Can Fashion Be Feminist?

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.

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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?

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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?

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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?

Image courtesy Alex Mill

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