Why fashion and feminism are no longer mutually exclusive

FASHION and feminism traditionally have little in common.

Why fashion and feminism are no longer mutually exclusive

Their dialogue is fractious, fraught with sexual stereotypes and, at best, politically incorrect. Unaided by semantic instability, the idea that one can be both an adherent of matters sartorial and gender equality is counterintuitive. Women can have it all, just not in a pretty Erdem dress. Or can they?

The contradictions which have made these terms mutually exclusive are being reassessed by a new generation — one which assumes feminism as a lens through which to view fashion.

Whether seen as a medium of self-expression or restraint, individual dialogues are now starting to inform and shape their joint semiotic value. The boundaries are shifting and not a moment too soon.

The realisation that clothes have power, that they tell a personal story, has been accelerated by a confluence of social networks and non-normative style ideals.

Pop culture idols from Madonna to Lady Gaga; Grace Jones to Beth Ditto have all used fashion to rock the status quo. Similarly, business dress codes have been redefined by designers like Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo for Céline; while micro tomes like Man Repeller (manrepeller.com) and Style Rookie (thestylerookie.com) have achieved global fame for giving fashion blogs a feminist butt kick.

Despite such strong examples, it appears female fashion narratives are still subject to interpretation, particularly in the workplace and politics, something broadcaster Maia Dunphystates.

“I love clothes the same way I love music, art or the theatre. Fashion is a means of self-expression. We don’t have to shave our heads or wear a trouser suit to de-feminise ourselves and encourage men to see us as more masculine. Is it really our problem if some men cannot take a woman seriously because she looks a certain way? Who has the problem here and who should change?”

Indeed. Shoulder-padded power dressing of the ’80s did little to break through the proverbial glass ceiling; while the hemline index still determines the extent to which a woman commands respect. Case in point: Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits have been the focus of much media scrutiny, implying that there are unspoken social codes for women when it comes to what they wear; not least a subtext that determines the measure of her capability. Former president Mary Robinson aka Her Poloness; Michelle Obama, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, everyone’s favourite target, Kate Middleton, have garnered superfluous column inches for their wardrobe choices. Not so much for Michael D Higgins, Barack Obama, John Kerry or Prince William.

Nuanced meanings aside, the upside to fashion is its sheer aesthetic pleasure. Yet that in itself is often relegated to superficial status. Broadcaster Maia Dunphy explains. “When it comes to women and fashion, we sometimes feel like it is a slightly less important side of who we are,” she maintains. “Men won’t allow the things they enjoy to be trivialised. I could easily say how is going off on a boozy weekend to watch Man United any less important than me buying a handbag at the weekend? I don’t think it is, but I think men are tough in that way in not allowing what they like to be trivialised. Women, we allow ourselves to get knocked a bit too easily, maybe because we just don’t have that confidence.”

Confidence, maybe; conditioning, definitely. The degree to which women are complicit in their own belittling is reflected in a unique national trait — the process of onedownmanship. “We are so good at tearing ourselves down,” claims Dunphy. “If you give an Irish woman a compliment, you’ll get ‘This? It was only from Dunnes!”

Interestingly, men are more dedicated followers of fashion than previously perceived. According to the 10th edition of the Bain & Company’s luxury goods worldwide market study, men’s clothing and accessories now represent half of the luxury apparel market. Furthermore, recent findings from the market research group Mintel conclude that the UK menswear industry is worth £10.4bn with a further 11% growth potential by 2017.

This evidence is further dyed-in-the-wool with 2012 marking the opening of luxury brand Burberry’s first menswear store in London and that of the world’s biggest men’s shoe department at Selfridges selling more than 72,000 pairs of shoes, including £10,000 bespoke Tom Ford boots. Should someone cross-examine you on a recent retail purchase throw in one or two of those fun facts.

In the meantime, it’s best we examine the liberal, if not vestigial, stereotypes underpinning the fashion world. If such a sizeable chunk of the fashion market is represented by men, then the concept of fashion as a purely feminine pursuit needs to be put to rest; as do female clichés like the compulsive shopper, tyrannical editor and vacuous clothes horse.

Thankfully, a subtle paradigm shift is starting to upend traditional expectations, as explained by footballer and fashion blogger Paul Galvin (thisispaulgalvin.com). “Designers like Tisci, Slimane and Margiela, who have shunned traditional models in favour of street casting, are serving as a game changer. Likewise, photographers such as Ryan McGinley are also playing a large part in shifting perceptions by using friends and associates to model for major brand campaigns.”

This cult of the everyday model is bringing inclusiveness to fashion, according to Galvin; yet Dunphy sees this equalled by a good old-fashioned underdog story.

“I was reading that article about Zahia Dehar,” she says. “Here’s a girl who was an underage prostitute and by rights is now seen in the media as the golden girl of Paris with her lingerie designs. I like how she turned it around. Similarly, I love Victoria Beckham and the fact that she really wanted what she has gotten now and had gone for it.”

If anyone is an underdog, it has to be the former Spice Girl whose reported size zero frame and networking chutzpah has inspired vitriol and regard in equal measure.

“I don’t know what Victoria Beckham has done wrong,” admits Dunphy, “apart from wanting to have it all.” Indeed, if anything, Beckham could be considered a fourth wave feminist: a successful career mother of four whose reported pet peeves are laziness and women hating women. Moreover her ability to take it on the chin, to accept an unpopular label in pursuit of girl power, all the while in six-inch heels, makes her quite the candidate for the job. She’s skinny though and doesn’t smile much, so that wouldn’t do. Maybe we just need to readjust our lens and start seeing women for women, whether radical shapeshifter or celebrated tastemaker.

There’s room for a new definition; if only we’d clear some space.

More in this section