It’s a typical school evening in my room, and I am once again confronted with a motley crew of decisions. I could read the pile of thesis material that is steadily collecting on my desk, I could knock on JuJuBeans or BunniesAreNom’s doors and nosey in their business, or I could check the weather.
Ah yes, weather.com, a website I frequent almost as much as Facebook and Hypetrak. Why? Because I gotta’ know what tomorrow’s weather is so I can assemble an outfit appropriate to the morrow’s atmospheric conditions. Yes, it’s true, I am that girl who will spend many minutes (hours?) planning what to wear.
Birthed from an odd combination of self-consciousness and a deep commitment to self-expression through…erm, clothes…, this nightly ritual is something I simultaneously look forward to and abhor. As I once again tear through my closet, in the process making a messy, heaping pile on my 4 square feet of available floor space, I inevitably begin to ask myself why I waste so much time engaging in this silliness. But then again, is the quest for unrestrained individuality really a trivial waste of time?
The Louis Vuitton Don once said, “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”
Aside from being an obvious head-nod to my vanity, is an investment in personal appearance, a steadfast devotion to style, inherently un-feminist? This is the classic dilemma central to debates surrounding the mantra of third-wave, “Lipstick” feminism. When a woman decides to wear those shorts that make her ass look extra juicy or those stilettos that make her legs look super stunna’—in other words when she willingly objectifies herself because she wants to look and feel cute, pretty, beautiful, sexy or what not—is she empowering or deceiving herself? If I spend approximately 39 minutes trying to find the perfect crop top that goes with that red, pleated mini-skirt, am I actually working within patriarchal structures under the illusion of feminism?
Hannah Höch, the only female member of Berlin’s post-World War I Dada movement, an anti-war cultural movement expressed through literature, theatre, visual art, and graphic design, confronts the contradiction of Lipstick feminism in her photomontage, “Da-Dandy.” In “Da-Dandy,” Höch constructs multiple levels of criticisms that women can still relate to today.
On one level, through the profile of her then-lover and fellow Dadaist Raoul Hausmann (that encircles the cut-outs of the women), she is telling the world how much of a wanker he is. Hausmann was truly a douche—he not only was living with his wife and loving/sleeping with Höch, he had no immediate plans to choose between the two. To top it all off, he suggested that she get a job to support his artistic career. Ha!
On another level, the one I would like to focus on, Hausmann’s profile serves as a metaphor of patriarchy’s power over the “New Woman,” the ideal of the stylish, progressive, sexually liberated, and educated woman of the 1920s. In “Da-Dandy,” the women, who are the visual focus of the piece, are cut into pieces—their feet, eyes, and pearl-studded wrists literally becoming objects fragmented from the whole of their bodily beings. While these fashionable women may be the model of the perfect, progressive, liberated “Modern” woman, they still work within the social standards created and dictated by men. (On a side note, “Da-Dandy” was also a criticism of the Dadaist movement itself. Though politically and socially “liberal,” the Dadaist movement paid homage to the struggle of female liberation only in empty words.)
Fashion photographer Erik Madigan Heck’s (insanely beautiful) photos also capture the paradox of empowerment and subjugation within (some) women’s commitment to style, fashion, and beauty. Take for example his spread “Surreal Planes” for Mary Katrantzou’s 2011 Fall/Winter collection. In my opinion, the model is not overly sexualized or objectified, and the focus is truly on the lost spatial depth created by the dialogue between the playful patterns and colors of Katrantzou’s clothes and the background.
Yet, Madigan’s photos also tread the dangerous water of female objectification in, for example, his unashamedly Orientalist spread for Commes de Garcons.
One of my favorite Lookbookers, 19-year old Cosette Munch from Gothenburg, is another example of this paradox. Cosette’s killer sexy, girlish style and amazing fiery, orange mermaid hair, emphasized by her delicate porcelain skin, is truly inspiring.
Yet if you take a closer look, Cosette, like the majority of girls who post their stylish snapshots on Lookbook, looks a little underfed. This is not to say that Cosette has an eating disorder, or that eating disorders are a product of patriarchy alone, but I would argue that the contemporary stick-thin beauty standard is one of the many factors that cause girls to begin unhealthy eating habits. And, unfortunately, the quest for thinness is tied with women’s tenuous and possibly subjective relationship to fashion, beauty, and patriarchy, factors all inextricably linked in a power bundle that would probably take a thesis-long paper to untangle.
So what will I do the next time I enter my closet space and start playing dress-up? I think the solution is to be mindful. There is a difference between putting on that skin-tight black American Apparel dress for an evening in the Socials and finding the perfect neckline that will showcase the bomb-ass beaded skull necklace I bought at the Eugene, OR farmer’s market. One fashion choice is not necessarily “better” than the other, but I can’t pretend that said, slinky black piece wasn’t intended for the (male) sexual gaze.
To conclude I would like to leave you with some true fashion gems. Celia and Georgia Edell are sisters from London, Ontario who I was fortunate enough to spend a wonderful Lollapalooza weekend with in the summer of 2010. They take personal style to the next level, and each piece truly reflects a facet of their imaginative and innovative fashion vision. What I respect the most about Celia and Georgia’s fashion is that each look is an homage to expressing pure individuality, which is in my opinion the highest form of fashion.
(Photos courtesy of Celia Edell: http://www.flickr.com/people/celiaedell/)