Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fashion and Feminism: My Clothing, My Choice

This post is part of a group event for the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. This week, our posts are looking at the question "How do you express your feminism in the way you dress?" In thinking about my own answer, I realized that it's important to give a bit of my sartorial backstory...I've written some on here about the intersection of my stereotypically feminine clothing choices with my job in a male-dominated industry, but that hasn't always been my focus.

One thing I've always believed: part of being an independent, powerful, strong girl/woman is that you get to choose what you want to wear. You, not the fashion magazines or your friends or your family or men or your environment. (Granted, one's fashion choices are generally influenced by culture in many subtle and obvious ways, even just in terms of what kinds of styles you think are available to you/send the sorts of messages you want to send with your clothing/etc. But that's a subject for another time.) I grew up with this message and have generally followed it and worn exactly what I wanted.

I'm probably around 6 or 7 years old in this picture. This was my first pair of glasses...I wanted the largest frames I could, and picked them out myself. I also had a general philosophy of style of wearing bright colors, all the time. Also, I specifically attempted to pick pants and shirts that were "clashing" colors. A few potentially important notes here...first, my parents really did let me choose my own clothing. Second, I was homeschooled (until college) and thus didn't run into the sort of criticism of my clothing choices that I suspect I might have in a public school system. Third, my mother is also a feminist, and raised me to believe I could do anything and would not be limited by my gender or traditional gender roles.

However, there was a bit of a catch in my interpretations of feminist fashion theory. I grew up hearing and believing that a strong woman didn't need to wear makeup or heels or dresses, that she didn't need to doll herself up to please others, that she didn't need to worry about what she wears, that she didn't need to wear explicitly gendered clothing, that she was naturally beautiful and wonderful exactly the way she was. Her mind was much more important than her body. But what I internalized, in a way, was that a girl/woman SHOULDN'T wear makeup or heels or dresses, as she was beautiful exactly the way she was. She SHOULDN'T fall into dominant theories of what it means to be beautiful. She SHOULDN'T wear things that were too "girly" or "sexy." She SHOULDN'T care too much about what she wears, as what she thinks about is really what's important.

Additionally, many of the more stereotypically "pretty" items of clothing are not so practical for a young girl -- you can't easily climb trees in pretty skirts! I remember a pair of shoes I got when I was around 9 or 10. My father had taken me to get new shoes, and I picked out a pair of lace-up black suede ankle boots with embroidered flowers on the sides. The flowers had lights in the center that lit up when I walked. I thought they were the most wonderful, beautiful shoes. When we got home, my mother was quite unhappy with this choice -- they were too expensive for kid's shoes, they didn't have enough arch support for my growing feet, they just weren't practical. I kept the shoes anyway, and wore them as long as I could and loved them. But the message remained, that the sheer whimsical, fun beauty of those shoes shouldn't outweigh more practical matters.

This changed a bit as I went through my "high school" years and entered college. I still was wearing exactly what I wanted to wear, I think, but now that included more skirts and the occasional dress. In college, my personal style was mostly identifiable by its commitment to soft textures like velvet and velour. Also, by fuzzy socks. My standard outfit was either a top and jeans or a camisole and one of my several long velvet skirts:

Now, I've really been developing my personal style over the last year or so, which is part of why Adventures in Refashioning has shifted into a style blog as well as crafting/sewing/refashioning. With my position in the world of computer science and technology, I've gone from trying to blend in with jeans and casual shirts to embracing a love for pretty, delicate clothing, trying to show others that one can work in a male-heavy field and still be feminine. As I've mentioned, I use my work clothing partially to break stereotypes, to show that one can be a woman, even a feminine woman, and still succeed in male-oriented fields.

But more importantly, I'm realizing that it's okay for me to want to dress in ways that make me feel happy, whether that involves beautiful fabrics and textures, jeans and a t-shirt, or killer high boots. I feel like I'm reclaiming my identity as a feminist by accepting that I can still be strong, and valuable, and be interested in traditionally "female" things like personal style. Being interested in clothing is not anti-feminist, nor is my wanting to wear clothing that is highly gendered or skews to particular cultural trends, as long as that is my own choice. If I want to wear makeup, that's fine too. And heels. If I don't want to wear any of those things, that should also be fine. In a way, my clothing makes a feminist statement in the ways that I have separated it from my feminism...a feminist can wear whatever she wants. I've been consciously thinking about this for a while now. Almost a year ago, I wrote in a post touching on these issues:
"We are entitled to our own choices. If I WANT to put on beautiful shoes or a velvet skirt or a dress that makes me feel like a million dollars, if I want to take joy in my self-presentation and my creative exploration of clothing and my finding beautiful garments at thrift stores...then those are choices that are perfectly good too."

I still believe a strong, powerful, feminist woman can wear whatever she wants.

More posts examining this question are linked at Mrs. Bossa's blog.


Alexa L. said...

I love the photo of you when you were younger. Reminds of me of when I talk about my own style choices (including semi-embarrassing childhood photos):
So great.

Fashionpearlsofwisdom said...

I have to agree the now dated image of feminism did imply you couldn't do a lot of things, it seemed more oppresive to me than non-feminism! I think we can wear what ever the hell we please and still be feminist!

Cat Feathers said...

This post really resonates with me - in fact, I've written something very similar myself today, in terms of professional situation. Although my role isn't in an especially male-dominated discipline, my industry is technical and it was very easy to feel intimidated out of being truly myself by the dominant culture at first.

poet said...

Yes! Oh how I know the dilemma of hearing "need not" and internalizing "must not" - I think it's one of the biggest weaknesses of liberation movements in general, and certainly of feminism. Something in human (Western?) socialization (or is it even nature?) seems to compel us to look for rigid rules... In feminism especially, this dilemma applies to lots of other things outside of clothing as well... I also envy you for being allowed to choose non-matching colors as a kid, this wouldn't have happened to me since color-blindness runs in my family and there was always the worry I could have it :) And it's great that you show your style journey through the years!

Shybiker said...

I like the evolution of your thoughts on this subject and especially where you end up. Your last sentence is perfect. I wish it were carved in stone all over society.

MrsBossa said...

I'm so jealous that you were allowed to choose your own clothes - my mum enjoys fashion, but was quite clear about what did and didn't match, what was and wasn't appropriate. As you say, it is nigh on impossible to grow up without internalising some idea if what you shouldn't wear - I'm just glad you're enjoying fashion! You look so lovely in the photo with the yellow skirt - what a chic outfit!

Claire said...

I always assumed that every child got to choose their own clothes. It was such a joyful thing!

Velvet skirts are fine things. Wearing mine can really calm my mind.

Terri said...

This is beautifully said. And actually, I think one can climb a tree in a skirt better!

Jeanofalltrades said...

I love your giant glasses in the childhood picture! I also got to choose my own clothes as a kid. I think it helped shape me into someone with strong opinions (in a good way, of course).

I like your explanation of "doesn't have to" vs. "shouldn't."

oranges_and_apples said...

I loved hearing your story! And that picture of you in young is beyond adorable!

I think we will get there eventually with letting people know that feminism and fashion are compatible. FFB is one step in that direction already!

Blabla said...

Wow, the outfit with the yellow skirt is absolutely classy and everything ^^ 
Just discovered your blog and i like the way you talk of clothes. 

I started interesting myself in clothing about two years ago and i thought of something : i wear glasses all the time and they're in the middle of my face. They should be marvelous ! 
I had almost invisible glasses like yours and i switched to big blue ones that fits me wonderfully ! 
It's so cool. You don't even need make up or high styling, your face is styled in a second :) 

You might give it a try, if you want ^^ 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...