Feminism and Fashion



Until the late 1980s, the predominant attitude of feminists toward fashion was a largely hostile one. Fashion was regarded primarily as an instrument of oppression in which women were turned into passive objects of the male gaze. Already in the latter half of the nineteenth century, feminists such as Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony were criticizing female dress insofar as it hindered the physical mobility of women and was detrimental to their health. They regarded the highly ornate and impractical dress of women as an unnecessary and wasteful indulgence, symptomatic of the economic dependence of women on men. Somewhat later, in the 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir developed these arguments further and these formed the basis for the criticisms of female fashion in the 1970s and ‘80s by feminist theorists such as Una Stannard (1971), Nancy Baker (1984), Susan Brownmiller (1984), Robin Lakoff and Raquel Scherr (1984), and Rita Freedman (1986).


Instrumental Rationality Feminist Critique Dress Code Passive Object Work Class Woman 
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  1. 3.
    See Oakley (1981, 83) for a description of feminist garb in the 1970s.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Similarly, Holliday and Sanchez Tayor argue that the “natural” aesthetic championed by feminists conceals its operations—looking natural is not the same as being natural. They go on to argue that “the feminist acceptance of only a naturally beautiful body in fact endorses certain modes of cultivation—such as the gym—while arbitrarily dismissing others such as the beauty industry, interpreting the former as active and chosen and the latter as passive and consumed” (2006, 185).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See Giroux (1993–94) for a development of this argument. See also Bordo (1993b), who points out the similarity between postmodern notions of the body and self-identity and those promoted by the fashion and advertising industry.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    A similar criticism applies to Peiss’s and Holliday’s and Sanchez Taylor’s defense of the cultivation of appearance by black and working class women as a means of social advancement. According to Peiss (1996, 330), the employment of beautification techniques by Afro-American women was a tool of empowerment insofar as it challenged stereotypical conceptions of the black woman as ugly and unkempt and conferred on them a sense of dignity and pride. The production of cosmetics for Afro-American women also opened up opportunities of employment for such women, giving them a greater economic independence than they would otherwise have enjoyed. Similarly, Holliday and Sanchez Taylor positively appraise the fact that working class women, such as shop assistants and office workers, who adopted a “lady-like” appearance, which belied their working class origins, were able to command greater respect (2006, 184). In these ways, these authors claim, the cultivation of appearance challenged race and class hierarchies among women, opening up new economic opportunities for black and lower class women, and giving voice to their claims for cultural legitimacy. In making such claims, however, Peiss and Holliday and Sanchez Taylor fail to address the social structures of inequality that necessitated such a strategy in the first place. It was only because such women were denied access to power through legitimate means that they were forced to resort to beautification as the only way of achieving their aims.Google Scholar

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© Llewellyn Negrin 2008

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