Monday, February 27, 2012

On Fashion and Feminism

This was an eagerly discussed topic about a month ago. As is my wont I got all tangled up in the definitions and never wrote about any of it. Once in a while I took the topic out, thought about it, got confused and put it back. Now it's shop-soiled, tattered, the way some clothes in final markdown sales are. And, as usual, I'm way off in my timing.

The gist of the conversation, as I understood it, was whether fashion could be feminist and whether it is OK for feminists to be fashion-conscious. That's where things got tricky for me, because the term "fashion" is one of those terms ("freedom", "dignity", "democracy", "religious freedom") which have many different meanings, some almost opposite to each other. And given the way I am, I had to go on this long thinking trip about what people might mean when they say "fashion."

Defining concepts is a delightful enterprise for me but I get that others find it as appetizing as horse food. Still, if in my mind the word "fashion" is about the annual forced changes to make women buy more and more badly-made but expensive clothes which hurt and if in your mind the word "fashion" is about the human desire to decorate their bodies for the pleasure of others, well, we are going to have a very odd conversation.

So definitions are necessary. As I followed some of the discussions, I noticed that many people focused on the clothing industry and its exploitative nature. The people making all those fashionable clothes are usually poorly paid women. Others focused on the modelling industry, its message of extreme skinniness and its focus on thin white upper-class women as the most likely market for the final products.

Yet others seemed to speak about independent craftspeople creating wearable art. And many spoke about the way fashions are anti-feminist in promoting clothes which bind, hamper and make walking about difficult. Several comments were about the poor quality of much of women's clothing, even the expensive labels and about the difficulty of finding anything fashionable in larger sizes in general.

The reason I give you that summary is that if the original idea is about making fashion into something feminists can embrace its practicality clearly depends on what we mean by the term "fashion."

From that angle certain things about fashion will have to be dropped into the dustbin before I can embrace the idea as feminist. Well, probably most things about the actual fashion industries and how they work. No more labor exploitation, no more focus on only one body type, ethnic group and income level. Women should demand better quality in the clothes that are available. The average quality of men's clothes is higher than that of women's clothes, while the prices men pay can, in fact, be lower.

So what does that leave me? The idea of clothes as fun, as part of the decoration of the body for both information purposes and so that others get some fun from seeing you slither into the room. That part I can embrace! Indeed, I'm going to embroider some snakes all over the back of my old jeans jacket. Their heads will peak over my shoulders when viewed from the front!

But fashion is not quite that innocent if we expand it to mean "costume", the way human beings have used dress as a way of showing social hierarchies, group membership and other information about a person.

Clothes and accessories are still used for that purpose. A Rolex watch and a well-cut fine wool suit on a man are not just about keeping him practically covered and aware of the time. They also send a message about his wealth. In a similar fashion (heh), a woman wearing Prada or Chanel is telling us about her social class and income.

That social role of clothing has in the past led to laws which dictated how fancy the clothes of the lower classes could be. Only the aristocracy could wear silk and velvet in many European countries.

This is the sinister role of "fashion" (as in "popular clothing"): To keep people in their "proper" places.

It is especially sinister for women. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran require that men veil themselves before going out, for example. But even more generally, the dress of women has traditionally been used to interpret their sexual morals. This has not been the case for men.

I have veered quite far from the initial question of this post, but doing so has clarified my thinking (and bored you). I think fashion could, indeed, be something feminist and exciting, a way of showing to the world what your basic values are. But only some of us have the freedom to do so.

What are your thoughts?

Embroidery by me.