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Posts Tagged ‘fashion’

Lest you thought feminism‘s battle was over, let me reassure you, we’ve only just begun. And, despite all the work we’ve left to do, many facets of feminism, facets that are, by all proper measure, actually settled by now continue instead to rerun, like so much sitcom syndication. Consider: How is it that, in the very same week I find myself reading another spot-on piece by Ann Marie Slaughter – this time in Foreign Policy magazine, expounding on the many reasons why we need more women involved in high-level foreign policy (and why we need to change policy around parenthood and attitudes about non-linear career paths if we want to see them there… and why the people most likely to make said changes happen to be women) — and a throwback piece of “feminism ruined everything” hysteria claiming that women reallyreallyreally want to get married but can’t find men to marry them because, thanks to feminism, “women aren’t women anymore.” (This by one Fox News’ Suzanne Venker, a woman with a career–who is also married with children. Just… seriously?) Oh, and a lengthy Washington Post piece dissecting, in full hand-wringing anxiety about What It All Means, the fact that women newscasters can now sport long hair and ditch the blazers.

The blogger in me can’t help but wonder: which one got the most clicks?

I jest, but also not. Because the thing is: Scare tactics can be compelling. You’ll never get married, you with your dirty career ambitions, you’re not woman enough! And an article about fashion (even newscaster fashion) might generate some interest, likely of the screwing-around-at-work-by-consuming-mental-junk-food variety. Whereas real, substantive discussion is a far harder sell. Which makes sense. But it leaves me wondering: given what’s “clicky” and what’s not, how many women are left with the false impression this junk “news” sells–that feminism is about making women unwomanly and pitting them against men, or having a right to bare arms while delivering the 5:00 news–as opposed to the stuff that is real, and that really matters, and really affects you and your girlfriends and sisters and coworkers, your mothers and daughters. Like reworking work for the new–nay, the now–reality, the reality that includes unmarried women who work to support themselves, married women who work to support (or help support) their families, and women of all stripes who simply want to work, because they’re smart, ambitious, and interested in being productive members of society?

Feminism is not about being “angry,” “defensive,” or an ethos of “men as the enemy”–I kid you not, this is the language Venker used. And the calls for “returning to a simpler time,” lamenting the loss of the good old days (Hi, Republicans!), are about as useful as pining for the return of Beverly Hills, 90210 The Brenda Years. They’re over. They’re not coming back. Time doesn’t go backward. Brenda has moved on. The more you moon over bygones, the more you render yourself irrelevant. Out of touch. And yes, even kinda pathetic. (Though I’ll happily go on record as a fan of the Brenda years, I certainly don’t expect them to come back.)

Worse, though, is that all the yammering about bygones keeps us focused on the bygones, arguing about things that aren’t even issues anymore, that are just reality, the stuff that, by comparison, just doesn’t matter that much. Whether or not women should work and be independent is not a question any longer. We do, and we are. And that’s, as many of us believe, as it should be. (And, once and for all: the men that don’t want to marry someone who’d qualify as an independent woman… is that a guy you really want to spend every bleeding night with, foresaking all others, from here until Ear Hair and Depends, so help you God? Hint: No. No, it is not.) Feminism should be looking forward, not behind, considering what’s happening now, and what will come after that.

Time, after all, only moves in one direction.

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I confess: I love shoes.  Especially when they’re high.  Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. They were actually pretty comfortable, but I would have worn them anyway because they looked damn good.

I’m also a feminist.

I bring this up because I often ponder the tension between feminism and fashion – the way fashion is often framed as a silly vanity, often driven by our need to please men, rather than ourselves. The trope popped into my noggin again this weekend, after I read a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that seemed to imply that women could be accomplished or fashionable, but rarely both.

The story cast a bemused eye on the new stylistas of Silicon Valley who were “bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”  (One interviewee was the 29-year-old founder of a travel start-up who, the reporter noted, was wearing a pair of hot pink Christian Louboutains.  At which point I wondered: if you can actually afford to buy Louboutains – why wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, it got me to thinking:  Are fashion and feminism ever compatible? Can you maintain professional cred in serious stilettos?  And why, when you dress to impress is there the assumption that who you are aiming to please is the patriarchy?

For some food for thought, I turned to a couple of smart women, who are both rather stylish in their own right.  The first is an expert on gender politics, Shira Tarrant, a California State University, Long Beach women’s studies professor whose new book “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style” uses fashion to deconstruct the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  When I asked if fashionistas could be taken seriously as feminists, her answer was “absolutely”:

And feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas. Feminists have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless, and inexcusably hirsute. But the fact is that feminism has always paid attention to the politics of style, and many feminists are incredibly fashionable.

Still, she says, when it comes to fashion as a lens to understanding  — and changing — gender politics, consider the context:

We live in a patriarchal, capitalist culture. We can never completely separate our fashion choices from the social structures we live in. But that doesn’t mean we’re always victims of our culture, either.  Fashion can be self-objectifying. At the same time, fashion can push back against a culture that keeps insisting that women hypersexualize ourselves. Fashion can be used to subvert the status quo, but the question is whether we can ever fully achieve this — especially without more sweeping economic and political change.

We’re always grappling with this tension between self-expression and self-objectification. The question is how do we remove the gendered penalties of self-expression. Our culture still encourages women to be attractive and pleasing to men. Fashion isn’t exempt from that. At the same time, fashion can be used to subvert these expectations. We can use fashion as a form of pop culture pushback.

Pushback?  Fantastic!  My second source, my colleague Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, would agree.

Through my clothes I tell people that I’m not completely what they may assume given my age or profession.  For long periods of time I challenged notions of status through how I dressed. I had a pair of denim overalls that I wore in professional settings.  As an recent immigrant, with an accent, I used to soften my being different by dressing plainly in jeans and t-shirts. I found that when I wore my Scandinavian designer clothes, mostly black, my California students found it harder to understand me.

I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me.  Some of those will be men with a possible sexual interest in me. I don’t mind that. I like men and I like innocent everyday flirting. But, some of those people will be other heterosexual women, like my colleagues or students. For them my clothes will be signals of different kinds.

Kratz points out that we communicate through our fashion choices – clothes, hair, bags, cars — to become someone in social settings:

Not washing our cars is a statement. Sporting hairstyles that are carefully created to look as if we never comb our hair says something about us too. Whoever says “I don’t care about how I look” takes a lot of pride, and puts lots of effort into that particular style.

And that’s it, isn’t it? Fashion is simply the signals we send, the way we use artifacts like clothes and shoes to represent ourselves.  As Shannon wrote back when we were in the throes of writing our book (and, ironically, clad most days in scrubs) for most of us, it’s pure self-expression: Clothes, she wrote, “say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be.”

In other words, it’s a choice: one that I think is more than compatible with feminism. We dress to please ourselves, to show the world who we are.  Which leads back to that frame that won’t go away, that fashion is simply a tool of the patriarchy. As for me, if pleasing men were my goal, I have failed miserably, at least with one man in my life who after decades of marriage still can’t understand why I need more than three pair of shoes – sneakers, flip flops or the moral equivalent, and dress shoes – or why I never leave the house without lipstick.

Anyway, back to Tarrant.  I asked her to describe her own particular style and what she said was this: “My sartorial style skews toward earth tones, black, and grey, with a radical splash of liberation.”

Done!

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In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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The strangest thing popped into my inbox the other day: a BCBG ad for this season’s statement jewelry. Front and center were a couple of iterations of what you see on your left: a knuckle ring. I kid you not.

Look closely and you’ll find that the “ring” is actually two of them linking your fingers together on the inside, with a bejeweled bar across the top of two fingers on the outside. It appears to be an ironic riff on the brass knuckles of gangster movie fame.

If your education in 1930’s films has been neglected, brass knuckles were four linked metal rings with a bar of concealed weight that, when the bad guy made a fist, gave him a sneaky and powerful punch.

Back to BCBG, couple the knuckle rings with the must-have shoes of the season – platform gladiator sandals – and you have a look that screams power. I’m going somewhere with this, but it probably isn’t where you think. But before we move on, let me just say that I have never been one to judge a feminist for her fashion. In fact, I applaud feminists who aren’t afraid to wear pink (when it’s the new black), who don’t shy away from lipstick, who dress to please themselves, whether it’s sensible shoes or sexy stilettos, khaki pants or trendy little pencil skirts. Either/or is in itself is a sign of power: What we wear is more than just utility.

In fact, I remember back when I was a new mom, with a pretty sweet free-lancing gig that allowed me to work from home when Shannon was a baby. Every once in a while, when the workload built up, my boss would go sideways, call me up and rant that either I did a full-on nine-to-five in the office everyday or the arrangement was kaput. At which point, I would call the babysitter and speed to the office, where I always managed to talk myself back into working from home. At such meetings, I always wore the same pair of don’t-mess-with-me high heeled boots.

I am the first to say that my boss never noticed my boots. They meant nothing to him. But they meant a lot to me. On those days, they gave me a sense of power (and, I confess, height) which for some reason gave me the juice to speak up.

Which brings us back to the knuckle rings and all the other overt Wonder Woman fashion statements: are they signs of power for women who have seized it – or props for women who still feel they have none? Here comes my point.

For too long women have been told they have no voice, that they’ve been silenced by the patriarchy. Which was one hell of a wake-up call and rallying cry back in the early days of the women’s movement. And maybe it’s still true to a certain extent. But what I wonder is if one of the unintended consequences of the rhetoric is that many women have come to believe it — and have silenced themselves, convinced that no one will listen.

Or feel that that their only source of power is in trappings like knuckle rings.

Which was why I was so proud of Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball, the young Newsweek women who were willing to bite the hand that feeds them in the blistering piece entitled “Are We There Yet?” (Answer: No) that Shannon wrote about on Tuesday. It wasn’t only what they wrote that so impressed me, but the fact that they had the guts to write it. That, to quote my favorite VP, is a big, fucking deal.

What’s also a pretty big deal is the fact that Newsweek ran with the story. It’s front and center and last I heard, Bennett, Ellison and Ball are still employed.

I see two lessons here. First, we’ve got a long way to go before the work of the women’s movement is done. But second is the subtext: we do indeed have a voice. We just have to use it.

And we probably don’t need knuckle rings to do so. Unless, of course, we think they’re cool.

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