So as I should have expected, my recent post on fashion and feminism generated a rather substantial volume of conversation. Much of it quite vigorous. (In fact, as of this writing, the fashion post has substantially more comments than my post on diplomacy and accomodationism. I think this is hilarious. I love you guys.)
And of all the comment debates and conversations that this blog has generated since it switched over to Freethought Blogs, this is the one I feel most inspired to respond to. Which I also think is hilarious.
A lot of people made a lot of points in this conversation. Some of which I take issue with, some of which I think are valid. I want to get into a few of these… and I want to start with one of the most valid ones.
Namely, the distinction between fashion and style.
When I talked about fashion in the original piece, a lot of people thought I meant “the dictates from the fashion industry about what people should and should not wear.” Do’s and don’ts. What’s in and what’s out. Fashion magazines; women’s magazines; celebrity fashion icons; celebrity gossip magazines obsessively examining this week’s red-carpet looks under a microscope; designers telling women what to wear this month and what kind of body we should wear it on. Etc. And this, these folks argued, was not a form of personal expression that could be likened to a language. This was a form of oppression. They made a distinction between style, i.e. the individual ways that a person expresses who they are through their clothing and other personal adornment… and fashion, i.e. what some self-appointed arbiters in society tell us about how we should be expressing ourselves, and indeed what we should be expressing. Nobody quoted Lester Bangs — “Style is originality, fashion is fascism” — but they certainly could have.
I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.
In my original piece, I used the word “fashion” instead of “style” somewhat deliberately. I wasn’t just talking about one person’s individual expression — I was talking about the cultural vocabulary, the global conversation that goes on through clothing and hair and makeup and jewelry and shoes and other forms of personal adornment. I was using the metaphor of language to talk about clothing and personal adornment as a shared vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate. And “fashion” seemed like a better word for that than “style.” (I also couldn’t resist the title “Fashion is a Feminist Issue,” with its echo of the famous book “Fat is a Feminist Issue.”)
But yes. What I was trying to get at is probably closer to what many people think of as “style” rather than “fashion.” (Especially since the word “fashion” seems to rub so many people the wrong way.)
And in fact, this discussion has given me a new way of looking at the distinction between fashion and style, and a new way of looking at the entire issue of using language as a metaphor for fashion and style. This is a new idea for me, one of my “thinking out loud” ideas, and I want to run it by y’all.
Here’s the idea:
Fashion is a language.
Style is what we choose to say in it.
I don’t agree that fashion is simply a set of dictates handed down from on high by designers and magazine editors. (For one thing, designers and editors are strongly influenced by street fashion, and pay close attention to it.) But I do think there’s a difference between fashion and style.
Fashion is the vocabulary, and the grammar. We don’t have control over it — it’s shaped by the culture we live in. Just like regular language, we don’t get to control it, and we all have to more or less accept what the language means in order to be able to express ourselves in it. If we don’t all more or less accept what the word “fish” means, we can’t talk about what to have for dinner. And if we don’t all more or less accept what “skirt-suit” means, we can’t decide what to wear to the interview at IBM to convey that we take the job seriously. There needs to be a common vocabulary in order for there to be personal expression within it.
But as participants in the language, we can and do shape it. Regular language changes with time — and it changes because of how people use it. And the metaphorical language of fashion also changes with time… because of how people use it. (More on that in a tic.)
And, of course, we can choose what to say in it. When we show up at that interview, for instance, we can decide that we want to say, “I take this job seriously”… or “Take this job and shove it.”
That’s where style comes in.
Fashion is the language. Style is what we choose to say in it.
I don’t agree at all with MarinaS, who argued that the range of things that can be said in fashion is limited to about half a dozen basic concepts. I do certainly agree that we can’t say as much in fashion as we can in actual, literal language. (What with it not being actual, literal language and all.) But we can say a lot more than MarinaS thinks we can. Here is just a small sample of the things that can be said in fashion: Playful. Classy. Functional. Elegant. Conventional. Creative. Sexy. Tough. Retro. Athletic. Outdoorsy. Mature. Youthful. Authoritative. Ambitious. Rebellious. Sophisticated. Prim. Exuberant. Edgy. Conformist. Self-possessed. Free-spirited. Extroverted. Attention- seeking. Urbane. Down-home. Studious. Relaxed. Serious. Shy. Frivolous. Wild. Feminine. Masculine. Androgynous. Creative with gender roles. Defiant of gender roles.
And, of course, we can combine these basic concepts in an enormous number of ways, to express an enormous number of more specific messages. (Just like in any other discrete combinatorial system, such as actual verbal language, or DNA.) We can combine our clothes and hair and makeup and accessories — or lack thereof — to say, “I want to stand out in a crowd, in a way that commands respect.” “I’m mature and self-possessed, with a friendly and playful side.” “I used to be a punk rock wild child, and I still respect those roots even though that’s not who I am anymore.” “I am comfortably female, but I’m critical of traditional gender roles and enjoy fucking with them.” “I’m sexually available, but I’m choosy, and if you treat me with disrespect you don’t stand a chance.” “I accept my age — in fact, I value it and embrace it and love it, and I don’t want to look either older or younger than I really am.” “I resist many social norms and indeed the very idea of normativity, and at the same time I see myself as an integral member of society.” “I expect my position of authority in my field to be recognized, but I’m approachable and friendly and happy to hang out and have a beer.” “I expect my position of authority in my field to be recognized, and I refuse to abdicate my sexuality to make that happen.” “I am a proud and ardent feminist, and embracing and celebrating my sexuality is an integral part of my feminism.” “I am a proud and ardent feminist, and I refuse to let either mainstream society or other feminists dictate how I express myself through my style.”
Now. Are there things about the language of fashion that are objectionable? Specifically, are there forms in the language of fashion that are sexist?
Just like there are forms in actual language that are sexist — or racist, or classist, or ableist, or otherwise objectionable.
And we can protest against those forms.
We can — to use an example that was brought up repeatedly in the original comment thread — object to using high heels as a marker of female respectability and authority. And we can work to change this: by pointing out how sexist it is, by advocating for a change in the standards of fashion, and by wearing different shoes ourselves instead.
Just like we can object to using the word “fireman” to mean “person who puts out fires” — by pointing out how sexist it is, by advocating for a change in the language, and by using the word “firefighter” ourselves instead.
We can’t single-handedly control the language. It’s bigger than we are; it’s shaped by everyone in the culture; and people in positions of power shape it more than most of us. But we can have an effect on it. We don’t, for instance, wear corsets anymore (unless we’re fetishists or historical costumers)… because about a century ago, women started saying, “Fuck that noise.”
And if you’re a woman who wants to express respectability and seriousness, but you resent the idea that in order to do that you have to wear shoes that impair your mobility and will ultimately cripple you if you wear them for too many years… then I heartily encourage you to resist this form of language. In fact, I’ll join you. I’m a feminist who sometimes wears heels and loves them to bits, and I’m far from the only one… but I object passionately to the idea of them being socially mandatory for women who want to be taken seriously. In my opinion, a woman who generally dresses in a way that expresses respectability and seriousness — but who declines to wear heels, and instead wears boots, or men’s shoes, or men’s-styled women’s shoes, or elegant and interesting flats — is making a valuable and powerful statement. On her own behalf, and on behalf of other women. By all means, say it loud and proud: Fuck that noise.
But that doesn’t mean that fashion and style aren’t a form of self-expression. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t a metaphorical language with which we communicate who we are and what our place is in the world. And it doesn’t contradict my original thesis… which is that trivializing fashion is sexist.
Yes, there are many things about the language of fashion that are sexist. I said so in my original piece. I even pointed to some examples. But I still stand by my thesis: Fashion is primarily a female art form, one of the very few forms of expression in which women generally have more freedom than men. And it is sexist to dismiss it as inherently shallow, trivial, and vain.
As for other problems in the fashion and garment industry… yes. Of course. There are labor abuses, economic abuses, corporate homogenization, etc.
And if these things concern you, there are things you can do about it. Politically, and personally. You can buy clothes from local designers and manufacturers. You can shop at thrift stores and vintage stores. You can hire a tailor to make your clothes. You can make your own clothes. You can barter your skills with someone who’s good at sewing. You can form a sewing collective. And, of course, you can speak out against these abuses, and do political and social change work to address them.
You can do all of that… and still see fashion and style as a language, a rich and complex form of expression and communication that deserves to be taken seriously.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t care about what we eat? Does that mean we shouldn’t see food and cooking as a rich and valuable form of communication and community, personal expression and artistry? Does that mean we shouldn’t experience food and cooking with pleasure and exuberance and joy? Does that mean we should eat brown rice and beans every day until the day we die?
And if you don’t see food that way, despite the myriad abuses in the food industry… why should you see fashion and style that way?
Yes, fashion and style can be a troubling language. Food can be a troubling language. Art can be a troubling language. Music, dance, architecture, film… all of these can be troubling languages. Hell, language can be a troubling language.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a language.
And yes, I understand that fashion isn’t literally a language. I said so myself, in the original piece. My point is that there are many similarities between fashion and language, and that using language as a metaphor for fashion can help illuminate how it works. Like all metaphors, it isn’t perfect. In fact, like all metaphors, the differences can be as illuminating as the similarities. Please do feel free to point out the differences. But if people keep saying, “It’s not literally a language!” as if that contradicts my point, I’m going to get cranky.
My point is this:
Fashion and style are a form of expression and communication. Like a language, there is a shared vocabulary and grammar that people within a culture more or less agree on. Like a language, this vocabulary and grammar change with time, and they vary in different countries, and different regions, and different subcultures, and different classes.
Subpoint A: Like it or not, you are communicating something with what you wear. Even if you don’t put a lot of thought into what you wear, you’re still communicating. (If nothing else, you’re communicating, “I didn’t put a lot of thought into what I wore.” Which in some situations — job interviews, first dates, court appearances — may not be the message you want to convey.) You can choose to do this unconsciously rather than consciously; you can choose to pay little or no attention to it. But if you do that, you should be aware that you may be communicating things that you don’t want or intend to communicate.
Subpoint B: Fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. They are one of the few forms of expression and communication in which women have more freedom than men. There are exceptions to this, and the reasons behind this are largely sexist, and some of the specific ways this plays out are sexist… but it is still primarily a women’s art form, in which women generally have more freedom than men. And I don’t think it’s an accident that this art form gets treated as shallow, trivial, and vain. I think it gets treated as shallow, trivial, and vain because women get treated as shallow, trivial, and vain.
I think this is sexist. I think it’s sexist that women are valued largely for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental… and are then derided as shallow and trivial for doing so. I think it’s sexist that women get put in a double bind: if we ignore our looks, we get dismissed as unfeminine and ugly, and if we pay attention to our looks, we get dismissed as superficial and vain. I think it’s sexist that men who care about fashion and style are seen as suspect, because of their unsavory association with things that are typically feminine. And I think there is an inherent and obvious sexism behind the very fact that women’s art forms get treated as if they don’t matter.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to cull my stockings drawer.