knowledge, power and “feminist” fashion blogs

gloria swanson, photographed by edward steichen in 1924

Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair, 1924

these days i’ve been spending a lot of times with books. fiction, non-fiction, zines, and gorgeous picture books. re-reading ones that have been on my shelf for years, and starting ones i’ve been meaning to get to for longer than i’d like to admit. this weekend while visiting my friend marika‘s place, i poured over the copy of Objectif Mode, 1850 a nos jours she had taken out of the library. myself, ainslie, cat and simon turned the pages together, pointing out our favourites. the chapter for the 1920s began with a cropped version of one of my favourite photographs. i gasped, and said, “swanson! steichen! how glorious.” it didn’t have a caption on that page, so my friends were kind of surprised.

“how do you know that?” cat asked.

i laughed it off, mumbled something or other about how it’s just a random bit of knowledge tucked away in my brain somewhere… but how? and why?

i know it because i love it, is the short version.

i know it because i’ll always remember this image. because there’s something about early photography that pairs decadence, decay, the jazz age, art, fashion that will always be compelling to me.

i know it because i’ve seen many other photographers try to emulate what it is about this photograph that draws you in so much. is it steichen’s talent as a photographer? is it swanson’s gaze? is it both?

Gertrud Arndt, « Maskenselbstbildnis Nr. 16 », 1930

Gertrud Arndt, « Maskenselbstbildnis Nr. 16 », 1930

i also know these things because i am smart. because i am not just a passive consumer of photography, art, and fashion – i’m a fan. i take the time to inform myself, to remember details.

after finishing the book, i must admit i felt slightly disappointed. curious choices for images to define over a century of style. in the end, what i personally disliked about it was that it did not present the picture of fashion that i know and love. it presented the typical vision of fashion as one occupied by those who can afford to indulge in high-end couture, with more photos of runway models and movie stars than your average joe. a model can wear a dress, that is their job at the end of the day, but i’ve always been more interested in why someone might choose to wear certain garments, and how they wear them.

this reminded me yet again why i often feel alienated by the “fashion” world.

this leads to other things i’ve been asking myself about these days: what makes a fashion blog feminist. perhaps it’s because someone pointed out to me that when you google “feminist fashion blog,” my blog is on the first page of results. perhaps it’s because i’ve come across more than a few fashion blogs that describe themselves as feminist, yet i see very little/no explicit political content or discussion. or worse, a very second-wave version of what it means to be feminist.

a tweet posted on may 9th by julia that reads "if i could just have a feature that would let me read about fashion online without having to trudge through body hate bullshit, that'd be great."

one of the more specific reasons this question has been on my mind is because of last week’s extravagant fashion event. i wanted to see what people wore to the met ball last week. briefly: the met ball is when the top of the top get decked out to the nines in incredibly lavish clothing. here’s a more detailed description from the Atlantic‘s may 2007 article “Why Fashion Deserves its Place in Art Museums:”

Once inside, the 700 guests—actors and models, designers and socialites—will dine and dance and preview the museum’s newest exhibition. The occasion is the “party of the year,” the Met’s Costume Institute Benefit Gala. Co-chaired annually by Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, the party is not just a chance to wear and admire beautiful clothes; it’s a lavish and efficient fund-raising machine. Tickets start at $6,500 per person, with tables for 10 running as high as $100,000. Last year’s gala raised $4.5 million for the museum’s fashion department.

obviously, it’s one of my few typical “Fashion Elite” moments of awe. i generally click through a handful of fashion week shit, but it’s generally kinda low on my radar. the met ball, on the other hand? pure fantasy through and through, and i shamelessly love gawking at it. this year in particular featured an exhibition that is right up my alley: Schiaparelli & Prada (and wrote a bit about back in march). in my hunt for more photos of the dresses people wore, i visited sites i tend to avoid… and was reminded of why. i found myself rolling my eyes at the comments, and asking myself, really?

the comments on jezebel‘s “good/bad/ugly” met gala review are more about how skinny a model is, how much someone looks like a “drag queen” (as if that’s a bad thing?), and how slutty a woman’s dress is than about, say, whether or not it was an appropriate choice for a gala that lauds designer known for collaborations with surrealist artists, or how the theme of the gala this year was explicitly focused around conversations about feminist women.

the overall tone i got from the four or five websites i visited was one fraught with body policing (variations of the she’s too thin to show that much skin/she’s too fat to wear that dress/that colour/that style, usually coded in words like “flattering”) and left me headdesking. why so much vitriol when there were so many other potential things of substance to discuss? who chose to wear schiaparelli’s signature shocking pink? what worked, the over the top designs or the more demure ones? the hommages: well-done or too hokey?

i took to twitter and of course discovered i’m not alone in wanting to consume fashion (at least visually) without having to confront body hate and mean-spirited comments everywhere i turn. jenny zhang was briefly the fashion commentator at jezebel, and talked about her own struggles with facilitating that environment, as someone who identifies as feminist:

For a while, I was writing red carpet commentary for Jezebel, and I always felt too mean or not mean enough or not quippy enough or not discerning enough or too judgmental. It’s hard to write meaningfully about fashion! At least it is for me.

and i hear her. we fall into the trappings of “oh my god, she wore THAT?!” partly because it’s so effortless, but also because it’s so pervasive. it’s everywhere we turn. not only that, it’s ridiculous gendered, almost always heteronormative, often racist (if not completely whitewashed) – and overall unproductive and boring in my eyes. if you missed it, i wrote an article mapping out my feelings around those issues last year.

it’s so easy for me to feel as though i’m the one in the wrong, because i feel as though i’m in the minority. it’s easy to feel as though i should just accept that catty rude comments about people’s bodies are par for the course when it comes to talking about fashion. that i’ll always have to start conversations about my interest in fashion and art by defending that fashion can be art, since most people’s perception of the word “fashion” is a vacuous and mean-spirited one.

for me, framing my blog as a “critical take on fashion culture” is the most direct way i can challenge these notions. people know if they come to my blog they won’t see me writing about fashion in that way.

self-portrait by mccall johnson

i’m trying to remember why i write here. why i’ve been trying to create this space and foster dialogue around feminism and fashion for years. even though there are more and more of us these days, we still have to defend the very basic premise that you can be interested in fashion AND be a feminist. i’m really looking forward for the day we can put those conversations to bed, and move forward.

i should pride myself on my extensive knowledge of fashion and art, not laugh it off.  if i’m less worried that people will interpret my interest and affection for fashion as frivolous or anti-feminist, than maybe i can finally get to that point. let’s trade in shame for pride, stop being belittled and start being empowered. i’m done with the defenses. let’s keep talking about how to challenge oppressive ideologies we see operating in the fashion world we are already a part of.

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20 Comments

Filed under fashion, self-portraits, Uncategorized, vintage

20 responses to “knowledge, power and “feminist” fashion blogs

  1. Impressive post!
    You are able to write in words ideas I have a hard time putting together in my head.
    The fact that the fashion industry in saturated with such poor/irrelevant coverage is unacceptable. Feminism and fashion s’emboitent de façon merveilleuse in your writings.

  2. thank you thank you thank you. i’m a skimmer when it comes to most blogs for many of the reasons you’ve pointed out, mainly because “because i am not just a passive consumer of photography, art, and fashion”. it was through jenny’s chictopia post that went viral that i came to your blog. i tire of the same, or similar visual content thrown up on blogs, but little to educate me behind the image. i want to know what/where/why/when? i know i need to self edit more, because i get carried away and want to establish the whole social context before getting started on the oooohs and aaaaahs of a piece of lace or silk on a period gown. please keep writing as you are because even for the base reason that you can love fashion and be a feminist, even if it seems more difficult, academically, to marry the two, its a challenge not many bloggers want to step up to and you are banging the nail on the head. i’m reading more, lots of books i’ve put off too long on my shelf, but i hope that one day i will be as forward thinking and as articulate as you.

    • ha! funny you mention that aspect particularly, i’m working on a post about the importance of credit and sourcing when it comes to blogging etiquette. when did we shift to this era of passive “ooo that’s pretty!” without wanting to know who made it, when, how?

      thank you so much for reading and commenting, it means a lot to know i have an audience out there who wants me to keep working on these questions and ideas.

  3. yes yes yes, esp. your last paragraph

    I’ve completely stopped following fashion; fashion blogs, runways, everything because it kept disappointing me, not only with the many isms but also with the increasing vacuity in the collections (or maybe I’ve just become more critical?) etc. but it’s a shame, when so many of my dreams were basically born out of Vogue when I was reading it at eleven. Maybe it’s time to take up my interest again but start thinking critically, but then again maybe I’ve just evolved too because I am steering a lot more towards the whys and the hows and the stories behind whatever a person wears. Then again, isn’t that exactly what I feel is lacking in a lot of fashion collections?

    ~idk random train of thoughts~

    • eline i always love reading what you have to say! i really admire the work you do, and it’s nice to know i’m not all alone in a little boat called the s.s. daydreams of feminist fashion.

      i understand your cynicism because i feel it too – often. i unfollowed a lot of explicitly fashion tumblrs because they made me feel gross. i stopped visiting jezebel, style.com, even blogs that presented themselves as feminist friendly because it just was not worth it. the little bit of information and entertainment i would get would just be swamped by crap crap crap and more crap.

      part of me wonders if it’s worth putting in the energy and effort to challenge specific examples of blatant sexism, cultural appropriation, ageism, bullshit that i see in fashion magazines. but it’s why i started my blog, and why i think we need to create productive spaces to talk about what changes we need to see in fashion culture…

      basically what i’m trying to say is, i’m so glad you’re around and that we’re not in these battles alone.

      • Let’s try to never get exhausted and create those safe spaces.

        & The feeling is so totally mutual, Julia (◡‿◡♡)

  4. I feel similarly about “feminist” style blogs on tumblr. Is feminism really just a catch-all phrase for being different or being down with menstruation, rather than actually going through and disseminating gender politics in fashion, abuse in fashion production, etc etc? Because although we have things that are “inspired” by feminist media (riot grrrl most notably), I don’t feel like it’s a dolled up box on the outside with no substance inside.
    As for those who biggy-back off of “feminist” buzz-words but do not engage in critical thinking when it comes to their interests, I just can’t be bothered, no matter how read you seem. I wrote up a post about in my blog today, actually, so MAJOR IRONY when I saw this post!

  5. Aw, was pleasantly surprised to find one of my photographs here! I have had a postcard with that Swanson image on it since a friend sent it to me in highschool, always loved the image but never knew where it came from, that Arndt photograph is wonderful too.

  6. There are a few friends/acquaintances I keep putting off spending time with because I don’t want another conversation filled with ‘I’m a special snowflake and better because I dress like this but OMG look at what she’s wearing what a slut’ (OK, they don’t say that but they may as well sometimes).
    I’ve also been a bit disappointed by some ‘vintage and feminism’ posts I’ve seen pop up because there were bits that didn’t sit right with me in ways I can’t quite articulate (and some of the comments on the posts in question seemed to miss the point entirely and it somehow ended up with vintage styles being better, again, because they’re not slutty or something…I tried not to read them.)
    I had something else to write (that was actually a bit more related to the content of this post) but it’s clean gone from my head, now.

  7. Pingback: 31. READ. LOOK. THINK. | Jessica Stanley.

  8. I just found your blog and I’m so glad, I really struggle with the intersection between fashion and feminism. I feel like the culture of fashion is problematic in so many ways. But clothes and dressing up and the history of fashion are so interesting and vital. Hmmm. I come more from a sewing community online and it fascinates me that people who make their own clothes seem to shy away from discussing or thinking about fashion, and I think that’s because fashion is presented in such a consumerist, passive way online. As you say, it’s all about ‘ooh, that’s pretty’, or ‘I want this’.

  9. Amazing post! These pictures do look a little freaky. I don’t know why, but it is hard to look at them.

  10. 100000000000000% into this. thanks for linking to me too, honored. :)

  11. the best thing a feminist can do: apply her feminism in a different space. Thank you for doing it here. http://rachelhills.tumblr.com/post/23950944207

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