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?


Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl

Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, an aphoristic treatise by the French collective Tiqqun from 1999, published in English this year as part of Semiotext(e)’s Intervention Series, posits “the Young-Girl” as the living commodity of our times. Not necessarily a gendered subject, the Young-Girl is an object of consumptive desire and the subject we strive to become in consumer society. The Young-Girl is the fashion image, the model citizen. She is constructed of signs of affect. Like the hipster, the Young-Girl’s reality exists only outside of herself; she is nobody you know personally because she is not a person. She is a relation between subjects, an idea of someone else. The Young-Girl is the equivalent to a product. She is image and ideology.

“The Young-Girl is the emblem of an existential anguish expressed in the unfounded feeling of permanent insecurity,” writes Tiqqun. “Unhappiness is the fundamental mood of the existence of the Young-Girl. This is good. Unhappiness makes people consume.”

The Young-Girl is the ideal, the form promoted by the dominant fashion industry. She is not a misogynist figure so much as she is a figure of capitalism. Because the Young-Girl’s existence comes from the outside—we see the image and strive to become that—those that strive to be like the Young-Girl will never achieve wholeness or satisfaction. Why are we sad? Because we want to be a form that is relational, not human.

“The eternal return of the same styles in fashion is enough to convince: The Young-Girl does not play with appearances. It is appearances that play with her.”

This is What a Feminist Looks Like

Midway through New York Fashion Week, I hosted a launch for Rookie Yearbook One, the print edition of the for-us-by-us online teen dream magazine. As I sat cross-legged on the floor and listened to the “you are beautiful just as you are” mantras of self-esteem from girls a decade my junior, I started to cry. Rookie’s riotous calls of junior feminism weren’t new to me but they refreshed. Grown-up, I’d let myself think it’s okay to let myself feel shitty by the fashion image. But when a beautiful, robust high-schooler recounted how she had to learn to love her body—it felt like a grave injustice that she would even have to take on the task.

Lena Dunham was one of the readers at the launch. Newly shorthaired, Lena made a quip about Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour hating her haircut. Someone belted back, “We love your hair, Lena,” and the girl power audience burst into whistles and applause.

Remember those super nineties “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts? Subsumed in the mania of fashion weak, I sought one out. Faced with unwelcome feelings, like the lack of self-worth that fashion can inspire in me, I am called to action. I don’t want to feel this way so how can I not?

In How To Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran writes that, “When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’ what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today.’” Moran suggests that women, more than men, are judged by what they wear; beyond our teenage anything-goes years, wardrobe decisions are about duty more than taste. Women in power are subject to fashion and beauty scrutiny. Think of Clinton’s “dowdy” suits or Angela Merkel’s cleavage. Michelle Obama’s arms.

Despite Hanna Rosin’s optimistic portrayal of our rise, the U.S. still has a wage gap, women still do a majority of the child care, and the most powerful positions are still dominated by men (and binders full of women.) Even in fashion, where we ladies do well, the business side can be patriarchal. Delfine Arnault, the daughter of chairman and CEO of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, was recently appointed to her dad’s board, becoming the only woman alongside 15 men.

Most feminist concerns, as they are about the perceived difference of a body gendered, have to do with our bodies. With interest vested in our bodies, why not fight back through our vestments? It’s an intellectual reflex to simply dismiss fashion—leave Hillary’s suits alone. I think we’re better off embracing fashion. “If feminists ignore fashion, we are ceding our power to influence it,” wrote Minh-Ha T. Pham in Ms. Magazine, “Fortunately, history has shown that feminists can, instead, harness fashion and use it for our own political purposes.”

Feminism is a Humanism

“This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts are too obvious, too retro-ironic. Can we imagine a contemporary feminist approach to fashion? Can Spring 2013 tell us anything?

The problem with a feminist fashion agenda is that we’re more than half the population and our issues are broad. Feminism in 2012-2013 is not a united revolution; the battles are dispersed and varying, systematic but also localized and everyday. My mirror-stage insecurities are different than the sartorial concerns Jeremy Scott carelessly played with in his Spring 2013 collection, dressing black and white models in hijabs and hot pants, fitted ballcaps and prints of the face of the Young-Girl. Pretty much everything I’ve been talking about comes from a position of extreme privilege. High fashion is a privilege. This is the ubiquitous feminist interjection where I acknowledge my positionality (white/upper-middle class/educated/atheist/attractive) and say that I do not speak for all women.

From my privileged position, I think the most feminist thing we can do to fashion in 2012-13 is to humanize it. Clothes are something people wear. Empire crystallizes fashion into the Young-Girl, into image and commodity, a form incompatible with the humane. We need to think beyond the image of fashion and bring fashion back to the thinking body, back to the everyday. Consider who made what you’re wearing and why. Shop ethically, shop sustainably. Have a sense of humor. Seek comfort. Seek other points of view.

I honestly believe that Spring 2013 offered a great array of feminist fashions. The 1980s pantsuit redux we’re seeing, like at The Row, Stella McCartney, and Theyskens Theory, is more comfortable and generous than its predecessor. It would only take two morning minutes to feel confidently put together in the coordinated separates presented at Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Mary Katrantzou, Preen, Jil Sander, and Derek Lam.

I will be the sexy librarian Batgirl I dream to be in Miu Miu’s 2013 eyewear. Flats and kitten heels, I can go anywhere. I still favor my reading that Riccardo Tisci’s monastic Givenchy womenswear was a petition to his Catholic Church for a woman’s right to priesthood.

We can be gaudy beekeepers in Alexander McQueen, nineties hackers in Jeremy Laing, punk Barbies in Christopher Kane, Klimt extraterrestrials in Rick Owens, sexpot gamers in Versus, veiled goths in Gareth Pugh, or luxuriously grunge in Dries Van Noten. Womanhood is large, we need multitudes.