Many of those not in the know think of fashion as a trap for women. Uncomfortable shoes. Impossible body images. Shallow spendy status symbols. Magazine layouts of size zero 6 foot tall women juxtaposed with an ad for weight loss. Meanwhile these women are teenagers blessed with great genes who often live incredibly unhealthy lifestyles (eat nothing, work out like mad and face constant criticism for the teeniest bit of wiggle on their skeletal frames). And yes, there is a large part of fashion that I grapple with that doesn’t leave me feeling very empowered.
But there is an incredibly empowering side of fashion: that of self-expression. And though I romanticize the historical cuts, I couldn’t think of a better time to live in where I have all of the tools available for me to express my own personal style in a meaningful way.
Powerful Positions in the Fashion Industry
First off, I’d like to acknowledge the many women who have paved the way over the years, many of them who overcame odds of their time to build empires in their day.
Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) – Founder of the Lanvin Fashion house. Born into poverty, eldest of 11 children. She worked her way up from seamstress to fashion empire before she turned 40. Lanvin is the longest standing fashion house + the inventor of the flapper dress.
Coco Chanel (1883-1971) - Founder of Chanel. Born to a single mother who died when she was 12, was left at an orphanage. She worked her way from seamstress to milliner to one of the most classic luxury brands of all time.
Ida Rosenthal (1886-1973) – She invented the brassiere! Founder (alongside Enid Bisset) of Maidenform after emigrated to the US from Russia. The company even survived the Great Depression – because, well, they created a product that women couldn’t live without.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) – One of Chanel’s rivals whose house closed in 1954, but is responsible for the now heavily copied trompe d’oeil bowtie sweaters and her other knit patterns. She came from wealth and privilege, but women-run businesses were not common.
Mary Quant (1934- ) – Inventor of the mini skirt and hot pants and credited with bringing the mod style worldwide. Born to two school teachers who worked hard to emerge from their mining families, Mary paid her dues by taking illustration and apprenticing while building her reputation in London.
There are many large fashion houses that were also founded by women or have women as Chairmen or on other very senior board positions: Celine, Chloe, Agnes B, Prada (Miuccia Prada, granddaughter), Jil Sander, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Diane von Furstenberg, Norma Kamali, Vera Wang, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry (Angela Ahrendts is the CEO, Rose Marie Bravo is the Vice Chairman), LVMH (Delphine Arnault owns 7.5% of stock and is a director), Jaeger (Belinda Earl CEO), Jimmy Choo (Tamara Mellon, founder & CEO), Missoni (Rosita is cofounder), Escada (Megha Mittal, Chairman), Betsey Johnson, Donna Karan, Versace….I could go on. Really. Of all of the industries out there, I see more women in powerful positions in fashion houses, journalism and as style setters.
And yes, it makes sense because women are also the biggest consumers of fashion, but what came first?
Pink Collar Ghetto Be Damned
One of the most interesting recent phenomenons I’ve witnessed is the tech world’s inability to grasp the popularity of Pinterest. Even though there is probably more hype than necessary around the image bookmarking and sharing community, it’s got something special and I believe it will continue to be successful. But the inability to grasp the current popularity is directly related to the heavy female userbase, whose behavior evade influencers who have built tech startups previously. The most popular users are fashion bloggers, stylists and fashion brands(often run by women).
Not to mention that there is a huge upswing in female-led and female-centric startups that are couched in beauty, fashion and all things feminine. Companies like Gilt Group and Birchbox have led the way to disrupting an entire industry and, consequently, are led by women. Women who had to work harder to convince the money people that these were viable business models even though the statistics behind women and shopping have been published openly for years.
These businesses have paved the way for an eruption of startups that serve the female user and have proven that focusing on women is a profitable, viable business model. In 2003, I attended a presentation by an ad agency who were discussing their Mini Cooper campaign. They explained at the time, “We focused on the power of the Mini Cooper in order to attract men to buy, because it is commonly understood that if men buy, women buy, too. But if you attract women to buy, men will avoid the product.” I think this was also the conventional wisdom amongst the tech set for many years and I’m glad that women-centric startups are disrupting that thought pattern.
Art, Fashion and the Expression of Self
But business of fashion aside, fashion itself can be one of the most empowering thing a woman (or anyone) can do. Bloggers like Leandra Medine of ManRepeller have exposed what we, as women, have known for years: we dress for our pleasure and to connect with other women. Though much of the advertising and editorial in fashion is about a hyperbole of fertile female sexuality, the performance of it is not (usually). Like it or not, a woman gains power in social situations by being attractive, stylish, confident and fit. The examination of this is a whole other conversation (that often devolves into a Darwinian discussion of fertility and such).
But at the crux of the expression of it is the feeling of confidence. There is nothing like looking like a million bucks to make someone feel like a million bucks. This could correspond with comfort for some, feeling of fitting in for others (the costume of the situation – like jeans and t-shirts in Silicon Valley) or even wearing one’s costume as a statement for others. I fit into all three depending on the time and day. I love telling people the story of me moving to San Francisco with a closet full of colorful, girly clothes and 42 pairs of pointy toed shoes and how my assimilation into tech culture meant that this wardrobe whittled away to jeans, t-shirts and a pair of comfortable black shoes over 4 years. In that case, there was anti-fashion pressure to fit in and I felt like I lost something by giving up my personal art form.
Photo of me taken by LaughingSquid when I first moved to San Francisco in 2005. I was ‘performing’ the style of the valley in my own fashionable interpretation. Man, I miss those shoes…
I don’t think it is any coincidence that uber self-aware Tavi Gevinson loves fashion AND feminism. She represents what is the next wave of feminism: the de-ghettoizing of all things feminine. The idea that we can be girly and love to shop and unsure and insecure AND kickass and inspirational and world-changers and savvy. It’s the ultimate in post-post-modern feminist thinking in the real world (the academics have been talking about this stuff for years, but I haven’t seen enough real-life mainstream examples of it to feel the impact in my daily life until now). I’ve always felt a strong love for fashion and feminism and I’m incredibly joyful that the ideas are co-mingling the way they should.
So yes. I think fashion and feminism can mix beautifully. You don’t have to love both, but you no longer have to pick one or the other. Historically, it’s provided an empowering platform for women in business and it’s celebrating a renaissance on the web as well.
Oh…and can someone point me to where I can find my long, lost pointy-toed lime green kitten heeled shoes or their look-a-likes?