What It Feels Like for a Girl: Does Feminism Have a Place in Fashion?


What It Feels Like for a Girl: Does Feminism Have a Place in Fashion?


The UN declares October 11th as the International Day of the Girl. The Spice Girls reunite in top shape for the Summer Olympics closing ceremony. HBO’s Girls gets passed up for four Emmys but Lena Dunham signs a 3.5 million dollar book deal. Caitlin Moran turns feminism into a bestseller with How to Be a Woman. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to pursue women’s rights as “the signature issue” of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Atlantic editor Hanna Rosin makes a claim for The End of Men: And the Rise of WomenVagina: A Biography by Naomi Wolf is followed by Vagina: A Backlash by tweeters and critics the world round. Pussy Riot. Rookie Yearbook One.

Girl power is back. And with it, flower power and the grunge daisy. Women are on the rise. As is the pantsuit. After a month of following the fashion week runways, it seemed like a valid line to pursue: what can the spectacle of Spring 2013 tell us about where women are right now?

We could say that the checkerboard suits and escalator setting of the Louis Vuitton show reflect the rise of women as power players. Or that all the pantsuits on all the runways were a glorification of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton’s modest political attire. Models catwalking in pairs? United we conquer. It is said that Phoebe Philo makes clothes that women want to wear. Ms. Jil Sander, back at her brand this season, supposedly makes clothes “for women” too. For spring, Sander’s spirit was 3D, with garments shaped away from the body.

Cloth cut away from the body, in generous pools or architectural molds. Covering it up, turtleneck to toe. Coordinated separates. Seriousness and minimalism. Looks that showcase the face: fashion as a frame for the individual. Everyday armor. Austerity. Bold shoulders. These are some of the Spring 2013 tendencies one could take as a measure of womanhood circa now.

Women in fashion are powerful. Chief executive Rose Marie Bravo transforms Burberry into a billion dollar business. Anna Wintour is one of Barack Obama’s top fundraisers. Powerful women are into fashion. Michelle Obama champions American indie designers. Nancy Pelosi inspires sales of pearls. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are reported as major label lovers. (Is that who Diane von Furstenberg was appealing to with her Google Glasses collaboration?)

In her recent book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin claims that women are better off than we’ve ever been. With an industrial shift favoring brains over brawn, and success stemming from things like “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus,” which are not predominantly the province of men and may actually come easier to women, for the first time in history, Rosin asserts, “the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men.”

Rosin reports—repeatedly, as one of her strongest evidences of our rise—that for every two men that graduate with a bachelor’s degree, there will be three women commencing from the same class. What follows after Western higher education is, of course, more complicated.

Trials in Femininity

I inherited my feminism. Nine years old, my father refused to buy me the Spice Girls CD and gifted me with Fiona Apple’s Tidal instead. He would hold up The Patti Smith Group’s Easter album cover and say, “see, real women have armpit hair.” Barbies were bad. Disney, save for Pinocchio and Dumbo, banned. In high school, I challenged my friends’ refusal to call themselves feminist and, more popularly, shared stolen sex-positive erotica. By freshman year of university, I was writing papers on topics like “The Feminist Fashions of the Film Noir Femme Fatale,” “The Genesis of Misogyny: Adam’s Rib and the Fig Leaf,” and “Post-Queer Aesthetics in Carine Roitfeld’s Paris Vogue.”

My feminism was an intellectual feminism, an inbred consciousness. I took it for granted. The truism held: it wasn’t until I ventured out into “the real world” that I felt gendered beyond my control and righteous for hurt. It wasn’t until I moved to America that I started to understand the manifold lives of and injustices faced by women outside of the safe spaces of ivory towers.

I never feel my feminism as much as I do during fashion week (or, as I’ve started referring to them as, “my fashion weaks”). Because my lady woes are superficial. Being white, educated, and upwardly mobile, and having chosen to work in reasonably progressive, female-leading bubbles like independent publishing and fashion journalism, the only discrimination I feel strongly has to do with the beauty myth: that internalized regulatory system that never lets me forget what I look like or, more accurately, what I don’t look enough like.

For her Spring 2013 fashion week presentation, titled This is Not a Fashion Show, Imitation of Christ designer Tara Subkoff had her models, beautiful women of all sizes and ages, from seven to seventy, trying on clothes while gazing at their reflections in gaudy Evil Queen mirrors. A live a cappella girls choir sang in nude bodysuits while a video of artist Vanessa Beecroft, pregnant and naked save for a pair of heels, screened in the background. “I wanted people to experience what women go through when they get dressed,” said Subkoff. Most of the clothes were on the floor; it wasn’t about the clothes. It was about how women feel as they get dressed, our relationships with our mirror images, and fashion’s narrow beauty standards. The show was uncomfortable. After days of looking at clothes-hanger runway bodies, it was jarring to see the wobbles and wrinkles of not-model flesh.

My fashion weaks are double-edge depressing. First, I’ll feel fat. Then, I’ll feel guilty and shameful for feeling fat (smart feminists don’t have fat shame.) So now I’m fat, stupid, and a bad feminist.

The problem with fashion is that it’s embodied. High fashion is difficult to participate in if you don’t have a fashion body. Or so I’m made to feel. When I start talking about this with my model friends though—girls who I assumed would be free from such insecurities—they repeat my self-conscious chorus. That’s when I realize the hurt isn’t so much about poundage or even about being a girl—it’s not about our bodies: it’s about the remove of the pulsing, breathing body from fashion, it’s about a commoditized image of a self that is so flat, no one, not even the waifiest, can live up to it.