Tuesday, June 20, 2006

That potato sack is starting to look good

It's amazing the stuff you stumble across when perusing Blogger's Blogs of Note. I had signed on to write a completely different post, only to be distracted by a particularly amusing blog, titled A Dress a Day. I admit, I had seen this blog featured earlier this week as a Blog of Note, and I had hesitated to click on it. From the title, I imagined this would be a blog dedicated to haute couture, designed to lavish praises upon feminine 'dressing up' and written to generally lambast those who disdain the fashion world. In an endeavour to put prejudices aside and in a further effort to procrastinate from this other to-be-written post weighing heavily upon me, I clicked on A Dress a Day and found myself only partially right. A Dress a Day seems to be a blog focused on dresses, and specifically around the blogger's own seamstress endeavours and eBay surfing. Being a woman who wavers day-to-day from dressing to impress and throwing on the first piece of cloth I encounter when reaching into the closet, I was about to out-click when an enticing post caught my eye: questioning assumptions. Here, the blogger reviews and criticizes The Brown Dress Project, in which an artist has endeavoured to wear the same, home-made denim brown dress for 365 consecutive days (accessorized for inclement weather conditions). I was immediately fascinated by the Brown Dress Project, finding the project an interesting exploration of consumerism, artistic endurance, and sheer feasibility. The Brown Dress artist, Alex Martin, justifies her project by saying:

In this performance, I intend to reject our sweat-shop-supporting economy of over-consumption, and the bill of goods that has been sold, especially to women, about what makes a person good, attractive and interesting. Clothes are certainly part of this image, and the expectation is immense. The economic resources required to regularly purchase newly-manufactured clothing in retail stores are staggering – a hundred dollars for one new shirt? ... The project is influenced in part by the art/anti-fashion movement “Grey Sweatsuit Revolution”, in which participants attend a social event or public gathering wearing un-flattering sweatsuits as a statement against fashion trends and dictums. It is also inspired by my view of our brothers and sisters who are citizens of the third-world, many of whom literally do not have a change of clothes. Historically, I am bolstered and supported by the generations of human beings living in every part of the world before the industrial revolution, who wore day after day, year after year, only what they or their family members could weave, sew, or knit by hand.
Aside from the uneasiness I felt when hearing of the "Third-World citizens" argument (I never like it when privileged people of the "First World" try to make statements about poverty by rejecting the material wealth of their privilege to voluntarily choose a lifestyle similar to the aforementioned lack of privilege; the very fact that the privileged have a choice to eat certain foods, wear certain clothings, etc. emphasize the differences between these two peoples and, I think, cause more disrespect to the people of the Third World, who would certainly eat meat and wear Calvin Klein fashion if they could -- I feel the same way about those who would "reject their White privilege" to feel more kinship towards people of colour), I thought this project had potential. I was further uplifted by this statement by the Brown Dress artist:
Is it a feminist thing? Probably. Also an art thing. Also a let's stop wasting time and money thing. But on a feminist note, let's stop agreeing that the best way for women (in particular) to "express themselves" is by purchasing new wardrobe items and putting together daily outfits.
The reason I am taking the time to write this post is because in the A Dress a Day blog, this statement seems to have ruffled a few feathers. The Dress blogger, also self-identifying as a feminist, argues fervently against the idea that, if fashion is a means by which women are encouraged to "express themselves", it can contribute to an established sexist system. She writes:
Last time I checked, feminism didn't have a dress code, and, in fact, now that we're on the subject, I am fed up with people who claim that women who enjoy wearing dresses can't be "real feminists". Yes, dresses are traditionally feminine, but really, part of being a feminist, in my opinion, is finally internalizing that "feminine" does not equal "bad" or "weak" or "unworthy."
This immediately brought to mind the conflict within feminism between embracing gender roles and rejecting the whole system of gender roles as, itself, sexist. Is there such a thing as "feminine" -- some characteristic of speech, dress, personality or interest that should be more acceptable for women than for men? Although both sites (run by women) use clothing -- and specifically dresses -- as a medium for communication and expression, it is interesting that while the Brown Dress artist uses this forum ironically to convey a rejection of fashion, the Dress a Day blogger instead defends dresses as, in some ways (at least in the post linked above), itself a feminist icon. Feminism expresses itself in many ways, and I think a rejection of fashion can be a very strong statement; I, in fact, strongly disagree with the Dress a Day blogger who argues that those who reject fashion are saying that "feminine" equals "bad" or "weak" or "unworthy". Rather, I think those who choose to pay less attention to consumerist fashion are saying that the system of fashion promotes an interpretation of the "feminine" that is oppressive to women. While the traditionally feminine dress, when promoted, might superficially communicate a kind of "girl power", I think toting it as a symbol of feminism does more to encourage the established patriarchy than spark a revolution for change. It's kind of like comparing the Spice Girls to Andrea Dworkin. Fashion is, to some degree, about equivocating one's inner value with one's outer appearance. Pop culture's obsession with the fashion of celebrities illustrate how we parallel good fashion with our assessment of "good people". We celebrate the beautiful dresses of those like Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz on the Oscar red carpet, while Bjork's questionable swan dress still makes the annals of Late Night TV monologue jokes. Without question, the fashion industry emphasizes females more than males ("metrosexual" references aside), and even as children, girls are more frequently taught by society to place greater value on their outward appearance than boys (note the popularity of Bratz dolls amongst female children with no male child equivalent). To me, fashion is one of the quintessential support beams of the patriarchy; by telling girls more than boys that we are to place greater emphasis on outward appearance as a determinant of inward value, we are saying that our inward value, on its own, has little merit. It is therefore no surprise that men predominate in math and science-related fields: not only are girls less inclined to value their own ability to achieve outside of their outward appearance, but this "looks-ist" attitude is internalized by men as well, de-valuing females who have chosen to focus themselves on their 'invisible' talents (like their IQ). It also begs the question, "who's looking?" -- and in this heteronormative society, the answer would have to be men. Moreover, in light of the "looks-ism" of fashion, we can hardly be shocked that eating disorders predominantly affect young women. And that's not even getting into the racism of cultural appropriation and fetishization that exists as an undercurrent in the fashion industry. The Dress a Day blogger notes the Brown Dress blogger's use of quotation marks around "compliments" when the Brown Dress blogger says:
Since I am continuously engaging in conversations about my attire this year, I have become really sensitized to our cultural slant towards giving "compliments" on each others' daily outfit. "Oh, I just love your (fill in the blank - bag, hair, shoes, socks, sweater, dress, earrings, jacket, bracelet, hat, scarf)" - and tragically often, this is the intro to a conversation about where the item in question was purchased, a perfect segue back into our place as consumers in this economy. These conversations are not out-and-out evil, but I do think they are a symptom of the insidious fashion culture that keep us, and here I mean ESPECIALLY girls/women/ladies, so ridiculously busy consuming. waxing, accessorizing, and beautifying to perfect our wardrobes and fashion alignments that we can't possibly find the time to accomplish anything more revolutionary or important.
While the Dress a Day blogger rejects the idea that such compliments might be anything other than genuine compliments, I again tend to side with the Brown Dress blogger. Complimenting a woman's mode of dress is again to normalize (even reward) a system in which women should be valued for what's outside (an object "to be looked at", to parapharse Susanne Kappeler) rather than what's inside. To that end, buying into the system is contradictory to struggling for revolutionary change and so the Brown Dress blogger's words, if caustic to the ear of a feminist who embraces fashion, nonetheless seem to make sense. That's, of course, not to say that I believe that all women should reject fashion in favour of a single, brown-denim dress. The Brown Dress blogger notes that this is a performance art project with a definite beginning and end, and has been forced to make exceptions to facilitate interactions with society. She has, for example, made a point to allow herself to wear costumes when dancing on-stage as part of her job as a professional dancer and choreographer. It would be simply unrealistic to advocate a complete rejection of the fashion world -- rather, I think the point regarding choice made by the Dress a Day blogger should be considered. Feminism is fundamentally about choice, a point that has been often debated on this blog. As feminists, recognizing the diversity of our core community, we must respect and incorporate seemingly dissenting outlooks into our philosophy of gender equality. Even in the comments section of the Dress a Day blog, the commentors argue that their feminism is not invalidated by their attention to outward appearance. One commentor writes, "We all have a choice ... My choices always includes lipstick." And certainly, no one should criticize the Dress a Day blogger's (and reader's) feminism simply on the basis of their attention to fashion. Personally, I believe that the feminist ideal of gender equality, by definition, cannot occur with stratified gender roles; America has learned the hard way that segregation does not promote egalitarianism. Nonetheless, I am by no means the arbiter of all things feminist, and the question of choice looms heavily over this debate. It's absolutely true that those who choose to buy into traditional gender roles should not have their feminism denied, but I also argue that those who choose such lifestyles are not exempt from having their feminism questioned. Questions of authenticity are justified, in my opinion, and any person who self-identifies with a political movement should be able to defend their perspective -- only be doing so can we stimulate real debate and discussion. Fundamentally, I agree with the Brown Dress blogger not because I want my own brown denim-dress pattern, but because she seems to have thought through her choice to wear her brown denim dress (even if I disagree with some of her reasoning). In the 'questioning assumptions' post by the Dress a Day blogger, the blogger counters blatant misinterpretations of the Brown Dress blogger's position (for example, the Brown Dress blogger never considered those interested in fashion to be vacuous bimbos incapable of feminism; she considers being absorbed in fashion to be an inordinate waste of time and money, so the Dress a Day bloggers listing of anecdotal friends who like fashion and aren't bimbos strikes a flat chord) while never making much of an argument on her own. As to why gender roles might be a component of feminism, there are many good points that could be made, but the Dress a Day blogger doesn't voice them, instead presupposing that we all agree the Brown Dress blogger is a rabid feminist nutjob. And some of the comments are even worse, preferring to snark down the Brown Dress project (with points that could only be made by someone who didn't read the site) rather than countering the Brown Dress blogger's points. In the end, some feminists will choose to interpret feminism as reclaiming the feminine role; but rather than the knee-jerk defensiveness displayed in the above Dress a Day post, I think feminists who incorporate two seemingly contradictory lifestyles into themselves should be able to address those contradictions intellectually and academically, as well as with respect that their choices could be open to misinterpretation and questions of authenticity. We as feminists need to respect differences within our ranks, but we need to challenge those we disagree with (and ourselves) to voice their opinions effectively. This can only encourage us to think more objectively about our political ideals and consider how we relate to them, and only by doing so can we strengthen our movement and decide how best we plan to affect change. All that being said, I don't know the first thing about fashion. One commentor on the Dress a Day site saracastically wrote, "why wear a dress why not wear a potato sack it would be a better talking point? (sic)" The derisive tone aside, that potato sack is starting to look pretty good; maybe I'd even be able to start a new anti-consumerist fashion fad.


Anonymous Shaula82 said...

This immediately brought to mind the conflict within feminism between embracing gender roles and rejecting the whole system of gender roles as, itself, sexist. Is there such a thing as "feminine" -- some characteristic of speech, dress, personality or interest that should be more acceptable for women than for men?

Just wanted to point out that this so called "femininity" is not homogenous and self-identical. Quite a few feminists are queering the notion, and certainly the "femininity" of someone who has never critically examined the power structures behind it is different to the "femininity" of a high femme, for example. Not to mention that feminists may/should be fighting for any gender's right to act and dress however they want (including dressing in a "feminine" fashion), as long as it's critically examined ("the personal is political", of course).

The other point is that feminism is about empowering women, and a big part of that is not telling women what to do. It's important to urge women to think, rather than urging them to think what you think. So every woman has the right to dress however she pleases - but, as in my previous paragraph, I think she should be aware of the power lines inherent in and leading her to that pretty dress. What she decides to do next is up to her.

6/20/2006 08:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

The other point is that feminism is about empowering women, and a big part of that is not telling women what to do. It's important to urge women to think, rather than urging them to think what you think. So every woman has the right to dress however she pleases - but, as in my previous paragraph, I think she should be aware of the power lines inherent in and leading her to that pretty dress. What she decides to do next is up to her.

I agree, but I think the thinking part is critical. I worry that there are many who rarely question their choices and its ramifications in relation to identity politics.

6/20/2006 08:53:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"The other point is that feminism is about empowering women, and a big part of that is not telling women what to do." - Shaula82

What do you do with the women who work against feminism, in word and deed and mind? Think of those Phyillis Schlafly's of the world who espouse a return to 1950's era female oppression as societal stabilization.

Consider Lil Kim wannabes who degrade their physical bodies with back alley blowjobs and expose themselves to STD's with rampant unprotected sex because they assume gaudy sexuality is the sole ticket to male attention. How about the women who assume that anything scientific is for men alone?

It seems that laissez-faire feminism may be a contradiction in terms. If allowing women to make whatever choice they want becomes feminism, then feminism is rendered meaningless, and you get so-called feminists who swoon over June Cleaver dresses without critical assessment of that era's abject misogyny.

6/21/2006 04:44:00 AM  

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