My Feminist Fashion Icon.

What is a ‘feminist fashion icon’?

Is it a iconic female figure who works in fashion? A feminist who is perpetually stylish? A past designer who has liberated us from restrictive clothing? Or merely a strong celebrity who makes brave fashion choices? Pondering this has seen me leaping from Mary Quant to M.I.A., from Helena Bonham Carter to Coco Chanel. In short – I’ve struggled. Would it not be reductive to admire a feminist for her beauty? Repetitive to praise a female fashion designer? Limiting to applaud a celeb for her ‘man-repelling’ sartorial choices? And to venerate a woman who works hard and looks good – isn’t that a little, well, dated?

’40s Hairstyles’ by Daniela Turudich

Heat magazine would have you believe that feminism and fashion are mutually exclusive; women who are known for their beauty aren’t often discussed in terms of their achievements or viewpoints, and those who perhaps play a more ‘political’ role can often find themselves undermined with a critique (or criticism) of their wardrobe choices. If all else fails, a stylish actress who has a successful career can always be brought down to size with a mention of her failing love life:

‘Reveal’ magazine

Anyway – back to the topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised that developing a love of a fashion icon, like feminism, can be a solitary road. Of course, there are those people that we are all inspired by – I can’t help but drool over Olivia Palermo’s wardrobe along with tons of others – but the forming of actual icon, for me, is the stitching together of a patchwork of references, something of highly individual appeal. Add feminism into the mix, and it gets a whole lot tougher.

In the end, I shifted my focus from feminist fashionistas to fashion-aware feminists, and this led me to a woman who has an incredible awareness of women’s visual role in society. I chose photographer Cindy Sherman.                        

Sherman is known for her unnervingly realistic characterisations of various stereotypes, from prostitutes to ingenues, from corpses to the subjects of famous paintings – including women, men… and people who are far more androgynous.
Her best known photos are of herself in different guises – she is not taking self-portraits, but inhabiting characters, as in the B-movie stills above. The passivity – and in some case, lifelessness – of her characters lends an eerie quality to these vaguely familiar female figures. It is almost as though these figures have lost their identity…or never quite had that sense of who they were. In some way it reminds us that many of us, however strong, are wearing masks or adopting a persona. Sometimes these are well-honed performances that have become second nature, sometimes they are thinly-veiled attempts to hide our true selves.

So what of her link with fashion? 

She has shot four photo series, including ones for Vogue, Interview and Harper’s Bazaar, but Sherman was also commissioned by Comme de Garcons to do a photo spread for a 1994 clothing campaign. The photographs, instead of displaying the beauty of the clothes, drew attention to Sherman’s bizarre characterisation of ‘anti-models’, scarred, in masks, or with make-up overdone. A strange combination, perhaps, until you consider that Comme de Garcons‘ clothes often subvert ideas of fashion and femininity, just as Sherman’s characters do.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sherman is a devoted fan of Marni, a label which eschews ‘obvious sexuality’ for innovations in both cut and colour-blocking. I think their clothes are beautiful in their ‘ugliness’, something that I think can be said of much of Sherman’s work. From the Marni website:
The fashion house, like Sherman, chooses to leave its clothes open to interpretation – and like her, avoids having one representation of its ‘self’. Interviews with her suggest that she likes the theatricality of fashion, which would explain her love of Balenciaga…

Interview by Betsy Byrne in TATE Magazine, issue 5

Sherman wearing Marni –
Feminist critics are divided in their opinions about Sherman’s work – some feel that depicting women in such a voyeuristic manner only compounds the stereotypes. To me, her photographs highlight the focus on the physicalities of women, and challenge notions of beauty even as she embraces fashion as an art form. In her extreme attempts at ‘dress-up’, Sherman has explored the fashion world photographically, with work that seems to mock fashion’s apparent superficiality while using its transformative potential to striking effect.  

Who would your feminist fashion icon be?

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‘My Feminist Fashion Icon’ is part of a series of blog posts by the Feminist Fashion Bloggers. To learn more, click here. To join the group, click here. And to read submissions by the other members, follow the links below:


37 thoughts on “My Feminist Fashion Icon.

  1. This is conflicting for me. I don’t really have a fashion icon at all – feminist or otherwise. I take influence from all over the place. The military, Edwardian Men’s Fashion, 1950’s styles, the 80’s, Balmain, the sky, my own inner Fashion Muse.
    I don’t think feminism and fashion have to be mutually exclusive. Feminism is an attitude and fashion is an ever-changing expression of my mood.

    • Thanks, I’ll have a look. Sherman is quite unsettling – there are even better examples of the myriad personae she is able to inhabit. It was quite bizarre to see her as she actually is! x

  2. Great article Mrs B… One of my most loved photographs of Cindy Sherman’s, it’s in the series you mentioned, totally turns the head on how fashion photography is used to sell life style and aspiration and fashion used as the tool for empowerment; instead Sherman, posed in a designer suit, is photographed shaken by anxiety and dread, insecure and fallible… the clothing limp and meaningless, questioning the worth we give to fashion, and simple items of clothing we wear on our bodies, fashion does not make us who we are, we should choose who we are, and use clothes to represent us. (thats my interpretation anyway) Such a great comment on fashion as a whole. Good choice of feminist fashion icon! No idea who I would pick, maybe Grayson Perry, who uses fashion and clothing to make statements, and send out messages which challenge the norm of dress codes…plus I love that he uses clothing as a big act, too… making a mockery of the establishment perhaps…? I have no idea if he’s a feminist though. The other choices of Viv, Sioux and Bjiork I have to agree with!! I’m intrigued to read the other posts too xx

    • Ok…I’m employing you as my post writer – such an articulate reponse and interpretation. I think she’s a talented woman with a real eye for the importance of appearances. Hope you enjoyed the other posts – there is a fantastic range of icons. I would have been intrigued to read more about Grayson Perry; it would have interesting to have a man as a feminist fashion icon…

    • Excellent point. You’re right – I think in some ways we inhabit a persona when we blog, and when we pose for pictures on that blog. I’ll have a scout around, see if I can find any blogging-related quotes from her… Thanks, Bella!

  3. Another great woman I previously knew nothing about! Showcasing someone who is at the same time artist and part of the artwork, photographer and her own model, is a brilliant idea. And subverting clichés by depicting them overly clearly is a strategy I can agree with…

    • It gets a mixed response, but for me it works. She’s so utterly convincing. And yes, I love the way she – along with many self-identifying feminist artists – is artist and part of the art. Carolee Schneeman was a very powerful influence on me in this regard.

  4. I like the “sometimes what I like fashionwise, is so theatrical I’ll buyt it even if I can’t wear it” – I could totally relate! Thank you for introducing me to this fascinating woman!

  5. oh HELL YES to this whole post! I have so many but I think probably my top one at the moment is Velma Dinkley from scooby doo because she has big glasses and is not all about the cleavage but still looks pretty fly 🙂
    Fashlvr has a really good point though, her post is kind of reflective of my ideals too!

  6. Cindy's body of work is tremendous. I find it appealing on so many levels. She's hands down my favourite photographer. I haven't really considered a feminist icon before but I guess most of my favourite women are very strong characters. Like Eileen gray, Beth ditto, Vivienne westwood and karen o.

  7. Gosh hard one to think off as I agree feminism & fashion is a difficult debate but I would choose Anna Wintour as she is probably despite what people might think of her manner, a fashionable feminist. She embodies a character who is both fashionable and is surely a feminist. I think her actions her choices suggest this not her words. If I was able to interrogate my assertion I think I could prove it!! xx

    • I’m with you there, Kate – I wish I’d thought of her. I think of Anna every time I feel I’ve lost my backbone – she’s an incredible and incredibly strong woman. Another viewing of The September Issue tonight, methinks! xx

  8. Hello, love! I read this wonderful post last night but in my rum-addled state couldn’t find the comment button. I knew nothing of Cindy Sherman until I read this and I’m gagging to learn more. I love how she plays with people’s preconceptions.
    Mine would probably be Marie Stopes, heroine to non-breeders like me. xxx

    • Ha ha! ‘Like’! Have a brilliant image in my head of you being ‘rum-addled’.

      I’m surprised to discover how few people have heard of her – glad I chose her now it’s obviously intrigued a few people. I recommend checking her out – very interesting woman… xx

  9. As a photographer I think Cindy Sherman’s work is intriguing and inspiring. Thanks for bringing her work to the attention of a wider audience, and I think she’s a great choice for a feminist fashion icon. Two of my choices would be Tilda Swinton and Iris Apfel.

  10. What a great choice! I’d been somewhat familiar with Cindy Sherman’s photographic work and the feminist issues surrounding it, but hadn’t thought of her in relationship to style and fashion, or known about her work with Comme de Garcons…really interesting stuff. Fascinating, especially, to think about how she uses fashion and makeup not simply in creating her own personal image, but in creating the hundreds of woman she portrays. Thank you for sharing!

    (and thanks for the link roundup!)

    • No problem, and thanks for commenting! I too was pleased to discover her links with the fashion world – I’m currently on a hunt for her Vogue shoots and interviews. I love how she manipulates fashion for her art.

  11. Hi my dear-a very insightful and inspirational post, I did not know of Cindy Sherman so thank you for sharing and for a very good post too xx

  12. I salute you on naming dropping Olivia Palermo I did a post on her a couple of months back and got conflicting responses. She is stunning, I too usually drool at her lol. But yeah surely viv westwood would get a shout, surprised no one has mentioned her. The only reason I say westwood is because she is the first person that popped into my head when thinking of someone who would potentially fit into a feminist stereotype. Stereotypical of me? Yeah probably is… lol

    • Cheers, dude!!! Well let us know if you want to join in any of the other group posts – the remaining three are a bit more general so would allow you more room for maneouvre…

  13. The range of feminist fashion icons our little group has come up with is truly wide-ranging. The samples of Sherman’s photography I think I should be able to see on this post aren’t working for me at the moment…but I do think I’ve seen her work before.

  14. What stunning images! I am a huge fan of gender study, and androgyny makes my world go round….Thank you for this!

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