Fashion and Feminism: Friends or Foes?

So I’ve recently started a blog deconstructing Sex and the City from a feminist perspective–going back to re-watch the entire series (and sigh, both of the ghastly movies, as well) to reflect on what the SATC universe had/has to offer (and in which ways it violently and painfully offends) The Feminist of Today.

And in re-watching the series, I’ve (inevitably, I think) been thinking a lot about fashion.  From the very beginning of the show onwards, fashion was one of its focal points. Throughout the series (and into the ghastly—but very nicely togged up, I will admit) movies, the writers, producers, and costume designers all worked together very closely when it came to deciding what the four women should wear for any given moment/discussion/event. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha’s sartorial choices were never incidental to the primary action of the show/the films, but were, rather, often a vital part of it. Fashion really mattered in the SATC universe, both to the four characters, and to the women and men who created (and dressed) them.

Part of this focus on fashion, of course, had less to do with creativity and self-expression than it did with a significant, ever popular “m” word—that is to say, money. By the time we got to the movies (“SATC 2: brought to you by Skyy Vodka, Debenham’s, and, of course, the Prince of Darkness!” Have I mentioned I didn’t like the second movie at all?), the connections between the franchise and various products/designers were quite blatant and overt—were, indeed, positively shameless.

I confess that I have not done any digging/research on the subject whatsoever (and me with a PhD in my back pocket, aren’t I supposed to like that kind of thing?), but I am nonetheless quite sure that some unsavory deals must have been done throughout the series between members of the SATC juggernaut and various designers and stores. If you were to play a drinking game in which you took a slug of vodka (Skyy Vodka, presumably, SATC’s vodka of choice, in case you hadn’t heard!) every time the characters mentioned/enthused over a particular brand (perhaps taking two slugs for repeat offenders like Bergdorf’s, Manolo Blahnik, and Jimmy Choo) in any given episode, let me assure you, by the end of said episode, you would be very drunk, indeed.

In short, all of this talk about fashion in the show most certainly has its dark side. A dark side in which particular brands are touted because there is money to be made, and profits to be enjoyed. A dark side in which the women of SATC are defined primarily through their roles as avid consumers within, and enthusiastic cheerleaders for, a capitalistic society which, as we know, is no respecter of either persons or nations. A dark side which suggests that, for women, real beauty, success, and glamour have a very high price tag attached, and that to be an accomplished, modern, sexy woman, you have to look the part—in a $4,000 dress and $400 shoes, of course.

Having noted that the show’s immersion in (and whole-hearted, uncomplicated embrace of) the world of high fashion most certainly has its problematic aspects… may I also note that said immersion is also one of my favorite parts of the show? Not because I see the show offering a sophisticated analysis of the ways in which women forge a sense of self through their clothing choices (because I don’t think that it is), and not because their take on fashion radically challenges normative ideas about what constitutes “beauty” (because I don’t think it does)—but rather because I really, really like pretty things, and deeply enjoy getting treated to a constant parade of outfits from women who are quite dashing and risk-take-y when it comes to the clothes which they wear and the ways in which they wear them (here’s looking at you, Carrie Bradshaw.)

All of which brings us to the inevitable Bigger Question—can a strong commitment to feminism (which—thank you, Women’s Studies classes which I took in college!—I most certainly have), and a deep love of fashion (which—thank you, American Girl books which consistently featured Loopy Fashions of the Past, especially cracked-out bows from the Victorian era which I read as a child!—I most certainly do) happily co-exist? In a not entirely un-self-serving way (because I defy you to successfully extract either love of pretty clothes or of feminist ideals from my person), I am going to say—yes.

But “happily,” I don’t think has to mean “uncomplicated-ly.” Because there’ll always going to be some fundamental contradictions involved, for those of us who hug both our copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the new shiny brown heels which we just got at a thrift store for $4.00 (I seriously did, and they are STUNNING) to our chests. Because is the fashion industry one which primarily has women’s interests/empowerment/fulfillment as individuals/as a class at its heart? Nope. Its primary concern is to make buckets and buckets of shining cash, and if it has to exploit Third World women and create a damaging and destructive ideal of female beauty which kicks all women who are not cisgendered, white, painfully thin, young, and able-bodied to the curb (among other sins) to do it, then by golly, do it it most certainly will.

Am I participating in an empowering, feminist act when I slap on said heels and go gadding about town? (Which… can’t wait to do, they are so pretttttty.) Not so much. I know that numerous Third Wave feminists have strenuously worked to make the case that playing with fashion and beauty can be a profoundly subversive act—and I do buy that… but only up to a certain point, in certain ways, and in certain contexts. There is nothing in the least subversive, for example, about me putting on heeled shoes (which are coded as “feminine” and “sexy” in our culture)—if anything, it’s quite the reverse. As a straight woman, that’s actually something I am “supposed” to do, if I want to in fact be considered “feminine” and “sexy.” Dominant beauty ideals, my lovely new heels—I fear that you play right into them.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t take pleasure in said shoes, because you bet your sweet bippy that I do. Fashion in general is a source of active, continuous pleasure in my life, and (conscious as I am of all of fashion’s many pitfalls and uglinesses for women), I don’t feel an anguished sense of conflictedness that my favorite blogs almost invariably involve the two “f”s of fashion and feminism.

And though I won’t claim that getting dressed in the morning is a feminist act equivalent to writing a feminist treatise or protesting for equal pay, I will say that fashion is, indeed, something which consistently gladdens my heart and lightens my spirits—which even (yes, I’m giving some ground to the Third Wavers here) provides a (small) space for subversion.

I’m quite tall even sans tall shoes, you see, and putting on heels, as such, does feel like a miniature act of defiance to me. After all, I spent my entire adolescence trying to make myself smaller than I was (hitting the 5’10” mark at 13—thanks a lot, genes, that was very helpful)—to take up less space—to not be “too tall” (i.e., taller than whatever boy I happened to be standing next to.) And when I put on heels that push me over the six foot mark (which is to say… basically any heels), it feels like a gift to the frightened young lass I once was, who was terrified of standing out too much—of being too noticeable—of making herself too conspicuous. I’m not afraid of taking up space/being visible, anymore, and I bless heels, for enabling me to take pleasure in something which was once a source of considerable adolescent hand-wringing and angst.

I also quite literally buy all of my clothes at thrift stores (okay, undergarments excluded, I do like to find my undergarments unworn by others)—I think the last dress I bought new was for my sister’s wedding (my sister who has been married for five years, thankyouverymuch), and that was only because I couldn’t find something sufficiently festive at my usual stand-bys. So, yes, I am still buying clothes and shoes that were made in sweat-shops by unpaid, undernourished five year olds. But I’m not directly supporting the businesses which run said sweatshops—sometimes, I even get to support thrift stores with quite lovely missions and admirable goals, instead. So though I am not quite bringing capitalism down from within—it’s still something.

And as a historian of women, there’s also something in the world of fashion which speaks to my susceptible, past-loving heart—for a lot of American history, after all, fashion was one of the primary means through which women could express their creativity and demonstrate their artistry. (And not just economically privileged women, either.) Yes, ideals of female beauty are most often not generated by women, and are certainly not generated along pluralistic, “all women are beautiful, you look great the way you are, even if you are a woman who happens to be voluptuous in the 1920s/flat-chested in the 1950s” lines, either.

But still. Throughout American history, women have taken fashion and made it into a thing of joy, beauty, and meaning in their lives. Treasured items of clothing (wedding dresses, baby clothes) have been passed down as beloved family heirlooms—transforming otherwise simple, physical objects into memories of women past, and hopes for women future. I wear a necklace every day that once belonged to my great-grandmother—a complex and contradictory lady (from what I hear), possessed of a stubborn nature and a sharp tongue. I wear it in honor of her, and of all the women of my family who carved out lives for themselves in times far harsher than the times I live in, now—and who insisted on bringing beauty into their lives, even if that beauty took the so-called “frivolous” form of a pretty new necklace.

So is Carrie exhibiting grating tone-deafness about her own immense class privilege when she insists that buying $400 shoes for herself is the best means for her to declare her independence? Yes. Is she irritatingly buying into Hugh Hefner’s tired line that the best way for women to claim sexual autonomy is to conform to a rigid, narrow ideal of “sexiness” and the male gaze when she sports a Playboy necklace? Yup.

But still. Watching Carrie wear what she wants to wear, in the way that she wants to wear it, and take an active pleasure in her own creativity and body, actually feels pretty darned good to me.

It feels, in fact, pretty darned feminist.

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