With Australian Fashion Week almost upon us, we can expect to resume the discussion about fashion and feminism, and the impact of the fashion industry on body image. Why is fashion such a hot topic? How can we make sense of the lure of fashion and the huge body of writing devoted to criticising the industry? What do my shoes really say about me?
I have always loved clothes. I can remember some of the outfits I wore as a small child and the passionate feelings I had about them. I remember clearly my first pair of jeans (embroidered cactus on the back pocket), my first pair of knee-high boots (cherry red Docs) and my first leather jacket (heavy as hell). When I think back to painful or joyful moments in my life, I can usually remember what I was wearing.
So it was with understanding that I faced the fashion diktats of some of my feminist colleagues in the mid 1980s. Of course clothes mattered. Of course they said something about who was wearing them and how she saw herself and her place in the world. Of course lipstick was and still is significant. I just wasn’t sure we were all wearing or not weating lipstick for the same reasons.
I don’t question the importance of fashion. We argue about it intensely in feminist circles — and outside of them — because it has meaning for us. The way we dress matters, we just don’t agree on how or what we should be wearing.
As a therapist, I get to see amazing changes in the way people dress as they become more themselves. People who disregarded their own comfort by wearing what was too tight, too loose, too exposing or engulfing, seem all of a sudden to care about how their bodies feel. Women who covered up or over-exposed out of shame, begin to wear the clothes they like without fear. There are often changes in makeup. More or less, from none to some, or from a full painted face to a bit of pawpaw cream.
These changes are all significant and they all have meaning. But the most important meaning is held by the woman herself. One woman’s garment of liberation is another’s discarded shackle.
That’s why it’s very hard to come up with universal truths about the wearing of particular kinds of clothing. Painful footwear is rarely a part of a woman’s life when she has become more herself. A fear of going without makeup often means deeper self-criticism — but even these generalisations have exceptions. More importantly, they are not helpful unless they match our own feelings about ourselves.
Many of us spend a great deal of time wondering if we have a right to our feelings, and to the understandings that they lead us to. Whether we have a right to our history as we remember it, to our lives as we know them. This includes our feelings about aesthetics and appearance. This area of personal meaning is constantly under threat from those who would like to tell us how we should feel and think, or worse, make pronouncements on such matters. Every day I come across someone who would like to tell me what I have a right to feel hurt by, whom I should love, and what my problems really are.
And more and more often, people are trying to tell me what to wear.
Paul Sheehan recently attempted to tell women, or more specifically all western feminists, what their clothing says about them. In his collection of prickly and mismatched ideas about shoe fashions and the history of feminism, Sheehan imagines he has the right to advise women about their own experiences, and to tell them where the real struggles for women now lie. Apparently expensive high heels are an attempt to demonstrate power and fertility, and signify the separation of trivial western concerns from those of women struggling for liberation in other parts of the world. This is of course another chapter in the long history of telling women they only have themselves to blame.
When we give ourselves permission to interpret the meaning of someone else’s behaviour, we become a part of the machinery of coercion. We have chosen to colonise another’s experience of themselves and of their world. We have used our power to name another’s reality. This power play is obvious not only in articles like Sheehan’s, but also in debates such as those continuing about the wearing of headscarves, the hijab and the niqab, which have largely been fought publicly between powerful white men. This is not only anti-feminist; it hampers all forms of liberation. Taking ownership of the right to tell somebody else’s story is a part of every abusive relationship, personal or political.
We all have a fundamental right to our own stories. In fact, we need to know them well in order to own them and to be able to act on that knowledge in the world. This is an essential part of the process of change rather than the act of submission.
It is the powerful who get to speak on behalf of other people. Who get to diagnose, label and generalise about the lives of others, and thus rob them of their own stories. Whether it’s theorists and stylists applauding raunch culture, or more puritanical feminists criticising masochistic fashion, people in power are still telling us what to wear.
So perhaps to understand better our focus on what can appear to be a side issue such as fashion, we need to look beyond the content of the arguments and ask instead what it is we are doing when we interpret something about another person because of how they dress.
In part, fashion is an ongoing issue of concern for political commentators because we are fighting about the ownership of personal experience. There is a struggle going on that is extremely important and fundamental. We are fighting for the control of our own identity. And sometimes this is expressed through fashion.
There is no doubt that fashion has meaning, that the industry itself has both life-sustaining and life-denying elements. But when we say, "this is what these shoes mean to women", when we interpret someone else’s behaviour through our own prejudices, we are attempting a kind of experiential annihilation. It is the essence of control to try to re-name another’s experience of reality. All of my shoes say something about me, but ultimately, only I can say for sure what that is.
So while we are trying to make sense of what it means when thin young women and men walk down a catwalk in interesting or not so interesting clothes, or when we are simply trying to get dressed in the morning, let’s remember that this is not a simple struggle with fashion, but an important arena for our understanding of identity. While there are certainly more pressing issues, I think we come back to fashion because it says something very important about our ability to be authentic in the world. And authenticity is essential for liberation.
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