Written By: Samantha Kroontje
It all began a few weeks ago; I was having a way-too-late night coffee in the back of the Spoke when I overheard a stranger discussing the Gender and Fashion course she taught with a friend.
“The beautiful thing about fashion, and simultaneously the terrible thing about fashion,” she said, “is that it has a way of talking to the world without actually saying anything.”
I thought there was something so compelling in those words. Through the way you dress and self-present you can give people a host of ideas about your character, your morals, and your professionalism without having to say a single word. People use fashion as their voice, and it speaks powerfully. What’s more, a woman has the autonomy to be as multifaceted as she wants in her dress.
There was still something I couldn’t figure out though. Why is this “terrible” too? One day I decided to ask the stranger about it, and I’m glad I did.
We met for coffee. I got there before her and watched the woman stride in wearing a sequined top and her favourite pair of cheetah-print pants (yes, she has more than one pair).
Kelly Olson, the professor, role model, and ingenious fashion expert emanates positive energy and her nuanced ideas about gender, queer theory, feminism, and the like are stirringly inspirational. She associates herself with other feminists and these women are not just her friends but her role models too. Olson pays homage to her many students whose thought-provoking ideas encourage her to think critically and to be investigative in her views on the world. Needless to say, Olson’s ideals are wholly authentic.
“To answer your question, I see fashion as a two-sided paradigm; both good and bad,” Olson explains. Of course, fashion can be empowering and as such, she says she’s more confident when she’s feeling herself and dresses in a way that makes her feel good, no matter what that might look like.
“On the other hand, I think a lot of women feel overly scrutinized by restricting fashion discourses, especially in today’s age of selfies and social media.”
She’s probably right. Time and again, fashion choices are incorrectly associated with a person's character. Our current social climate declares that someone may choose to dress like a model, but in doing so they must accept the associated codes that go along with it. Of course, these codes aren’t particularly favourable and are difficult to remove.
The rules of fashion discourses seem to be strict. They often insist on dissociating being beautiful and sexy from being smart; but why? Shouldn’t we encourage women of the 21st century to be more than one thing? After all, the way a woman chooses to represent herself is not a reflection of her person, opinions (political or otherwise), intellect, or any other feature of value.
If wearing a crop top or going braless makes someone feel good, they shouldn’t feel judged or discredited for it. Regardless of whether a woman’s appearance is feminine, sexual, simplistic, or anything else, it’s her choice and it has nothing to do with her character. Even so, Olson points out that it’s impossible to escape this type of judgement. Compassion is out of fashion and young women mould themselves to fit the narrow cultural norms of acceptance in the search for societal approval.
Regardless, Olson always expects to be given dignity and respect no matter how she dresses. Likewise, second-year social science student Madeleine Lefaive, Olson’s fashion protege, holds similar expectations (as you wouldn’t think that it’s too much to ask) – though, she admits that she hasn’t always been regarded in this way. As a finalist in last year’s case competition, she made a conscious effort to put her most classy foot forward in her attire and describes her fit as formal yet flattering.
“I was walking towards the stage, just minutes away from doing my presentation, when I heard someone behind me say ‘I want to fuck that girl with the nice ass’” Lefaive recalls. “I was so mad and couldn’t decide whether it was worth it to respond or not. Like, fuck you! I felt good in my skin and even though I shouldn’t care, it made me so self-conscious.”
It didn’t affect her performance, but she remembers becoming less confident in her skin as she began to wonder if the judges would discredit her in the same way. “Could my success be increased or decreased by my looks (and why should it be either?),” Lefaive says. “I would have to wear a garbage bag to hide my hips and butt… Is that what I’d have to do to be taken seriously?”
The unfortunate truth about image-based stigmas is this: fashion has always been guilty of carrying them. We all judge based on appearance as it’s something humans are wired to do. With optimism, however, Olson likes to think that she’s part of a society that is becoming more capable of characterizing women based on legitimate factors rather than physical attributes.
“While I don’t think we can ever fully get there, the problem is definitely improving. Take athleisure for example; with everyone wearing sweats and Nike, fashion trends between the sexes are more similar than they ever have been before. This must be happening because, as a society, we are moving closer towards gender parody – or at least that’s what I like to think.”
While these patterns are slowly lessening, fashion still seems to be taken as a reflection of a woman's merit and status.
"A great example is the modern kerfuffle about the hijab and the burka” Olson says. “When someone sees a woman with her head covered, they tend to make automatic (and flawed) associations, such as she is oppressed, or uneducated, or downtrodden. But really, the hijab and other forms of modest dressing are a way for women to show respect to herself and piety towards God. It's a religious form of dressing that Western society doesn’t quite understand.”
The same thing is true for Western women who dress in, say, miniskirts or any form of over-sexualized fashion. A false conception is often elicited by older generations whose take on it doesn’t reflect the empowerment that women like Olson and Lefaive get from their dress. Simply put, women who embrace sexy fashion and boldly inhabit their bodies may feel powerful when they’re wearing platform shoes and a tight bodycon dress (or maybe sweats are what makes them feel good, and that’s fine too). While onlookers may see it as self-objectifying, young women have a different narrative.
“In order to understand why this happens, you need some historical context first,” Olson tells me. She explains the evolution of feminism as occurring in three waves, the first of which emerged during the 1920s while women pursued the right to vote. Second wavers of the 70s and 80s fought for equal pay, equal work, and equal representation.
“In this time period lives the poster woman you’d encounter when you think of plain-old feminism,” Olson muses. “She grows her hair out and wears drabby old clothes, refusing to be objectified.”
Today, we find ourselves in a third-wave of feminism. Olson would account that ideals in this wave revolve around empowerment in your body and place an emphasis on autonomy. Modern third wavers embrace fashion; it's part of who they are, how they signify their power and embody their personality.
“I think Gen Xers feel almost betrayed by the fashion choices of young women today,” Olson laughs. “After all, second-wave women were the ones who set the stage, 50-some years ago, for such autonomy to emerge within fashion today.”
Given this, it’s no surprise that self-proclaimed feminists face such scrutiny today. Just recently, I read an article in the Independent that harshly criticized celebrities Emily Ratajkowski and Kim Kardashian West. These women both enjoy and monetize their sexuality while simultaneously proclaiming themselves as feminists. According to the writer though, you can’t do both. Charlotte Gill discredits both women’s feminism by arguing that instead of perusing longstanding and pure feminist ideals, they use it as a means to justify looking sexy.
While I didn’t expect that these were the women I would be defending here, I found myself wondering why their feminism should be graded as any worse than that of others? More so, why should it be graded at all?
To borrow from the accomplished author, Roxanne Gay, “we demand perfection from feminists because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable constructive criticism to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there is nothing left. We do not need to do that.”
Instead, we must become more inclusive by accepting other women’s beliefs. We must encourage industry leaders to advocate their feminism and proclaim our own. Second wave women, nor anyone else, hold an exclusive right to feminism because to say so would be to stagnate progress. In fact, the more opinions that are offered, even from women who like to express their sexuality, the more capacity society has to undergo a change in the right direction.
As Olson says: “Feminism and fashion are not mutually exclusive categories; they can coexist together, and the combination often thrives.”
So, whether you’re a man or a woman, young or old, an activist seeking justice or a student still figuring it out, all persons can claim their feminism. Who knows what could come of it: Nuanced ideas, a fourth-wave of feminism perhaps, change? All we have to do is show a little bravery.
People, even the ones you would least expect (like the stranger that sits beside you in the Spoke), have a lot to say. All we have to do is listen.