Friday, October 9, 2009

Feminism and fashion: expressive or oppressive?

I’ve been thinking over our chat in class about high heels and the fashion industry. My question is, is fashion an impediment to the feminist movement that turns us into lackeys and sexual objects for the gratification of a male-dominated world, or can we use fashion, for example high heels, to feel empowered as we finally stand eye-to-eye with men? Do these shoes help us walk at the same height as most men, or do they hurt our feet and restrict our movement? And how does one or the other help us in our struggle for equality in a male-dominated world?

Fashion companies are filled with these dualities. First of all, fashion is somewhat of an industry that follows the “emotionality” of women in its ever changing whims. No sooner have you bought that cute blouse and pencil skirt set than the rules change and Converse are back in again for students. This perpetuates a negative stereotype of women as flighty, emotional and far from rational and reasoned. But the fashion industry itself is ruled, more or less these days, by women as well as for women. Bath and Body Works is not the only company by women and for women. See, generally in the world, this weblink of women-owned businesses and in particular, this weblink about Banana Republic CEO Jeanne P. Jackson. Therefore, the fashion industry is both a place that reinforces stereotypes of women as fragile and feeble and emotional yet, being associated with women and being owned and run by women, it is also a place where women can dominate and succeed.

I’d always thought of 80’s dressing as hideous until recently, but on reflection of the subject I realized that perhaps those nasty shoulder pads were there for a reason: to retake the power of the suit from men, and adorn women with it instead. That it might be empowering, if masculine, to wear shoulder pads. I personally would rather dress “like a woman” and I’ve ripped my share of shoulder pads out of jackets and sweaters, but I can somewhat see the appeal now. Is it women attempting for sameness with men by looking the same as they do with large shoulders, or is it just women attempting for sameness with men by wearing the same clothing, or is it women attempting for difference as they pair it with a skirt instead of pants? One can see arguments for both sameness and difference in that one article of clothing, the suit.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg has this to say about fashion:

"Whether it's the dark, sad eyes of a woman in purdah or the anxious darkly circled eyes of a girl with anorexia nervosa, the woman trapped inside needs to be liberated from cultural confines in whatever form they take. The burka and the bikini represent opposite ends of the political spectrum but each can exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women."

Truly, fashion is a double-edged sword. But, in some ways, fashion discriminates against the men in our society as much as it does the women. One has only to picture a man "cross-dressing" in women's clothing and the ridicule he is put through for so doing to realize that we as women have far more options to choose for dressing than men do. In fact, the term itself is only applicable to men: women have been cross-dressing for decades without repercussion, and it is not even termed such. There is no word for a woman wearing men's clothing, but if a man wears womens', it is considered socially atipical and has its own word, "cross-dressing", putting a stigma upon those who practice it. Pants belong to women as well as men, but dresses and skirts are limited to the female realm.

How does this relate to law? As far as I know there are no laws against dressing a certain way, although nakedness is usually limited to certain areas thus designated (nude beaches) and schools have certain police power public policy reasons to limit children's clothing, which may or may not be legal depending on if the regulation is a constitutionally impermissible restraint on free speech. In our part of the world, wearing hoodies and saggy pants may get you thrown out of the Roseville Mall. Regulation of clothing in these circumstances -- schools and malls -- is gender neutral for the most part, if not discriminatory towards males, as the Roseville mall case may be. But should we regulate more than we do? Many beaches, if not nude, are places where people display their bodies in almost nude conditions. And as a result of this, many women are objectified for their bodies. Yet it is a right to do as we want in this country as long as it isn't hurting anyone else, and we certainly wouldn't want to limit and regulate clothing as a free expression of the individual.

To sum? In countries that regulate clothing and in countries that don't, women can be objectified, controlled or manipulated using fashion. Yet fashion can be freeing, empowering and a place where women are accepted, a place where women can finally climb through the glass ceiling. This duality can warn us to be careful how we dress ourselves, conscious that our choices may denote more than simple protection against the elements. How will you dress tomorrow, and why? I challenge you to embrace those parts of fashion that celebrate the female and to reject all oppression given to us through fashion today.


Anon5 said...

The role of fashion in society is something I have been interested in for a long time; thanks for writing a post about it.

I agree with you that fashion has sort of a dual nature. In one sense, the desire to be fashionable is something that has been imposed upon women in order to subjugate them. But on the other hand, women have been able to reclaim a great deal of power through the clothes they wear. Today, women have the choice to wear heels or flats- it is no longer a requirement for social acceptance.

One thing I often wonder about is how much of the desire to be stylish and fashionable is purely the product of socialization and exposure to mass media advertising, as opposed to how much of it is innate. Capitalism depends on the creation of wants, and it seems fair to conclude that many of the things women need to do in order to be fashionable are purely artificial. If the fashion industry had not created the desire to have long fingernails for example, maybe women wouldn't want them.

But, even Cro-Magnon men and women created jewelry and wore beads. There wasn't any profit-driven media influencing behavior back then; humans had a natural sense of what was beautiful and fashionable.

In all likelihood the desire to be fashionable is the product of both socialization and natural instinct. In spite of the fact that fashion has historically been a method of female oppression, fashion can also be a lot of fun. In the end, women's reclamation of fashion is probably the most healthy reaction to it, rather than rejecting it outright.

student said...

I have also been thinking quite a bit about fashion choices, especially feminist fashion choices. I'm not nearly as confident as I once was about clothing simply being "expressive."

After much thought, and waives of feminist guilt, followed sometimes by gendered-fashion indulgence, I've decided (once again) that this is really an issue of awareness and choice. I choose to wear what I like, and try to not be a "consumer."

Sometimes the line between personal preference and social consumer submission is blurry, resulting in an analysis far beyond that deserved by fashion choices, but I think this analysis is important. We should be able to wear whatever we want as long as we know a) why we like certain clothing and b) what the clothing means in the larger social context.

samina hitch said...

You bring up a lot of great points. As much as I would like to think that fashion is expressive, I think that our culture supports it as an oppressive construct both for women and men. It seems that fashion is most often used as a means to accept and reject others socially, and that the consequences of that social acceptance or rejection plagues both sexes. I have seen this tendency manifest itself in children, as my daughter is hyper-aware at all times of whether pink or turquoise or green is the "favorite" color in her pack of girlfriends. Once a color is ruled out, my five-year-old diligently refuses to wear the newly damned color. At five, she wears dresses to match and please her girlfriends first, while her own opinions are stashed away (and told to her mother in strict confidence).

I think boys and men similarly suffer from the terror of being rejected -- and their fashion choices reflect their social groups. As we discussed in class, cross-dressing would certainly be considered an offense to Manhood Acts -- it is too close to the realm of women and far too influenced by homophobia.

Dress is certainly an area where both men and women are constantly policed. If you are a woman, you have to choose whether you're going to indulge in what the fashion industry hands over to you, and whether or not you are making fashion choices because you want to feel good or get attention. If you are a man, you have to choose whether you're going to risk losing your credibility as a man, and your dressing choices reflect your masculinity or credibility in a social group.

In raising a daughter, I try to create a balance so that my daughter will feel that personal choice and social pressure are on somewhat of a fashion continuum. Sometimes I will dress comfortably, and encourage her to do the same. Sometimes I will bring her along on indulgent shopping trips in San Francisco. Other nights, we will both wear as much jewelry as possible, sport heels and our awesome-est dresses, and treat our dinner table as if it were the banquet table at the Royal Ball. Sometimes we wear fancy dresses, kick around a soccer ball and welcome the grass stains. It feels like the right thing to show her that it's okay to have multiple personalities & to use fashion as a means to perform that personality for a short time -- to sometimes feel organic hemp, other times feel powersuit, other times feel cheap trendy. I want to show her that her comfort with that range of personas is more important than worrying about whether pink is still "in." Next week it might be green, and I want her to be the girl who will still wear pink (and feel happy about it).