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Fashionably Informed: Fashion & Feminism 101

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Dress and leopard heels
Photo Credit

Is fashion feminist?

It’s a question that’s been posed over and over again in the past few decades, ever since the emergence of second-wave feminism.

On the one hand, the fashion industry is often criticized for upholding unrealistic beauty standards and for perpetuating the sexist notion that a woman’s appearance is her most valuable asset. But on the other, many women employ fashion and style as methods of individual empowerment.

Here, we’ll be touching on the history of feminism, as well as breaking down both sides of this issue. Read on to learn more:

A Brief History of Feminism

Feminist suffrage
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Feminism as we know it today emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as women began to reject traditional feminine roles. Contrary to what most people think, this didn’t include burning bras en masse, but it did mean women began to critically examine and reject some of their previously unquestioned gender roles.

In the nineties, a “third wave” of feminism emerged that expanded upon this movement. Women began paying more attention to the intersections of sexism with other systems of oppression including racism, classism, and homophobia. As a result, feminism became more inclusive.

Today, feminism has a broad range of meanings, with various overlapping and conflicting schools within it. But the basic premise remains: women are equal to men and deserve to be treated as such.

Misogyny in Fashion

So how does fashion play into this?

As an industry, fashion has been widely criticized for perpetuating harmful beauty standards. Fashion, critics argue, upholds these unattainable ideals through a variety of mechanisms, including deceptive advertising and the use of conventionally attractive (read: white and thin) models.

Furthermore, the industry is largely predicated on dictating what women should wear in order to look attractive to heterosexual men (which is also problematic, because it assumes all women are heterosexual).

Another common argument is that fashion perpetuates the sexist notion that a woman’s most valuable asset is her appearance. Instead, feminism proposes that women should be valued for their worth as human beings, not just visual objects.

Feminist Fashion

Bikini Kill
Photo: ELLE

Yet for some, fashion is inherently feminist.

In the seventies, the phrase “the personal is political” became popular among feminists. It means that individual actions in everyday life could be used to make powerful statements. Similarly in fashion, when women choose to dress in ways that empower them, they make statements about their autonomy as individuals.

For example, during the riot grrrl movement in the nineties, women began adopting punk rock styles that were traditionally regarded as “ugly” or “unfeminine” to subvert cultural norms about what it meant to be a woman. Style was used as a method of expression, much in the way it still is today.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it’s hard to argue that the fashion industry as a whole is very feminist. It upholds patriarchal notions that a woman’s most valuable asset is her appearance, and it often objectifies women. That’s not to say there aren’t subcultures, like fatshion, or other rad designers creating and using fashion in a way that is feminist. But mainstream fashion probably doesn’t cut it.

That said, fashion isn’t always un-feminist either! Like we always say here at CF, it’s possible to employ personal style as a method of expression and empowerment. The difference is personal agency and the critical examination of choices. Are you wearing heels because you think you “should” in order to look sexy and appealing? Or are you rocking those killer 5-inches because you feel confident and think they make you look like a goddess? (They totally do, go you!)

Tell Us Your Thoughts:

What do you think? How have you used fashion in feminist ways? Comment in the section below!

Posted on on January 10, 2014 / Filed Under: Fashion News / Tags: , , , ,

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14 Responses to “Fashionably Informed: Fashion & Feminism 101”

  1. 1
    January 10th, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I personally find fashion to be more empowering towards women. I feel like women should be able to wear what makes them feel most confident. If you feel more confident in dresses and heels, then wear them. It’s the reason behind why you are wearing something that determines whether fashion is sexist or not. You should wear things because they make you feel confident and beautiful, not because it’s the latest trend or looks cute (although it may be uncomfortable). Fashion is about expressing yourself and making you feel good, not what the media says you should wear.

  2. 2
    January 10th, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    First, I would like to say way to go girl on this article! It was both interesting and well written! I think that post modern fashion (1960s -Present) is inherently feminist. Yes,there are still plenty of examples of using women as objects in the industry, but fashion itself is empowering. It gives girls and women everywhere a way to carve themselves into whatever they find beautiful. It is a profession where being female is not seen as a handicap. It is a way foster confidence when there little to be found. I am confident that the standard of beauty will continue to evolve into something more diverse. At least I hope so, the limited standard of beauty is often what gives the fashion industry a ugly side.

  3. 3
    January 10th, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I wear those killer pointy heels because I feel like a stomping goddess!

  4. 4
    January 10th, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I like to combine masculine clothing and feminine clothing at the workplace to change up the feminine quality of fashion. For example, yesterday I wore a classic white button down (the masculine style dress for working women) under a sheer blouse (feminine style). Switching from the usual camisole or tank top added a flare of masculinity to the blouse style.

  5. 5
    January 10th, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I like to dress to show that I am creative, not to look like I came out of a street style blog. I am always looking for inspiration in my style, but I do not exactly copy everything. I think no one should dress for anyone but theirselves. Also, I really dislike the model of beauty described as white and thin. I really liked the opinion that you stated in this article and I hope it encourages women to use feminism in fashion.

  6. 6
    January 10th, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Just a note: third wave feminism also introduced the idea that there is NO difference between men and women and any differences that do occur generally (ie women being more likely to discuss emotions, concerned with appearance, better at multitasking, better at taking care of children, etc.) are because of society.

    I think it’s quite obvious that this is ridiculous. There are fundamental physical and psychological differences between men and women, and those differences should be celebrated. We women shouldn’t feel ashamed of being ‘girly’ or a stay-at-home mom, but many third-wave feminists would criticize this behavior (a great movie dealing with this topic is Mona Lisa Smile).

  7. 7
    January 10th, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Brooke, a lot of what we consider to be “girly” is completely culture-dependent, and therefore a result of socialization. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or “un-feminist” to do stereotypically feminine things. It just means we can’t go “I chose my choice!” and pretend that choice was made within a vacuum with no outside influences.

    Maybe something like multitasking is a common inborn psychological difference, but I seriously, seriously doubt women being concerned with their appearance is. That is the result of women being VALUED for their appearance. Care over our appearance is extremely, borderline coercively, encouraged.

  8. 8
    January 10th, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    President of my college’s Feminist Collective and dedicated CF reader, here! Fashion, like any other art, is a form of expression. When one uses fashion to truly express themselves (and not anyone else), it is incredibly empowering and powerful. If a woman has an interest in fashion, or any other topic for that matter, she need not explain herself or be shamed for it. WE make our own decisions! Great post :)

  9. 9
    January 10th, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    A big and controversial topic, for sure. ;) I’m in favor of personal style for both men and women. Of course, historical/societal precedents influence our perceptions of femininity. But I don’t agree that “stereotypically feminine” choices are, by default, made under that influence.

    Speaking of history, I always go back to the 1700s for perspective. In the upper classes, you had men and women equally concerned about their appearance, cosmetics included. It doesn’t seem to have had much to do with gender roles.

  10. 10
    January 11th, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    THANK YOU FOR THIS POST. Feminism is about a woman doing whatever (to me anyway) she wants, and I think fashion and style allow a woman to do that. If a woman wants to wear a bodycon and heels, or a short skirt or a cleavage baring top or a long maxi or a polo and midi skirt, so they shall!

  11. 11
    January 11th, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    Awesome! I’m very into both feminism and fashion, so this article made me happy when I saw it appear on Bloglovin’.
    I agree that fashion is a way of expression and can be subversive (and gamechanging).
    Also let’s not forget : Femininity is not anti-feminist. I’d say it can be quite the contrary :) It’s something we can decide for ourselves, whichever we feel want to wear etc.

  12. 12
    January 11th, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Fashion is an art form, simply a medium to express thoughts and feelings which can be either feminist or misogynistic.

  13. 13
    January 12th, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Ama- couldn’t agree more about motivation being the deciding factor! It’s so important to dress in a way that makes YOU feel great.

    Kyla- what fantastic insight! I agree with you about narrow standards of beauty being a hindrance to the fashion industry and women. I hope we can start changing that soon!

    Sarah- same here! I love pretending the sidewalk is my catwalk.

    Valerie- sounds like an interesting combination!

    Pauline- thanks for the feedback and I agree that you should only dress to please yourself! I can see how that line was misinterpreted; what I meant was that the stereotypical but incredibly narrow standard of beauty in the fashion industry generally includes only thin, white women. For example, 82% of models in FW14 New York Fashion Week were white. Hope that helps clarify, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    Brooke- I think it’s a little more nuanced than that. The majority of feminists today agree that there’s nothing wrong with being stay-at-home mothers or acting feminine, as long as those aren’t the ONLY acceptable options. You’re correct that there are some basic biological differences, but many differences are indeed socially constructed. For example, a study tested babies’ abilities to climb a ramp. Parents underestimated female babies’ abilities while they overestimated male babies’; in fact, there was no difference in physical capability at 11 months, suggesting that one of the reasons women are regarded as less athletic is because they are discouraged from pursuing intense physical activity (as men are) due to preconceptions of gender!

    Katy- great points! Choices are made in social and cultural contexts and, whether we’re aware of it or not, are always influenced by our surroundings. You’re spot on about overemphasis being put on women’s appearances.

    Sara Jane- thank you for your great input! A lot of “feminine” interests are devalued and trivialized (especially fashion) so I totally agree with you.

    Marian- perhaps we can agree to disagree, but that’s an interesting historical note. Did you know that pink was also considered a “boys” color for a long time as well?

    Jaz- I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you!

    Issmene- very important point about femininity not being anti-feminist. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Keep an eye out for more like this.

    Bubbles- agreed, I think it very much depends on how it’s being used and by whom.

  14. 14
    January 14th, 2014 at 5:57 am

    There are problematic practices within the industry, but I don’t view fashion as a whole as anti-feminist – quite the opposite actually. Women don’t dress for men imo; we dress for ourselves and other women. If the reverse were true, creepers and harem pants wouldn’t even be considered as trends. It’s a form of expression; like any visual art form, it plays with colour, texture and shape, and uses aesthetics to elicit mood and ideas (even political statements, as demonstrated in the article), and the industry employs innumerable deeply creative women and gay men.

    The perpetuation of a beauty ideal is problematic, but the same white/thin ideal is disseminated through film, pop music, men’s wank mags and all other kinds of media, so you can’t point a finger at fashion as if it’s the only perpetrator in our culture. The cultural obsession with women’s looks is omnipresent; fashion is empowering in a sense that it allows women to *control* how they look. Androgyny, for instance, is a fashion staple and represents a form of rebellion against heteronormativity.

    Also men’s fashion is a thing too – it’s just that less male consumers care about being fashionable or there’s a stigma that it’s too “girly/gay”.

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