Friday, 25 March 2011

Friend Friday: Feminism and Fashion

Source: What Makes You
Friend Friday is run by ModlyChic.  To participate email katy_rose1@yahoo.com.  This week we are talking about feminism and fashion. Some time ago, Courtney from Those Graces, Katy and myself had a little email brainstorming session about this topic, so some of my answers are derived from my ramblings there.

1. Do you think there is an incompatibility between feminism and a love for fashion?

I recently wrote a post about how my style is probably not influenced by being a feminist in any other way than reclaiming the right to wear whatever I want.  In that sense I do not view a love of fashion and a desire to look my best through paying attention to dress as incompatible with feminism.  But at the same time I do also have my doubts.

I do feel there is an incompatibility between what feminism has historically set out to achieve for women versus the amount of time, effort and money that women are pressured into spending on a love for fashion and on an often absurd quest for attaining standards of beauty and preserving their youth beyond what is reasonably possible.  As a example of a fairly voracious consumer of fashion, I am the first to admit that I can be well and truly sucked in by marketing and advertising to spend my cash needlessly but I know I'm not the only one.

Sometimes I watch video footage on the news in horror where I see irrational scrums at end of year sales and cat fights on the shop floor over the latest designer collaboration with high street fashion stores.  Or I will wonder at the sanity of women paying for the latest eye watering expensive must have item that has sold out or women placing themselves on a ten year waiting list for a handbag.  And then sometimes it is me getting up at the crack of dawn to wait for an online sale to start or the first drop of a designer collaboration to go live and I start questioning my own sanity.  Was this the pinnacle of achievement the pioneers of feminist ideals had in mind for us when they fought for equal opportunities?  Shouldn't we be encouraging women, especially the younger generation to focus their energies on achievements other than striving to have the latest fashionable item?

I do view this level of gullibility (of which I am the first to admit I am guilty of!) as being incompatible with feminism because it undermines the amount of time, effort and money we have available to achieve more important things.  One could argue that women earning their own money should be able to just enjoy spending it the way they see fit and that's nobody else's choice but theirs - to be financially independent and have it all is the ultimate neo feminist dream - you can be hard working, beat the boys to the best jobs and be glamourous and beautiful at the same time as you shop till you drop.  Except....it is not really like that.  Women on average still earn less than men, are still under represented at senior levels in companies and scary statistics are all too readily bandied about over the amount of women in debt and filing for bankruptcy.

Although there is no getting away from an individual's responsibility to be sensible about the amount of time and money spent on anything they enjoy in life, I do feel women are encouraged by the media to be borderline obsessed about how they look.  As a gender we are the target of marketing far more than men in this respect.  We are encouraged to indulge in frenzied levels of consumerism in our pursuit of fashion and wear the spoils as badges of honour.  I love shopping for clothes and makeup as do so many women I know.  Who doesn't enjoy going shopping with their girlfriends?

Sometimes though, if I take a step back from it all, I feel like I've just swallowed some marketing spiel to make me feel good about splashing my cash on things I don't actually need without engaging my brain.  I can see that as a woman I am constantly targeted by advertising campaigns whose essential aim is to make me feel insecure about my appearance and believe (for just long enough to get me to the till) that there is always a product or new bag/dress/pair of shoes that will fix that.  There needs to be more balance but as long as I, as a woman, am part of a target market, the only one who can maintain that balance is me.

The fashion industry in its limited focus on particular types of beauty feels particularly out of touch with feminism.  I might be harking back to old school feminism here but having to conform to a limited ideal of beauty is, at least to me, limiting to women the world over.  Women come in all different guises in terms of height, body types, racial background and looks and this is never reflected adequately by the fashion industry.  Instead the fashion industry sends out a message that there is a limited set of characteristics that make a woman beautiful, essentially being young, thin with even facial features that photograph well.  I find the focus of fashion marketing like a form of brainwashing - it is done deliberately to make sure we feel we do not live up to a mainstream ideal and therefore must constantly spend our time and money to better ourselves and conform.  It is in this way we are being controlled.  At the mild end of influence women might feel insecure about themselves and spend pointless hours dieting or buy a new outfit or face cream.  But at the extreme end the result is unhealthy relationships with food, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and a willingness to subject oneself to the risks and expense of plastic surgery.

I do look at men and envy that they are not affected nearly as much by the whole question of their appearance as women - imagine the time, energy and money I would save if I just turned a blind eye to it all.  What other things could I achieve in my life if I wasn't so distracted by fashion?  Surely such indifference would be more empowering as a woman than spending time and money on ones appearance and blogging about clothes?

I once had lunch with a female astronaut from NASA (true story).  It was a Women in Science lunch.  She drew our attention to an interesting statistic about the amount of money that was spent comparatively in the US on funding space exploration and related research and development versus what was spent on cosmetics.  Cosmetics expenditure far outstripped the R&D funding.  Whether you agree or not about space exploration being a worthwhile use of money for the betterment of our world, the comparison with cosmetics expenditure is still food for thought.

2. There is more to each of us than a love for fashion, how do you incorporate every aspect of yourself into your blog?

Although I am happy to share certain things about myself on this blog, such as my thoughts on feminism and how it relates to how I view fashion, I do not (nor do I feel obliged in any way to) incorporate every aspect of myself into my blog and that has been a conscious decision.  I really question how realistic this is for anyone blogging.  How many people who you interact with do you truly show every aspect of yourself on a daily basis?  The good, the bad, the truly ugly.  I would probably only list my long term partner.

There are bloggers out there who seem happy spilling the beans about everything on a globally public forum like the Internet - their religious and political views, the state of their finances, what they happen to be going through including acute medical conditions and relationship troubles.  They are obviously comfortable with this level of public exposure of their personal lives.  Others, like me, are simply not.  If I don't discuss something about myself or don't share a viewpoint I have it is because I wish to keep that private.

Anybody can read this blog.  Not just the lovely people who stop by with their warm comments but potential employers, clients and not so nice people.  I don't want to have every aspect of myself on show to just anybody and I just consider self editing to be sensible social media behaviour.  There seems to be an absurd notion that if bloggers aren't telling all to their readers they are somehow being dishonest.  This may be getting back to the Martherette's discussion that was had some time ago about bloggers only showing a small part of their lives through their blogs to make them appear more "glamourous" than they really are, somehow this was viewed as dishonest or a form of self promotional trickery.

This blog is mainly limited to my thoughts on fashion, clothes with the odd personal tale about my family, my boyfriend, my other interests, my travels and what I get up to on the weekends.  There is certainly enough material here on my blog and from my comments to give readers a flavour of what I am like as an individual.  I don't wish to publish posts for all and sundry to read on things I feel are deeply personal - there is going to be a different limit for everyone.

3. With the fashion industry still being a male-dominated profession, how do you think it would differ if women played a larger role?

The fashion and beauty industries are often dominated by a very male ideal of female beauty - youth obsessed, over sexualised, and some of the misogyny that creeps into advertising campaigns (models appearing dead, vulnerable or ad campaigns that could be accused of glamourising gang rape) borders on disturbing - see this post by Mrs Bossa for brilliant examples.

Would we be seeing very different messages about fashion and beauty if there was more representation of women in the marketing or design departments of fashion houses?  I believe we would.  I am sure the fashion and beauty industries suffer from glass ceilings in the same way that other industries do and end up with more men calling the shots than women.

In the past season we were given a glimpse of what the fashion industry might look like with women at the helm of designer collections.  Look at the difference in the reactions of female fashion editors to the collections designed by women like Celine, Chloe and Stella McCartney (hailed as much more women friendly, wearable collections) versus the collections of Balmain, Cavalli and Chanel designed by men (always big on the sex appeal).  Or the feminine turn at Gucci once Freda Giannini took over from Tom Ford as creative director.  There are clearly very different muses for a male designer and a female designer.  It is notable that Pheobe Philo and Stella McCartney are now both working mothers and their lines had evolved to reflect the changing needs of their lifestyle.

4. How is your self-image and the way you carry yourself informed by your beliefs?

I dress at a minimum to look presentable to the world and at the other end of the spectrum to feel good about myself and express myself as an individual.  I do so with some element of care because I value myself.  They say you have to love yourself before you can love others.  How you feel about yourself is integral to that.

I posted earlier this month about whether or not being a feminist affects how I dress.  I grew up in a society where I was raised to believe I should have equal rights and opportunities as a woman and where I have always been free as a woman to express myself through dress as I see fit.  So I am confident in dressing, take great pleasure in experimenting with dress and reclaim the right to wear whatever I want.

If I sometimes tow the line to conform with external expectations of how I present myself it is generally to comply with a social construct such as dress codes set by an office or cultural norms governing events like weddings, funerals or religious celebrations and occasions.  This is down to a deep rooted belief that you need to respect other people, that includes your family, your friends, your colleagues, the inhabitants of countries you visit.  Even though you might not share their beliefs, be those religious, political, or even what is acceptable office wear, there are times when it is appropriate to consider the customs and rules of others over your personal preferences just out of respect and courtesy.

5. Do you think clothing/makeup/hair helps communicate the truth about yourself or are those things superfluous add-ons?

There is no question that what is inside each of us is what counts first and foremost.  I can certainly sympathise with rhetoric that espouses we should look beyond the artifice of people's appearances in a society increasingly obsessed with unattainable standards of beauty and youth.  It seems like we take several steps backward in our progress for equality as women by placing youth and beauty on a celebratory plinth as the defining characteristics of our gender and unfortunately, the fashion and beauty industry often seems to pummel us with little else but this message.  No wonder an interest in fashion and beauty can be seen by many as vain and shallow pursuits.

But we cannot get away from the fact that as human beings we judge others by their appearances as much as we are judged by our appearances.  There are quite valid arguments that how you present yourself to the world is a reflection of how you feel about yourself and that the art of dress is an act of self expression.  What message are you sending out?  How we dress and groom ourselves is also informed by personal, social, cultural and even religious influences - how can it not communicate some truth about the individual?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make the effort to show yourself in your best light by taking care of your appearance.  Wanting to feel attractive is just part of the human condition for both men and women.  There are however, dubious extremes to which women are encouraged to go that I do not feel comfortable with.

6 comments:

  1. That's crazy about the amount spent on R&D in the US being LESS than what US women spend on cosmetics!!

    You're right - being a man without fashion as such a distraction would make for an interesting experience.

    So so so agree that - no matter what anyone says or wishes was true to the contrary - we do always judge on appearance. And first impressions can make such a difference.

    Great post Veshoevius :)

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  2. I'm impressed by your complex answers--although I know I'll always find this with you.

    I think one of the problems with the framing of the question is that an interest in clothes is equated with an interest in what the fashion world editorializes and shows on catwalks and celebrities. That's one thing. And then there's style. Style is about a personal history with a line (design element, not brand) or even a textile history. Or, interest in fashion could be an interest with the craft and art of clothing and textiles, which then gets translated (since it's an applied art) to the personal body.

    But then, I'm trained as an art historian, so I tend to talk about fashion (or what part of it interests me) along the same lines. It tends to intimate when I go into production issues.

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  3. Thoughtful answers...especially about adjusting our look to accommodate various events.

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  4. what a great read! you are deep....I was blown away by the part about how we spend more on cosmetics than space exploration....that just really opened my eyes! I loved your answers to the questions and have to subscribe to your blog, such a great read :) Thank you

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  5. Thank you so much for this post sweetheart, I absolutely see and agree with your points about feminisn/women and the fashion industry. I love your blog and your brain and style! xx Anika

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  6. I realise this may seem a trite reaction to such a profound read (and I sincerely hope this doesn't lessen what I am trying to convey)...but... I believe I have a "girl crush". !!! Cringing just writing that!

    Don't really know how to convey my awe without getting all sycophantic! As always your answers are so articulate, so erudite... elegant... profound... without grandiosity...

    Your answer to #2... yes, people do forget that anyone can read the blog... I have forgotten but I don't share the the private details of my life so it doesn't worry me.
    Having said that... I've actually shared something in my recent post that surprised me! That I did!

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Thank you kindly for your comments! Please be aware that comment moderation is on to weed out the spammers and I can only check comments once a day, so please don't worry if you don't see your comment come up at first - it is probably there and will be up later xx

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