The Fashionable Feminist

[Ed. - We're really excited to be running this guest post from renowned fashion journalist Hadley Freeman]

There are some great anecdotes in Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s lovely new biography of Diana Vreeland, Empress of Fashion, that pretty sum up the difficulties in reconciling fashion and feminism. In 1969, when Vreeland was editor of US Vogue, a new wave of feminism was emerging and one that was very different from the early 20th century suffragists Vreeland had known in her youth who, Stuart writes, “embraced fashion and beauty as weapons in the female arsenal.” Now, feminists were rejecting the idea that a woman’s appearance was the most important part about her and that their primary concern should be the male gaze. All this rather stunned Vreeland, and threatened her. On the one hand, she had some very feminist beliefs: she was thrilled by the invention of the Pill and believed wholeheartedly that women should embrace their sensuality and sexuality. On the other, she believed that women had always been liberated and that this new troupe of women who dared to write protest letters when she ran photos of model Marisa Berenson wearing nothing but jewellery, claiming that this represented “the male colonization of the female body”, were misguided fools who merely lacked “pizzazz.”  To reject femininity and the value of aesthetics for a woman was, for Vreeland, a step backwards to the kind of sartorial conformity of the wartime years. In a typical feature from that era, Vogue sneered, “[The modern woman] never wants to be first… Safe from what! Nobody knows. But safe.”

It isn't easy being a feminist who loves fashion. While the two pursuits might not be quite as awkward bedfellows as that religion that will always baffle me, Jews for Jesus, they don't really sleep so soundly together. But a lot of this, I reckon, stems from misconceptions in both camps, misconceptions amply demonstrated by Vreeland's ridiculous bullheadedness when defending her magazine against some of the more radical groups in the 1960s.

Unlike Beyonce, Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Kristen Wiig and pretty much any female celebrity you care to name, I am very happy to say that I am a feminist, I have always been a feminist and I will always be a feminist. I also, as it happens, like fashion. I like fashion so much that I worked on the fashion desk of the the Guardian newspaper and still, five years later, write a fashion column in the paper. Every morning, after I've read the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, checked Twitter, glanced at Mail Online (sorry) and looked at Vagenda and Jezebel, is check and to see if they have any new things I fancy staring at over my porridge for a few minutes. Then, depending on my mood, I might switch over to to look at my favourite fashion show again (Balenciaga a/w 2007, since you asked.) After all that, I'll get to work. Isn't it exciting to see how the sausage is made?

I can understand why some people might think there's a contradiction in being a feminist who likes fashion – of course I can. In fact, let's line up all of the counts against fashion from a feminist perspective: it's obsessed with women's looks; it makes women feel fat, old and miserable; it reduces women to clotheshorses; it encourages women to wear ridiculous clothes and shoes that bankrupt and hobble them.

Now, let's talk about fashion as opposed to the fashion media. Because the two are, in fact, different entities although they might not always seem to be. But just as the racist and sexist humour on Top Gear doesn't prove that all car enthusiasts are racist sexists, so the depiction of women and fashion in the style magazines doesn't necessarily reflect the interests of all women who like fashion.

There is no question that many parts of the fashion business and fashion media are disgusting. During my time on the fashion desk, I found going to the fashion shows an increasingly painful experience, watching these ridiculously skinny teenagers (and don't let any fashion editor tell you otherwise – they are ridiculously skinny) forced to march up and down in front of me while I tried to look at their clothes. What on earth am I doing here, I’d think miserably as I tried to make out the belt slung around an 18 year old's sharp hipbones.

But fashion isn't about skeletal waifs from eastern Europe, what row you're sitting in at a fashion show or being told to spend £1500 on a handbag just because someone called Kate Bosworh was photographed carrying it at Coachella. That's the mere flotsam around it and you can get excited about it if you like, but that isn't all fashion is.

Fashion is simply an enjoyable form of self-expression and in all honesty I cannot see anything unfeminist about a woman spending money that she has earned on something that she loves and makes her feel happy. Yes, you can, I suppose, argue that these women are only feeling happy because they're dressing to please the patriarchy. But I think that to say that a woman can't tell the difference between liking an item of clothing because it appeals to men and because she genuinely likes it in herself is to underestimate a woman's intelligence even more than your average fashion magazine does.

To be honest, I'm pretty amazed whenever I do come across fellow feminists who sneer at fashion (and I have to say, they are very much in the minority, feminism being a far more open church than SJP, Gwyneth et al seem to believe) because they are falling into what seems to me to be an obviously sexist trap.

Fashion is not important in the way, say, food and water are important, but it is no less important than sport, film and TV are. Yet it is accorded far less respect than any of those pursuits and this, I believe, is because it is aimed largely at women. Moreover, it does not depict women who appeal to men: they're too thin, they're wearing weird clothes, they clearly don't give a stuff about looking sexy (seriously, have you ever seen a Comme des Garcons show?) This is why, I strongly suspect, fashion tends to get dismissed by the male-dominated media. Opponents might argue that they dislike fashion because of all the skinniness and silly prices, but it's not like sport isn't plagued by precisely the same problems. One can criticise elements of the fashion industry, and I certainly do in my fashion column, but to dismiss fashion completely is to say that an industry that is aimed at women and largely staffed by women is inherently silly. And as a feminist, I violently object to that.

There are many different takes on feminism, and there are many different takes on fashion, and people can argue about them all day if they like, and may do. Ultimately, though, feminism is about enabling women to live happy lives and fashion is about women enjoying themselves. There is nothing contradictory about being fans of both. If anything, being a fashion-loving feminist helps to improve the female dominated, female geared fashion industry. And that is a good thing for all women. 

BE AWESOME: MODERN LIFE FOR MODERN LADIES by Hadley Freeman is published by 4th Estate price £12.99