The Feminist Fashion Police

Ask me how much I care about what someone is wearing. Well, actually, I already discussed this recently, but I have more thoughts about it, and specifically about the fashion policing that happens in a lot of feminist circles. Prescriptive feminism has resulted in a lot of really harmful ideas about what is feminist and what is not, and these ideas sometimes manifest among people who think it’s their business to tell other people how to dress.

I’d argue that telling other people what to do is, at its core, not very feminist; prescriptive feminism is rooted in the idea that there is One Feminism, and everyone should follow it, and if people are not following it, they need to be corrected so that they can start. I hope I don’t need to tell you all the problems with this attitude, and I hope I don’t need to explain why it infuriates me to see so very many feminists embracing this attitude, that they can decide what is feminist and what is not and they can project their ideas onto other people. And not just project them, but actively live them, in the sense of telling people that what they are doing (or not doing) is not feminist.

Especially since the messages are so conflicting. Women who choose to wear long, loose clothing are criticised for not being feminist because they are covering their bodies. They are accused of not being body positive, or of being sex negative, for not showing people what their bodies look like. They are accused of not supporting women who want to wear less clothing, or of giving in and letting the patriarchy ‘win’ by ‘forcing’ them to cover. These women may have all kinds of reasons for doing this, from eating disorder recovery to personal taste, but their clothing is made into something that others are invited to snipe at and yell at them for.

Conversely, though, women who wear short skirts, or tight jeans, or low cut tops, or heels, are criticised for performing for the patriarchy. They can’t be called sluts, of course, because we like sluts in feminism, but that seems to be the underlying attitude. Women who wear clothing deemed revealing by their critics are criticised for displaying their bodies while women who cover their bodies are criticised for not displaying them.

So how, exactly, is someone supposed to win here?

Ah, yes, the happy medium, the sensible ‘feminist’ clothing that exists in some magical world, covering just enough to avoid accusations about gender performance without covering so much that the dresser is clearly giving in and letting the patriarchy win. If anyone finds that, please let me know, because I have yet to see it, and I haven’t even waded into the Great Feminist Footwear Debate because I’m so tired of it, it makes me want to scream. Oh, and, please, tell transgender people like me how to dress. We’re dying to hear your thoughts and in some cases that is not ¬†metaphorical.

I’m not sure what the feminist fashion police are hoping to accomplish by making condemnatory statements about what other people choose to wear. To me, I don’t really understand how yelling at a woman I don’t know about what she’s wearing reaches some political goal. So, I make a woman feel uncomfortable about her clothing and her body. I put my assumptions on her and score a ‘win’ when she starts to secondguess what she’s wearing and why she’s wearing it. Woo hoo, go me. Can I have a cookie now?

Can we really not have a conversation about clothing and gender performance without dragging people in as examples for mockery and derision? Could we talk, for example, about the history of the high heel, its loaded role in social and cultural history, without specifically identifying individual heel wearers and claiming that they are what’s wrong with feminism? Because that’s a conversation I would really like to have, one where we talk about the complex history of clothing and gender performance, but don’t use it as a screen for attacking women for what they do and do not wear.

I couldn’t give a fig what people wear and why they wear it, because it’s not my business, and it shouldn’t be yours either. What I am interested in is exploring the history of clothing. Clothing as code. Clothing as signaling. The complex class issues bound up in fashion and dress codes. The entanglements involved in talking about trying to obtain ethically sourced and socially responsible clothing when you lack political and economic power.

It’s not as simple as ‘everyone can/should do this’ and it never was. No, not even with clothing. Every time people are shamed for what they wear, where they buy their clothing, how they choose to cover their bodies, it only serves to alienate and anger. Every time people centre their experiences in discussions about clothing and ride roughshod over the experiences of others, it reminds some of us that we are not wanted in feminist spaces and feminist discussions. Every time people focus more on criticising an individual woman for what she is wearing than on talking about the social circumstances that contribute to the way she dresses, it tells women that they aren’t ‘feminist enough’ and they, too, are not wanted.

Individuals versus institutions. Is it more important to be right in an individual case, to shame a specific person for wearing something you don’t like, or is it more important to talk about the tangled structural web that surrounds clothing? Why don’t we talk about how false choices are created, how clothing cannot be neutralised because it is so symbolic and so complex? Why don’t we work towards building a world where people are not forced into false choices, instead of sniping at people who don’t meet our personal standards of what is ‘feminist’ or not? I care a lot more about what is coming out a person’s mouth than what that person is wearing, and while clothing is itself a statement, it’s a statement I take with a grain of salt because I am well aware that this person might not be choosing to wear that clothing.