Recently I stumbled across a sentence - one of those wonderful sentences that clarifies or describes something you’ve already thought about, but haven’t quite put into words.
It was this: "femininity, fashion and feminism are not mutually exclusive and neither are politics, intellectual engagement and fashion." I found it in a comment piece by the ever-excellent Invisible Woman.
It was, in its own way, similar to the YES moment I felt on hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say of Zadie Smith in their live-streamed discussion, “I’ve… really admired that she’s this brilliant woman who’s also a hot babe.”
What both statements demonstrate – in entirely different ways – is that there is (or at least should be) no contradiction between intelligence/ achievement/ academic prowess/ success/ politics and the desire to dress well or look good. Yet I’m surprised how often the two are set at odds, or deemed to be irreconcilable.
Think of Tom Newton Dunn tweeting “Boldly, @stellacreasy has just asked the PM to justify Page 3 – while wearing a bright blue PVC skirt in the Commons chamber.” Because apparently wearing something stylish or interesting disqualifies you from talking about sexism. It’s symbolic of a strange double problem. Female politicians not only tend to have their outfit choices dissected, regardless of what they’re wearing – but those who seem to enjoy what they’ve got on are treated with particular vehemence. I’m not sure what makes me more angry: the focus on female politicians’ clothes above their policies, the judgments attached to those clothes, or the attacks on those daring to think about or actively like their outfit choices. Possibly all three, because they come from a similar place of belittling and diminishment – of focusing only on female appearance, with an almost solely negative slant.
To return to Adichie, I found a brilliant essay of hers for Elle, titled Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? She talks about the difficulty of reconciling a love of clothing with the judgments of the literary world: “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance… the only circumstance under which caring about clothes was acceptable was when making a statement, creating an image of some sort to be edgy, eclectic, counterculture. It could not merely be about taking pleasure in clothes.”
There are some spheres in which my interest in all-things-style immediately seems to mark me out as frivolous – or at least less likely to be taken seriously. “What a silly thing to profess any sort of engagement with when there are such serious issues out there. Fashion? Bah - vanity, narcissism and capitalism – that’s all it is, right?”
Well, yes, those are three elements – but their existence doesn’t cancel out everything else. Saying they do is akin to dismissing all interest in conceptual art because of Damien Hirst’s and Jeff Koons’ money-driven attempts at provocation, or like deeming all current music to be a vapid, shallow industry of big egos and even bigger hair on the basis of One Direction.
Hadley Freeman has brilliantly summarized before how much of the dismissal of fashion can be seen as a subtle form of sexism; a kind of upturned nose towards a traditionally female interest. In regard to intellectual activity on the other hand, there has been a strong historical precedent of uneasy response to female education. In the Victorian era it was actually claimed that too much reading might affect reproductive abilities.
I wonder if the subsequent trend of female students and professionals adopting more masculine uniforms to (borrowing Adichie’s phrase) “substantiate their seriousness” – to prove themselves as non-feminine, non-superficial, non-frivolous – has contributed to a kind of dismissive sniffiness. It becomes a kind of either/ or. Either you’re concerned with the mind, and so are above worldly things, or you’re interested in the material and therefore have no brain space left for anything intellectual. Add in to this the fact that a woman who is confident in both her presentation and in her abilities is seen as a threat by some.
The whole subject needs more mulling over, I know. There are so many contradictions and there is also so much social history wrapped up in our modern day perceptions of fashion and what we wear.
To me, what matters is choice. My personal desire to actively enjoy what I wear doesn’t mean I think that that all other women, or men, should do the same. It’s the opposite – an understanding that each of us has different priorities and interests. For me this includes vintage dresses, stacks of books, red lipstick, literary criticism, well made brogues, feminist theory, flouncy skirts, cultural analysis of clothes, ball gowns and long, engaging conversations. They’re all part of a composite whole, and I feel fortunate to be able to exercise such choice.
This colour themed mix of paperbacks and personal style was a delight to put together. All the books were pulled from our shelves, while the outfit is made up of shorts and a jacket from a charity shop (the latter bought for me by my mum) and a vintage shirt that belonged to a great-grandma. The heeled brogues are second hand Carvela.