Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Fashionable Feminista: An Anathema?

Fashion and Feminism seems like such a fraught topic, but I can't resist. The inspiration for this post is not so much my penchant for fashion, but the sheer delight I take in dressing up my little girl. You see, I love putting her in pink, girlie clothes. And, it really catches my friends and family off guard. Just yesterday my mom worried that I wouldn't like the pink hoodie she was going to buy Maddie, "would you like a blue one instead?" "No," I said. "I love pink." And, I do.

Many years ago, my friend Ann wrote a paper on beauty for an Aesthetics class we were in. I think she tried to send a version of it to Hypatia, but I don't know if it made it in. The basis for the paper was the rituals that her many sisters and mother performed to prepare for a wedding. It ranged from discussion of shaving, of when pearls are appropriate, make-up and hair. Each of Ann's sisters differed in their love of fashion, dress up, and make-up. Her mother was a rock, famously saying "Pearls are always appropriate." Ann's thesis was that these rituals were not frivolous, but really artistic processes.

I am not sure if she waded into the inevitably thorny issue of whether or not fashion and other beauty technologies are inherently patriarchal. This is a pretty pervasive theme. One of the most devastating essays on this is by Sandra Lee Bartky, "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power," in Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance. Ed. Lee Quinby and Irene Diamond. (Boston: Northeastern U P, 1988) Susan Bordo's work is also quite thought provoking, but she seems to have more of a love affair with femininity than Bartky does.

You see, the mantra "the personal is political" opened up a minefield for feminists to gingerly tiptoe through with their daily decisions on how to comport themselves. If the oppressor resides in the most minute and seemingly harmless everyday decisions, then an intense, vigilant practice of self-presentation, thought, and habits is inevitable. It is no surprise that many of feminists, my generation or younger, find it near impossible to live this way. In recent years a revival of knitting and sewing--by self-proclaimed feminists--have returned many women--of all stripes and political affiliations--to go back to women's work. The proliferation of DYI shows dealing with fashion, design, and home renovation has sought to wed the love of beauty, decoration and fashion with feminist messages of empowerment.

Such a landscape is likely to produce guilt or confusion in feminists who decidedly want to reject the kind of femininity that says "I need the total guidance of a man to make it in the world," but still want to look pretty. I am one of those feminists. I have made my peace with this for the most part. I am not sure that I have worked it out theoretically. I cannot give a defense of my love of fashion. I think most arguments that I put forward could be quite easily be demolished by someone like Bartky or Bordo.

No matter what women decide to do in relation to fashion and beauty, they are embroiled in it. If they go crunchy like the many women in Maui I saw, it is still a statement. If they wear only natural, breathable fabrics that float, they are making a statement. If they choose the lumberjack look, they are making a statement. No matter how you dress, you are making a statement. You are announcing to the world a great deal of your personality, your likes/dislikes, your preoccupations, your investment in your self, etc. I am just not sure that there is a politically correct way to make that statement. Now, having said that, please, oh please, don't lump me with "choice feminism," whatever that is.

At bottom, "I love being a girl." I love dressing up my little girl, even in pink.

So, you tell me, is fashion to feminism an anathema?