In an age when seemingly everything is controversial and statement-making, clothing might be more politicized than anything (apart from, you know, actual politics.) It’s taken for granted that clothes are an expression of someone’s personality and creativity, but often, your outfit also says something about your views and beliefs. I am an Awkward Teen™ who is very interested in what image her clothes present, so I’m attempting to ask the question, “Can clothing be a political statement?” (AKA how to dress like a good feminist.)
Clothing has long been associated with politics and social reform. Early feminists of the 1850s wore bloomers to symbolize the transition from the restricting traditional dresses to more “masculine” garments that allowed for freedom of movement. One of my favorite old Hollywood actresses, Marlene Dietrich, popularized men’s suits for women with her gender-bending attire (and kissed a woman! In a Hollywood movie! In the 1930s!) The 80s’ trend of power suits and shoulder pads corresponded with the rise of employment and leadership positions for women. Then the rhetoric of feminism changed a little bit and women stopped trying to look more like men for authority; instead, they burned their bras and pushed back against slut-shaming.
One of the biggest debates around women’s clothing is whether it’s more feminist to cover up or to show skin. If I dress conservatively, I’m guarding against the male gaze and emphasizing my intelligence over my sexuality. Or am I playing into patriarchal values of female purity and modesty? If I wear tight or skin-baring clothes, I’m owning my own sexuality and being a liberated 21st century woman. Or am I displaying myself for the benefit of men and reducing myself to a sex object? Either way I dress, is internalized sexism governing everything I do? Am I trying to appeal to men even when I don’t realize it?? What do I really want to wear??? This is where empowerment comes in. Some people say that it’s more empowering for women to cover up, some say it’s empowering to take it off. I don’t think that’s the point, though- to be empowered is to make your own choices and to wear whatever you feel like wearing, because it’s your body. Although, just to make extra sure we aren’t catering to the patriarchy, maybe we should all start wearing big sacks that say “my body, my choices” on them.
Then comes the sticky question of cultural appropriation. Bindis, dreadlocks, First Nation headdresses, dashikis – all of these and more have been appropriated by (usually) white people to great backlash. In general, cultural appropriation is the incident in which someone wears a style from another culture while either mocking that culture, failing to recognize the history and traditions behind the style, or getting praise for being ~trendy~ after the original culture has been disparaged. I have definitely been guilty of this; for example, I’ve gotten henna because it was ~super cute!~ without knowing its role in Indian traditions. Cultural appropriation is not a great thing to do, but most people have done it at some point, so it’s best to just apologize and move forward, having hopefully gained a little more knowledge about another culture. Also, as a white girl, I don’t have the authority to really give advice on that topic, so it’s best to just ask someone whom appropriation might affect. Maybe we should all be careful and just wear big sacks instead of clothes; sacks don’t have a cultural heritage (do they?)
For all my LGBTQ+ pals out there- has anyone else started to worry that their style somehow doesn’t match their sexuality well enough? Am I not a good enough bisexual girl if I have long hair and wear dresses all the time? Or, if I choose to cut my hair short, is it because I’m queer and succumbing to ingrained stereotypes? I sometimes wonder how I can incorporate my sexuality into my clothing without sacrificing my personal style preferences. It can start to feel like my identity is invisible because I present as so traditionally feminine – people don’t see me as “someone who would be gay.” Maybe I should start wearing flannels and softball shirts and vests? But that’s playing into stereotypes of lesbians! And I shouldn’t assume someone is queer just because they wear those things. Maybe we should all just wear big sacks that say either “straight” or “LGBTQ+” on them, just to be safe.
I could go on. There are so many ways in which clothing influences our perceptions of others, and vice versa. It’s exhausting and ultimately futile to attempt to dress in a way that perfectly exemplifies your values and yet doesn’t offend anyone. Sometimes I really do feel like it would be easiest to just wear nondescript sacks. But that wouldn’t be any fun! Instead, I’ll just take advantage of the plethora of feminist t-shirts and hope that my skirt isn’t asking for it.