On Fashion, Feminism & The Power Of Self-Expression

As a feminist and a fashion-lover I’ve long wrestled with the idea that my passion for one would somehow negate the other. I believe strongly in gender equality. I protest sexism and injustice. I volunteer for Planned Parenthood. I also read fashion magazines and spend a fairly large chunk of my time writing about cute shoes.

I’ve come to realize that my two interests actually go hand in hand. In Ms. Magazine’s new issue, Minh-Ha T. Pham, an assistant professor at Cornell and also a fashion blogger (right on!), explores the many intersections of fashion and feminism. “If feminists ignore fashion,” she says, “we are ceding our power to influence it.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fashion is a concept and an industry, yes, but at its heart is a simple act: getting dressed. Our clothing sends a message to the world, and as such, the clothing we choose is actually a powerful tool for self-expression. It allows us to express ourselves on an individual level and on a much larger scale, such as the prevailing dress codes of a nation or religion. Throughout history and throughout the world, fashion is closely tied to political movements, cultural identities, and increased visibility for marginalized groups. Clothing has the power to stoke the fires of revolution.

So why does fashion get a bad name?
Well, the fashion business can be undeniably toxic. It spends millions of dollars a year on advertising that makes women feel fat, ugly, and unworthy. It promotes dangerous attitudes and assumptions about women’s bodies. It is notoriously dismissive of larger women, women of color, and women without enough money to fund the constant trend cycle. As much as I love talking about fashion as an empowering space for self-expression, the industry itself is always the impeccably dressed elephant in the room.

But why else? Fashion is dismissed as trivial and inconsequential because it is primarily a women’s domain. Yes, men are increasingly recognized for their enjoyment of shopping and dressing well.  But mostly it is women who buy fashion magazines, shop for fun, get their colors done and compliment each other’s shoes. While both genders may learn to sew in Home Ec. when they are young, women tend to stick with it more often as adults.  Conventional wisdom says that fashion is a facet of our society where women thrive — therefore it must be dumb.

This speaks to a larger problem: mainstream society’s insistence that women fall into one of two categories, smart or pretty. We want our models to be well-dressed and vapid. We want our scientists to be dowdy and brilliant. Is anyone surprised that by 3rd grade, girls realize they have to pick a side?

Feminism is smart. Fashion is pretty. No wonder the two are hesitant to meet.

The reality is both concepts are much more complicated. Women have fought for access to the same rights, opportunities — and, yes, clothing — as men since the beginning of the feminist movement. Today we fight against the notion that women should be judged simply on their outward appearance. If you own a pair of pants, for example, you can thank a feminist. Fashion is meaningful, and an important aspect of feminism is self-expression. We are all complex human beings. Fashion gives us a way to express our inner selves to the outside world, but it is still an outer shell, and by no means the entire sum of who we are.

My sense of style is a part of me, as is my sense of humor, my intelligence, my spirituality, and my commitment to gender equality. I am forever thankful for the feminists who helped give me the freedom to explore and express all of these parts of myself. Sequin heels included.

[Ms. Magazine]

Image via Thinkstock