How Do You Express Feminism in the Way You Dress?

So how do I express my feminism in the way I dress?

I don’t know that I do.

What I do know is that, for me, my clothing choices have been very much tied up with my sexuality, and as someone who became aware of both feminism and sexuality at the same time, the two are irrevocably interconnected. The freedom to express or hide my own self-awareness has often been a cloak, sometimes been a weapon…but has always been an issue.

I went through – what? – sixteen contented years being unaware of my looks or allure. I say this not to make any grandiose claims about said looks, just that I was unaware of any physical or mental albatrosses round my neck, unaware of what Joan Jacobs Brumberg calls ‘The Body Project‘. Anyone else remember that blissful state? I feel like I’ve been trying to regress to this ever since.

As with many people, my first awareness of my own physicality came not from fashion media, but from the comments of people I knew. It was a shock. This was shortly followed by my Catwoman obsession, which I have written about before; here was a woman who regenerated after horrible treatment by a man, who evolved to such a degree that she donned vinyl and a whip to get her own back. My first experience, if you will, of a woman using her sexuality to her advantage. I can’t defend my 11 year-old psyche, but this figure who was beautiful and emotionally fragile but physically capable of such ass-kicking struck a chord. First ‘feminist’ icon. By extension I developed a love of 40s clothing, and it came to represent the beauty and stoicism of women.
She may have made a mean cup of coffee…
…but she could kick Batman’s ass in a heartbeat.
Fast forward several years, and I was a corduroy-clad scruff. Hair braids were my best friend, makeup an anaethema to me. Sneaker Pimps was my soundtrack, and Natalie Imbruglia, in her combats and hoodie, seemed all the more beautiful for de-emphasising her looks and her body. Sexiness?! Pah!
It was at this point that I ‘discovered’ feminism, became aware of the general ‘male gaze’…and hid my body while reclaiming the ‘feminine’ arts such as textiles. 
For what happened next, blame Mrs Prada. I was happily mooching around in the skater trainers and long jersey skirts when I picked up that fateful issue of Vogue in 2000:

Pleated skirts? Pussybows? Kitten heels? I was in heaven. I got to wear beautiful clothes while hiding away my thighs and cleavage – my perfect compromise. And when I hit London, my love of  ‘repressed’ clothing was compounded by my new-found love of Catherine Deneuve. Beautiful yet capable of true depravity, her character in Belle du Jour was an intoxicating mix for a 19 year-old girl. This idea of a woman only being capable of secretly expressing sexual desire is not a new one, and will certainly be familiar to many of us. For me it manifested itself in stockings, sunglasses and ladylike swing coats.
Even now, at 30 years old, I am still hyper-aware of how I look. I am still veering between the demure and a celebration of my shape; last year I wrote a guest post about how my ‘celebratory’ sartorial choices bit me in the ass when I received disconcerting comments about my figure. My unease about posting outfit shots has been documented on here recently!

So what’s my point? Well, it’s perhaps not so much a question of how I express my feminism in the way I dress, but more a question of how I have never known how to. At certain times I feel like the array of clothes I have at my disposal is liberating, and at others it’s hard to feel like anything I wear is my own choice, when both midi and mini skirts feel like some kind of sexual (or anti-sexual) statement. There is no easy answer for me. Yes, I’ve been made to feel guilty for wearing mascara, and yes, to some my myriad pairs of heels seem at odds with my ideals. But, as I’m sure many will say today, I do aim to dress for myself. Striking the balance between being aware of my sexuality and owning it, well…that’s an ongoing process.

How do you (or don’t you) express your beliefs in the way you dress? 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This post is for the Feminist Fashion Bloggers event: ‘Show Us Your Fashionable Feminist’, where participants are invited to answer the question: ‘how do you express your feminism in the way you dress?’. To learn more about the group, click here. To join in the discussion, feel free to join the Google Group.

The full list of links can be found here, on the new Feminist Fashion Blog!

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74 thoughts on “How Do You Express Feminism in the Way You Dress?

  1. hey doll! managed to get my link in before I’m off to work! Now really have to go though, but will be back to visit properly later!

    p.s. you look lovely!

  2. I’m another who struggled a bit with this. I know how to express myself through the way I dress, but how far is that expressing their feminism? And… do men worry about others’ perceptions of their clothing & grooming choices, beyond perhaps whether it’s situationally appropriate? Sigh.

    • I think the two aren’t necessarily separately defineable; if one is a feminist and expresses one’s entire self through clothing, then the feminism will surely come through. I enjoyed your post btw 🙂

    • Yeah, I don’t think most men agonise over their clothes or their image! That’s kind a little bit like what I was getting at with a couple of things in my post (th comfort and the not hiding away thing) – I want to dress like a man. Not like a man as in androgynous, but as in not worrying about what people think. Just doing it. Clothes not being this ginormous statement to be analysed in depth, but just things that just *are. You know?

      Though then again, mnen get to have no fun with clothes, their choices are so much more limited, and there’s still a stigma to being interested in clothes. On Friday in the pub, one of daves cricket mates was going on about Dave’s fitted bright green jacket and it was definitely semi-derogatory!

      I can totally emphasise with the tension you describe by the way, it’s something I went through as well. Just at some point, when I was about 26, it went ‘pouf’ and disappeared. It was around the same time guys stopped chatting me up when I was out. It’s like I’m more invisible now, I can do what I want.

      Sorry, tangent!

      • Yes, that strikes a chord with me – I remember that sudden feeling of invisibility. Strangely, though, I feel more self-conscious now than I did when I was getting more male attention…

      • Mhm, I do think that men – at least of the student-age generation, at least those who buy into the new macho role model – agonize instead over being toned enough, and *not* being perceived as caring about their clothing (because in their sad little world that would mark them as – excuses – derogatorily “gay”).

      • What about men who WANT to wear traditionally female garb? I can walk about in men’s jeans and jumper and no one will notice: a man who wants to wear skirts in labelled a deviant and sexualised.

      • Yes, that’s what I was saying – men don’t have as much choice and an
        interest in fashion is still seen as unacceptable. And I would include a
        desire to wear feminine clothes in that.

      • Absolutely true. I’m a transgendered male with a lifelong interest in fashion which I’ve always had to suppress. Society doesn’t allow that activity for men.

  3. Thanks for this honest post! I’ve gone ahead and written a bold, defensive post about how I’m reclaiming a rather modest, rather feminine style as feminist via my reasoning behind it, but I know those feelings all too well, I’ve gone through the same thing. Even now as I try to convince others that wearing what you want, in awareness of but not in deference to the social implications it may have, is the way to go if we want to see people have more choice in the future, I still, often, have to convince myself first, and I’d still rather err on the side of caution (i.e. stray away from both clothes that are perceived as “slutty” and from clothes that may be perceived as “frumpy”). It’s definitely a discussion that needs to be had!

  4. Image and feminism are intrinsically linked, I think you have that down pat. It still seems to be something of a struggle, but I can see you getting more comfortable lately with saying ‘screw the world, I do what I want’. And striving to achieve that mindset is feminism. May I also say, you are one beautiful woman – that last photo is so glam! x

  5. I expressed similar sentiments in my post (which I just added) – looking forward to reading everyone’s reflections on the question, as I struggled with it a bit!

  6. Yes! I love how you finish this off with, “I dress for myself.” And you raise a really interesting point about dressing either sexually or anti-sexually. It’s something I’ve thought of in the past, but you’ve made me think of it differently. I appreciate that.

    I really enjoyed your response to and take on this question, and I appreciate that it’s quite different from mine; I think that will likely be the way with most of these posts, which means a day of well-rounded and multi-dimensional and thoughtful reading!

  7. Really interesting point about the inseparability of sexuality and feminism…I particularly agree that sometimes “it’s hard to feel like anything I wear is my own choice,” with everything we wear implicitly making statements for or against such things as the male gaze, stereotypical gender roles, our personal sexuality, etc. Not always easy to find a middle ground!

    • Not at all. I suppose some would accuse us of over-thinking the topic, but it’s fascinating to me that amount of interplay that goes into forging our image. Sexuality is just one feature, and one that has always held particulat sway over me…

  8. Oh my, that last picture of you is just stunning.
    I loved reading this and learning more about you and how your mindset has evolved with age and experience.
    I never worry about what I wear or of people’s perceptions of the image I portray by my way of dressing. Like you I dress for me and only me. xxx
    PS I’ll get my intelligent head on later and contribute a post myself.

  9. I think it's really apt that you discussed sexuality.Like you said, mid and mini skirts both make a statement. i guess it's important that you dress for the message you want to send, rather than feeling pressured to be sexy or modest.

  10. You must read the fashioned body by joanne entiwistle and Adorned in dreams by Elizabeth Wilson – if you haven’t already.

    I love clothes and as a feminist – I see my role as forging equality, deconstructing social constructions of gender but when it comes to clothes I assert my femininity as I believe the feminine is strong, intelligent and is equal to the masculine. The danger with clothes is the associated behaviour/labels all defined over centuries and attributed by others – the role of women and how clothes are worn is so major it is impossible to comment on and every time i think about writing a post – it would turn out to be a book.

    Pleated skirts – they are the only way
    xx

    • Hear hear! Can’t get enough of em!

      I’ve realised that I do believe it’s important to hold onto the ‘feminine’ – to deny that in some ways is to admit inferiority. It’s a fascinating topic to mull over. I am looking up those books right now – thanks so much, Kate xx

  11. It’s interesting about the guilt thing. I’ve found mysogynistic feminism (where what essentially happens is a group of women decide they will impose a dress code- be it ‘sexy’ or ‘asexual’ on all others and indeed ascribe stereotypical thoughts to those looks) a huge put-off for a lot of my friends and myself. Control in another form is still controlling and unacceptable.

    • Agreed. I think we could all agree that creating our image outside of these rules is an incredibly creative and rewarding experience…though not always an easy one!

  12. Great post! I do find it fascinating that you focused on the link between sexuality and dressing. (Also, I posted my link.)

  13. Finished! This was a hard topic. It’s funny how when I (and it seems many of you) first thought about dressing like a feminist we thought of sex appeal. I don’t think I dress in a way that is especially modest or suggestive. I just dress like me. And then I thought, well that IS a feminist way of dressing. I dress to empower myself, and I blog about how I dress in hopes to empower other women. I love how so many of our posts show that we have different views about fashion and different senses of style but it really comes down to that as feminists, we dress for us.

    • It’s the way it should be. I think for me there is an important distinction to be made between expressing my ‘sex appeal’, and denying or embracing my ‘sexuality’. The difficulty lies in making that distinction in your wardrobe choices!

  14. Beautiful entry, Mrs Bossa. I remember being aware from a surprisingly early age (like, 5 or 6) of Wonder Woman’s power, beauty, and sexiness, and I liked to see clothing with curvy feminine shaping even though it wasn’t appropriate for my own wardrobe. Then I went through what I guess Freud would call the “latent period” until puberty, when this awareness just..faded away and I couldn’t care less about body image and shapeliness.

    Of course the awareness came back when I was a teen, and it continues to this day; although like you, I’ve long appreciated the idea of finding a balance between demureness and shapeliness. Be proud of what’s there, and hint at it, but you don’t have to flaunt it.

    Your figure is really my perfect, favorite sort of figure to see!

    • That’s very sweet of you, Sarah.

      You’ve actually reminded me of a time when I used to dress up as She-Ra – in my mum’s bra and knickers! Maybe The bit about 16 years of blissful ignorance was a bit rose-tinted!

  15. Bless you for being aware of and addressing the constraints we face! It’s not enough to just say “I dress for myself!” We live in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to do anything just for ourselves. So we have to balance. And that what this is all about, IMO–finding the balance.

  16. Oh, yes, yes, yes! Thank you so much for this frank look at fashion and feminism. I love how you don’t feel the need to make some sort of declaration about Where You Stand, because I think that examining our reasoning without judgment is really the key to keeping this area of feminism alive instead of making it a closed door. Excellent post.

    • Thank you – really appreciate your thoughtful comment. When I started to tackle this subject I soon realised that it was going to be an ongoing, rather than a conclusive discussion.

  17. This was a great topic! Thanks so much for letting me join in!

    I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of my body and its potential flaws. Part of that has to do with growing up with a mother who had an eating disorder. I was already being critiqued by the time I was four.

  18. Mrs. Bossa–I’ve just belatedly added my link. I’m with you on the sense of being unaware of myself as a body until age 16 or so and pretty clueless, initially, about how others might have regarded it. I’ve only just recently watched Belle du Jour for the first time and noted to my husband how much fuller figured a beautiful woman could be in the early 60s…This is such a rich vein of discussion. I hope the group can manage monthly posts after March is over.

    • As do I, Terri – the wealth of ideas has been so inspiring. I also know what you mean about the early 60s – Catherine Deneuve is beautiful, of course – but she looks like a ‘real woman’. I was struck by that too…

  19. I express my self love, creativity, feminine confidence and reverence for the past in the way I dress. I am able to communicate with people in this way without saying a word. You have inspired me to revisit Holly Brubach’s writing on feminist fashion, and I have included a link to an interview of her for anyone who is interested or unfamiliar. She thoughtfully tackles the notion that our physical image is superficial. Thanks for initiating this conversation, it is very important to me.
    http://www.salon.com/people/feature/1999/11/11/brubach

    • And thank you for engaging with it so thoughtfully. There are so many ideas at work when we choose our clothes and ‘create’ an image of ourselves – I’ll look forward to reading the Brubach paper you mention. I may even do a round-up of recommended reading, as there have been some great suggestions.

  20. I worked in our family’s retail business for the last several years. But before that, I never put much thought into clothes. Then after years of offering opinions and helping people build wardrobes I realized how clothes can impact a person’s image of himself or herself. Often times I would see people’s moods transform, just by trying on clothes that made them feel pretty or handsome. I also told people, it didn’t matter what I thought about their outfits, it is all about how they felt in them. If you put something on, and it makes you feel good, you’ll naturally shine.

    • That’s such a good point, and one I don’t think many people have addressed. I’m hoping to tackle it as a subject for next week’s post – may get in touch about your experiences, as it sounds like you’ve gained a very interesting perspective on self-image… I think it would be naive to assume that we choose our wardrobes ‘in a bubble’ – it’s so very much caught up with our egos and the image we wish to project to the world.

  21. I love the honesty and awareness in this post! I really hate when so-called feminists try to say that dressing a certain way or letting a guy pay on a date or liking a certain show makes you a bad feminist or less of a feminist. The whole point of the movement is about freedom and equality and choice for women. It’s about doing what makes you happy, not what society tells you to do and it seems like you’re well on your way to doing just that! 🙂

  22. Fantastic posts that I’ve read so far, can’t wait to get through them all – might take me all my spare time til next week though!

  23. I would have loved to have given this a crack but only just come across it and it’s just too late in the day to start something new. I’ve enjoyed reading about it though – I came across you through Vix.

    • Well very nice to meet you. You’re still very welcome to join the Google group and join in the online discussions…or to write a post for next Wednesday on a feminist/fashion topic of your choice. The links are all at the bottom of my post – or drop me an email.

  24. I would have loved to have given this a crack but only just come across it and it’s just too late in the day to start something new. I’ve enjoyed reading about it though – I came across you through Vix.

  25. Interesting post! This was a hard question for me, and it’s good to see I’m not the only person who struggled with it. I do think it’s good that you take the time to consider feminism as it regards your mode of dress, even if you don’t always know how it should mesh together. It’s a journey, and you’ll always be learning new things along the way. 🙂

    • Absolutely, and I’m glad you got that from my post. It’s sometimes easy to get frustrated if you can’t reach conclusions, but my whistlestop tour through my influences has made me realise that it’s all part of my personal evolution…

  26. “… it’s hard to feel like anything I wear is my own choice, when both midi and mini skirts feel like some kind of sexual (or anti-sexual) statement.” Soooo true. It reminds me of an essay I read in school (http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/nyt062093.htm), hypothesizing that it’s impossible to be an unmarked woman, in the sense that anything a woman wears (any hairstyle, any weight, etc.) and any action she takes is seen as a indication of who she is. For example, a woman can dress in a way that is not overtly sexualized, but in dressing conservatively, that supposedly reflects that she is not interested in sex, that she’s frigid, that she wants to hide her body, etc. I’m not expressing it all that eloquently, but the idea has always stuck with me: in our patriarchal society, women are constantly having to perform some familiar form of femaleness in order to be categorized (even if those categories are woefully inaccurate). It’s tough getting dressed when you have to worry about the political/personal implications of your skirt length in addition to whether you like the length in the first place.

    Love how you said “I do aim to dress for myself.” I think the “aim” is important in that sentence. Who of us gets it right 100% of the time? But the aim can be ever-present. Great post.

    • Well put, and thank you for your input on the idea of being a ‘marked woman’, or as Susan Brownmiller would call it, ‘a woman impersonator’. There have been some very interesting recommendations for further reading, and I’m going to tackle them when I get through all the posts!

      I’m also pleased you noticed the “aim” – I had to include it, because – as I said – I’m not always certain that I am dressing for myself. Aiming is a start, though… Thanks for your careful reading of my post, Sara – much appreciated.

  27. You are well-informed about feminism and I enjoyed reading your post! I have yet to see Belle du Jour: it is on my list of must-see classics. Now I have even more reason to rent it. I appreciation being taken on the journey of your fashion and self-awareness evolution and the way you’ve been influenced by the iconic images around you.

  28. My post at FA was a bit of a riff on the whole question posed by FFB because I, too, don’t really know how to or if its possible to express feminism through fashion in a way to get that across to the viewer.

    Also, I think it’s silly you’ve been made to feel guilty about wearing mascara. If I were going to make a feminist guilty for wearing make up I’d probably choose blush or lipstick.

  29. You raise some very interesting points in your personal struggle – do we own our sexuality by flaunting it, ignoring it or covering it up? I find it interesting your bring up Prada (ahhh! the lipstick print pleated skirt – how I dream that one might pop up in a second hand store I happen to be rifling through at a friendly price – wake up V, wake up!) – Muiccia must be the master of playing with sexual and anti-sexual statements in clothing – remember those high necked lace dresses with nude linings worn with high necked polo necks and shirt collars that kicked off the whole lace craze – walking the line between the buttoned up and the sexy – a statement about the line women walk daily in dressing themselves? I think I read somewhere Muiccia Prada thinks feminism is dead! That aside – is there an upside of our struggle to know and present our female selves to the world through clothes? I don’t think men get to have this much fun writing the psychology of their sexuality into their clothing!

  30. What an amazing post…really so honest. Thank you for being so candid.

    I completely would not know how to answer that question and I really want to applaud all the women who have answered it for themselves (or even attempted to).

    I’d like to think I dress myself up with things I want to wear and totally things I love but that’s not the whole truth. I do make a choice not to show cleavage b/c I think the girls will draw attention, I decidedly wear things that fit loose and easy b/c I’m not super comfortable with showing my curves and what those curves could attract, BUT I love me a short skirt! I love it! and then I try to unsexy it to make it look more grounded. And these are choices I make really without thinking about it. But now you really have me thinking about it.

    I guess you could make an argument that I’m not exploiting my sexuality therefore expressing feminism in my style; but I totally feel a stronger argument could be that I’m not embracing my sexuality because like you I’m hyper aware of my image and what that could say which by that logic makes me crappy at expressing feminism in my fashion choices.

    I am so interested in what all the other posts have to say! – Sooo brave of you women to be discussing this. I also read the comments below and they are all so interesting. P.S.- I realize this comment is on the late side, but I’m really looking forward to reading all the posts above and the rest of the posts by this group in March. Thank you again.

  31. So glad you all decided to do this. It took me a while to add my link (it was finals week. that’s my only excuse) but I’ve loved reading the other responses. It’s great to know that a smart, sassy, tenacious group of people are out there, working on the same problems I am. Cheers!

  32. I love that you were also inspired by Catwoman. I wore her costume for Halloween when I was 6 and I remember feeling like such a badass. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Selina Kyle – Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation of the character was one of my first glimpses into complex gender representations. For a little girl raised on equal parts Disney Princesses and G.I. Joe, it was pretty mindblowing. Great post!

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