Fashion has often been labelled the antithesis of gender equality. Increasingly, women are attacking each other for approaching feminism the ‘wrong’ way: for wanting to be a stay-at-home mother, for being too vocal or not vocal enough about gender issues, and, indeed, for how they look and dress. But is there only one fit of feminism?
Pehaps it’s more important how we think of ourselves and behave towards each other. Recently, an author wrote that she used to be made to think she wasn’t a real feminist because she liked frivolous things like lipsticks and heels. Gloria Steinem, labelled ‘the original’ feminist for redefining feminism to include men, was criticised for “playing on her looks”. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama, who has been a tireless advocate of women’s rights, has been accused of being a “feminist nightmare”. But the idea that being fashionable and sexy is incompatible with being a feminist is wrong. Feminism should not be about judgement and competition, but about maximising women’s choices and their freedom to pursue these choices.
Model Karen Elson, as a proud feminist herself, warns that, “If you assume that models […] can’t have strong opinions and beliefs, you’re just falling prey to the popularly held misogynist view that beautiful women are stupid.” More than that, clothes have long had power to facilitate and accompany change. We need only to look at the suffragette movement, the famous flapper dresses and miniskirts that shocked the social order when they first came out, and the more recent Pussy Riot, who used their clothing as a way to send their message out, loud and clear.
Liking fashion does not have to mean ignoring the problems that the industry poses for the feminist cause, through their promotion of a specific body shape (read: super skinny) or the fact that the whole industry exists to tell us how women should dress, while we are perfectly capable of making this choice ourselves.
Feminism and fashion are actually becoming increasingly interlinked. Frida Kahlo, the feminist Mexican artist, is the inspiration behind various SS’14 collections: richly embroidered gowns at Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana, tassels at Dries Van Noten and Oscar de la Renta, as well as a swathe of high street stores. We should move away from criticising lifestyles when gender inequality affects actual lives.
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, commented that we are “facing a worldwide crisis of violence against women,” in reaction to the killing spree by Elliott Rodgers in California last month. Many women die every day, around the world, because of FGM, because of imposed social barriers, because of domestic violence – stepping back, we can see how an interest in fashion is not an issue that should be prioritised in the feminist agenda.