Fashion and feminism have always had a complicated relationship. Early feminism dismissed fashion as both frivolous and a symbol—especially when it came in the form of corsets and painful shoes—of pandering to a beauty ideal set forth by men. Women had to fight for the right to wear pants to work; in the ‘80s, “career girls” began to adopt a male style of dress (women’s ties, anyone?) in order to gain a foothold in the male dominated world of business. Menswear-inspired fashion for women—button downs, tailored jackets, pants—came to represent progress in the fight for equality.
Of course, the notion that a woman has to act, think, talk, or, for that matter, dress “like a man” in order to be taken seriously has long since been challenged, and refuted. We know now that what a woman wears, or how she looks, has no bearing on how well she can do her job. That said, certain norms remain. The standard professional women’s uniform, especially in more conservative—and male-dominated—fields like finance and academia undoubtedly remains something borrowed from the boys: tailored jacket and pants or a slim skirt in muted colors. Does that mean we still believe a woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously? And if so, what does it mean when we comply with those standards?
The topic becomes even more muddled when you consider the menswear-inspired fashion trend that has prevailed over the past few seasons. When women put on a fitted blazer or pair of lace up brogues or a “boyfriend sweater” are they reinforcing the idea that women desire to look like men? After all, where’s the “womenswear-inspired menswear”—and should it matter that men aren’t wearing it?
Social and political issues help direct and inform fashion, so given the conversations we’ve been having lately regarding women’s place in the world, it’s little surprise that designers find themselves playing around with gender norms. Equal Pay is a constant matter of political debate, while the car industry named its first female CEO. Hilary Clinton has a very good chance of being the first female president. Fashion is a mirror, and everyone these days is being asked to define their position: Do you lean in or do you opt out?
And yet dressing “like a man” appeals to women not because they need to do so in order to prove themselves, or because they desire to be someone they’re not, but simply because they can—perhaps the ultimate form of feminist expression. And they’ll do that regardless of trends, or what the fashion editors or even the designers themselves say. Last year, my son launched a line of clothing for men and boys called Alex Mill. The line is designed for men and boys but turns out he’s developed a following among women who find something appealing in the easy silhouettes and focus away from form. Women have become among his greatest customers (and they look good in the clothes, too).
Sometimes, then, fashion is meant to make a statement and sometimes it’s just something to wear.
Just as a short, tight dress a woman chooses to wear out to a club does not imply consent, many women embrace menswear-inspired fashion not to look like a man, but to be comfortable. Or simply because they prefer it. Some women may find it empowering. Others may find it liberating. As such, these looks are neither feminist in their refusal to show curves nor anti-feminist in their more relaxed view of what constitutes “ladylike.” They are, however, feminist in their representation of a woman’s choice to determine what she wears based on personal tastes and whim. As Gloria Steinem said of fashion in 2011: “Is she doing it because she wants to? Is she body-proud? Is she sexuality-proud? Because then, I say, great. Is she doing it because she feels she has to? That she won’t be popular otherwise? Then, that’s wrong.” It’s how it makes you feel about yourself that matters.