10 Mar 2008, Comments Off on Mugged by Mugler, Galled by Galliano

Mugged by Mugler, Galled by Galliano

Author: Helen

I’m cool with the idea that a bloke might write an article on a feminist topic and get it published in a broadsheet for IWD. I’ve not doubt that someone like, for instance, Mark Lawrence, Richie or Luke could do a great job. But I can only sigh and roll my eyes when I open up my usual broadsheet, on International Women’s day, to read an article by a bloke giving feminists a right old scolding for being so mean and horrible.

Mean to who? To the fashion industry! Oh noes!

Shorter Nguyen: Feminists are shrinking the feminist tent and alienating women from the movement by not embracing the world of haute couture, which is woooooonderful (and shut up already about cruel shoes and restricting clothes).

His evidence for this is sketchy, but he cites “the feminist tradition, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton [who was a nineteenth century activist] all the way through to Naomi Wolf.” All the way through to Naomi Wolf? The Beauty Myth was published seventeen years ago! OK, anything else? He nods briefly to Andrea Dworkin saying that extremely high heels make it difficult to walk – which is simply a fact – and the homophobic Sheila Jeffreys, who doesn’t appear to have much of an influence on the femoblogosphere that I’m familiar with. So that’s kind of it.

A cursory glance at the current blogosphere would show that self-identified feminists, in fact, are quite fond of their clothes and shoes – just not quite the kind of clothes and shoes that the fashion industry might like to dictate. Also, making is quite important, not just buying. Most of us are quite happy ignoring the high-end fashionistas, and no, it’s not because we’re all in boiler suits. As one commenter at IBTP said,

I see a lot of defending a woman’s right to wear skirts and heels around the blogosphere lately. I’ve yet to have a hairy second-waver confiscate my lone skirt and lip balm, but I’m on the lookout.

Feminist commentary on fashion isn’t always hostile by any means. Here’s Amanda Marcotte asking why, since conservatives equate sex and childrearing with marriage in a high-end white dress, why conservative commentators would tut-tut about wedding dresses being too “sexy”?

Jill Filipovic of Feministe actually participated in a fashion show, which set out to deliberately avoid the use of professional models and use real women instead. This was the result: a barrage of harassment. In other words, she paid a considerable personal cost for participating in the show. This was hardly feminism’s fault.

But as we all know, it’s a sad fact that sometimes elements of the fashion industry- like elements of the food, auto, health and other industries– just deserve a good sharp kick up the arse- and a good feminist blogger is there to give it to them.

Should Dolce and Gabbana have been given a free pass for their “gang rape ad” back in March 2007? Pavlov’s cat asks: “So here’s a question: if they think this image conveys a ‘game’ about ‘seduction’ and ‘beauty’, [as quoted from D&G], what sort of image would they have come up with to illustrate an actual gang rape?”

Feel free to defend that kind of thing, if you want; it’s a free country. But don’t tell other people not to call them on it.

Closer to home, Bluemilk dissects the double-whammy of the use of a 12-year old model as the “face” of Gold Coast Fashion week. Her title says it all: “Look 19, only with 12 year old freshness.. but be 24-44.” (Presumably beyond 44 there are only those polyester sack dresses with drawstring necklines in a corpse-strewn wasteland, but I digress.) Not good for women actually wanting wearable clothes, being given an impossible ideal to live up to, and not good for the child. Then there’s the issue of little girls being pressured into being fashionable and sexaaaay while they’re still pre-teens, rather than exploring their world and enjoying the last of their childhood.

Twisty is hilarious when she takes aim at fads like the “Sport Corset” and “crippling sexbot footwear“. She points out (not the first to do so, or the last) that wearing such clothes and shoes is just as much adaptive behaviour as pure enjoyment, and to gauge just how much the average woman leeeeerves fashion, you’d have to allow for the first.

As for this kind of thing, there’s just no. bloody. excuse. Ditto for women having toes surgically removed to allow for pointy shoes.

If I started on the thin model / anorexia / eating disorders / body hatred subject I’d be here all day. Let’s just say that feminists are pointing out the sickness in some fashion industry practices, and good on them. They are fighting a rearguard action on behalf of our little girls and increasingly, boys as well. So suck it up, poor beleaguered fashion industry.

“Fashion” in feminist and feminist-sympathetic blogs often means the quest for looking good while being mobile and comfortable. Just because it ain’t on a catwalk doesn’t mean it’s not fashion; but there’s fashion and then there’s … fashion. Feminists indulge in street or indie fashion with joy and esprit de (non-tortured) corps.

Feel free to defend the idiocies of the fashion industry, the shoes in which you can’t run or even walk properly, diaphragm-crunching corsets, designs which place fabric over the model’s mouth or eyes, photo shoots which place models in gang-rape scenarios or valorise torture, and the airbrushing and manipulation of stick-thin girls to make them thinner still (and airbrush away their exposed ribs and spine). But it’s drawing an extraordinarily long bow, and it’s incredibly disrespectful, to take up space in a newspaper on International Women’s Day moaning about how “feminists” are against “fashion” and that’s what’s holding us back.

Preview of next year’s IWD special: Sam Neill writes on how not eating enough red meat is standing between feminists and world domination.

Comments (0)

  • tigtog says:

    Oh bog, he’s yet another numptie accusing feminists critical of the fashion industry of “denying agency” to women who choose to follow fashion either as consumers or producers. I’m so sick of the “denying other women agency” claim, always presented as a “gotcha!” with implications of hypocrisy. Rubbish. Denying agency to the Other is not as simple as being critical of their choices.

    Nobody ever accuses those who pass negative judgement on particular acts of men that they find distasteful of denying those men “agency”. It’s only ever a criticism aimed at feminists criticising traditional genderised “choices” which end up restricting women in some way. Feminists can criticise men all they like for their choice to partake in traditional “manly” pursuits (which as it happens all demonstrate and enhance independence), and not a whisper of the accusation of “denying agency” is heard. But point out that a traditional “womanly” pursuit fetishises submission and dependency, and voila! We’re denying agency all over the place!

    Double standard, Kenneth Nguyen. Huge double standard.

  • […] Caste-iron Helen has a muscular essay investigating the meme that feminists scorn the fashion industry. […]

  • Caroline says:

    I saw a photograph the other day, of a sprint race held on the streets of Germany with women competing in stillettos heels, I thought this wry and amusing, a humerous take by all on the ridiculousness of this fashion.

    One of the things I may claim to dislike about some men’s apparent fetish desire for women in high heels is that it makes women appear to be at a disadvantage if pursued. It is undoubtedly more dangerous to sprint in a pair of high heels, but not impossible. It just takes great skill and a hands on, or feet on (as it were) understanding of physics. An understanding I consider women to be actually more innately advanced in than men. Contrary to the widely held male view.

    As to being a female fashion victim? One has to hope that most sensible people wise up and grow out of the need to be seen as, well . . a victim.

  • kate says:

    Ha! Perhaps down at the Age they’re confused about IWD and April Fools?

    The overwhelming majority of women are ignored (at best) by the fashion industry, and the rest are lectured to as if we were children who can’t possibly make our own decisions about what we wear one day to the next. Forgive me dear fashion industry, today I am wearing an overlaundered tee (my kid threw up a lot as an infant, all my clothes are overlaundered) coupled with a faded and rumpled skirt. I have bare feet, hairy legs and arms, and I have Failed to put product in my hair.

    Incidentally, I wouldn’t describe Sheila Jeffreys as ‘homophobic’, she’s a radical lesbian. If she says rude things about gay men (or lesbians who aren’t radical) it’s because they’re not radical feminist women. (A friend of mine used to come out of her classes feeling battered and needing a drink every week for a semester)

  • M-H says:

    I’m a bit confused about the Sheila Jeffreys comment too…Not that I admire her thinking, but I wouldn’t call her homophobic. But I agree with everything else. In spades. One excellent side effect of the much vaunted demographic takeover of the baby-boomers is that women can now buy a really big range of stylin’ comfortable shoes. At last.

  • shula says:

    You cited my 20 rupee note as your example?!

    Bless your heart.

    Fashion is stupid, I think. Fabric however, is FABULOUS.

  • blue milk says:

    What a fantastic essay! And thanks for using me in it, very flattering.

  • Helen says:

    Cworrr, thanks everybody… (shuffles feet) for the paragraph which mentioned airbrushing, I was looking for a website which I saw last year with before-and-after images of airbrushed catwalk models, where the “before” images showed frightening glimpses of rib and spine. Anyone remember that site? I’d love to include it in the links.

  • Helen says:

    Shula, if Thierry Mugler can dress women in f’n car tyres (see illustration in Nguyen’s article, not exactly calculated to win over the unconvinced) as far as I’m concerned, your rupee has just as much right to couture-dom. I was looking for a piece of your knitting but I stumbled on that and went “wow!” as opposed to “erk!” or “WTF?” which is the reaction of most of us to the haute end of couture.

  • Pavlov's Cat says:

    Helen, Kenneth Nguyen has a habit of turning up on blogs he’s mentioned at, so he will probably front shortly, unless he has the good sense not to, or unless he only goes to the boys’ blogs about important things like Politics (by which they mean … well, we all know what they mean).

    He’s wrong in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. The light scattering of quotations, out of context and cherrypicked from a tiny, out-of-date and highly skewed sample of feminist commentators, brings the premise on which his argument rests very close to the status of strawfeminism, and that’s just for starters.

    But it’s depressing, isn’t it, to see journalists quite happily wittering on about topics they manifestly know nothing about. And it’s even more depressing to have it demonstrated yet again that so many people think “feminism” is some clonking great monolithic entity on whose characteristics everyone agrees — and an entity with agency, at that.

    Caroline — on heels, I remember reading somewhere that apart from crippling you so that you can’t run away (and so that by the time you’re old enough to know better, they have stuffed your lower back and distracted you from fighting the good fight, as vividly explained to me by my physio recently), they give your calf muscles high definition and make you waggle your backside more. Presumably both of these things are caused by the strain of walking unnaturally, but both are deemed sexually irresistible … possibly because they mean you can’t run away. Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg thing.

  • a bwca says:

    Top post BOACIB.

    Handy hint No.138:
    Unless complimenting the person, safeguard yourself by evading Search detection – ‘KennethNguyen’ (no space) should do it.
    Corporations also search blogs for themselves: Telstra turned up at a (justifiably) critical post on Aint No Sanity Clause a while back.

  • Helen says:

    That’s all right bwca / pav, Nguyen has the right to reply to my post the same as anyone else. If not more, since it’s his stuff being subject to criticism, (or “critiqued”, but I do not like to use that word as it puts my teeth on edge no end. However I must grudgingly accept that it does fill a niche as in “literary/political criticism not personal sledging”).

    How bad is that? Half the paragraph in parentheses and a But and However in one sentence. Now you’ve got me all nervous you two, it’s like when a visitor comes over and you’re hurriedly and dishonestly cleaning…

  • Ken says:

    Pavlov’s right! I do often search out the blogosphere’s response to pieces that I write — I’m interested in intelligent/divergent opinions, and often find them on the likes of Larvatus Prodeo, etc.

    A short(ish) response: Helen, we actually share disdain for various aspects of the fashion industry. You’ll notice in my piece that I single out Dior, Ford, Mugler and Cavalli for particular criticism. All these designers have, at times, produced what I describe as “retrograde” fashion, and my piece indicates my personal disgust, shared with many feminists, for corsetry (used by Dior among others), insistence upon high heels (see my exceedingly brief reference to Cavalli), etc. In my view, there is no doubt that we all need to keep criticising these specific phenomena.

    The only real point I was trying to make is that the fashion world is not a monolithic beast committed to the oppression of women (check out the work of Kawakubo, currently on show at the NGV, for but one example) – consequently, we need to start criticising specific designers and specific practices, rather than simply lashing out at “the idiocies of the fashion industry”. Such blanket statements only tend to alienate those women (and I’m surrounded by them in my life) who take an interest in fashion.

    Finally, Helen, I’ll note my agreement with you that many feminists DO take an interest in shoes and clothes: that’s why I specifically used the words “some feminists” in the final sentence, and the words “traditional” as a qualifier throughout the piece. I guess that I’m with the less traditional Paglia when it comes to fashion and feminism: “Women enjoy color and fabric and fashion and we should not have to apologize for that,” she once said; if she had qualified the word “women” with the word “many” (and, indeed, replaced the word “women” with “people”, I would be in complete agreement with her.

    Cheers
    Ken

  • Ken says:

    By the way, happy to answer any criticisms or comments that people may have. I think dialogue with the blogosphere is important.

    Cheers
    Ken

  • matilda says:

    As a respite from all the male-generated crap about femmo-nazis, Simon Castles has written a measured piece about the impact of all those titillating billboards around town, on some men at least. And he’s quite female-friendly, too.
    http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/the-flipside-of-fantasy-a-male-perspective/2008/03/15/1205472160379.html?page=2

  • Helen says:

    Thanks for that Matilda!

    This is a reply to Ken @ March 14th, 2008 at 12:42 am-

    No time to answer everything that I’d like to, but here are a few hurried dot points:

    First, an appeal to authority won’t work if it concerns Camille Paglia. The response from any feminist-identified person will generally be to fall about laughing uproariously, then reaching for the shottie. Paglia is to feminism as Bjorn Lomborg is to science.

    Such blanket statements only tend to alienate those women (and I’m surrounded by them in my life) who take an interest in fashion.

    Do you have actual data on this, or are you extrapolating from the women you’re surrounded with? That’s a skewed and self selecting sample. Although you mention some qualifiers in your reply to my post, the thrust of the AGE article was clearly that this tendency is strong enough to threaten the feminist movement en masse. I would submit that that’s very weak evidence and it is the year-in, year-out attempts by antifeminists and nonfeminists to frighten women away from identifying with it, on multiple fronts (Women trying to have it all!!1!1! The Biological Clock !1!!1) which is doing the damage. Your article was just one of the facets of this (Feminazis are un-fun!)

    The only real point I was trying to make is that the fashion world is not a monolithic beast committed to the oppression of women (check out the work of Kawakubo, currently on show at the NGV, for but one example) – consequently, we need to start criticising specific designers and specific practices, rather than simply lashing out at “the idiocies of the fashion industry”.

    Which is exactly what the feminist writers do, so what exactly is is that you are trying to say? In your article you say that the “feminist” angle on fashion is just such a downer that it is enough to turn whole cohorts of women off it (feminism). Then in your comment you start to qualify. Yes, feminists criticise specific practices and that is what they have been doing all along, but they are also criticising the huge amount of effort and expense that women are forced to go in for to fit a mould that’s shaped by others, and the pain and suffering involved in trying to fit their human bodies into an ever more impossible template. That’s why, for instance, we write against using a twelve year old model for GC Fashion week – child issues aside, it is simply bloody impossible for a 34 year old woman to live up to the physical ideal of a girl who’s barely pubescent.

    As an aside, as a bloke you enjoy the visual aspect of fashion – but you don’t have to wear those shoes. You look, but you don’t have to feel it. Or starve yourself. Or get a brazilian wax. (Naturally I’m making some, ahem, assumptions here, which may be risible – dunno…)

    Going back to the article, even the “gotcha” of feminists quotes leaves me unconvinced. All the Virginia Woolf quote said was that society valorises male stuff over female stuff. It doesn’t follow that she meant we hd to suck up some corporatised future juggernaut of mass clothes-and image-marketing – and why use the example of people like her and women like ECS who were writing a century or more ago? How do you know they’d have approved of the fashion industry we have today? Highly questionable. As for Susan Faludi not personally appreciating the feel of a well constructed garment, again, “long bow award”. It’s been a while since I read “Backlash”, but I don’t recall her saying how much she hated having nice clothes to wear.

    There’s so much straw here it’s a fire hazard.

    I take exception to: “The irony of the traditional feminist condescension towards fashion is that it denies agency to the thousands of women who are leaders on the supply side of the industry (the editors, the designers, the stylists, the journalists)

    The women who are exploited in third world Economic Zones to feed this “supply side” are conspicuously absent from this article. That is the problem of feminism, I admit, sometimes looking at the bigger picture does interfere with our fun, fun, fun!

    I just want to reiterate though, that although you were welcome to publish that piece (and get it fisked), it was a poor decision and very ungenerous/inappropriate IMO to give that space to a piece on International Womens’ Day scolding feminists for their failings. Note that I’m criticising the editors, as usual, rather than you. There are so many good writers who could have been given a platform to tell people what feminists are really about, rather than lecturing them about their attitude to Jimmy Choo and underage models.

  • Ken says:

    Hi Helen

    Thank you for giving me the chance to respond. I appreciate it.

    Your posts make a number of charges, so let me do my best to respond to each in turn.

    Accusation 1: My piece is a “facet” of the push to “frighten women away from [feminism]”.
    Fact: As stated in my piece, my intention was actually to suggest a strategy for feminists to increase “the size of the feminist tent” and reduce the number of women who use what I describe as “that regrettable phrase: ‘I’m not a feminist but…'”: see para 10 of the online version of the piece. In short, I want more women to describe themselves as feminists.

    Accusation 2: My piece “[lectures feminists] about their attitude to Jimmy Choo and underage models”.
    Fact: My piece actually describes the “high-heels-and-cleavage” aesthetic as “grotesque” and “uncomfortable”: see para 12 of the online version of the piece. My piece does not talk about underage models, but I would agree that their use is appalling, on feminist grounds.

    Accusation 3: My piece defends “shoes in which you can’t run or even walk properly, diaphragm-crunching corsets, designs which place fabric over the model’s mouth or eyes, photo shoots which place models in gang-rape scenarios or valorise torture, and the airbrushing and manipulation of stick-thin girls to make them thinner still (and airbrush away their exposed ribs and spine)”.
    Fact: Re high heels: my piece doesn’t defend them: see fact 2. Re corsets: my piece doesn’t defend diaphragm-crunching corsets, but in fact describes them, as used by Dior, as “oppressive”: see para 9 of my piece. Re fabric over models’ mouths and eyes, gang-rape scenarios, torture scenarios, etc: my piece doesn’t mention any of those, and I would agree that their use is appalling, on feminist grounds.

    Feel free to dispute any of the facts as I have stated them, although I think you will struggle. As an aside, my hypothesis is that your mischaracterisation of my piece as a “scolding” is a result of the headline, which was far more confrontational than I would have liked. My suggested precede for the piece was to read: “Today is both International Women’s Day and the continuation of the Melbourne Fashion Festival. There’s no reason why women should not be able to celebrate both, writes Kenneth Nguyen”, which I think we will agree is far more conciliatory.

    There is one serious argument that you raise, Helen, and that relates to the question: What has been the prevailing approach of feminists to fashion? You say that feminist writers have pointed out specific problematic practices in the fashion industry. I agree with you (and it’s great that those feminists are doing that) — but many feminists have also taken swings at the whole idea of fashion per se. For one example, see the Jeffreys book that I cite in my piece (and no, Jeffreys cannot be ignored just because she “doesn’t appear to have much of an influence on the femoblogosphere that [you’re[ familiar with” – She’s a major, major figure in the feminist movement, as anyone who took feminist courses at Melbourne University could tell you). For other examples, look no further than the posts on this blog: one poster describes fashion as a “pursuit [that] fetishises submission and dependency” (Really? Is that what this season’s hottest item, the Balenciaga blazer, does?) while another poster describes those on the demand side of the fashion world as “fashion victims”.

    Finally, you note that I do not mention women from the Third World in my article. Let me correct that by raising the example of my aunt, a fashion designer in Da Nang, Vietnam. Her career has allowed her to feed her children, rise from a lower-middle-class existence (by Vietnamese standards) to a middle-class existence (again by Vietnamese standards) and also given her much happiness and meaning.

    You may think that my aunt is fetishizing submission and dependency, or dismiss her as a mere “fashion victim”. Given your dislike of Paglia’s argument, you might even think that my aunt should apologise for her interest in fabric and colour and fashion.

    I, for one, however, would refrain from reaching for the “shottie”, as you put it. I’d rather regard my aunt as a brave woman who embodies the best of feminism in her everyday life.

    Kind regards
    Ken

  • Helen says:

    Finally, you note that I do not mention women from the Third World in my article. Let me correct that by raising the example of my aunt, a fashion designer in Da Nang, Vietnam. Her career has allowed her to feed her children, rise from a lower-middle-class existence (by Vietnamese standards) to a middle-class existence (again by Vietnamese standards) and also given her much happiness and meaning.

    Wha… wha…mmmph? Hands up anyone who thought that when I wrote “women who are exploited in Special Economic Zones”, I was referring to middle class fashion designers…?

    You may think that my aunt is fetishizing submission and dependency, or dismiss her as a mere “fashion victim”. Given your dislike of Paglia’s argument, you might even think that my aunt should apologise for her interest in fabric and colour and fashion.

    Wha…..wtf….what? I was specifically trying to say the opposite. We (that is to say, most people), don’t think that people should apologise for an interest in fabric and colour and fashion. That is what people who construct strawfeminists say. But we don’t like the rotten aspects of it either; in its commercial incarnation it’s big and ugly enough to look after itself, really.

    Ah, the fashion world, always doomed to be mocked. ‘Twas ever thus.

    And “fashion victim” is a phrase used in the 80s to describe someone like Bubble in AbFab who tries to look edgy without any reference to taste, body shape or what works for them. It’s not a feminist invention.

  • Ken says:

    Of course, it’s not a feminist invention – but it’s that sort of thinking that continues to prevail in some feminist circles.

    By the way, given your inability to refute my statement of facts above (which reveal your serious distortion of my argument on at least three counts), your claim to have “fisked” my piece strikes me as being as premature, inaccurate and arrogant as George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” claim.

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