own feminism to bear and not have the life squashed out of it.

    I’ve blogged about this subject and no doubt will continue to do so. It’s a question I need to answer, and one that I have not yet answered.

  3. Ashley on

    @from two to one – I never thought about it in the sense that art and beauty can be feminist. Good point!

    @Veronique – I do see your point, and I share in your struggles with making choices about my appearance (and my life) that reflect my beliefs. However, I have trouble with the idea that some choices are not feminist or anti-feminist. If I look at a choice through a critical, feminist lens and make a decision that *some* feminists wouldn’t agree with, does that make the choice not feminist? I know some feminists don’t wear heels, for example, because they see them as symbols of the patriarchy trying to control us, etc. But I wear heels because they make me feel confident sometimes. Furthermore, can we really look at a choice in black and white? Not shaving your legs might be a feminist response to beauty standards, but not shaving my legs makes me feel dirty and, therefore, not confident. Whether I feel that way because the ad giants want me to or not, it is how I feel. Isn’t promoting confidence and good self esteem feminist? Therefore, is shaving my legs the feminist choice? It’s enough to make my head spin.

  4. It makes my head spin too. I love high heels. I don’t wear them often, but I love them. I love how I feel when I wear them. I wear makeup. My legs are hairless (although I tend to let them go a bit during tights season). I’m really into putting outfits together. Whether fancy or casual, I usually do so quite intentionally. All of this is an expression of creativity for me.

    But then people ask whether I’m really making a free choice for myself or whether my choice is simply a response to my having been reared in a patriarchical society. Have I been conditioned to like all this stuff? Am I following male-imposed beauty standards even if I don’t feel that I am?

    In the end, though, I’m not giving up what I love and what makes me feel good. I try to make responsible choices, but they are still going to involve nice clothes, makeup, and cool shoes, including high heels. I will continue to live by what I understand to be feminist principles and hopefully not be too conflicted.

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