Relationship Between Feminism And Fashion Cultural Studies Essay

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During this essay I am going to discuss fashion and feminism and the question, can you be a feminist and still be fashionable? I am going to discuss and compare different arguments on the relationship between feminism and fashion.

When most people hear the word feminist they automatically draw up a conclusion of tough looking women with short hair, mannish clothes and no bra. The reality is any women can be a feminist whether a school teacher, business women, model or porn star.

When feminism first came about during the nineteenth century the main focus was for equal rights for men and women. During this time feminists managed to grant the right for women to vote as well as getting more equal rights in education and the workplace. Although this wave was massively important in equal rights for women there was still a lot of issues unresolved, especially unofficial inequalities. This is where the second wave of feminism comes in.

The second wave of feminism, beginning in the 1960's, was concerned with full social and economic equality. During this wave feminists encouraged women to look into aspects of their personal lives and the structure of power. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was and still is regarded as one of the most influential books of the 20th century paying great detail to suburban housewives and how unhappy they were,

Each women thought she was alone, it was her personal guilt if she didn't have an orgasm waxing the family-room floor…no matter how much she had wanted that husband, those children, that split level suburban house and the appliances thereof, which were supposed to be the limits of women's dreams in those years after World War II, she sometimes felt the longing for something more. (Friedan, 1963: Chapter 2)

The last wave of feminism, the third wave, which started in the 1990's and still affects us today. This wave has two cultures, the first believes all advertisement, media, photography, showing women in a sexual way should be banned. The second believes women are allowed to wear what they want and act as they please and still be highly successful both in the home and workplace.

Above is a photograph taken from a collection of photographs for an advertisement campaign by the designer Tom Ford from his Spring/Summer 2008 collection. Tom ford is known for his more provocative advertisement campaigns and for this particular campaign he collaborates with photographer Terry Richardson to feature a collection of photographs featuring both male and female models partaking in different activities, the majority of these done in the nude; more often than not it is the female models that are the naked ones whilst the men are fully clothed dressed in smart, dapper suits. In Italy these advertisements were actually banned for being 'sexually implicit' (Eswaran, 2008)and the IAA (Italian Advertising Institute) said about them that they were 'Deeply vulgar and went beyond bad taste to actually offend the public's sensibility…it does beyond acceptable limits for advertising' (Eswaran, 2008)and concluded by saying how the advertisements are 'an offensive gesture which insults women and the dignity of all.'(Eswaran, 2008)

The photograph above shows a naked woman ironing a man's trousers, a typical household chore which is stereotyped as a women's job, whilst he stands around waiting for her to finish whilst reading a newspaper. When the advertisements first appeared it sparked a whole new debate on the misogynistic, hatred for women, representations of women. Feminists viewed the photographs as shocking and extremely sexist. Many a comment has also been made on how they represent the post feminism culture in which feminism acts have been weakened by popular culture such as fashion, music and the media.

Figure Two. Tom Ford Advertisement S/S 2008

Above is another photograph from the same campaign in which a female model is made to look much like a blow up sex doll. It is also interesting to see how you cannot see her as a whole person, but just certain body parts, making her more to be an object than an actual human being.

Now although these images were highly credited as being extremely sexist, one blogger stated how they 'hate the ones with the naked women being stared at by clothed men...that bothers me.'(Fairy glamour, 2008) and another stating that they are 'both tasteless and gratuitous' (Edanya, 2008) they can also be looked upon in the eyes of the third wave of feminism in which women are allowed to wear what they want and act as they please and still be highly successful both in the home and workplace. Angela McRobbie backs up this idea but saying how feminist views are rather out-dated and the modern women enjoys the freedom of her sexuality and 'gets the joke' (McRobbie, 2007: 33) seeing sexism as almost ironic. Whilst Natasha Walter author of Living Dolls: The return of sexism states that,

Since the idea has taken hold that women and men are now equal throughout society, it is seen as unproblematic that women should be relentlessly encouraged to prioritise their sexual attractiveness…this is a free choice by women who are in all other ways equal to men.' (Walter, 2010: 119)

Looking at Tom Ford's Spring/Summer 2010 advertisement he has done much of the same thing showing a completely naked woman alongside a fully clothed man. The bad press around the 2008 campaign could not have affected him that much if he has gone on to do much of the same thing again. Maybe they are meant to be viewed as a light hearted tongue in cheek joke rather than a misogynistic representation of women.

Figure Three. Dolce and Gabbana Advertisement S/S 2010

Above is the next image I am going to discuss, taken from the Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer 2010 campaign featuring Madonna. The images, which were shot by photographer Steven Klein, are a series of photographs of the celebrity in a domestic setting carrying out daily tasks such a cleaning.

A whole article on Madonna.com is dedicated to the photographs and the inspiration behind them. They talk about the campaign and the reason behind the choice of shoot, describing it as showing the 'iconic depictions of strong, tender and naturally beautiful women.' (Milan, 2009) The article goes on to say,

The intention of Dolce & Gabbana is to recapture a women's human side, showcasing through these images how a women's femininity and sensuality can be found through the simplicity of daily gestures along with a passion for life. The new Dolce & Gabbana campaign encourages a woman to cast aside fears of showcasing her femininity because it is where her true beauty resides. (Milan, 2009)

Comments, made by Madonna fans, after the article read such things as 'really sensual and hot' (Maverick78, 2009) and 'wow Madonna looks fabulous in the photograph a rustic charm' (Lumb1, 2009). No one has seemed to have picked up on the fact that Madonna is in fact carrying out chores stereotyped to be a women's work and in fact appears to be representing everything feminism is against. This is because followers of fashion, whether a feminism or not are looking at the clothes she is wearing rather than the poses she is adapting. A caption from a website reads,

Beautifully dressed and following the Italian family theme of the campaign, la Donna is giving her lowdown on how to wear unique tailored clothing at all occasions even the most unexpected ones. Indeed, you never know who will ring at the door while you are tidying up the house. Always prepared, always glamorous, as shown by Madonna, femininity and sensuality do not belong to specific time slots: it is a permanent state of dressing. (swide, 2010)

Therefore it could be argued that, like the Tom Ford advertisement, this Dolce & Gabbana one is simply a tongue in cheek take on feminism and the modern women, even taking Betty Friedan's 'orgasm waxing the family-room floor' (Friedan, 1963: Chapter 2) comment a little too literally.

I am now going to move onto even more present day and the 'pop stars' many of us idolise.

Figure Four. Lady Gaga 'Telephone' Video 2010

Figure Four. Lady Gaga Rolling Stone Cover 2010

Both of the above photographs are of current 'pop' star Lady Gaga. Gaga is one of the biggest selling pop stars of the moment and idolised by girls, women, boys and men.The first photograph is a still from her music video'Telephone', official music video. The video starsthe pop star dancing around in not much clothing and acting provocative; parts of the video were in fact censored for more appropriate day time viewing. Gaga's police caution tape costume, if you can call it that, was designed by L.A based designer Brian Lichtenberg. Although this costume can be viewed as shocking and shows women as more an object to stare at, an object of desire even to men, than a human being this outfit could also be seen as simply a way of self-expressionism. An interview between an editor of online Britannica encyclopedia and Philosopher Nancy Bauer talks about whether Gaga is in fact seen as a feminist figure. Bauer says of Gaga that,

Lady Gaga strikes her fans as a liberating force: she seems to be able to transform what people ordinarily find oppressive into an opportunity for self-expression. You might say she's a specialist in the art of rack focus: she knows how to get a viewer to look at very familiar things in new and sometimes surprising ways. An obvious example is her outfitting herself in nothing but carefully placed police tape in the "Telephone" video. (Bauer 2010)

Bauer also conducted an interview with Gaga herself who calls herself a 'bit of a feminist'(Bauer 2010) viewing feminists as 'a woman who is strong and powerful and has high self-esteem' (Bauer 2010).

The other photograph is from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. This cover was shot by Terry Richardson, the man behind the Tom Ford 2008 advertisement campaign. Yet again she is dressed in next to nothing, looking very provocative. In the interview that accompanied the front cover she said in answer to one question that she considers herself to be a full on feminist. Bauer interpreted this as Gaga believing that one of being a feminist is to 'be a strong and powerful woman with high self-esteem is to talk brazenly and dress scantily, or at least in the way she does.' (Bauer 2010)

So in conclusion to my essay can you be a feminist and still be fashionable? I believe that you can. After all feminism is all about equal rights and women being able to be how they like and do as they please, being an individual. Fashion is an expression of individuality; it is the best way to show case to everyone around you that you are in fact an individual person. The models of the Tom Ford campaign, Madonna and Lady Gaga have not been told to act or dress that way they have chosen to do it, free will. After all fashion is a pleasure, and, I agree with Natasha Walter when she said that,

Adult women were now free to choose to embrace aspects of femininity that second wave feminists had once seen as coercive, such as high heels and make-up (Walter, 2010: 129)

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