En faisant le tri sur mon ordinateur, j’ai retrouvé ce devoir d’anglais écrit l’an dernier. J’avais complètement oublié qu’on avait dû rédiger ce « paper ». La prof avait été plutôt cool en nous laissant écrire sur le sujet de notre choix. Vous ne serez donc pas étonnés si je vous dis que le mien était en rapport avec la mode. Un sujet en plein dans l’actualité en cette semaine qui clôture la fashion week et introduit la journée internationale des droits des femmes…
Feminist. Recently this word has been seen on countless newspapers and magazines front-pages. On t-shirts exposed in shop windows, the same that are actually worn by candid teenage girls in the streets. More and more people consider themselves to be feminist, whereas few years ago, the word was still mistakenly associated to tomboys strongly acting for women’s rights. Feminism was seen as a political topic, led by women for women, strongly debated but too much sensitive to be clearly exposed in public. The opinions about it, especially the strongest, were not necessarily well accepted, in spite of a large media coverage on this topic dedicated to rise awareness about it and make mentalities evolve. Paradoxically, Feminism was both claimed everywhere and was still a taboo.
Nowadays, Feminism is proudly claimed, to the extent that it is now over exposed. These two past decades, the phenomenon has overflowed a wide range of fields. Indeed, from the 1980’s on, the Gender Studies began to analyse in a gender perspective a lot of domains belonging to social sciences, namely, History, sociology, anthropology, economy, and so on. Even the arts have been subject to a meticulous analysis, as for instance music, cinema and fashion. The latter will be deeply discussed in this essay.
A long time considered as something incompatible with sex equality, fashion has in fact witnessed the empowerment of women for centuries. People use to forget it, and continue to see it as a threat for gender equality. Therefore, it is interesting to debate about it, wondering in what extent the fashion industry acts for feminism. In this essay, we will try to answer this question in three times. Firstly, we will analyse the arguments of those who definitely think that fashion and feminism are strongly opposed. On the contrary, we will secondly focus on the arguments of those who think that these two fields are clearly compatible. Finally, we will try to explain the reasons why there is actually a kind of continuation between both.
Feminism vs fashion : two irreconcilable fields
Fashion industry is usually criticized, as it represents the consumer society brought to its completion. Considered as superficial, fashion reflects perfectly the limits of a system in which the accumulation of material goods is supposed to be the first source of happiness for the majority of people. Many other reasons encourage us to focus on fashion’s negative aspects, but we will only underline in this part those which are linked with our main topic which is feminism.
As something superficial, fashion can’t be something smart, provided with a real intellectual dimension. Fashion is a trap, in which people fall into, becoming « fashion victims ». There is nothing else left to say with this expression. Therefore, fashion makes people objects, and it is yet more significant for women. This argument can be justified with some examples.
The first one which comes to mind deals with top models. Before running the catwalks, they are subject to a harsh selection based on physical criteria. If they want to be chosen, they have to correspond to standards of measurements, in terms of weight, height and size. In this way, women are dehumanized, duplicated as clones and are concealed underneath the clothes they wear, instead of being flattered by it. Their job is to promote a brand, and to convey an image which doesn’t necessarily correspond to their own personalities. Thus, it can be said that they sell their individual image in order to promote clothing items. In this context, their bodies are used as a work tool, and that can be perceived as something reductive.
The second example to mention, when it comes to fashion, deals with the image of women which is conveyed in advertisements. Once more, women are made objects to the extent that they appear in an opportune situation of exposition. Moreover, the main atmosphere created in the advertisements is most of the time characterized by its implicit sexual dimension, which is an effective strategy to target potential clients, or at least to impact people unconsciously. Women are thus sexualized and are used in order to attract people. This point highly contributes to hold fashion industry responsible for the domination of men over women, which is by definition antifeminist.
An other alarming observation can be underlined. Even if fashion is mainly addressed to women, it is predominantly men to have the upper hand in this domain. Indeed, there are much more male designers in the fashion industry than female designers. That is to say that women are following trends launched by men who design fashionable items according to their own male perceptions, which don’t necessarily corresponds to women’s expectations. Once again, it lays the stress on the domination of men over women. It is not by chance if the very first feminist women demonstrated their discord wearing men clothes. Symbolically, it was a way for them to be equally accepted.
Paradoxically, this last idea introduces perfectly our second part. Given that clothes are used as a means of protest, it can be said that they are much more than simple objects. Therefore, the limits of the arguments given by the ones who think that fashion and feminism are contradictory slowly appear. Indeed, as soon as cloth assumes an other purpose than its original one, there is a subject under discussion.
Fashion as a relevant instrument to support feminism
In 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le Deuxième sexe, she perfectly evidenced the political dimension of pants, as soon as they are worn by women. In line with this idea, it can be said that through fashion history, it is all kind of clothes and the way to wear them which proves women’s progressive appropriation of their own bodies. First, in their intimacy, with the abandonment of the corset for the brassiere, then, with the democratization of pants in women’s wardrobe.
In the 19th Century, it was formally forbidden to wear clothes of the opposite sex. In France, the police headquarters of Paris passed a law in 1800 which banned women from wearing pants. This interdiction has been analyzed by sociologists as the will of men to maintain women in a physical and symbolical uncomfortable position. In his famous book entitled La Domination Masculine released in 1998, the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, analyzing the social interactions between men and women, reflected on this idea. He explained that clothes are a means of domination to the extent that the different shapes constraint more or less people. Gowns and dresses are by definition clothes which clearly limit women not only in their movements, but also in their activities and require them to behave a certain way. For instance, it is difficult to play football while wearing a dress. Moreover, contrary to pants, gowns and dresses are opened clothes. This point leads men to fantasy wanderings.
But women would have waited the middle of the 20th Century to witness the democratization of pants and to enjoy it without any feeling of being guilty. This happened thanks to Hollywood actresses like Marlene Dietrich or Katharine Hepburn, who began to wear men suits on red carpets. Coco Chanel used to wear it, but had difficulties to impose it, probably because she worn it in an androgynous way. Thanks to Yves Saint-Laurent, pants were introduced for the very first time in fashion collections as a fully feminine piece, and it rapidly became a statement in women’s wardrobe at the end of the 1960’s. A famous phrase pronounced by Yves Saint-Laurent’s partner, Pierre Bergé, particularly illustrates this point. He said that « Chanel liberated women, and Saint-Laurent empowered them », which actually means that fashion designers have given and still continue to give women the opportunity to evolve and to free themselves from ancient traditions that shackle them in a submissive position.
Besides pants, two other statement pieces are to be mentioned in our reflection : the bikini, invented in 1946 by Louis Réard and the mini-skirt, created in 1962 by Mary Quant. Both have played a key role in women’s emancipation process, but once again, the opinions differ. Some people think that it paradoxically shows the will of men to conquer women’s body and make it something even more sexualized, whereas others think that these two pieces contributed precisely to women’s liberation, giving them the opportunity to live freely their femininity, and to enjoy their own bodies in total independence from men.
Nowadays, clothes assume a deliberate political function. For the Dior 2017 spring/ summer show, the fashion designer Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is by the way the first woman to become the artistic director of the famous Dior designer house, decided to dress a model with a shirt become famous on which it was written « we should all be feminist », which is in fact a famous catch-phrase pronounced during a Ted talk conference in 2013, by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, who is a feminist Nigerian writer. By doing this, the fashion designer wanted to show that femininity and feminism are two notions that complement one another and that are not incompatible.
Over our reflection, it is possible to see that fashion has nothing to do with something superficial, as soon as its ins and outs are deeply analyzed. So far, we have shown two different common ways of thinking in order to be the most neutral as possible. We will explain in our third part the reasons which lead us to think that feminism is much more than an umpteenth trend in the fashion industry, and that both fields are actually connected.
The feminist dimension of fashion. The continuity between two connected domains
Fashion mirrors the spirit of the times. It is not by chance if people have worn different clothes across the ages and throughout the different cultures. It is because it reflects the reality of a society in its whole diversity.
Indeed, fashion is firstly a social norm. At the time, people wore clothing items depending on their affiliations to a certain social class. Nowadays, this tendency is still true, even if it has faded. What has changed is the fact that today, we wear different clothing items depending on our own personality. Except for people who are not concerned about what they wear because they unfortunately don’t have enough money to spend on clothes, the act of dressing is a real choice, conscious or not. Some choose to feel well and comfortable in their clothes because they think it is just something useful and convenient, others want to conform every body following trends, and others find in their clothes a way of expression of their originality and create their own style. These last two kinds of people are the ones who actually decide to give a meaning to what they wear. There, the way of dressing becomes fashion. And some of them give fashion a political meaning turning it into a militating tool, as we already explained.
That point leads us to observe the fact that whether we like it or not, fashion is a both private and public act. What we wear is a personal choice publicly exposed. That is why designers and big chains of ready to wear use clothes to promote their brands; it is because they have understood they could use it as an advertising space. More than brands, it is rather ideas that are actually promoted. Therefore, fashion is an assertive way to manifest and claim for the empowerment of women, as Maria Grazia Chiuri did for Dior.
Fashion is thus a real means of expression. Everything can be said through fashion, as any other kind of art, except that fashion is something more accessible than traditional arts. Indeed, fashion is a living art, fed by every kind of people, namely designers, celebrities, but also influencers, bloggers and average people. Fashion is one of the few arts which comes from the street and it has been perfectly said in the past by Coco Chanel herself : « A fashion that does not reach the street is not fashion. Fashion is in the sky, the streets, fashion has to do with ideas, with the way we live, with the events surrounding us ».
Clothing is, in a way, a universal language, throughout people express their own perception of femininity. Thus, designers use it to explore the different definitions of what a woman can be. Women are plural, as Jean-Paul Gaultier shown several times, making every kind of women run the catwalks, and not only young and skinny ones. For instance, Catherine Lowe, a senior woman run the catwalk in his 2014/2015 fall/winter collection, in the same way as the other models.
Therefore, fashion has been progressively moralized and has improved its ethical standards from the end of the 1990’s on. Even if some stereotypes still exist in fashion, other movements rise, namely senior models as mentioned above, plus-size models, or even transgender and transexual models. This underlines the fact that fashion empowers women to the point that they are no longer obliged to correspond to the image of femininity which has never left them so far. Indeed, sex and gender are two different things, and fashion tends to play with these two notions. Andrea Pejic or Willy Cartier are two trans-models who have recently participated to fashion campaigns, embodying women. They are the living proof that femininity has nothing to do with sex, and that the line between genders has progressively faded.
Some very famous models don’t hesitate to use their reputation as a means of expression, as Emilie Ratajkowski recently did. First perceived as a bad role model for young women while posting nudes on her twitter account, she cleverly answered back saying that « women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies ». As it has been analyzed about the same topic in an article posted by a journalist named Francesca Donovan on Unilad website1 « Emily has been outspoken in her defense of women’s rights, Planned Parenthood and the Free The Nipple campaign. While some incorrectly see the campaign as feminine exhibitionism, in fact, the message runs much deeper than that, to the very source of life itself: The much maligned female body, which is still sexualised and censored to the point of perpetuating the idea that women should be ashamed of their anatomies … ». This analysis shows perfectly the impact of mentalities and the difficulties to make them evolve.
For sure, there are arguments showing that fashion still continue to act against feminism. However, a lot of elements tend to show that fashion has always been involved in this movement and the current situation tends to amplify the phenomenon.
Fashion is something superficial in its commercial dimension. However, it is a great political instrument as soon as it reaches its artistic dimension. Indeed, as we explained in our first part, important drifts still exist. Fashion is an industry which needs to sell products, and women are often used in this process as objects, mostly sexualized. At the same time, fashion represents a great means of expression and emancipation. Used throughout the ages in order to support ideas, it has often been used to promote feminist tendencies.
Therefore, answering our title, feminism is much more than a passing trend in the fashion industry. It is a leitmotiv, and it is our misogynous social background, which leads us to interpret its purpose in a wrong way.
Paradoxically, there are men who try to appropriate women bodies, dictating them what they should be wearing, as well as there are men who actually participate and act for feminism thanks to fashion, as it is for instance the case with male designers who keenly worked for it and still continue to do so. Thus, feminism is not only a women concern, it is also related to men.
Fashion also militate for diversity. In that, it participates to feminist statements deconstructing the idea of femininity, which is not unique but plural. Moreover, it shows that the notion of femininity is not only dedicated to women, and tends to give it men access. It proves that gender obstacle is no more effective and that the limit between masculinity and femininity has now faded. Whereas women struggled to dress as men in order to be recognized equal to them it is now men that get into women’s wardrobe. Therefore, fashion is no more androgynous, it has become unisex.
BOURDIEU, Pierre. La Domination Masculine, 1998. Essais collection, Points poche editions, 2014
DE BEAUVOIR, Simone. Le Deuxième Sexe, volume 1 «Les faits et les mythes », and volume 2 « L’expérience vécue », 1949. Folio Essais collection, Gallimard editions, 1986
BARBIER, Marie. « Féminisme nouvelle génération », L’Humanité, 10/28/2017. https://www.humanite.fr/feminisme-nouvelle-generation-644139
KOMAR, Marlen. « How Women Have Used Fashion as a Feminist Tool Throughout History », Bustle, 11/17/2016 https://www.bustle.com/articles/191181-how-women-have-used-fashion-as-a-feminist- tool-throughout-history
TUDOR, Elisabeta. « La mode face au défi de l’empowerment », L’Express Styles,3/08/2017. https://www.lexpress.fr/styles/mode/feminisme-la-mode-face-au-defi-de-l- empowerment_1881933.html
WILSON, Eric. « Can fashion be feminist ? », InStyle, 27 January 2017,http://www.instyle.com/fashion/clothing/can-fashion-be-feminist