Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Feminism is Fashionable

Whether or not you care about what’s in style or what labels you’re wearing, clothes are important. They protect us, keep us warm and dry, and make us feel good. Additionally, clothing can be your way of telling people who you are. Wearing a t-shirt with a funny saying or political slogan right away can tell people a little bit about yourself before you actually say anything. Some clothes are symbols: while blue jeans started as work pants, they have evolved into the symbol of a laid back persona (although, the advent of designer jeans opens up a whole new arena in jeans-speak). Sweaters are associated with comfort and warmth, t-shirts with warm weather and activity, and leather jackets with rebelliousness.

Alison Lurie, author of The Language of Clothes argues that clothing is a silent form of communication similar to spoken language. Different countries and regions have accents, dialects and languages of their own just as clothing differs from area to area. What you choose to wear is then like what you choose to say. “Yet just as with spoken language, such choices usually give us some information, even if it is only equivalent to the statement, ‘I don’t give a damn what I look like today’” (Lurie, 5).

Fashion and feminism have strong connections. “Fashion is of course an almost wholly feminized industry. Apart from a few men at the top… it is and has been a female sphere of production and consumption. For this reason alone fashion is a feminist issue” (McRobbie, 85). The fashion industry is heavily driven by females. We have control! Some of the earliest commercial cosmetic companies, for example, the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden, were founded and steered into wild success by women (Scott, 136). Cosmetic companies and fashion boutiques hired female sales people while magazines for women were staffed by mostly women. Carmel Snow, the assistant fashion director at Vogue at the beginning of the twentieth century, was similar to Anna Wintour (the current editor-in-chief of American Vogue) in that she was described as “the final authority in all matters of fashion” (Scott, 134).

However, Snow used her influence in ways that Anna Wintour has not: in politics. “Power over the fashionable world was also used to forward the cause of suffrage, causing the fledgling movement to become as au courant as Parisian gowns among the readers of Vogue” (Scott, 134).

Fashion and politics have often gone together. Think of political buttons or t-shirts supporting breast cancer research. Political messages get popularized through fashion. Remember in the 2008 election when lots of people had Obama t-shirts? Clothing can act as powerful means for change because it is such an important part of our lives. It is clear that activism is more successful if it can get into the mainstream of society. Well… that makes sense.

When you get dressed, what are you saying about yourself? Are you wearing clothes to merely clothe yourself, or are you taking advantage of the power of clothing? This isn’t to say that every single t-shirt you own needs to have a positive, political, feminist message, but that if you do own clothing that carries such a message, that you wear it knowing you are part of an activist approach to get people to pay attention.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. New York, NY: Random House Inc. 1983

McRobbie, Angela. “Bridging the Gap: Feminism, Fashion and Consumption.” Feminist Review 55 (1997) 73-89

Scott, Linda M. Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan. 2005

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