Posts tagged ‘feminism’

November 20, 2010

Satirical sartorialism: fashion and femininity

(A note: this isn’t a fashion post as such. It’s more of a pseudo-academic musing, which I understand isn’t always what people are after on lazy Saturday afternoons. Click here for today’s usual outfit post ^^. —I must add, however, that this post contains a rather dorky set of photos, so if you want to see the stranger side of me, have a read through XP. My outfit is pretty damn’d cute too, if I do say so myself.)

I read a great post, Selling Myself, by a fellow Voguette. She discusses the fact that Alannah Hill is an incredibly feminine brand; that sales depend on selling a (very feminine) image; and whether or not it matters that she is selling femininity. This post is a run-off rather than a direct reply; I’ve used it to bounce into my own reflections about my femininity and fashion choices.

As someone aware of and interested in gender, I often have to reconcile the fact that I am a feminist performing a very specific type of femininity — a femininity that is often derided as frivolous and a hindrance to feminist movements.  It would be easier if I were an individual engaging in genderfuck or even someone who dresses androgynously (as Tilda Swinton does), or dresses like Valerie, who is often seen in (a more feminine) vest and tie. Such performances are far more explicitly gender-b(l)ending than my rather conservative display of femininity.

Me (left): 'girly' girl: Bows; skirt. Girl. Valerie (right): 'not-girly' girl; tie; vest. Girl.

That being said, genderfuck performances are often read as ‘just fucked up and wrong’ as opposed to a playful approach to gender; androgynous or cross dressing people are often shunted into the butch/femme binary — that is, their dress choices are immediately (and sometimes erroneously) equated with their sexuality. These performances are often recognised and read through a conservative gender lens. Performances alone, unfortunately, do not invite reflexivity.

So what if we played within the actual constructs of gender? Dressing like a tomboy or like ‘one of the guys’ stems from a rather androcentric stance — that masculinity is neutral and femininity is other. And a feminine ‘neutral’ outfit — a laid back and ‘prettified’ jeans and t-shirt affair — feels to me like a naturalisation of the relationship between ‘prettiness’ and female. So I decided, a good five years ago, not to fight it, but to accentuate it a little; make it just a bit more absurd. I slipped out of my jeans and t-shirts and took ‘girliness’ to the absolute heights (that my wallet could reach XP).

This has, of course, invited very conservative readings of my gender identity. All of a sudden I was offered Jane Austen books at bookstores (don’t start me on how boring I find Austen); people expected me to be shopping for my boyfriend at EB Games; and people look rather taken aback and perplexed when I say that I once spent over twenty-four hours, without sleep, grinding my character to the next level in an MMORPG.

My clothes have led people to dub me a ‘girly girl’, although outside of makeup and clothes, I don’t ascribe to conventionally feminine interests at all. My interest in makeup and clothes stems from aestheticism and colour theory as well, not necessarily from ‘looking attractive’ (although that’s always a plus!) — I derive the same pleasure from putting together a nice outfit as I do from putting together a nice arrangement of objects. If I were a male in nineteenth-century England, I would be all over Piccadilly carrying lilies with the best of them. (And swooning. I find that aesthetes in literature are always fainting onto couches.)

This does baffle me a bit, because I can’t help but ask: what does it mean when I’m dubbed ‘a girly girl’? I’m ‘more’ girl than the girl in jeans and a t-shirt? But we both (presumably) have female genitalia; we both (presumably) have the XX chromosome.  How can the clothes on my back suddenly deem me more ‘girl’? All of a sudden gender is marked not by biological sex but by something else — something that is rather arbitrary, like clothing.

I mean, look at me, everyone. I’m seriously a dork. I don’t spend all my time lounging in teahouses and cafes and looking for vintage things. I do spend a great deal of time doing so, but that’s not because of my biological sex — in the same way my dorky geeky nerdiness* isn’t because of my biological sex, either. (*The first thing I did when I got my iPod Touch was download the lightsabre app and run around making ‘zzwmmmm’ noises. But I don’t have pictures of that.) I’m not quite sure what I was doing here, but rest assured: it was epic.

Least. Feminine. Action. Evar. But-in-a-pink-dress.

If I were in a dorky looking t-shirt and had my hair all frizzy, I doubt anyone would call me ‘very girly’. Take away my dress and cardigan and I am no longer obviously ‘girly’, which suggests a (simplified) equation: Andrea + current clothes = girly girl; Andrea – current clothes = girl; therefore current clothes = girly.

Clothes maketh the girl here; and certain clothes mark femininity. Femininity is, put simply, a costume: something we perform and something we do. As a costume and a performance, it can also be taken off and stopped. It is hugely unnatural to strut around in high heels as it is to rip the hair out from under our arms, but it is being marketed to us as a very natural thing: something that women ‘like’ or ‘have’ to do, by virtue of our gender.

What I hope to do by dressing in such an absurdly girly way is highlight how much of a costume it is: how much effort goes into engaging in all the trappings of femininity, how very controlled and limiting it is, how very ridiculous it is to expect women to conform to it all the time.  And I enjoy this performance. I do; else I wouldn’t be doing it. But I enjoy it in the same way I’d enjoy dressing up in a costume of a film character: there’s something really terribly awesome about acting a role. I just happen to act a role on a daily basis.

Of course, this doesn’t work flawlessly. It has made a few of my students think,  once or twice. It’s also probably been read as ‘just girliness’ by countless of other people. As such, my choices may be just the indulgence of a privileged middle-class first-world cis-gendered female (booyeah cultural theory keywords!), pretending to take a political stance. In my defence, I’m not trying to tangibly change very much by dressing the way I do. I am aware, however, of the politics of performance, both in a theoretical mechanics-of sense and in the tangible political realm. An explicitly artificial, costumed, so-feminine-it’s-almost-unreal performance seems to fit the bill as well as anything else.

I also think it’s really important to claim femininity as a valid performance. ‘Serious’ things are always equated with the masculine. If you want to suggest that a girl is stupid, you style her in pink and frills and bows. I get great thrills from appearing all frilled up and being able to hold my own in an academic debate; in wearing bows and pwning people at computer games. And these thrills stem from the reactions some people first have when they see me: a bit incredulous, a bit unsure… and, largely, a bit definitely positive that I’m not cut out for whatever task for which I’ve arrived.

I don’t want to have to don a suit to look respectable and serious. I can do just as good a job (in my field) in heels and with bows in my hair, and I don’t want to act some form of masculinity just because being male is srs bzns and somehow more valid than femininity.