Fashion has long been regarded as ‘women’s business’. It’s women who are interested in it and who support the industry, through their shopping trips and, more recently, their online forays. And that is, of course, how it should be because fashion, of its nature, is trivial and superficial. It resides in the world of appearances and has nothing to do with the essence of human existence, where men, through the ages, have wrought the progress whose fruits we now enjoy.
But is fashion perhaps perceived as inherently trivial precisely because it has long been viewed as a female domain? And does our interest in it, inevitably, perpetuate our objectification and sustain our marginalisation? Is fashion irredeemably anti-feminist?
From time immemorial, women have struggled to approximate to an ever-changing paradigm of beauty and perfection not of their own making. There’s always work to be done to make us more alluring, sexier. Corsets have constricted waists, bodices have lifted breasts, and stilettos have lengthened legs. Depending upon time and circumstance, we have impossibly aspired to the demure and the virginal; the vampish and the yet instantly available. The one given being that it’s all for men. While women have been forced to primp and preen; pluck and pout to gain a man’s security, men, historically being in possession of economic and legal power, have never had to aspire to the impossible. Interest in fashion renders women superficial; no interest renders them undesirable.
Whilst women have achieved a level of independence of which we could, once, only have dreamt, what woman has not experienced the horror of the changing-room, the irrational panic accompanying getting dressed to go out, or, more particularly, that what you have just doesn’t look right? Our clothes seem to assume an objective authority over us. They judge us. We have to live up to them.
The 1970’s feminist found herself in the familiar double bind of defending a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants, while simultaneously regarding a woman with an interest in fashion with a degree of suspicion and thus ironically stereotyping the very women they should have supported. On the one hand, the advent of the pill and the ‘67 Abortion Act had, finally, afforded us some real control over our fertility. On the other, such ‘sexual liberation’ seemed to come at a price. If the mini-skirt symbolised the sexual hedonism of the times, Mary Quant and Twiggy were not immediately embraced as ‘sisters’ by the Second Wave of feminism that followed just a few years later because, while the mini-skirt may have been an expression of women’s new-found freedom from enslavement to conception, it also seemed to offer the promise of readily available sex to men. Not for the first time, men had appropriated our advancement, and were using it to their own advantage.
While, in the 1970s, there was the sense that fashion was the preserve of the unthinking, changes in the interim must persuade us to reconsider. We must acknowledge that nothing so all pervasive could ever be wholly irrelevant. Fashion has much in common with architecture. Both require reconciliation of form and function and pervade the public sphere, in a way that other art forms do not. So why is architecture seen as wholly serious, while fashion isn’t? The language of architecture is understood by only the more erudite, whilst everyone thinks that they understand the language of fashion: that a short skirt means sex and an exposed décolletage invites desire.
And that, for feminists, is the problem. If everyone thinks that they know what certain garments symbolise, it seems in vain to protest that I am wearing a short skirt and heels today, to please myself. But, at some level, there is no sense of pleasing oneself here, because there is always the risk of a disparity between the perception of observer and observed. Then how can I be sure that insidious pressures of which I am not aware haven’t determined my choices?
So, for what are we hoping? For some ideal world, where we could wear what we want, without fear that our clothes would be subject to a myriad preconceptions and prejudices? Would that be ideal or possible? The answer is no. All clothing, no matter how pedestrian, has some inexorable symbolic impact, and rightly so. It is part of what makes us human that we seek to embellish ourselves and our world. It is part of what defines us as human that everything around us is imbued with some significance. We could never, in service to some pure and purged feminist aesthetic, strip that away and there could never be an aesthetic in fashion that isn’t the point of intersection of innumerable connotations.
But the symbolism and significance attached to garments does change, albeit slowly. Far too many women of power and influence now think that, in order to be taken seriously, we must look dowdy or dress like a man. And, to an extent, familiarity anaesthetises the general population to those very articles of clothing which kept women as ‘sex symbols’, cementing stereotypes. The short skirt, for example, is now much more commonplace and unnoticeable than at the dawn of the 1960s. Perhaps, then, we can afford to relax the somewhat prescriptive notions of what constitutes ‘suitable attire’, as advocated by 1970s feminism. We can acknowledge that feminists, like women in general, come in all shapes, sizes and forms of attire.
But, if fashion continues to be trivialized, it’s partly because we have colluded in making it so. It’s a manifestation of the psychology that comes with centuries of subjugation that we have tended to excuse and devalue the very aspects of the culture that are specifically ours. And let us also remember that men aren’t exactly deficient in the vanities department. There are the cars, the gym equipment and those miraculous products that promise to stimulate hair follicles. Currently, the male grooming market is one of the only markets that has shown huge growth despite the recession. Moreover, ‘high fashion’ may be frippery, but it has never been devoid of interest. Couture designers are often impressively educated individuals, who produce collections that are frequently fantastical and unwearable, their nuances impeccably highbrow. (See, particularly, the work of the now deceased McQueen and the now disgraced Galliano.)
But, until recently, it was a sad reflection of the status quo that even the higher echelons of a fashion industry which caters primarily to women and dictates how we aspire to look, was almost entirely dominated by men. And this, despite the fact that it is little girls who are taught to sew. But, while women have always beavered away, ‘making do and mending’, this is lowly domestic work. And the needlepoint, beloved of Jane Austen’s heroines, merely kept genteel women occupied until Mr Right came calling. Women (and children) still make up the majority of those working (under terrible conditions) in sweatshops around the world, and it is, primarily, women who sew beads and sequins onto couture gowns in the Ateliers of Paris. But the gods of fashion have, with the exception of Coco Chanel, almost all been men: Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, and so on. We have worn clothes designed by men – to please men.
Now, with the ascendancy, first of Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Fürstenberg, and then Donna Karan, Jil Sander, Isabel Marant, Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Sarah Burton, things are changing. And, interestingly, though not surprisingly, there are signs that women designers are producing clothes which their women customers might actually want to wear, or on which we could, conceivably, model our own style, rather than the outlandish, and often alienating, fabrications which, too often, have been the signature of male Creative Directors.
It’s time for us to stop apologising. We’ve long felt unable to criticise men’s indulgences because they’ve earned them. If they wanted to fritter their money away on the frivolous who were we to object? And, because women’s work has, for so long, been hidden and unpaid in the domestic sphere, or of low status and under-paid in the public, we have been financially beholden to men even for that which we want to call our own. But, with growing economic independence, there is no longer any economic reason for regarding women’s indulgences as less deserved and more self-indulgent than men’s.
Some of us will continue to have an interest in fashion, and all of us will continue to wear clothes. And, sometimes, our intention in wearing them will be misconstrued: not least because, in the realm of sexual politics, the moral and emotional tends to lag at least a generation behind the realities of the economic and legal framework – so much of the former having been imbibed with mother’s milk and then, seemingly, set in stone in our subconscious. But, if feminism stands for anything, it is for the affirmation of women. Despite huge progress, we are still not where we want to be, or where we could be. And there are millions of women who do not yet enjoy anything like the advances to which I have alluded. Almost anything that makes us feel good, in a still male-dominated world; that gives us confidence has something to recommend it. There is every possibility that, over time, we can reclaim and redefine what we wear and gradually come to own it, rather than being enslaved to its perceived power to render us something other than we are.
There is nothing intrinsically anti-feminist about fashion, any more than there is about architecture or, indeed, cooking. We need clothes just as much as we need buildings and food, but, in all three, we have gone far beyond the essential. That is because, in the realm of human affairs, it is the superfluous that both expresses and makes us what we are. Our behaviour is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. We do not display merely to attract a mate. We display and embellish and ornament and enhance because we are human.