The Feminism of Fashion

Artistic Licence: What not to wear, taken from The Sunday Business Post
03:55, 28 September 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

Recently I was browsing through a clothes shop in Temple Bar when I became aware of two women, a mother and her indie rocker daughter, lingering nearby. The conservatively attired mother was showing pretty necklace after pretty necklace to her slumped-shouldered teenager.
“Would you not think about this one?” she beseeched. “Or this one?” The daughter had a face like a squashed bug, she was pale and mortified. I winced with sympathy for them: the daughter having the day from hell, and the mother trying to force her child into her own clothing ideals, not realising her daughter wanted to wear anything but her mother’s version of herself.
This being September – the key month in fashion’s calendar – every newspaper and magazine, including this one, is putting its best face forward, ready to advise its readers on the hottest Autumn/Winter trends to wear. And for most adults, fashion is that simple: a collection of things nice and not nice. But consider the lot of the indie-rock teen discovering themselves. A decision about whether to wear Doc Martens or high heels isn’t simply a sartorial issue to them, it’s an expression of the kind of person they want to be. Fashion as an expression of indie-rock individuality is the 1980s tan trench coat worn by John Cusack in Say Anything. It’s the succession of cool band T-shirts sported by Jack Black in High Fidelity. It’s the Ramones’ dusky fringes. It’s every cool on-stage outfit Meg and Jack White ever wore.
Fashion is about being yourself, even when that self is a cross 16-year-old who wants to do anything but wear something “nice” or “attractive”. Going to my teenage discos in west Cork in the 1990s, I used to wear suede Doc Martens, pale blue cord flares with scuffed ends and a plain top. None of these things was attractive. That wasn’t the point. I remember my mother’s friend Evie sitting by the fireside, looking at me with a horror verging on despair. “But would you not wear heels?” she asked, in a strained voice. “And a dress?”
Evie wasn’t to know that what actually happened at our town hall disco was hardly quiet waltzing. No, our favourite thing at the time was to wait until Nirvana or Rage Against The Machine blasted from the speakers, then literally pile ourselves on top of each other in a kind of human pyre. Breathing was difficult in the pyre. Heels would not have been the correct sartorial option.
At the time, if you’d asked me, I would have said that fashion didn’t matter to me. I wouldn’t have understood then that – as a child of the increasingly feminist 1990s – my anti-fashion stance was in itself a statement, and a very definite choice. Forget fashion, I wanted to be judged on my brain, not my shoes. And I didn’t have the confidence back then to think the world both allowed girls to wear short skirts and to be simultaneously perceived as intelligent.
Are things different now? You’d hope so. But last week, the former Harry Potter actress Emma Watson gave an impassioned and important speech on feminism, broadcast to millions. She wore a conservative white dress doing it. The tabloids later ran the story, but alongside old pictures where she was attired in a tiny skirt, clearly on a casual day off. They used her clothing to undermine her, juvenilise her and patronise her. They were like a parent insisting on one interpretation of their child, unwilling or unable to admit how much more there was to see.
Fashion can be frivolous. It can be fun. And it should be. But fashion is also socially important in ways that sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to admit. I’d like to think that if I were a parent, I’d allow my children to be who they wanted, to find a form of expression through fashion and also to find themselves while doing it. Let them eat cake and wear capes – or goth boots, if that’s their bag. If nothing else, the pictures in later decades will be amusing.

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