Dear readers — of which there are, somehow, thousands of you (why?! how?! when!?) — I know you’re all here from idle clicking or to look at photos of my shoes and of skinny girls in absurd dresses or whatever, but this is the stuff I want you to read and want you to talk about — and want to know what you think too. This is important, this is what I actually want you to read and care about and comment and talk about.
And another disclaimer: nothing I’m going to say here is new; everything are ideas expressed by other people as well, often more eloquently, and many of which I’ve posted before — Jenna at Jezebel, the girls at Threadbared, a lot of the wonderful ladies on my blogroll, some of the other commenters at Contexts, some of the lovely folks who also post at TFS — everyone has these ideas, and there is a lot more to be said about it. I’m just getting it out there with how and why I agree.
I am sick and tired of hearing that fashion is stupid, silly, inane, shallow, for girls, a waste of time, consumerist, idiotic, antifeminist, misogynistic, pathetic, etc, etc, ad nauseam, and this is why.
Look, I need to say first that I grew up thinking I hated fashion. I grew up thinking fashion was for dumb rich bitches (secret inner misogyny and issues with media concepts of femininity much?) and that “fashion” meant Louis Vouitton bags and Sex in the City and Cosmo magazine. By age 13, for whatever reasons, I was so utterly convinced that I was fat and ugly and disgusting and so hopelessly excluded from the pretty people of the world that all I’d ever have were my brains and possibly the fact that I could be “interesting,” so I might as well make a point of hating fashion. So I cut my hair off and dyed it funny colours. I ate up everything counterculture I could think of — converse sneakers, JNCO jeans (phased out for black skinny jeans towards my late teens), pyramid belts, quirky thrift store dresses and teeshirts, pounds of black eyeliner, piercings, band patches and pins, excessive bracelets, messenger bags, combat boots, black plastic glasses (guys, it was the late 90’s/early 00’s and I was like 13, cut me some slack here) — things which became visual identifiers of people I could get along with, things which conveyed similar interests, or similar emotional or social situations. For some pop culture context, my high school peers looked like Jersey Shore (this is not an exaggeration, here is an MS Paint graphic I drew during study hall freshman year of high school), and I thought I was Daria.
And here I am a decade or so later writing about fashion and wearing Chanel nail polish and a Helmut Lang shirt (and a studded bracelet and combat boots.) What gives? The problem here is that Daria — in her own way, in the same way I now realise I did — cares about fashion just as much as her sister Quinn and her “fashion club” — a joke which actually comes up in more than one episode of the show, and it took me ages to realise it. I realise now is that as a teenager, I had cared more about fashion than anything else, fashion as self expression and informed choice and blahdybalhblahblah, except I didn’t think of it in those terms, because my teenage self-concept was based around “being the kind of girl who is really NOT into fashion.” (Despite the fact that I was posting every outfit I wore on Livejournal communities like hot_fashion pretty much constantly — that wasn’t about, like, fashion or anything, jeeeez.) And furthermore, most of that had also been its own brand of compulsive consumerism, obsessively coveting certain items and styles as integral to expressing just how ~unique~ and smart and quirky and creative and different and angry and special or whatever it was that I thought I was. And I’m still doing that (though I’d like to think with a bit more thought and class and style and deliberation than I was at 14, but you know, this is debatable. See: chronic eyeliner problem.) — we’re all still doing that. And I’m tired of people pretending that they’re above that, and telling me that I’m above that, and thinking that it makes you a “better person” and “smarter” and “more moral” to not care about fashion and that I should feel bad and embarrassed of writing about fashion and that doing that makes me a bad feminist or something like that. Because that’s a lot of bullshit.
Why do we take the costumes and makeup and tattoos of other cultures seriously and consider them interesting (or at least fetishize them as novelties or put them in museums) while dismissing the fact that such things exist within our own society? Why don’t we bother to think about what is going on in the minds of girls wearing Uggs, because let me tell you my combat boots are just as comfortable, so why are they wearing those things on their feet? What statements does it convey within their social groups, what references does it evoke and what does it imply about their economic and social class? There are serious and fascinating social psychology and sociology things going on here — and they deserve to be talked about too. This isn’t “kid stuff” or “stuff for dumb girls” or even “art” (which is equally dismissive in its own way.) This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars.
Fashion, like music and art and many many more, seems to be a double industry: there’s a lot of old white guys with money taking advantage of oversexed naive teenagers who are thrust into the mainstream as props, chewed up alive and spit back out and cast aside before they hit 20. There are crazed consumers obsessed with owning the latest trends and epic amounts of marketing dollars and energy devoted to turning 12 year olds (and their parents) into little consumption machines. There’s corruption and a glaring wage disparity and sweatshops and eating disorders and probably rape and murder too; everything is about power and sex and aesthetics. But what industry isn’t like that? And furthermore, why is the existence of these problems (and their heightened visibility in fashion due to its focus on the link between appearances and money) continually used as reasoning for a.) ignoring fashion and b.) dismissing it as worthless? We don’t do that with music, film, art, real estate, or finance and I think we’d all agree they are just as messed up — just in more subtle ways.
Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably. Are there are lot of morons out there talking about fashion, and are there are lot of desperate consumption-driven miserable humans out there doing horrifying things in the name of fashion, and are there a lot of women making absurd sacrifices and dedicating themselves blindly to stereotypes and standards promoted by fashion and fashion media without thinking about why or how? Undoubtedly. Is fashion deeply fucked up, corrupt, riddled with problems, linked to systems of oppression and some of our most problematic social issues? Yes. Which is why it’s stupid to dismiss it. If it’s so messed up and shallow and bad, why push it aside? Why not cut it to pieces and sew it back together in new ways, talk about it and analyze it and get involved and have an opinion and do something about it? (And possibly even have fun and make some friends while we’re at it?)
I don’t think I need to go as far as linking to Meryl Streep’s faux-Anna-Wintour lil’ blue sweater monologue in The Devil Wears Prada, but I just did anyway — because this stuff is pervasive, and important, and relevant. And messed up. And occasionally awesome. Because besides all the issues that we should address and talk about and analyze — there are also thousands of talented and intelligent and creative young women and men making beautiful and functional pieces of art, and there are thousands of them writing about it and taking photos of it and participating in it, and talking to each other about it and making lasting friendships and changing society’s ideas about body and gender and money and style, and learning things and whateverthefuckelse any given industry or personal interest can do for anybody. I spent my weekend at fashion blogging conferences where I saw dozens, even hundreds, of young women (and a handful of men) making friends with each other and finding creative opportunities and personal satisfaction and public attention and money and community and who knows what else — out of fashion, and out of talking about fashion. And that’s awesome, and also worth talking about, also worth acknowledging.
And something else which struck me with a lot of intensity this fashion week — the first one in which I went out there and proclaimed myself as fashion press and used that as a card to participate actively beyond looking at pictures online, and let me tell you, this was far, far easier than expected — is the bizarre (and in a way, very wonderful) sort of double standard of attitudes towards women within the industry. Many of you probably know by now that my employment history is largely within the music industry (from record labels to marketing and PR, for a lot of bands you listen to), and I have vivid memories of my first record label internships, my first CMJs, countless shows I’d worked and endless marketing meetings. My memories of CMJ include a lot of going out with (male) coworkers and being asked if I was a secretary. Or if I was someone’s girlfriend. Or working at a show and being politely reminded that fans can’t access XYZ area of the venue when in fact I was working for the band, just that wearing heels had somehow made me look like a groupie. My memories of the music industry involve cocky male writers and overworked female publicists flirting with them for coverage, involve men being taken seriously and women being accessories, involve an entire industry controlled by rich (well, getting poorer), old, white men. And that filtered down to every day of my work and every show I went to and every female friend who wasn’t taken seriously as a singer, a music writer, or a music photographer, every female publicist who slept with some guy in a band she worked and was patronized for it later, and every female publicist who didn’t and was still patronized for it later, in ways so obvious and blatant it was hard to digest it was actually possible.
This fashion week, not one person asked if I was a secretary, or a girlfriend, or a groupie. I got asked what magazine I worked for, what blog I ran, if people could see my photography, if I was a model and what agency I was with, if I was a stylist, and if I was a writer. Nobody assumed I was there because I wanted someone to sign my breasts with a Sharpie. People assumed I was there because I was being paid by somebody. Being female (and a reasonably pretty one, inclined to express as reasonably feminine, wearing makeup, and 5” heels - don’t you know that makes me dumb?) didn’t automatically write me off as an accessory; people I encountered took me (reasonably) seriously, and assumed I was “doing something worthwhile.”
Of course we have to point out that the industry also is notorious for its terrible treatment of women and is guilty of some of the most publicly visible acts of misogyny, and that it perpetuates some of the harshest judgments of women based entirely on appearance. We have to look at the enormous number of old male photographers and the enormous number of naked underage underweight oversexed overworked female models. And we have to point out that it is likely that people’s acceptance of me is probably aligned with my (both by nature/coincidence and choice) conforming to a painfully strict set of norms — 5’10”, under a size 4, wearing heels, white, skinny, etc — and that my relatively positive commentary here probably has a lot to do with my rose-colored glasses of privilege.
But the fact remains that the ladies and TEH GAYS (and even the gay ladies! whatsup Freja? When are we getting married? teehee!) are doing pretty darn well for themselves here. (Here’s a test of that one: how many female film directors can you name in 30 seconds, and how many female designers? How many powerful fashion media ladies can you come up with right now, and how many CEOs in finance?) Within fashion, being a woman doesn’t predispose one to being taken less seriously — but there’s a problem beyond that, which is of course the rest of society’s refusal to consider fashion seriously. And I suspect that, to some extent, “fashion is for girls and gay men” plays a large role in this. Because I mean, lord knows we don’t want to take anything THOSE people do seriously! Bitches and fags, get back in the corner. What do you think you’re doing, making all this money and fuss over CLOTHES?! Please, don’t bother us about this — we’ve got more important, noble, and valuable things to talk about — you know, real man stuff. Go shoe shopping or something, why don’t you?
And it’s not just that women are more influential and more powerful within fashion as an industry as compared to others — as the main targets and market of a large portion of that industry, women who are merely BUYING the clothes have a huge amount of power with that money that they are spending as well. Women, as consumers, then have an enormous potential to shape and define an industry — an industry which, in turn, is so intensely linked to so many other things. If shopping is an informed choice we must make when considering that a.) being naked is cold and socially unacceptable and b.) we exist within an inescapable capitalist society — and furthermore, that what we put on our bodies and how we present ourselves is also an informed choice which allows us to somehow express ourselves publicly on a daily basis — well, that’s a little different than Barbie’s favorite hobby and, you know, airheaded housewives dragging their fat bored rich husbands around the mall, frittering his paycheck away on girly bullshit as he drags his feet and rolls his eyes.
And that’s a fascinating double standard — that an industry so often vilified for its terrible imaging and treatment of women, and an industry which historically has done a lot to keep women economically and/or metaphorically (and physically, as in corsets and petticoats and bound feet) enslaved, is also an industry where women are taken much more seriously as an economic, artistic, and intellectual force. Fashion takes women seriously (as it should! It’s an ass ton of our money moving the whole industry!) — so why doesn’t society take fashion seriously? And if, as women, we have enormous a.) financial power within this industry as educated consumers and b.) a much larger chance of being taken seriously on the career and influencer level than in most other industries — well, fuck it, I’m going to care about it — and talk about it, about both what I love and what bothers me — and that doesn’t make me stupid either.
I’m also horrified by how everyone consistently assumes that fashion is antifeminist, that being interested in it at all, that having ANY sort of open interest in visual self-presentation and any sort of body modification is inherently shallow, inane, consumerist, that it’s for stupid girls, that girls with a nice degree like mine and girls with brains should be doing something WORTHWHILE. (You know, beauty disqualifies brains, and vice versa. Of course!) I so often hear “I don’t have any interest in fashion, the industry is so messed up and it’s so shallow and consumeristic. I don’t really care what I wear, I only shop at thrift stores. I can’t stand fashionistas, I can’t stand girls who only ever talk about style. I fucking hate fashion.”
But that is, clearly, an interest in fashion. That is an incredibly intense personal statement about the ways in which your clothing choices relate to the complex web of economy and politics. That personal statement could be about reclaiming the deliberately oppressive fashion of earlier decades into a personal statement about your appearance and your money, or about rejecting one particular set of aesthetic/social norms. That is not proof of immunity to fashion and above all it is not, in any way shape or form, an acceptable excuse to dismiss fashion OR to condescend to those who express any interest in it.
So please — let’s argue back and forth about whether or not Alexander McQueen was an artist or a misogynist or both, and let’s talk about Jen Kao’s use of models of colour and with slight variations in body shape and whether or not this is progressive or pathetic. Let’s talk about how and why Kirkwood’s shoes completely rule and why Rad Hourani’s insistence on unisex collections is interesting and whether or not it’s transgressive, and let’s talk about whether or not the “tribal” obsession fetishizes “third-world” nations and how our concepts of aesthetics are linked to lingering post-colonialism. Let’s talk about how your self-presentation and choice of clothes is linked to your public projections of your sexuality and social ideas as well as your personality and your friends, and let’s talk about awesome young and upcoming designers who are creating beautiful things. Let’s argue about whether or not Vivienne Westwood sending homeless-esque men down the runway is thought-provoking commentary or evidence of the isolation and idiocy of the wealthy fashion world, and the ways in with both those opinions could relate to greater socioeconomic and social issues within the context of Westwood’s personal history and aesthetic. As long as we argue about it, because it is relevant. And let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about too, because “following fashion” does not make you stupid.