Fashion v Feminism

“The fashion industry is bad for feminism” was the motion debated on a very interesting programme on Radio 4 last week. Devil’s Advocate asks guest debaters to argue from the stance they would normally be against. On this edition of the programme fashion journalist Caryn Franklin argued for the motion, while feminist author and campaigner Julie Bindel argued against it.

Franklyn made the argument that the fashion industry is motivated solely by profit and that it left little room for morals and ethics pertaining to the negative effects it might have on women. She reminded the audience of the fact that the average woman is a size 16 but revealed that first year fashion students are given a size 8 mannequin to work from. She argued persuasively that women are made to feel “hopelessly imperfect and in need of the next fashion fix to make it all alright.” Adding that any contentment it did provide would only ever be fleeting because of fashion’s seasonal nature.

Bindel’s argument centred round the premise that fashion gives women a choice that shouldn’t be sneezed at. She cited the example of women in Afghanistan who hold secret parties where they dress up and wear make-up as a means of escapism from the oppressive world of the burka, making the point that fashion can be an expression of freedom.

It was a well balanced and worthwhile debate and a great piece of radio too, not least because it got me thinking.

Depending on whether you agree that women dress for each other as opposed to for men, could subscribing to fashion be seen as a way of identifying yourself as an independent woman who makes time for herself, rather than a drudge who has to play second fiddle to the needs of others?

Could it be a feminist statement to wear make up and clothes that suit and flatter? Or does it mean that although we may have time to achieve a look that makes us happy and comfortable with ourselves, we are still in thrall to a patriarchal, capitalist fashion industry that dictates to us what that look should consist of.

Are women who spend time and effort on their appearance dupes? Or is it a wise woman who uses a tried and tested method to make herself feel more confident in order to reach her goals or simply get through the day.

When I was younger I rejected the idea of fashion and make-up because I believed it made women complicit in their inequality. I couldn’t stand the idea of being viewed as an ornament rather than as a human being who had something to offer the world. I did not want to be ogled by men. I wanted to be able to talk to them as an equal.

I was confident and happy in my baggy clothes and big boots and I had a great many friends both male and female. But when I look at pictures of myself from that period of my life, I see a woman in hiding and I feel that, in a way, I wasted my youth.

These days I wear make up, choose clothes to suit my figure but still wear comfortable shoes! But I don’t think fashion is the greatest thing since sliced bread and I don’t think it’s done women as much good as some would have us believe.

The crux of the problem is the lack of variety, or diversity, both in images of women as portrayed by magazines, newspapers, TV, online or by advertising in all of the afore mentioned and also in what sort of clothes are available. Women end up chasing the impossible because there doesn’t appear to be anything else to aspire to.

I’m a stone or so overweight. I don’t look great in skirts at the moment, but I know a pair of tapered wide leg trousers would flatter my figure and keep me cool this summer. But can I find such a garment? No. If it did exist it most likely would be designed for a size 16 that had not protrusions of fat in any direction – i.e. no belly, no love handles, and no spare flesh on the bum. What designers don’t seem to take into account is this is what being a larger woman means. It doesn’t mean bigger but slim all over, it means fat bits where we’d prefer not to have them. So if you’re designing from a size 8 mannequin rather than from a range of different sized mannequins, or perhaps even from real woman, that makes you a bit of a dummy.

But if you’re making a mint out of it I suppose you don’t care.

There are plenty of people arguing and campaigning for more realistic models. Some catwalks have even been visited by size 12 and 14 women modelling the latest fashions, but to make a difference we need clothes to be designed for real women and magazines that feature a variety of body types – not just the same body type but in a larger size.

If the day comes when the fashion industry starts taking some responsibility for the way it affects women, by designing for and using models of all different shapes and sizes, then it might be seen as having done something for feminism. Until then, you can cry ‘choice’ as much as you like but to me it’s no choice when it’s just the same old thing but from a different shop.

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