Can fashion fix fashion?

I worked briefly in fashion — briefly, for a couple of years, because in general it’s not a healthy industry to work in, and I was privileged to be able to get out when my health required it. Still, the job was not without its benefits, and the fact is, I still enjoy it. I still like looking at the different collections and seeing how designers are interpreting different trends. I like seeing how other people put clothes together, since I’m not terribly creative about doing it myself. I like the pageantry. I like the sculpture. I like reading and snickering about the politics, because y’all, I could tell you stories, but it’s probably best that I don’t. I even like — although I’m not proud of it — looking at different designers and seeing what I can find secondhand for ridiculously discounted prices that would make the designer spit pinecones, and I tell myself it’s subversive but honestly it’s just consumerist. Clothes are so pretty, y’all.

And Jill is absolutely right that there is no shame in thinking that clothes are pretty. (This piece has been in the works since before hers came out, cross my heart.) She makes an important point that, like so many other things, fashion is seen as frivolous more because it’s a “woman thing” than for any other reason. Admiration of fashionable clothes is, overall, no more or less frivolous than admiration of fast/fancy cars or obsession with a given sports team. That cute new cardigan I got (cream, empire seamed, bishop sleeves) is hanging up in the closet next to my UGA football jersey, and I love them both, and neither of them will have any impact whatsoever on world peace. But only one of them will get me derided as a silly girl if I talk about it in mixed company.

But because clothing is something we can’t avoid — a guy can leave his midlife-crisis-mobile in the parking deck, but that dress is coming into the office with me or I might get arrested — we also don’t get to avoid the pressure placed on women who are forced into the game whether we want to be or not. We’re expected to dress a certain way, we’re expected to want to dress a certain way, we’re expected to care about dressing a certain way, and there are penalties for failure in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. If we care, we’re shallow. If we don’t care, we’re slovenly. If we try to care but do it wrong (“Nice knockoff Louis Vuitton you got there, loser“), we’re pathetic. There’s no winning, and there’s no not playing. So if fashion is your thing, you might as well fashion it up, right?



Is fashion feminist?

It’s a hard call, because a) the clothes an individual chooses to wear can be and frequently are very personal and selected specifically to make a statement, and b) frequently we don’t have access to the clothes we’d select to make a statement and are stuck making a statement we don’t mean to make, and c) the concept of feminism is so broadly defined that it can be hard to say exactly what does and does not qualify. But if we want to define feminism, at least in part, as “women’s equality,” it’s hard to square that with an industry that directly thrives on inequality. The reason the fashion industry works is that they have a steady population of the women who have what is being sold and the women who look at them and want to have it. Need to have it. Are compelled to have it, because society’s told us that we wear our value on our backs.

Money. As with any other industry, the fashion industry revolves around making money. But fashion enjoys a rapid turnover cycle: If you live in a place that gets four seasons a year, that’s three(ish) different wardrobes. And if you find yourself compelled to follow trends, you’re buying a new wardrobe every season. And since following trends is something that’s expected of us as women, shelling out for this fall’s trench coat (because wearing last fall’s swing coat would indicate that you just don’t care) is, in some cases, practically a requirement. (As an added bonus, last year’s coat was basically designed to self-destruct after about a season of wear, so you were going to need a new one anyway.)

That visible distinction — this is the woman who is good enough, and this is the one who isn’t — is what drives the industry. Designer clothes are meant to be not just beautiful (or, in some cases, not that attractive at all) but also recognizable, so the cool kids can recognize other cool kids when they see them and identify the kids who aren’t cool. When a designer won’t sell clothes at a price you can afford, it’s usually because then someone like you might buy and be seen wearing their clothes.

Resources. While sustainability is an increasing focus, the resources of fashion — materials and labor — continue to come at a high cost paid by people who don’t get to walk out and wave and then drive off in a Mercedes at the end of the fashion show. Textiles treated with toxic chemicals, garments assembled in sweatshops. Even in design studios, larger lines function on the work of assistants, buyers, pattern makers, pattern cutters, sewers, and tailors who often work long hours for not a lot of pay and no benefits — hardly sweatshop conditions, sure, but still not paying enough to be able to buy any of the clothes they spend their time making. To display the clothes, agencies import Eastern European teenagers — tall girls with great cheekbones and not a lot of money moving far from home for a better life — and cram them six to a two-bedroom “model apartment.” Designers pressure extremely thin young women to get extremely thinner, fitting them to the clothes instead of the other way around, sometimes paying them in clothes instead of money.

Bodies. And it is “bodies,” rather than “people,” because runway and print models aren’t hired as people, and the fashion industry isn’t advanced by treating them as people. They’re meant to be interchangeable person-shaped forms onto which clothing can be hung. And the forms are becoming ever smaller — over the past 15 years or so, the standard runway sample size has shrunk from about a 6 to about a 0, which even accounting for size inflation is a significant and unhealthy drop. But why? One study indicates that women are more likely to buy clothes when they’re shown on a model who looks like them, for an effect that is more inspirational than aspirational. So why would a designer want to make clothes a lot of women wouldn’t buy?

Designers like making tiny clothes. A size-0 runway sample requires less fabric and less sewing than a size-6 production sample. There’s less variation in shape between two size-0 figures than there tend to be at larger sizes, making it easier to find a body to wear it; there’s only one couture gown, but there are a dozen extremely slender women who are dying to wear it. And sadly, one of the expectations of a runway model is to be able to disappear entirely underneath the clothes — which is much easier in a body that’s already under pressure to disappear.

We also have to keep in mind that consumers aren’t the real target market at fashion shows. The VIPs in the front row are fashion editors, stylists, and celebrities — the stylemakers who will be telling you what to wear six months from now when the clothes hit the stores, who don’t particularly worry about whether they’d buy a given style because chances are they’ll end up getting it for free later anyway. It’s a kind of scary, insular world where you spend so much time interacting with others in that same small world, talking about the same things, obsessing over the same issues, that it’s easy to lose perspective and a connection with the real world.

That world is the target, and the collateral damage is monumental; extremely thin models on the runway and in the magazines present an unrealistic view of the female body for anyone who isn’t 5’10” and 110 pounds. A study by the Girl Scout Research Institute looking at the influence of the fashion industry and the media on girls’ body image produces sadly unsurprising results that three-quarters of the girls say that fashion is really important to them, nearly 90 percent say they feel pressure from the industry and the media to stay thin, and nearly half wish they were as thin as fashion models and see the women in magazines as a body image to strive for. The images they’re providing to us are making us sick — and they seriously don’t get it. To the extent that they notice it at all, they are completely blinkered to their own culpability in it.

Conformity. We shouldn’t feel compelled to look to others to influence the way we dress. We shouldn’t care about — well, no, fuck that. It’s what we do. We’re people; we look at each other. Sometimes we care about what we see, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we compare ourselves, favorably or unfavorably, sometimes we don’t. But I don’t buy the argument that we should never care what other people are doing, never care about superficial things, never want to be like the people around us. The pressure placed on women to conform to unreasonable standards is unconscionable; the pressure placed on women to measure up by struggling to meet some arbitrary superficiality is unconscionable; two women’s desire to put on matching sweaters and feel like they have something in common is commonplace. For some people, being unique is empowering, and for others, it’s lonely. If style or fashion or apparel in any of its many configurations doesn’t appeal to you in the least, I congratulate you on avoiding a major societal pressure; for the rest of you, I welcome you to the club. Maybe, in a world without that pressure, fashion can actually be feminist.


Can fashion be feminist?

Probably not.


Can fashion be feminism-neutral?

Can it at least be not-not-feminist? Is there room for fashion — like, fashion-fashion, like industry fashion — to not be harmful? Some things are neither feminist nor anti-feminist — hydrangeas, popcorn, bike helmets, water skiing, sustainable flannel. Is there a way to fix fashion until it’s reduced to stamp-collecting-esque hobbyist level?

That would be awesome.

Money. Many designers have started realizing that they might be able to sell more product if they can sell to more people. Whether it’s financial in nature or simply out of a desire to Connect with the Masses — I’ll let you guess which one I think — more and more designers are introducing diffusion lines, offering lower-trim versions of their popular clothes at a more attainable price in more attainable locations. Target started with Isaac Mizrahi in 2002 and has since brought in capsule collections by Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, and other big names at budget prices. H&M has done Versace and Stella McCartney. Kohl’s offers Vera Wang’s Simply Vera line and had a collection from Narcisco Rodriguez last fall. They’re still not cheap — an item from Isaac Mizrahi will still cost about half again as much as a comparable store-brand item — and of course buying clothes just because of the name on the label is less than ideal, but attainable price points and extended sizes make it possible for women who have been excluded from fashion to become included, which is always good, even when it’s not great.

To that end, fashion publications can become more conscious of their always-popular Splurges and Steals. Offering cheaper alternatives for women who want to wear high-fashion looks without high-fashion budgets is admirable. But the woman who can’t afford a $1,350 handbag still may well struggle with a $250 bag, or $215 shoes, or $120 of sunglasses to drop and then sit on. It’s great to recognize that fashion is often aspirational and that your audience is likely far removed from the high-fashion crowd; just be aware of exactly how far they are. At keystone, your $100 “steal” blazer represents maybe $25 of actual materials and construction; try to find your readers more value in addition to less cost, okay, magazines?

Resources. Designers need to insist on ethically sourced materials and labor. There isn’t a whole lot consumers can do as individuals at the high-fashion level to enforce this — Gucci could give two shits if I decide not to spend half a paycheck on a pair of slingbacks — but positive reinforcement by publicizing and rewarding ethical, sustainable practices could entice them to cut into their profit margin just a little to focus on responsible manufacturing without raising prices overmuch. We’re not all in the position to vote with our dollars — the most ethical brands are frequently the most expensive — but even the occasional “Hey, did you know Edun uses only sustainable, fair-trade cotton through their programs with farmers in Uganda?” can help draw attention to the stuff that hurts and the stuff that helps.

Where models are concerned, weight or BMI restrictions put the onus on them to maintain a healthy weight in an industry that constantly pressures them to stay thin. Give a model the choice between making weight and losing that extra half-inch off her hips to make it into a designer’s narrow-cut dress and see if she doesn’t starve off the weight and then hide a roll of quarters in her hair at weigh-in to make up the difference. Instead of pressing young women to be simultaneously thin enough and heavy enough, just freaking offer bigger clothes. Restricting runway samples to no smaller than a 4 or 6 — currently the standard for editorial and showroom samples, so it’s not like the industry lacks the infrastructure to knock together a bigger dress — could relieve the pressure to fit into a 0 and even encourage healthy habits that would allow a model to maintain a size that is healthy for her and still find work. The extra money spent on fabric would be offset by the decrease in young women literally dying from hunger for fear of losing their jobs.

In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America established their Health Initiative, educating the industry about eating disorders, offering help for models with eating disorders, and encouraging healthy backstage environments and responsible model casting and management. The council circulated their guidelines in spring of 2012 recommending that designers not hire models younger than 16 for runway shows and not keep models under 18 out past midnight. Inveterate dickbag who should fall off a bridge Marc Jacobs, himself a member of the CFDA board, then cast two 14-year-olds in his show, because “I do the show the way I think it should be and not the way somebody tells me it should be.” Enforce that shit, CFDA. “Now, everyone, it would be super-nice if you didn’t perpetuate habits that are connected to illness and death in women in and out of the fashion industry, okie-dokie?” does not represent a commitment to women’s well-being. In my mind, Jacobs should have been tied down across his own runway while his models strutted across him like a rug, but your mileage may vary. (At the very least, it might encourage him to give them flat shoes next time.)

Bodies. Publications and designers need to start using models outside of the thin-and-white cohort. (Last February’s Fashion Week was the most diverse on recent record, with a mere 79.9 percent white models.) And not just in special issues — “Look, this is how fashion looks on a fat person!” doesn’t count, nor does, “You asked, we answered: our annual quota of black models, all in one issue!” It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye, and it’s great to acknowledge in a pointed way that yes, there are non-skinny, non-white (and, shazam, even non-tall and non-able-bodied!) models. But once you’ve done that, you have to start actually including plus-size women and WOC as a matter of course. Call in straight- and plus-size samples, and use them in your magazine. Show a wide variety of bodies — mix different sizes into the same editorial, with no division of these are the thin girls and these are the rest of them. Show women bodies that look like theirs — including models’ bodies and celebrities’ bodies that look like theirs — and identify them as beautiful, because a lot of people need that validation. At this moment, with the samples already available to you, you could be mixing size-4/6 models and size-10/12 models — so why aren’t you, magazines? Fix that.

In general, fashion publications (and many of us, frankly) need to reexamine the way they talk about “real women’s bodies.” Usually, when they say that, they’re referring to non-models who will be used to demonstrate figure flaws that can be solved with the help of this trendy clothing. When the public says it, they’re usually referring to non-thin bodies, generally in contrast to bodies that are thin — “womanly” versus “boyish” figures, as if a hip-to-waist ratio is the ultimate determinant of Realness and Womanliness. Fact: If a woman isn’t an android or a hologram, she’s a “real woman” with a “real woman’s body.”

If we want to talk about “unreal bodies,” though, let’s talk about Photoshopping. The bodies created by carving inches of an already-slender model definitely qualify as unreal. It’s one thing to correct for color or tame flyaway hairs, but bodies are shaped the way they’re shaped. A cover model should be pretty enough to play herself on the cover. Last year, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm launched a petition imploring Seventeen magazine to use fewer ‘shopped images, and the magazine responded with a Body Peace Treaty. To my knowledge, Seventeen hasn’t gone under since making that pledge. It can be done. This can be fixed.


Can I still like fashion?

There’s nothing wrong with liking fashion. There are plenty of things to like about it, and there are plenty of equally “silly” or “frivolous” things you could be interested instead. Those of us who have picked fashion as our frivolity of choice, though, do have to acknowledge the extremely problematic aspects of it. That said, there’s good news: There’s room for change, and the changes are all things that are possible using the existing industry infrastructure. Now, my individual participation as a consumer isn’t going to make it happen — I couldn’t afford those clothes if they were left on a park bench with a note saying “steal me” — but as a fan of Big Fashion, I can note the need for change and any efforts to not change. I can talk up the good and the bad until someone who actually matters to them takes notice. In short: Edun’s pretty cool, Diane von Furstenberg’s heart is in the right place, Marc Jacobs can suck my left one, and the list goes on, and the list should go on. Because fashion is problematic, but I really like it.

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65 Responses to Can fashion fix fashion?

  1. Henry says:

    Stifling human creativity makes us less human.

    • Only making clothes for one (1) type of body is expanding human creativity, making clothes for people of all races/genders/sizes/body types is stifling it?

      Wait, remind me again, how long have we been at war with Eastasia?

      • Henry says:

        That is not what I said. I was responding to the general premise that some people believe fashion is irreconcilable with equality and agreeing with Caperton that it need not be so.

        Mac, I must ask why do you read almost every comment on this blog as negative?

      • Henry says:

        Oh wait this is the Internets. Got it.

      • Kerandria says:

        You leaving a patronising one-liner and commencing to flail about when someone calls you on your BS is okay, but the content of Mac’s response is not?

        Oh, wait.


      • A4 says:

        If you don’t want to be “misinterpreted” (which i don’t think Mac did anyway) write more than six vague words.

        Also, picking a username that doesn’t say “MAN HERE” might help.

      • Caperton says:

        Okay, back on topic, please.

    • Amelia the Lurker says:

      To be fair to Mac, your comment was ambiguous and could have been read a number of ways. I don’t blame her for misapprehending it. That said, I sympathize with your frustration at being misunderstood.

  2. amblingalong says:

    What is this and why is it being hosted at feministe?

    [Disemvoweled by moderator]Fshnfvr Fshn Plts: Hr’s th Sknny n ff-th-Rnwy Pggng t – Wll Strt Jrnl| Bhnd th sknny ctwlk, th vnt hs chbby lttl scrt

    • tigtog says:

      It’s a trackback from another blog, and you’re quite right that it is very problematic and an unsuitable link. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    • amblingalong says:


      And sorry if that came across as accusatory, I was legitimately just really confused about what it was doing.

  3. Unree says:

    If we care, we’re shallow. If we don’t care, we’re slovenly. If we try to care but do it wrong (“Nice knockoff Louis Vuitton you got there, loser“), we’re pathetic. There’s no winning, and there’s no not playing.

    QFT. The only hope for fashion is to dial back judging. If we can manage that, we might get some joy out of it.

  4. konkonsn says:

    Ok, funny…when I read, “Can fashion be feminist,” I immediately thought, “YES!” But then I realized my concept of fashion is not yours (or probably most people’s).

    I always image fashion as the ability to express oneself in a way that’s more than just throwing on jeans and a t-shirt. Like make-up, it can be super artistic and just about being as expressive as possible with the materials you have.

    But then again, I only know person who drops more than twenty dollars on a shirt (he bought a $200 wallet and a $300 scarf at one point; I about died when I heard that).

    But yes, Big Fashion, as you called it at one point, seems to have too many issues at this point to really work.

    • EG says:

      Yes, that was my gut reaction to, that it’s about the way you construct yourself and communicate through clothing. I should have remembered what Lester Bangs said about the difference between fashion and style.

  5. B says:

    Oh, one of my favorite topics.

    I love fashion in that I always check out what’s going down the cat walks and what the clebs wore at the awards banquets. It entertains and amuses me. There are some amazingly creative fashions and they do seem to be works of art sometimes, not just clothes. But you won’t catch me dead in anything close to high fashion. My reasons for fashion avoidance is many fold and you touch on most of them but you left out pain and discomfort. The deformity of women’s feet due to high heels is horrible. When fashion requires we alter(deform) our bodies (yeah, we should include breast augmentation and other cosmetic plastic surgery) we are going too far. How can we be so obsessed with appearances that we suffer health problems and all term pain to achieve someone’s unrealistic ideal? Isn’t there some self loathing involved with this behavior?

    Can’t there be a designer out there who wants to design beautiful clothes that co-operate with the female form as it was created by nature?

  6. B says:

    long term pain, not all term pain

  7. A4 says:

    I don’t like how modern day fashion is focused on how people look. I think it’s a dehumanizing perspective. It is very common for people to be expected to analyze and prioritize the way their clothes appear to someone else, rather than the way they feel to the wearer.

    Since my ankle surgery a year ago, i’ve been leaning towards more and more loose and comfortable clothing. I love to dance, just everywhere, and i refuse to compromise my comfort and freedom of movement for the sake of conformity or “looking cute”.

    I have the freedom, though, because I’m a guy. I think one of the most problematic aspects of women’s fashion is how it is designed to limit movement and physical capability, worsen overall posture and alignment, and cause long term injuries.

    I emphasize the way women’s fashion is designed to limit physicality, but all fashion, especially the more formal types, are designed for this as well. A tucked in formal shirt makes it difficult to bend or twist or lift your arms above your head. A necktie often serves to restrict deep breathing, as do many other types of tight clothing.

    Fashion is one of the main ways in which we are socialized to limit our range of movements to a limited and relatively docile set of actions.

    Long live the sweatpants revolution!

    • I think one of the most problematic aspects of women’s fashion is how it is designed to limit movement and physical capability, worsen overall posture and alignment, and cause long term injuries.

      Yes, yes, yes!

      I mean, it’s not exactly your point, but… I have to buy/pick my clothes of the day based on whether my shoulders are more fucked up (cue button-downs) or my hands are (cue sweaters). I wish to fuck women’s clothing was easier to get into, warmer, and easier to move around in. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to wear giant baggy things so that I can maintain blood circulation. GAH.

      • A4 says:

        If clothes were judged based on functionality and craftsmanship, you wouldn’t be able to get people to buy ripped jeans for 300 dollars.

        When it was 0 degrees F out recently, I was wearing 3 pairs of pants and three shirts because I like to layer. I also had a hat, face mask, and gloves. Waiting at the bus stop was not a big deal.

        The other people waiting at the bus stop however…
        People! You knew it was ridiculously cold outside! Why are you wearing jeans, a thin coat, no hat and no gloves?

        Because fashion is all about how you look, not how you feel. Because people think that you can judge someone on their clothes and then treat them accordingly. because people think that others are accountable for the perception of their sartorial appearance.

        It’s the same attitude that allows people to think that the length of a woman’s skirt means something about her morals or sexual availability.

      • People! You knew it was ridiculously cold outside! Why are you wearing jeans, a thin coat, no hat and no gloves?

        Holy fuck do I hear you. A few weeks ago we were having -30s C temperatures and people were still swishing about in leggings and thin jackets. I always feel the urge to go up to them and ask them if the sum total of their thought process while picking out clothes was “But at least my frozen blued-out corpse will be FASHIONABLE!” or something.

      • Caperton says:

        You knew it was ridiculously cold outside! Why are you wearing jeans, a thin coat, no hat and no gloves?

        And we’re sure they had heavier coats and hats and gloves they could have been wearing?

      • A4 says:

        I made a facemask out of a t-shirt because I didn’t have a “real” one. My pant-layers were a pair of pajamas, a pair of sweatpants, and a pair of snowpants. I don’t have a heavy winter coat, just a thin pleather jacket. That’s why I layer. I think it’s safe to assume these people had a few extra shirts and some pajamas they could have layered on. These are people who are very stylishly dressed for a 40 degree autumn day in more expensive clothes than any i was wearing. And my gloves cost 1.99 at Walgreens.

      • And we’re sure they had heavier coats and hats and gloves they could have been wearing?

        I’m…just gonna go ahead and assume that somebody who swooshes past me in the same expensive car every day, consistently wearing varied designer clothing, has the money to buy heavier clothes, yep.

        (And before somebody gives me the “but thrift stores!” flailing, let me tell you that as somebody who picked up 90% of all her clothing at thrift stores, the heavy stuff is still cheaper than the designer shit even at those stores. I know whereof I speak.)

      • I mean, seriously, I know (ask me how well and from how much personal experience I know!) how many ways people can Perform Richness, but I can see only so much of quacking/talking/dressing like a duck, etc, before concluding the obvious.

      • A4 says:

        Also, the idea that people might feel more compelled to use clothing to perform richness than stay warm is an illustration of my point about the detriments of valuing the external appearance of clothes over the internal experience of wearing clothes.

      • Caperton says:

        I do get it. But every time I hear someone say, “God, why don’t they just wear X?” it gets my back up, because the answer is generally either “they didn’t want to” or “they couldn’t,” and it’s not always easy to guess which one.

      • amblingalong says:

        I have to admit to being one of those people. It drives all my friends crazy but honestly I think I’m missing the gene that makes me get cold; I’m basically comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt as long as its above 30 degrees F and I hate feeling bundled up.

      • amblingalong says:

        I’m so sorry; that should read “it frustrates all my friends” or “it makes all my friends laugh at me.”

    • I don’t like how modern day fashion is focused on how people look. I think it’s a dehumanizing perspective. It is very common for people to be expected to analyze and prioritize the way their clothes appear to someone else, rather than the way they feel to the wearer.

      Errm, that IS what fashion is about. There’s also a lot more flexibility now than there was until the twentieth century. The nineteenth, for instance, was very rigid in following fashion. Too far behind the current trend and you were dowdy; too early with it and you were fast. As for comfort – that too is a fairly recent consideration. Look at fashionable clothes (men’s and women’s) from the sixteenth century onward. Comfort simply wasn’t a priority; the shape of the body and the surface decoration and effect were everything. See all those Elizabethan portraits of men with their hands resting on their hips? It’s not solely to draw attention to a fine sword hilt: the sleeves were cut and sewn in that slight bend, so the arm at rest pretty much had to stay that way.

      So while I dislike modern fashion for many reasons, and agree that it can have a dehumanising effect, there is absolutely nothing new about that, and one needs to have the perspective of how much more freedom we do have in clothing than our predecessors (those affected by fashion, ie. the middle to upper classes) did.

      • A4 says:

        I didn’t say there was anything new about it. I spoke about modern day fashion because that’s when I live. In the modern day.

        Errm, that IS what fashion is about.

        Errm, that is what YOUR fashion is about. My fashion is about trying to understand how clothes would feel to wear and what function they would add to my life.

        one needs to have the perspective of how much more freedom we do have in clothing than our predecessors (those affected by fashion, ie. the middle to upper classes) did.

        one needs to have the perspective of how much I don’t care about this.

      • Bagelsan says:

        Yes, let’s be a snot about a new perspective being added.

  8. Kristen J. says:

    I think fashion, like beauty, is inherently hierarchical. Maybe in a different world with different institutions it can be solely a method of human expression, but I don’t know how we can get there from here. Meanwhile, its going to be a tool for exercising power against those who fail to meet social norms regardless of what those norms are. Changing those norms such that more women “fit” will reduce suffering (probably), but isn’t, in my view, likely to make fashion more feminist.

    That said…I have no issue with people who love fashion. The kyriarchy is complicated and we all do our bests to negotiate our own desires in that context.

    • EG says:

      I don’t think I agree that beauty is inherently hierarchical, any more than any other kind of pleasure is. I love babies and small children, and they’re all beautiful to me. I may think, on looking at my godson “he’s the most beautiful baby in the world,” but I know that I thought the same thing about the baby girl I used to take care, I think the same thing about my cousin’s two daughters, and I’ll think the same about any child I have in the future. And part of that is love, but part of it is that I genuinely find all babies beautiful. I’m not sure why visual pleasure would have to be hierarchical, any more than any kind of pleasure.

  9. Kristen J. says:

    I would argue that “beauty” is not just visual pleasure, but a social construct that identifies those who meet certain social norms. Babies are always beautiful, but not all women or all bodies are labeled beautiful. And purposefully so. Beauty is a term used to distinguish between appropriate or desirable attributes and those that are inappropriate or not desireable. If its intended meaning was to convey visual pleasure then we wouldn’t refer to certain women as “handsome” or “attractive” particularly when used in contrast to beautiful. “She wasn’t beautiful, just attractive in her own way.” It wouldn’t be “radical” to call non-conforming women beautiful. And what we call beautiful wouldn’t change over time and in most cases apply to women that are in the most privileged classes. Beauty, in my view, is a function of kyriarchical structures rather than any separate concept of its own.

    • Kristen J. says:

      One day back and already f-ing up the threaded comments. Oy.

    • EG says:

      Hmm. I think I understand it differently. To my way of thinking “handsome,” “attractive,” “pretty,” “striking,” all describe different kinds and nuances of visual pleasure, which is what I understand beauty to mean. I certainly see how “beautiful” can and is often used to mean a kind of visual pleasure that conforms to certain ideals/norms, but for me, that meaning does not/has not supercede(d) the more general one.

      • matlun says:

        I believe I am with EG here.

        For me beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is indeed a subjective judgement of what “gives visual pleasure”. That judgement is – like many subjective judgments – indirectly influenced by social and cultural norms and ideals, but I do not see it as inherently hierarchical since it is rooted in individual judgement.

        Cultural consensus of who is beautiful can result in privilege and hierarchical structure, but I see that as an effect of culture and not intrinsic to the concept of beauty itself.

        In contrast fashion is much more top-down and hierarchical. You need to listen to the authorities to know what is “in” and “out”. Just subjectively looking good is not fashion.

      • igglanova says:

        In contrast fashion is much more top-down and hierarchical. You need to listen to the authorities to know what is “in” and “out”. Just subjectively looking good is not fashion.

        Not necessarily. There are certainly many people who view fashion in this rigid and unimaginitve way, but fashion is an art form with much variation and creativity. Alternative fashions have always existed, and continue to flourish; many aspects of punk, goth, or grunge fashion (for example) defy their contemporaneous mainstream fashion rules with great success. The pioneers of those fashions were not simply following the rules.

      • hotpot says:

        Alternative fashions have always existed, and continue to flourish; many aspects of punk, goth, or grunge fashion (for example) defy their contemporaneous mainstream fashion rules with great success

        Well sure, but aren’t punk, goth or grunge fashion just alternative ways of constructing the hierarchical norms? Sure, it’s not the same group of people constructing what’s “in” and “out”, but it’s still based on the idea that you dress a certain way to signal belonging in an identity which is socially created and reinforced. It’s far from being rooted in individual judgment.

        Also, while different fashions exist, it doesn’t mean that they’re treated equally. Subculture fashions are privileged in a minority of spaces, but can lead to prejudice and/or not being taken seriously in most spaces.

      • EG says:

        the idea that you dress a certain way to signal belonging in an identity which is socially created and reinforced. It’s far from being rooted in individual judgment.

        These two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that there is no such thing as individual fashion judgment separate from socially created and reinforced identities. And vice versa.

      • Tyris says:

        Personal dictionaries don’t exactly make the issue any clearer. Someone may only apply “beautiful” to a landscape and not apply it to people, but they’re not really relevant here.

        That the word is used to describe “visual pleasure that conforms” as well as the more general sense of “visual pleasure,” rather than having its own word… well, it may or may not mean something. We can’t quite articulate what.

        (Side note: anyone who describes all babies as “beautiful” [ref: top of stack] never saw baby Tyris. Ugly little potato.)

    • arrogantworm says:

      “I would argue that “beauty” is not just visual pleasure, but a social construct that identifies those who meet certain social norms. Babies are always beautiful, but not all women or all bodies are labeled beautiful. ”

      Not all babies are considered beautiful, just the ones that meet physical norms.

  10. James says:

    Great post, per usual. I had essentially written off fashion entirely. This was a good wake-up call to say that I’m being a prick if I act like people who follow fashion are being silly.

    • jrockford says:

      I’m a sports fan, and so, naturally talk to a lot of sports related people. When I hear people remark about how silly it is to be concerned with fashion (and other pursuits often categorized as feminine and therefore frivolous), I think about how they just read their fourth article this week on the status of Joe Mauer’s knee. It’s the same kind of frivolity, repackaged. I wish we could all just accept each other’s frivolities, ha.

  11. Maybe I’ve been living in the world of hippies and thrift store shoppers too long. From a male perspective, fashion seems complicated. My female friends are usually atypical, happily integrated into the world of men.

    To my eyes, the girlier types are the ones who care one way or another about clothing. Having never been indoctrinated and socialized on this matter, I know I’m missing most of the context. Neither of my sisters were the type to dress up, or even wear makeup.

    My mother is more stereotypically girlie, but I’ve always thought this was because her mother was tomboyish and more comfortable with male company.

  12. pitbullgirl65 says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention fur, leather and feathers. I am appalled how popular fur has become again.

    Food for thought a good reason to shop at thrift stores is I’m not supporting the industry with its’ explotive nature (towards humans and animals.) by buying new.

    • igglanova says:

      I hear you about the fur. The last time I went shopping for a winter coat it was freaking impossible to find anything without at least a fake fur trim. I had to waste so much time parsing individual hairs so I could be certain that ruff wasn’t actually dog fur or something.

  13. Nicole says:

    Wow, this was fantastic.

    I’ve been thinking about fashion a lot and and had concluded that it is feminist as women-dominated aesthetic and interest butttttt.. maybe not. And I’ve tried taking the “I don’t give a damn what they think” approach, and it just doesn’t work. I’ll continue admiring from a far, but thank you for re-grounding my perspective.

  14. SaraC says:

    Great post! Love all of it, particularly the reminder that an interest in fashion is no more frivolous than any other pastime. As someone who is very interested in expressive clothes and personal style but who could not care less about current trends in the industry, I sometimes need to keep perspective.

  15. seisy says:

    I’ve always been fairly girly, but fashion is one area where I completely Fail At Being Female. I remember being a teenager and just kind of waiting to finally find fashion magazines interesting rather than boring and pointless, to care enough about outfits to lay them out and obsess over them the night before, because that’s what the girls I knew would talk about, that’s what I read and saw in fiction. And I kind of harbored this secret shame over Not Getting It. I mean, I had clothes that I liked and things that I thought looked cool, and they were generally in the style of the time….and still are, but that awareness of What’s In (this season, as opposed to last season) and the fawning over perfectly hideous styles always kind of bewildered me.

    It took me a long time to realize that being interested in fashion is not a requirement. And that actually, more than a few (though not all) of my friends who performed the role with such diligence were actually just performing because they also thought it was a requirement and had done a better job of internalizing that particular element of our culture than I had.

    Anyway, that’s kind of apropos of nothing. I enjoyed reading this post, the arguments made sense to me but more than that I found it very informative about a world I don’t know much about. Although I did end up feeling a little bit of an echo of that teenage-angst feeling of being an alien. The thought of being able to tell the difference between fall and winter and this year and last year and then being judged on it feels like something so far over my head that I’m not sure I’d even be aware I was being insulted if someone were to bother. I tend to like the clothes that I like. I tend to hate certain fashion trends for making it harder to find the cuts I like, if only because the cuts I don’t like are unflattering and never, ever fit me., and that’s about as far as my fashion knowledge goes.

    Actually, I have no end of hate for current fashion because it’s made it impossible for me to find a) anything with sleeves* b) shoes that fit. Shoes! Shoes are supposed to be the one thing that fit no matter what the style is. (*I can’t find anything that’ll let me move my upper arms or shoulders at all, without being severely restricted and causing the fabric to pull funny)

  16. I like clothing, and I like the history of fashion, but fashion now? I think most of it’s ugly and has been since the 80s, and for me it’s about finding clothes I like, that are comfortable and flatter my shape. I’ve never seen anything that fits any of those criteria on a runway, which is just as well since I don’t fancy coughing up a month’s pay for any clothing. Even if I didn’t think most fashion was screamingly anti-women, especially the crippling heels around at present, I find so much of it feckin ugly, and the runway not-fashion-just-wanky-designers stuff is the worst.

    • seisy says:

      Oh my god the heels, the heels right now are really just the worst aren’t they? Just when you think they’ve hit the limit, they some how keep managing to make them uglier, more crippling, and more dangerous.

      • katinphilly says:

        My friend and I went to our local Macy’s Monday, and our jaws literally dropped passing by the shoe department. I wish I had a phone camera to snap photos, the heels and design of the shoes were so outrageous that you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself. Just. plain. dangerous. If I tried a pair on and stood up I would topple over like a bowling pin.

      • karak says:

        I’m that person that is strangely enthralled with dangerous heels–I own some Steven Madden heels, which are platform stilettos.

        I fear them, but also desire them. The strange thing is I don’t like them for simply being shoes, I like them for what they convey to the people seeing me where them. They are definitely power-shoes, very aggressive and intense.

  17. Ann r says:

    I love this post! Fashion is an issue that I think about quite often as I really love to sew and I also have a thing for vintage fashion. I personally don’t follow high fashion all that much, but I sometimes turn to it for some inspiration. Sure I can find inspiration in a dress or the details of an outfit, but I can make it work for me since I sew. I cannot afford nor fit into what is shown on the runway. I can use the runway as inspiration and make something that fits me and not the other way around.

    I also like to wear vintage clothing. There is quality in vintage that can’t be found in affordable clothing anymore and I am not supporting the current fashion industry by purchasing secondhand clothing. I can also make clothing from vintage patterns. Sometimes I do wonder how wearing vintage style clothing plays into being a feminist. At the end of the day though, I feel since I make the clothes fit me and adapt them to my style and body that I am not placing myself within the constraints that fashion imposed on women at the time. ( And still does.)

    I;d love to know how others feel about liking the vintage aesthetic and tying that to their feminist beliefs.

    • Bagelsan says:

      I think vintage can be feminist to the extent that women aren’t told we must cook/sew/knit to be vintage — anything that results in “back into the kitchen, ladies!” starts losing its feminism fast.

  18. FYouMudFlaps says:

    Yep, glad you got the point in about how fashion is “frivolous” while cars etc are not, due to the gender coding. I mean, how many men go around saying they hate shopping, mostly because it’s overall associated with women? They really mean “shopping for icky girl stuff,” because many of them sure love to shop for things like cars or electronics.

  19. giselle says:

    i work in fashion in a female only environment, you would not believe the body snarking that goes on . these women are their own worst enemies

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  24. Sofronia says:

    Fashion, women’s magazines, and all the rest operate on a simple principle, really — to make women feel horrible about themselves so that they’ll buy a lot of stuff that they really don’t need, or wouldn’t even exist without the anxiety and self-hatred that these industries create. If you can ignore all of the relentless negative messages about how inadequate you supposedly are — because of your body size and shape, race, economic class, facial features, ethnicity, hair texture, etc. — and simply enjoy the aesthetics, then I suppose it can be harmless (for me the overall aesthetic created inherently implicates these damaging and politically offensive factors, in addition to often looking simply ridiculous). Personally, I stopped exposing myself to any of it a long time ago, for my own overall mental and emotional health. Just buy clothes that look good on your body and will last, to the extent you can afford to, and don’t bother worrying about this month’s “fashion must-have.” The more women focus on what they are capable of doing, as opposed to how they look, the better off they are in life.

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