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Look up anything about women, feminism, and fashion and you’ll find conversation happening around the importance of clothing to women’s identity and empowerment. This is great since so often, “fashion” is associated with negative stereotypes about what femininity means (self-absorption, frivolity, etc.). Lately, that’s starting to change, as “feminist fashion” has become a popular form of protest, especially since 2016. But discussions of these trends still tend to focus on personal consumer choices. We want to talk about something that goes further than buying a “Wild Feminist” t-shirt.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating individual expression; it can be one of life’s great pleasures and even a way to challenge the status quo (like Yoko Ono getting married in a mini skirt and Keds!). But real social change happens when individuals get together. We think the power of clothes to shape communities and represent collective goals deserves more attention.
“We firmly believe that fashion’s greatest strength is in its power of community.”
Of course, women have used fashion to form collective identities for centuries. This behavior hasn’t always been for positive social change: for instance, the plantation mistresses of antebellum South kept up with the latest trends, like hoop skirts, but their enjoyment of fashion was only possible due to the labor of enslaved people and low-wage workers. The clothes they wore helped maintain a hierarchy that separated upper class women from everyone else. Hoop skirts were a frustrating fashion for the elite, though. They quickly became so affordable rich women had to invent maid’s uniforms to make sure they didn’t get confused with “the help.”
This is just one example, but it shows one of the exciting things about fashion: every time certain groups tried to make it an exclusive domain, others have jumped in to change its meaning. Like in 1909, the young women and girls who organized the “Uprising of the 20,000” shocked the world by showing up in their best hats and shirtwaists. This massive garment worker strike changed the way Americans saw the women who made their clothes and led to major labor reforms — and the strikers’ elaborate “three story hats” were part of that.
Later in the 20th century, young people used fashion to challenge oppressive definitions of femininity, and also to demonstrate solidarity against the societies that excluded them. The hit Netflix series Pose has renewed interest in the 1980s ballroom scene in New York City. As the series highlights, fashion wasn’t just an aspect of the balls’ competitive performances. As various houses, with their “mother” leaders and chosen “children” worked together to create elaborate costumes and choreography, style became a community effort. It was a way to show affiliation, and a tool with which trans women of color could redefine family and femininity.
A little later, a bunch of women college students in Washington D.C., Olympia, Washington, Los Angeles, and other cities, got frustrated with the macho, misogynist posturing that had taken over punk rock. They created a woman-centric scene that came to be called Riot Grrrl and dressed in a hodge-podge style, blending hyper-masculine and excessively girly, pairing things like vintage slips and combat boots. Riot Grrrl was short-lived and full of flaws. Feminist scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen has written eloquently about its failures around racial inclusion. But for a while, it demonstrated how style can unify women in expressing decidedly “unlady-like” feelings — like rage and rebelliousness — and call out beauty norms in ways that continue to influence new generations.
And young women are still using fashion to communicate politics and solidarity, and to generally make a scene. When Teen Vogue reported on what people were wearing to the Climate Strike in September, it was clear that the presence of vintage wasn’t just following a trend. As one 17-year-old put it, “I think it’s really important that we start upcycling and not just throw things away but get full use out of everything so we don’t contribute to global warming.”
The examples here show first and foremost that girls and women have a long history of working together for social change. But they also show that the unifying power of fashion has been an important tool in that process. Too often, the way we talk about fashion and style keeps people anxious about their own success and focused on themselves, rather than their larger communities. In fact, among the most common stereotypes about fashion is that it’s self-focused, narcissistic. But fashion has the power to be so much more. We firmly believe that fashion’s greatest strength is in its power of community. Social change happens around collective identities, and fashion is a huge part of how we see ourselves connected to others. This is why we created Dismantle, an online magazine that frames fashion and popular culture as tools for social change. We want to foster new conversations about the power of dress that dismantle the hierarchies and boundaries we all face.
Sara Tatyana Bernstein, PhD and Elise Chatelain, PhD are the co-founders of Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change (www.dismantlemag.com). Sara is also a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon where she teaches fashion studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Elise is a freelance editor and academic coach who divides her time between New Orleans and Merida, Mexico.
THE KEDS HAND-BOOK FOR WOMEN: the power issue
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An exclusive Q&A with Meena Harris, founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, about activism, motherhood, and paying it forward.
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