Tag Archives: feminism

Fashion x Feminism

Fashion and feminism are two of the subjects closest to my heart, but they often seem in conflict, with fashion brands and media refusing to offer anything but derogatory or unrealistic images of women, and academic feminists disdaining any woman who works in fashion (I’ve experienced this first-hand, and it was deeply disappointing).

In the last year or so, fashion brands have begun to catch on to the growing wave of popular feminism, with varying results. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. Originally, I thought it was great that one of the most visibly “female” industries was starting to behave in a slightly less misogynist way, but when feminism becomes a trend like any other, there’s the danger that it gets taken up quickly and then is discarded like last winter’s pink coat. Anyway, I tried to put some of my research on this into some kind of useful form for a report on Stylus, a brief excerpt of which is below…

Feminism sells

One of the most-debated words over the last year, it seems that feminism has gone mainstream, with brands and celebrities co-opting feminism to gain greater traction with female consumers. Elle UK recently devoted its entire November issue to feminism, as well as launching a controversial “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt in conjunction with Whistles, while the magazine’s parent company, Hearst, has launched a website that aims to empower women.

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“Are you a feminist?” has become a regular question in celebrity interviews, while a growing number of celebrities, from Miley Cyrus to Benedict Cumberbatch, have “come out” as feminist. Stars expressing support for equality have proved hugely popular with fans, and raised the profile of feminism, but they are also held to a higher standard of body-positivity, sisterhood and social awareness as a result. Those celebrities who don’t always reach that standard risk accusations of inauthenticity, such as Beyonce, whose single Pretty Hurts promotes self-empowerment, yet she has been accused of regularly airbrushing her supposedly candid Instagram images.

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Fashion brands are increasingly aligning themselves with feminism too: Chanel recently made noise with its protest-themed catwalk show, where models carried placards bearing slogans such as “Women’s Rights are More than Alright”, “Ladies First”, “History is Her Story” and “We Can Match the Machos”. The show inspired a phalanx of think pieces about whether the brand was satirising, co-opting or promoting feminism, showing that the relationship between brands and feminism is a challenging one.

Body beautiful

In fashion imagery, stylish plus-size women are finally coming to the fore: For the first time, the 2015 Pirelli calendar features a size 16 model, Candice Huffine, and glossy plus-size magazine SLiNK, now available in 15 countries, aims to show that “beauty and style doesn’t stop at a size 8”. Actress Melissa McCarthy certainly agrees, recently announcing her own plus-size clothing line, due to launch in 2015. A Mintel study found that 34% of women want to see more clothing photographed on larger models.o-DEAR-KATE-570

Those brands that are behind the body-positive curve risk censure from consumers,as Victoria’s Secret found with its “The Perfect Body” shapewear campaign. Consumers objected to the ads, which featured universally slim models, and the brand was forced to change its strapline to “A body for every body”.

But it’s not just about body size – beauty brand MAC has launched its MACnificentMe campaign to promote “being creative, being confident, having fun and most of all, being true to yourself”, by asking women to share their mantras about what makes them unique.

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Flawless strength

Amidst all the noise about Beyonce’s new “surprise album” is a seeming shift in policy from Queen Bey. After sidestepping the inevitable “are you a feminist” question for a good few years — disappointing cultural commentators and fans alike — she’s now smartly aligning herself with feminism without actually answering the question, by sampling author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s great TEDTalk on new track Flawless.

I’m ashamed to say i hadn’t watched Adichie’s talk before (there’s really a lot of TEDTalks and only so much time in the day!), but, led by Bey, i was captivated by it (as I’m sure many more fans will be). Powerful, thoughtful, touching and funny, the author talks about how women make themselves smaller to be less threatening to men, pretending to be less than they are and turning that pretence into an art form.

She also raises the excellent point that many of the characteristics that led men to be more prominent (such as physical strength) are decreasingly important in modern business, which instead prizes intelligence, creativity and innovation. Many writers and commentators say that these are “feminine” qualities, but I rather disagree (not least because it seems a conciliatory gesture  – “Men may rule the world, but women are creative, nurturing” etc.) Like Adichie, I believe that neither gender owns these talents or skills – they are up to an individual to cultivate and explore. Ascribing certain values to one gender or another – no matter if they are positive or not – keeps people in gender boxes, dictating who we should be rather than who we are. And while physical strength may have lost its prominence, the strength we gain — men or women — from being ourselves is an increasingly important currency. 

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Clever things club

In my line of work, you have to be a sponge for everything that’s going on – reading everything, always listening and watching. Most of the time, that means reading anything I come across – Twitter links being the greatest boon to trendsters in finding things you didn’t know were interesting, without leaving your desk. But there’s another tool in learning about things which requires leaving one’s desk or sofa and getting out into the world – one which is so very old-school, but gaining increasing social currency.

The School of Life aphorisms (credit David Michael)

It’s going to lectures – something most people would never have considered doing once they escaped college. Sitting in a room as grand and legendary as the theatre at the Royal Institution, or a concrete-floored “space” in Shoreditch or in the private dining rooms of Soho restaurants, more people are literally taking themselves out of their comfort zones to go and hear about something new or different, or debate key contemporary topics. Sometimes you get to go to these things for work, like the great School of Life or  It’s Nice That events or even a TEDx, and so the inspiration and enlightenment you get from the various expert or visionary speakers has a useful outlet. But generally, it’s just exercise for the mind.

A couple of my friends and I like to watch out for interesting and unusual talks to attend on a lunchtime or a weekday evening, especially if it involves the promise of a sharp wine or artisan beer (these being the usual tipples offered with your ticket price). We call this Clever Things Club. Events range from talks by inventors, jellymongers, lexicographers and pornographers to discussions on the role of feminism in fashion or opinion in media. If i talk about people going to improving events like this with my work hat on, i usually ascribe it to people wanting more bang for their buck out of their leisure time – looking for culture, entertainment and a wine without having to shell out for all three, lectures are great value for cash- and time-poor consumers. But there’s something else too – the wonder of the new.

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It’s easy to get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of things we like, things we do, things we’re used to, people we know. The comfort of sticking to what we know/like is pleasant and all, but can also become a bubble, causing us to lose touch with the excesses, adventures and awesomeness in the world. Call it the Wheelhouse Effect, the Filter Bubble, or just plain getting stuck in a rut – whatever, it’s important to break out of the familiar algorithmed world we live  in and learn things, hear different opinions, appreciate others’ experiences and look at things in a new way. It might not always be highbrow, but if it opens your mind to something else even for a little while,  it’s excellent value.

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Strong women

Finally finishing up my report from the Fashion in Feminism talk at the V&A for The Women’s Room, which included much discussion of body diversity, and it reminded me of this recent campaign from MAC (below). I already love me some MAC, not just for its brilliantly coloured lipsticks, but because it puts “unconventional” beauties front and centre in its advertising. Of course, there are plenty of model-pix amongst its campaigns (and column-inch fodder like Nicki Minaj) but it’s also giving space to inspiring women like Beth Ditto and Iris Apfel, and in a sea of identikit airbrushed beauty shots, that’s not nothing.

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Celebrating a proudly muscular female form seems different from the image industries’ usual body diversity tactics: “Celeb X flaunts her curves” (read: has boobs) or Magazine X “celebrates the body” (read: fetishistic pictures of naked/scantily clad plus-size model). I wonder if it’s an effect of the incredible bodies vaunted by the “women’s Olympics”, that consumers and brands alike are more willing to admire a body that is visibly strong: Body as machine, not decoration.

Kathryn Ferguson, a film-maker who spoke at the Fashion in Feminism talk, pointed to this film, Elisha Smith Leverock’s  I Want Muscle, as new example of strong and empowered women in (and on)  film. The film has been nominated for the Design Museum’s Designs Of The Year award. Although the visuals (and slightly pornalike soundtrack) are a bit fetishy, they contrast nicely with bodybuilder Kizzy Vaines’ assessment of the beauty of her hard-won, sculptured body. Check it out above.

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Fashion x Feminism

For two things that interest women (such as myself) so much, it’s always baffled me that fashion and feminism rarely co-exist. Fashion is often dismissed as a frivolous occupation of shallow women, but it’s an extraordinarily prejudiced view. Loving fashion does not preclude a women’s ability to be a feminist, and vice-versa*.

Obviously, the unfair stereotype of the bra-burning, dungaree-wearing radical feminist casts a long shadow over the relationship between fashion and feminism, but feminism today is (or should be)  much more inclusive than that. Loving the thrill and glamour and fun of fashion shouldn’t prevent a woman being taken seriously as a feminist, any more than loving the thrill and glamour and fun of the theatre does. Yet somehow, an interest in the theatre marks someone as “serious” and an interest in fashion marks them out as “silly”. Like a woman in a nice dress is unable to hold any other thought in her head than OMG!! Dresses!! Come on sisters, we’re supposed to be past this by now.

The industry itself hardly helps. Fashion has collaborated with pretty much every cause i can think of over the years, every industry and every brand, yet somehow has managed to avoid any allegiance to feminism. More fashion types (like Tavi, below) and celebrities are “coming out” as feminists, but that’s still not enough. In a hugely female-dominated industry, why aren’t more fashionistas standing up in their metallic brogues or clumpy Acne platforms, and declaring, “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”?!

Yes, many feminists revel in not having to wear uncomfortable or ridiculous trends to adhere to the current feminine ideal, but just because a woman chooses to wear a heel or a bright lipstick does not make her a bad feminist. Feminism today is a broad church, and we should be supporting other women’s choices and interests, rather than dismissing them.  I like nice things and I am a feminist and I am OK with that.  I adhere to a  feminism that means a woman can do whatever the fuck she likes, making her own choices on the reproductive, employment, sartorial, social or cultural fronts without judgement. Apparently others are practicing another kind of feminism – they’re welcome to it.
*If you’re interested, this post is a result of supporters of new women’s expertise advocacy group The Women’s Room UK claiming they had more right to the name than the well-respected 4-year-old The Women’s Room blog, because it is only a “life and style” blog and therefore not properly feminist. Update on the situation here and here

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Fifty shades of eh?

So, I succumbed and finally read Fifty Shades Of Grey on holiday: borrowed, well-thumbed copies from my friend Jenna. I don’t usually jump on book bandwagons like this (having studiously avoided previous literary fads like The Da Vinci Code, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, or those awful misery memoirs), but when in Rome…

As many before me have said, including a recent discussion on Woman’s Hour, the plots are thin, characters one-dimensional and emotionally moronic, the sex scenes relentlessly repetitive, the dialogue mind-numbing, the editing negligent and the breadth of vocabulary no greater than a primary school spelling test – Mr Dictionary seems to have deserted the author. Though I kind of hated it, ultimately it served its purpose, replacing the Jackie Collins bonkbusters I used to read as a trashy teen around the pool in Tenerife or Magaluf, before literary fiction and other grown-up tomes entered my beachbag. It even made me feel nostalgic for the adventures of Lucky Santangelo

Although the books themselves are terrible (however, if they got the hatchet-job edit they need, the trilogy could be slimmed down to a single volume worthy of competing with Ms. Collins latest oeuvre), I think they serve an important purpose, which is helping to remove some of the shame around sex. I’ve seen many women happily reading the books on the tube or at the beach – indeed, on my recent trip to Kefalonia, literally half of the women on the beach were reading Fifty Shades (and that’s only the paperbacks I could count. Who knows about the numbers reading it on their Kindles). A fifty-something couple from Waltham Abbey even struck up a conversation about the books after glancing me reading it under my parasol. It was quite a revelation to talk openly about the book, its contents, its success and its meaning with a couple of a different generation.

While the books’ success has spurred much animated feminist discourse, I ultimately think its (limited) BDSM content is not doing any harm to feminism. Contrary to many reports, its success does not reveal that really all women want to be dominated. The sex scenes (largely “vanilla”, except for the odd spanking) are just as much part of the fantasy as Christian Grey’s ridiculous wealth is, and as such it’s pretty harmless. However, the willingness with which Anastasia Steele (what a ridiculous name), is willing to submit to Christian Grey’s petulant and possessive demands outside the bedroom, is much more worrying. Throughout the book, I was thinking: If one of my friends was in a relationship like this, where a man attempted to control her eating patterns, her time with friends, her way of dressing and even her career, you would tell her to get the hell out. I hope many other readers have the same response, rather than equating Grey’s manipulative behaviour with actual love, like the schmuck Anastasia does.

Anyway. Shocking as the writing is, with the last decade of beach reads limited to the coy and acquisitive chick lit genre, I consider this book something of a relief, covering lust and sexual variety in a far more mainstream way than any other blockbuster book has. The book’s success has spurred Mills & Boon to re-issue its erotica series, while sales of sex toys are going through the roof.  Perhaps the Great British Reserve is weakening? And quite right too. The whole success of the book may be a passing fad to heat up this grim British “summer”, but I hope that its effects will be more far-reaching. After all the research I did for that Future Of Desire piece , which suggested a normalisation of  sex as part of everyday life, rather than something shameful, we may be on the cusp of change…

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