Fashionably Informed: Fashion & Feminism 101

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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!

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