I can’t decide if I care about fashion

Two undeniably fashionable beings, looking fierce and frankly, divine. via Instaboner, via Le Coil.

Our very own Courtney Martin has famously described her feminist “click” moment, the moment she knew she was a feminist, as the day she saw Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner give a talk on their new book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Courtney writes, “Amy was plucky and compact, smart without an ounce of pretension, a no-nonsense beauty. Jennifer was her opposite — long and sinewy, bright blond, and yes, wearing fishnet stockings.”

Courtney’s taken some flack for this comment, perhaps most notably from Susan Faludi’s much-discussed piece on “Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” in which Faludi criticizes Martin for baiting a generational war with her comments on young women’s emphasis on fashion.

But I think Courtney, as usual, is simply articulating an important if nuanced point about the way that people view each other, the world, and modern political movements.

That being said, I’m still trying to figure out my own stance on fashion.

To what extent, and why, does fashion matter to me?

I just can’t decide.

I mean, I like looking good. We all do, right! And I get that feeling, a mixture of awe, envy, and props- you know the one- when I see fly outfits being rocked by clearly fashion forward people. I like the idea of loving myself enough to take care of myself, groom myself, and present my best face to the world every day. And I tend to feel better when I’m wearing an outfit I really like. Moving to New York has given me an even greater appreciation for these things, because the women here are just. so. fly.

But I also feel silly spending any amount of serious dough on trendy clothes, when I know that money could go farther and do more if spent in other ways. And it’s not just about the money. I reject the idea that others should get to judge me based on what I’m wearing. I am, after all, a card-carrying Serious Feminist. I say Serious Things, and I make Serious Points. Perhaps more to the point, I’m smart, confident, I have something to say. Do I really need to be wearing APC jeans to get some freakin’ respect around here?

This isn’t about making anyone feel guilty for liking nice clothes, or even consumerism more generally. It’s about trying to be conscious about the kind of person I am now and the kind of person I’d like to be. It’s about staying true to myself. It’s about letting myself derive pleasure from things that are aesthetically appealing, while rejecting the culture of superficiality that often characterizes communities that value said aesthetics. It is about pleasure for pleasure’s sake in a world where pleasure feels like a privilege. It’s about acknowledging the ways in which aesthetics matter, and the ways in which they don’t, and the ways in which they currently do but probably shouldn’t, and the ways in which they currently don’t but ideally would.

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If that sounds vague, it’s because I don’t have any answers yet. I still get thrilled and impressed by bold, lovely, and often expensive fashion. And I still feel like I’m a person of worth, whether I’m wearing vintage Chanel or “vintage” sweatpants. But I can’t seem to reconcile these two (competing?) impulses; on the one hand, a value in “art for art’s sake, beauty, style, and other intangibles; on the other, an investment in valuing substance over style, actions over appearances, and real justice over flamboyant showmanship.

I think my dilemma is summed up well by a recent occurrence. Vivienne Westwood, a well-known luxury fashion designer, decided it would be a great idea to make the theme of her fall 2010 menswear show “homeless-chic”. This concept, seemingly straight out of the upcoming Zoolander sequel (!), translated into matted hair, patchy, stained clothes, and raggedy-looking fur. Westwood was quoted as saying ““If I were homeless, I would steal a bike and visit all the art galleries. Through culture homeless people can also participate in society. In London the museums have free admission, so they can be shelters for the homeless.”

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Of course, this was a quite out of touch, over-privileged, and insultingly ridiculous thing to do and say. But was it not also true to her reality, and her vision?

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Let’s bring it back to Courtney, because I’m obviously not the first person to think about these things, and she seems to have asked herself similar questions, with a more conclusive result. Of her feminist “click” moment, she writes:

“To this day, I ask myself, why did it matter so much? Why did I care so much that feminism look like me, talk like me, walk like me? Why did appearance have anything to do with it? It feels as if, even by acknowledging this, I’m siding with the enemy; responding to Amy and Jen’s style rather than their theories is like catcalling my own feminist big sisters. But it’s the truth. And for all of its seeming frivolity, I think it’s an important one.”

She goes on:

Movements, whether we like it or not, are visceral experiences. Feminism is no exception. If we want to bring more young women into the fold, especially given how vilified feminism is in the mainstream media, we can’t pretend that aesthetics are irrelevant. I’m not saying that we have to conform to traditional beauty standards. But manifesting a personal style — hairy armpits or fishnets, genderqueer or definitively feminine, hip-hop or hipster — doesn’t hurt the cause.

Well said. While I’ll continue to wrestle with this, perhaps Courtney is onto something: getting in touch with your own personal style and presenting it to the world as an extension of yourself seems like a righteous form of self-love, and therefore perhaps a feminist act of the highest value.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted February 3, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I’m with you. I care about fashion – despite and sometimes because of my feminism. I find that sometimes rhetoric and what we are “supposed” to think directly interferes with what lives inside us – our wishes, desires, identities – without conflict. I think the fashion/feminism push & pull – the ways in which they inform each other and the ways in which they compete – aren’t fictional. But I still seem to inhabit them both without much duress. I love high heels and clothes, and read as many fashion blogs as I do political ones (maybe more). But I have no delusions about the fact that fashion and consumerism can be another form of pop culture meant to further focus women on their bodies and their exteriors at the expense of education, substance, and political action. Sometimes it does feel like a major distraction — are we really supposed to care about where Kim Kardashian shops (or even Michelle Obama)?

    One of the best examples I think of feminist fashion – without being self-conscious or preachy – is http://www.manrepeller.com/

    Sure – the “Man Repeller” is privileged. Consumerist. Label Heavy. BUT SERIOUSLY interested in dressing for herself, for fashion, and without any sacrifice. Fashion doesn’t distract her from herself, it enhances it. And she is playful in a way that is liberating.

    I think, like most things, fashion can be feminist, when it is informed and proactive and something that helps women achieve their own identity in a world that consistently tells us who and how to be.

  2. Posted February 3, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said “I like the idea of loving myself enough to take care of myself, groom myself, and present my best face to the world every day.” To me, fashion is about looking good. About loving yourself enough to feel good about how you look. I know I wouldn’t be taken as seriously if I didn’t take my appearance seriously.

  3. Posted February 3, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I’m all for art being everywhere. These are the main reasons why I think fashion becomes such a problematic art form so quickly:

    #1 – Because it’s art presented on the body, it’s VERY rapidly linked to the value/cool factor/desirability of the person wearing it. I agree that it’s feminist to love yourself no matter what you’re wearing and enjoy fashion that truly reflects your tastes. But that’s just Step One. Step Two is to never, ever care what anyone else wears, and since we’re so used to commenting on all forms of art (music, film, books, graphic design, photography) this is very hard. In this post alone Lori describes the fashionistas of New York as “just. so. fly.” All of us have preferences and tastes in fashion (and all of us, myself certainy included) have stated them, but it risks putting people who don’t fit your taste down. Are country bumpkin women not cool compared to New Yorkers? I know that wasn’t at all implied, but every woman I know (and yes, I do emphasize the word “woman” here) has at some point made a disparaging remark about someone’s clothes, whether it’s too gaudy, too sloppy, too colorblind, too frumpy, too preppy, too hippie, etc. I’ll like fashion more when we learn to get over that.

    #2 – At some points in history, men and women’s fashion have been considered equally important, but at least ever since the 1920′s, women’s appearance is socially considered vastly more important. I do know lots of men who put lots of time and effort into their looks and this does make me hopeful about the future, but it’s still very rare. When I got married earlier this year, EVERYONE asked me if I’d picked out a dress. No one asked my husband once what he was going to wear. I’ll like fashion more when there is much more gender equality to it.

  4. Posted February 3, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I think it comes down to the nature of our personal intentions. We learn by modeling and mimicry, then we develop our own style, self-consciously or not. If we can have something to say without necessarily feeling the need to advertise, I think we’re all the better for it.

  5. Posted February 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I am both for and against fashion also… I think we are inclined to see others and make judgements to either aspire to be or NOT be what we see — I find this to be true for fashion in particular. How can we define our own individual sense of style, when there are so many reactions others (of the same and opposite genders) might have?

    How my mother views any particular outfit is entirely different than how my partner might see that same outfit, which might be entirely different than how a stranger sees it — and all those reactions might be different than how I feel about myself when I’m wearing those clothes.

    What really fuels the fire for me, is when someone gives me a compliment that is specific to an article of clothing I’m wearing, ie: “I like your [insert article of clothing or accessory]” . I always try to compliment the person rather than their specific clothing. “You look great!” or “I love your sense of style” or even “that skirt looks great on you”. It’s just more affirmative.

  6. Posted February 3, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Wearing clothes is an intractable part of life. You have an appearance is an intractable part of life. In terms of anti-feminists, some of them tell you to wear certain types of flashy clothes, and some of them tell you to wear certain types of modest clothes. Not to echo everyone else, but I think the feminist answer is that you wear and present however you want. You need to be one to decide own fashion, whether it’s something more fabulous or more plain or something else altogether. You should control the clothes, not the other way around.

  7. Posted February 5, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    You pretty much said it all Lori! :)
    Thanks for putting my thoughts into words. I feel the exact same way.
    And to quote Rachel you really hit the nail right on the top with this: “I like the idea of loving myself enough to take care of myself, groom myself, and present my best face to the world every day.” woop.

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