Is it possible to be a feminist and like fashion? I’d assumed that in the late 1980s this wasn’t even a point worth debating. But a letter in the Guardian (October 17) made me think that there must still be considerable grassroots hostility to fashion… Suppose it really were sexist after all?
The letter came from women members of a workers’ co-op who boycott the Guardian’s “offensive style page” and accuse it of using women’s bodies to titillate its readers, “using typical role models for porn”, and of “perpetuating the objectification of women that is at the foot of the fashion industry”. The letter called for some critical analysis – not just of fashion, I believe, but also of the left’s traditional hostility to it.
Like any other field of design, fashion can be progressive or conservative; it is not intrinsically either. It is, however, an area that deserves more respect than it often gets. The fact that it is associated with women is to the detriment of men, as all right-thinking men from Oscar Wilde on have asserted. It need not be denigrated by women simply for that.
The modern hostility to fashion has its roots in the radical politics of the 1960s, influenced by the social theories of writers like Marcuse who argued that consumer capitalism is a form of control that manipulates people into conformity. Betty Friedan’s important analysis in The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963, identified women in particular as victims of consumerism – controlled, repressed and enthralled.
The time has come to see fashion as something more. It is a form of consumerism, but it is also about other important and pleasurable questions – the body, fantasy, desire and identity. Minna Thornton and I explored these in our book, Women & Fashion: A New Look (Quartet Books, £15). In a study of women designers as diverse as Elsa Schiaparelli and Vivienne Westwood, we argued that the consumption and production of fashion may articulate complex relations between the individual and culture.
It is not enough simply to say that fashion oppresses women. Certainly the industry may oppress and exploit workers, but the early Women’s Liberation movement took issue with fashion not because of this oppression but at the level of representation, regarding it as a triviality that worked to construct a false femininity. At early demonstrations in America, bra burning may have been a myth but high heels, handbags and hairsprays were symbolically discarded into specially provided trashcans.
The initial aim, however utopian, was to “get out” of fashion. In the 1960s and 1970s many feminists equated “naturalness” – no bras, unshaved legs and unstyled hair – with the search for a more authentic self. But this equation was itself problematic, presupposing as it did that there is such a thing as a natural self. If instead one argues that identity is a precarious social construct, then one can stop regarding fashion as an ideological snare set to trap all things natural and instead start seeing the uses of artifice as an important site of meaning in our culture.
In reality, fashion has given women the opportunity to do this for decades. In the 1920s Chanel adapted to women the forms and details, but above all the meanings, of a certain type of masculine dress. In the 1930s Elsa Schiaparelli designed surreal and witty clothes that were the most serious of jokes, a discourse of perversity and play in which a telephone becomes a handbag and a brain, a hat. In the 1970s punk women rebelled against the notion of a natural self, customising their own bodies as a form of semiotic battle dress.
It is not new to use dress as a form of transgression. Even in the 1980s, the decade of Thatcher and power dressing, important changes have taken place. Fashion has used history and politics as an image bank to be raided. To some it may be offensive or amoral, but this post-modern plunder has changed the way “femininity” is perceived in fashion, making the idea of it as a female prerogative strangely old-fashioned.
Fashion can be conformist, and it certainly has its victims, but it can also be an experiment with appearances that challenges cultural meanings. It seems more important to look at those meanings than endlessly to debate whether or not fashion oppresses women. The feminist rejection of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s was itself an experiment, and it is now possible to imagine ways of directing that experiment back into fashion. Indeed, it is already being done, and this phenomenon demands analysis, too.