There’s a fashion week somewhere in the world right now, and there’s a lot to hate about them. The crash diets. The extremely skinny, disturbingly young runway models who are held up as “ideal”, and all the ways they’re exploited. Then there’s the extravagant cost of the clothing, where a shopper may drop in one trip what many people make in a month.
What’s not to hate is the creativity, the art and the women whose shopping sustains the industry.
It’s all too satisfying to brand women who like fashion as shallow, self-involved or dumb. And there’s certainly a lot to be criticized when it comes to promoting consumption based on a particular brand identity meant to signify wealth – the signature Louis Vuitton bag, the big Chanel Cs. Through the recession, brand identity went slightly more covert in response to an increased hostility to gross displays of wealth, but also as a way to establish a sense of insider-ness. Only the “in crowd” knows the exact shape of a Chloe bag or the signature weave of Bottega Veneta.
Displays of pure consumption to signal social and economic status are not exactly progressive, but it’s hypocritical to single out women for being shallow in their wardrobe spending. Men spend money on things that are just as unnecessary and just as intended to signal class and social tribe. For men, items like bespoke suits, fancy cars or innumerable electronics somehow signal a James Bond image, not a shallow one.
While it’s a common assumption that women simply have more clothing items in their closets than men, that also reflects social necessity. Women can be (and are) fired for not being attractive enough, for not wearing enough make-up, for being too attractive or for not putting out the right “look”. And being attractive isn’t just about whether or not your face is pretty; it’s about how you signal your social class and your sexual availability.
When it comes to fashion, then, women are socially shamed no matter what we do. Don’t engage at all? There are entire television series dedicated to making you over, since you clearly lack self-esteem. Do a little shopping but at cheap low-end stores? You look “trashy”. Buy pricier items and enjoy it? You’re shallow and materialistic.
There are of course some extremely talented women who excel at perusing the aisles of thrift stores and second-hand shops, and who balance loving fashion with a dedication to social justice (no sweatshop labour) and the environment (recycled clothing).
Women, for better or worse – although mostly worse – are the class of people who are on physical display. Sure, men are judged by their appearance, but as long as they look clean and are wearing an outfit within the universe of what’s considered socially appropriate for the occasion, they’ll avoid criticism. While being an attractive man is beneficial in the job market, being an attractive woman is beneficial only if you’re in a traditionally female career. Otherwise, even pretty women face job discrimination.
There are racial elements to this as well. Some companies, like retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, have reportedly favoured hiring employees with “all-American” good looks. Black women have long been told that natural hair or braids aren’t “professional” (meaning they should have to spend money and time chemically straightening their hair to fit someone else’s aesthetic ideal).
And, of course, the body you’re putting into the clothes changes how the outfit is read. A relatively thin, flat-chested woman wearing a V-neck blouse isn’t a problem, but bustier women are accused of attention-seeking or looking “inappropriate”. A few years ago, conservative bloggers went wild over a photo of Bill Clinton and several liberal writers, because Jessica Valenti, was wearing a crew-neck sweater, under which were two breasts. For women who are big-busted, sometimes a turtleneck isn’t even enough coverage to be considered “professional”.
Of course, a lot of us have closets full of clothes to make sure we can meet these ever-shifting demands, and the many requirements of varying social and professional settings.
Fashion is also fun, at least for some of us. While I’m the first person to object to the social expectation that women be visually pleasing creatures, as long as I’m in that jail, I’m gonna take joy where I can get it.
Aesthetics aren’t the enemy of feminism; social codes that require women to meet certain aesthetic principles, and to be constantly putting in time, effort and money in the service of femininity, are the enemy. Fight the system, not the people who do their best to operate in it, or, God forbid, take a little pleasure where they can find it. Gendered fashion requirements are bad. Enjoying the self-expression and aesthetic appeal of clothing? Girl, go ahead and enjoy your new shoes.
That’s the central issue though, isn’t it? That fashion is a thing girls enjoy, and so therefore it must be silly and stupid. There’s nothing that makes an afternoon of shopping any sillier than an afternoon watching football; there’s nothing inherently less useful about a handbag than a new video game. But because fashion and clothes are stereotypically feminine pursuits and sports are stereotypically masculine, fashion is frivolous and sports are awesome. Women who spend money on themselves are self-involved. Men who do are either dapper or early adapters of the gadget du jour or just “that guy with the boat”.
Men, in fact, spend more money on consumer products than women. But men aren’t considered frivolous spenders, because the connotations of the very word “frivolity” are feminine.
Men are also the ones enjoying the lion’s share of the money and the fame for women’s “shallow” interest in fashion. They outnumber female designers and they get more recognition. The New York Times noted in 2005 that The Council of Fashion Designers of America had given its prestigious annual award to young talent to 29 men and eight women. While male designers have taken home the Womenswear Award 13 out of 18 years, a woman has never won the CDFA Menswear award.
The system that keeps women out of top tier positions, even in industries that largely cater to and are supported by women, is worthy of condemnation. And I won’t argue with critics of mindless consumerism. But for all of its faults, the fashion industry creates wearable art, and its designers display laudable ingenuity, creativity and commitment to aesthetic pleasure.