Feminism Friday: Fashionably Feminist?

I often wonder whether I wholeheartedly identify with the label “feminist”. It’s a tricky one as it means so many different things to so many different people and yet preconceived notions of angry man haters still abound. The problem I have isn’t so much that I think there’s a correct way to be a feminist, it’s just that I dislike people making assumptions about me. What will someone expect me to think, feel or do based on nothing more than a single word?

A lot of the problems I see in modern feminism involve arguing over whether something is or isn’t a feminist viewpoint (aka “infighting” – as anyone on twitter will be familiar with!). Rape Culture has led even prominent feminists such as Caitlin Moran to repeat myths like a woman is at least partly to blame if she’s raped while wearing high heels. What if that is so obviously victim blaming that you’re moved to denounce Caitlin calling herself a feminist? Alternatively, you might agree and adopt Moran’s approach and wear flats as she describes in a chapter of How To Be A Woman, believing you are a better example of feminism than your stiletto wearing sisters. Joanna Lumley, a high-profile campaigner even if she doesn’t explicitly tackle women’s issues, urged women to stop dressing “like trash” which fuelled a blog backlash similar to the ones we see played out again and again and again.

On the other side of the argument there are movements such as Slut Walk who raise awareness of rape culture and refuse to let fear of being shamed ‘n’ blamed stop them marching in their underwear. Even if you don’t agree with them, who are you to say that women should or shouldn’t find something empowering? It’s insulting to suggest someone doesn’t understand the context in which they are making a choice. Reclaiming words like slut and being unapologetic about having a healthy sexual appetite is just as valid as refusing to shave your armpits or buy into the beauty industry’s messages that you’re not young/thin/white enough. Your actions may be polar opposites, but to suggest that this is because someone isn’t intelligent enough or lacks enough moral conviction to arrive at the same decision strikes me as simply arrogant.

I have always had a love affair with clothes. I haven’t always looked particularly feminine, and I’ve certainly not been conventionally attractive all my life. When I was at high school I was a size 26 and there was only one shop in town that sold clothes I could fit into, mostly consisting of “slimming” black tunics designed to cover my shape, presumably so I and everyone else could forget my grotesque appearance (that was sarcasm, by the way). After years of struggling with body image and an eating disorder, I am now a widely-stocked size 14. I haven’t stopped enjoying the vintage and second-hand clothes I relied on for variety and the vast array of options presented to me now that I’m readily available size leaves me like …well, like a kid in a candy store!

I understand that some people may consider me tarty or tell me I am demeaning myself if I wander around in hotpants and fishnets with my cleavage on show, but I almost feel like I owe it to myself to try those styles. I get a kick out of wearing towering heels that take me up to 6’3” and I don’t always care if they’re a tool of the patriarchy* – they are also part of my culture and sometimes I want to play. Fashion is performance for me, and part of my personal story is reflected every time I reclaim skin tight leggings or a backless dress. I know that people will see  one outfit in isolation but that doesn’t take away any of the other facets of my personality.

Humans are complex, contradictory, multi-layered and deeply, infinitely varied. If my feminism can accommodate people who have fluid genders or sexualities, a fluid fashion sense does not have to mean anything more than “this outfit makes me feel good today”. It’s part of who I am and I don’t want to sacrifice my individuality – buying in is as hard for me as selling out, and I don’t want to change. Well, OK, I’ll make an exception. I might change 3 or 4 times before I look just right

This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Clarabelle sells vintage clothing, makes kitsch/geeky jewellery, and is the brains behind Retrogreat – a new vintage-inspired thrifty style blog. There is an official launch party for the site on Weds 31st July in London. Check out the Facebook event for more details.

Images via Susan Sermoneta, roga muffin and Cara Leong‘s Flickr photostreams.

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*The particular Greer quote from the book is:

I gazed at women in segregated societies and found them in many ways stronger than women who would not go into a theatre or a restaurant without a man. Osage women in Oklahoma, and Anmatyerre and Pitjantjatara women in Central Australia, taught me about survival. No sooner had I caught sight of the whole woman than western marketing came blaring down upon her with its vast panoply of spectacular effects, strutting and trumpeting the highly seductive gospel of salvation according to hipless, wombless, hard-titted Barbie. My strong women thrust their muscular feet into high heels and learned to totter; they stuffed their useful breasts into brassieres and, instead of mothers’ milk, fed commercial formulae made up with dirty water to their children; they spent their tiny store of cash on lipstick and nail varnish, and were made modern. While western feminists were valiantly contending for a key to the executive washroom, the feminine stereotype was completing her conquest of the world.