Should We Care What Women Wear?

One thing I love about Feminism today is that it feels so inclusive; The modern feminism umbrella is so wide that all kinds of feminists are provided shelter. The problem for me, however, comes when I realise that I foster several little feminists within my own brain – all huddling out of the downpour – and I wonder how I can justify harbouring such seemingly conflicting interests. Most of the time I am happy to have the advantage of accessing various viewpoints… but sometimes, sitting on the fence can be a mighty pain in the ass.

So here I am, listening to Beyonce’s Freakum Dress and feeling appalled as I read Grazia’s latest online report on which trends men equate with promiscuity. Who are these men to pass judgement? And, I wonder, is this really required reading for the modern fashionista? Should women care whether 57% of men think that those who sport body-con might *gasp* be a little on the loose side?

Apparently so, because Grazia advise their readers to ‘Just be careful your dress sense doesn’t give out false messages.  We don’t mind men thinking we’re unfashionable (what do they know) but ‘easy’? That’s another matter.’

Thankfully, the writer of this piece, Amy Molloy, pointed out that the poll (conducted by can be taken with a huuuge pinch of salt since these men clearly had no clue about AW10’s big trends (I’m being serious here! If a man thinks I’m wearing a pencil skirt for his benefit, rather than for the fact I am channelling this season’s Mad Men vibe, then he really should brush up on his pop-culture homework) and, worst of all, almost a quarter of the males questioned said they ‘wouldn’t allow’ their partner to go out in an outfit that didn’t meet their approval. Epic. Fail.

Still, the fact that this poll was deemed of importance for Grazia’s savvy, fashionable and independently minded audience (and I should know, because I count myself as one of them!) is kind of distressing. I’m reminded of a very similar poll flagged up on Sociological Images; Young Christian men were surveyed on what items of clothing/ways of dressing/behaviour (intentional or not) they deemed ‘immodest’. It made for distressing reading, as the results began to weave a tangled web of impossible expectations from women – boiling down to the infuriating notion that women are expected to be the guardians of straight male sexuality. As Lisa Wade wrote of the results;

The lust is men’s; the bodies are women’s.  It’s an asymmetry built right into the survey design. Modesty is something pertains to only girls and immodesty is something that guys get to define.  This may be even more pernicious than women’s constant self-monitoring.  It erases women’s own desires and the sex appeal of men’s bodies, leading women to spend all of their time thinking about what men want.

So what to do? Don one of those ‘promiscuous’ trends, regardless of the male gaze, and team it with an empowered attitude? That’s certainly my first reaction. But perhaps not the best course of action – since, as one Grazia commenter points out; ‘I find it decidedly ironic, yet perfectly 21st century that women would go on a feminist march in bodycon and fishnets. Germaine Greer must be weeping.’

Yikes. Have I strayed severely off the feminist path here? I mean, I’ve read Female Chauvinist Pigs and (although I found it a bit reactionary) I agreed with pretty much every word. I was pleased when style maven Paula Reed spoke of how fashion editors had come under fire for certain ‘pornified’ trends. Hell, I laughed my ass off at The Onion’s brilliant Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does article. So, what am I? A feminist… or a hypocrite?

For now all I know is that, on a personal level, I make a conscious effort not to judge women on what they wear. My umbrella is open to all; stilletto heeled or sturdilly booted, seamed stockinged or hairy legged, bare faced or fully made-up, body-conned or baggy. I’ve sported all these looks and will most likely continue to flit between them whenever it takes my fancy… and I know that, whatever I’m wearing, I’m still the same person with the same (admittedly *ahem* diverse) belief system. Whilst I delight in fashion, what I wear has little bearing on my persona, and so I am content in the knowledge that what other women wear tells me little about their personalities and values.

The fact that this question still niggles, though, is testament to my personal fear that, one day soon, the goddesses of feminism will strike me down for wearing heels. Or lipstick. Or stockings and suspenders. But I’m aware that the guilt of hypocrisy is tiring and sometimes living is hard enough. There are other important things that require attention, so I will just put this blog out there, hope it lets other flip-flopping feminists see that they’re not alone, and perhaps we can move on for a bit… until the guilt niggles again.

By: Sarah Barnes, 01.09.2010 | Comments (4)
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Fashion Maketh Woman? The Verdict

After getting all excited about the TEDWomen lectures in the US later this year, I reminded myself that I should really fill you all in on a fabulous debate I attended last month right here in London town!

Intelligence Squared is a global forum that believes in ‘knowledge through debate’ and hosts fantastic evenings of contest and conversation. I attended their Fashion Maketh Woman debate at Westminster’s Methodist Hall, full of excitement and nerves (had I worn the right thing?) and not knowing what to expect.

The title was a bit baffling, and I was baffled further still when I was accosted by a woman with a clip board as I entered. “Are you FOR or AGAINST the motion?” she asked, to which I felt a bit too stupid to be in attendance as I muttered “Err, I don’t think I understand the motion.” Of course (ahem) it was all just a question of semantics; “Do you think fashion makes women what they are?” the helpful woman spelt it out for me, “God no!” I answered and hurried inside to find out I was in the minority; the pre-vote showed 335 For the motion, 318 against and 256 ‘Don’t Knows’.

Paula Reed, looking exquisite in pre-collection AW10 Oscar de la Renta, was the first to take to the stage. Arguing in defense of fashion (well, she is Grazia’s style director after all!) she put it to the audience that “Fashion is the clearest expression of all the most fundamental things in life” and that it is “A delicious relief in a dirty world.” Speaking of her humble background and wide-eyed delight for all things fashion, Reed came off as very like-able and relate-able - quite different to how she has appeared at times when judging on Project Catwalk!

Describing those who focus on the negative elements of fashion as “Purse-lipped puritans” she went on to say “They set themselves up as high-minded – and often as feminists – but there’s a hint of misogyny in there, I think.”

Still, Reed did accept that fashion isn’t always without fault; “For the rise of ‘porno-chic’ fashion, fashion editors have come under fire” she said. Also, on the topic of fashion’s relationship with eating disorders, Reed talked about how she had sat on the board of a recent model health enquiry and that all she was sure of was “how many different opinions” there were on the matter and that thin models will soon be going “the way of the padded shoulder”. I admired her bravery for addressing these areas of concern, but it still felt like Reed missed the point somewhat by pointing to the rise in obesity as proof that fashion imagery doesn’t affect how people see themselves.

Ultimately, Reed reminded us that fashion can be a joy and, whether we choose to partake in trends or not, we are always making our own satorial statements. “Looking around this room,” Reed said, gleefully,  ”I see lots and lots of Grazia fashion pages from over the past 6 months… you’re looking good, by the way.”

Up next was Stephen Bayley and, although he was arguing against the fashion industry, I just knew I wouldn’t enjoy his speech quite so much.

This is because Bayley is the author of Woman As Design, a book that angered feminists (including Germaine Greer) upon its release last year due to its portrayal of idealised and objectified women. Now, I may have been tempted to pick up the book (if it didn’t cost a whopping £50!) because maybe, just maybe, it might offer an interesting glance at how women’s bodies have influenced design and how beauty standards have transformed over time. I lost any inclination to do just that, however, upon reading Bayley’s Guardian rebuttal Why My Book Is Not Sexist in which he seriously described Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour as ‘a sexist ghetto’ and asked why there was no Man’s Hour. Pssch.

As an intelligent and eloquent speaker, Bayley came out with some cracking quotes (most of which have been included in the ‘best bits’ IQ2 video). He expressed his bemusement at an industry that demands innovation without need and asks people to imitate it without reason. This “cycle of utter folly” also adds to the confused gaze in which we view women’s bodies, Bayley asserted; “Some moments parts of the woman’s body are sterilised and at other times eroticised.”

Still, any great points Bayley made became tainted upon his argument that, whilst the fashion industry says “Buy this and you will look more attractive”, most women would actually look more attractive if they “got a tan, trained for a marathon and lost 30 pounds.” Sorry, Bayley, but you lost my vote right there.

Finance executive turned fashion designer Britt Lintner was keen to tell us how her clothing range for career-minded women has aided them in their professional lives; “We wanted women to celebrate their differences and their individuality,” Lintner said, “Whether a size 6 or a size 16, we’re all about real women.”

She went on to tell the audience, through the aid of Power-Point and a rather fun collection of old photos, how she had used clothing to help her compete as her career evolved. “The psychological impact is undeniable,” Lintner said, stating that clothes give you “the confidence to strive for whatever you want.”

Good points aside, Lintner did herself no favours by pulling out a quote from Margaret Thatcher to back up her points. Good though the quote was, you could almost hear the clenching of teeth in the auditorium as Lintner described Thatcher as “the greatest working woman in the whole world.”

As I had expected, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry was a fantastic speaker. Passionate to the point of anger, Perry brought up many good points about the waste and exploitation ingrained in parts of the fashion industry. “Fashion maketh woman?” Perry all but spat, “I don’t agree with that… Fashion maketh money, fashion maketh waste, fashion maketh carbon, fashion maketh lazy!”

Talking about trends, Perry stated that “The world’s biggest industry is set up to make you dissatisfied with what you’ve just bought” and he wondered whether trend-followers ever actually considered what suited them. He also speculated whether “If this machine of power didn’t exist, would people be more creative?”

Wearing a dress designed for him by a CSM fashion student, Perry lamented the speed at which fashion runs; “It hoovers up ideas and then spits them out half chewed.” He also touched on the throw-backs to colonialism that fashion seems to parade around every so often like an embarrassing souvenir; “This year we’re doing Tibetan…but what if you’re actually Tibetan?”

Lastly, Perry likened the Hot or Not pages of fashion glossies as “The judgement of the playground” and went as far as saying that the fashion industry as a whole is the industrialisation of playground cool; “And cool,” Perry chided us, “is the new straight.”

Madeline Levy, editor-in-Chief of fashion and arts magazine Bon International, was last to speak about the merits of fashion. Throughout the debate speakers on both sides of the fence had agreed that, whilst fashion can come under fire, style is all-well-and-good. Levy, however, put it to the audience that style doesn’t push boundaries or move aesthetic levels in the same way that fashion does. Fashion, Levy said, is an “art form which concerns us all” and it can even allow us to dress up and above the positions we were born into.

After Perry’s attack on the fashion industry, Levy came back with the statement that “The pharmaceutical industry is pretty corrupt but that doesn’t make medicine bad.” She also agreed with Paula Reed, saying that those who hold disdain for fashion may also hold disdain for women; “When men are passionate about something it’s a hobby. When women are passionate about fashion, they’re vain.”

I had been really looking forward to hearing Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, speak against fashion – but her melancholy, emotionally centred speech didn’t really sit well after the passionate demonstrations, peppered with facts, that had gone before.

“You’re ten years old,” Orbach started, “your breasts are little buds. You check out your pose in the mirror, just as you’ve seen Mum do. You’ve seen her sigh in the mirror when she doesn’t quite fit. Still, she’s your yummy mummy.”

Orbach’s imagining was based in the realities she had collected for her latest book, Bodies, and yet the approach felt rather ill-at-ease in a debate setting. I much preferred her speech which followed on from the personal intro, as it felt more effective. “Ask a woman what she’d like to change about her body and she will have a list,” Orbach stated, “Ask her what she likes and she will struggle.”

After all speakers were heard and we were called to vote again, there was still confusion as to what we were actually voting for. If we are FOR or AGAINST fashion, are we talking ‘Fashion’ as an industry (and all that entails) or are we talking clothing, style…fashion as art?

I know that I would like to see the fashion industry grow in more ethically and environmentally friendly ways; it needs scrutinising and it needs to take responsibility. I also know that I welcome it as a creative and empowering force on an individual level. But ‘Fashion Maketh Woman’? I don’t think so. It’s not that gendered – everyone is affected by fashion and trends! Plus, women aren’t one dimensional – it takes more than fashion to make a woman!

A new final vote was taken with the results of 293 For the motion, 468 Against the motion and a nervous 44 ‘Don’t Knows’… how nice to no longer be in the minority! Still, if it had come down to voting only on the basis of speakers, I would have voted for the fashion clan! They came off as much more positive, open to change and eager to confront fashion’s problems, whilst all the while being non-judgemental and fun!

Watch IQ2’s Best Bits from the debate here and find out more about their Autumn season of debates here.

More to read:

MsAfropolitan’s thoughts on Fashion Maketh Woman

Mutton’s Guide To Fashion’s take on the debate

Bust Magazine reviews the Fashion As Empowerment exhibition at the Met

By: Sarah Barnes, 24.07.2010 | Comments (0)
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Trying On Careers…

Not content with only out-doing the average woman with her implausible bust to waist ratio, this year Barbie has proven herself to be the ultimate workaholic by taking on her 125th job – totally blowing the average person’s 8.7 jobs in a lifetime out of the water.

A recent press release tells of how girls voted for Barbie to take on her newest role as a News Anchor. It’s a pretty suitable role for an attractive woman like Barbie (just perfect to perch next to a graying old male news-anchor, right?) but it also seems like a bit of a step down when you consider Barbie’s past stints as an Astronaut (in the early 1960’s, before any mere man had set foot on the moon), a Boardroom CEO, a Rock Star and even The President. Hmm… It’s surprising how, even with those strangely slanted feet, Barbie has been able to scale the career ladder with such ease.

But perhaps her career progression isn’t such a mystery… after all, what’s Barbie got to help her get her foot in the door? No, not reams of qualifications or bags of experience! She’s got CLOTHES! As Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll says;

Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices.  Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper.  She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer.  I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters – who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals – but also with mothers.

Of course, Barbie is a fashion doll and dress-up is the name of the game. But, whilst it’s great to ‘encourage girls to try on different careers’ (as Mattel do with their aspirational schools programme Barbie I Can Be), I do wonder how much this message of ‘dressing the part’ carries on into later life – a quality that is seen as so vital that it trumps such un-important things as common sense, skills and knowledge.

It’s something I’ve mused on before, but reading (Grazia Fashion Editor at Large) Melanie Rickey’s post on Fashion and The Charlie Girl Obsession recently drove the point home once more. As Rickey says;

With the recession still biting, and many, many stylish young women loose on the job market, there has been a notable fashioning up of the daytime working wardrobe of every female I know aged from 20-50. Competition is rife for jobs, especially those in the media and I know I would go for the best put together, most professional and stylish looking young woman if I were hiring. The same goes across all professions. To be taken seriously now, you’ve got to look like you mean business.

Whilst Rickey rightly points out that the career-focussing of women’s wardrobes has forced fashion designers to give women practicality over overt costume-like creations, her post also demonstrates that, now more than ever, women are expected to look the part.

Maybe Barbie has got it all figured out; get the clothes right and the job’s in the bag. Even so, if I had to have Barbie’s hollow head to go along with her-career capturing wardrobe, I think I’d have to pass…

By: Sarah Barnes, 26.05.2010 | Comments (1)
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