What Does a Feminist Wear?

Ok, obviously the answer to that question is simple: anything she/he/zi damn well pleases.

Feminism is about having the freedom of personal choice without having to conform to anyone’s idea of who you should be or defend your expressions of who you are.

So, I guess the question I’m asking is a bit more complicated than that. Here’s the setup: I’ve been asked by a mainstream woman’s magazine to represent the next generation of feminism in a piece they’re doing to highlight up and coming young women. (I’m incredibly honored to do so, even though I think there are lots of new faces of feminism and mine, since it looks so much like the ones that have come before, may not be the best representation for a movement that is increasingly and incredibly diverse. This is a whole other blog post and I promise to write it!)  Next week, I’ll be taking the photos that will accompany the piece and have been asked to bring three outfits that represent my profession. This isn’t such an odd request since there are about 20 other women in different careers that have been asked to do the same – but feminism doesn’t have a lab coat or a chef’s hat or a soccer uniform that’s universally recognized.

Actually, fashion and feminist activism have often gone hand in hand, in one way or another. The Bloomer Costume – an early foray into women wearing pants – was laughed at when worn by prominent suffragists but eventually led to less restricting clothes for women. The Women’s Liberation movement proudly rocked the mini-skirt, ‘Cunt Power’ buttons, and shunned heels – all of which once again changed the perception of what ‘should’ be wearing.

Since then, mainstream media has done a pretty good job supporting the backlash notion that ALL feminists wear Birkenstocks or leather or don’t shave their legs or refuse to wear skirts and make-up and nail polish. Of course, all of these things can be found in the movement, none of these personal choices should have value judgments placed on them at all, and none are necessarily confined to feminism.

My personal style is the definition of femme – I love dresses and skirts, make-up and nail polish, high heels, and the bigger the earrings the better. I don’t think of this as a representation of my feminism on a day-to-day level – I don’t dress how I do to negate stereotypes necessarily – but the request has got me thinking about the current mainstream view of feminism and what I might do with this opportunity to alter it, much like my sisters before me.

My first inclination is to wear pajamas, because this is what I wear on most days when I’m at home writing, tweeting, and blogging about feminism. Or to don the very comfortable, wrinkle-proof outfits I wear on planes to get to my speeches. Or to dig out my ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ tank top and pair it with my favorite jeans and heels.

In all reality, I’ll probably end up bringing my new favorite pink dress, one of my very New York all-black outfits paired with a big gold snake belt my friend better let me borrow, and a funky skirt from the Young Designer’s market that I love. I can’t be anyone else but me – and that’s what it’s all about, right?!

So, what do you/would you wear to represent your feminism? Do you consciously choose your outfits before you go out to commit public acts of feminism? What are the fashion stereotypes of feminists that you would like to see shattered and are there some visual signifiers you’d like to keep around? Perhaps most important, why are we still having this conversation? In a world where there are so many bigger problems facing women in general and the movement as a whole, is it at all relevant?’

I’d love to start this conversation in the comments and get any advice you might be kind enough to offer. And of course if you have the most awesome outfit ever and would like to loan it to me…bring it on!

27 Comments

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27 responses to “What Does a Feminist Wear?

  1. You could go with the basic little black dress, and then rock out with some awesome accessories. I feel like stilettos are in order.

    I agree with you – feminists should be able to wear whatever the hell they want.

  2. Somedays (particularly days when I don’t feel like waking up any earlier than 30 minutes before my first class) it’s jeans, a tshirt, flip flops, hair up, and no makeup. Other days, like today, matching outfit, hair curled, makeup on, etc. But no matter what I’m wearing, I’m me. And I chose what I wear based on what makes me comfortable. If extra sleep makes me feel more comfortable, I chose that over extra time put into how I look. And if looking cute makes me feel more comfortable, then that’s what I do.

    And, in answer to your last question, yes: I feel like so many negative stereotypes of feminism have to do with appearance. If we could stop focusing on that, then perhaps some of those stereotypes would disappear.

    (Oh, and I love big earrings, too).

  3. netshirley

    As long as we have labels for people (black, white, gay, straight, feminist, etc.) we will have prejudice and inequities. Until we actually begin to think in terms of human, rather than male, female, etc. we won’t be able to get rid of the stereotypes. It’s like learning a new language, when you find yourself thinking in that language, then you can call yourself fluent.

    Wear what you want – maybe 3 levels of formality – evening, business, and casual…

  4. I think you should demand entry into their fashion closet and wear the hottest shoes they have. Otherwise, just rock those awesome red ones.

  5. Before I began reading your post, my first thought was Pajama’s. It is what I wear when I’m sitting at home, pulling my hair out wondering what to write about next.

    And then, when I get tired of seeing myself in them all day, I usually wear a pair of leggings and a long shirt, a nice piece of jewelry and eyeliner… That usually makes me feel clean even if I know I’m just going to spend the rest of the day at home with the computer on my lap.

    When I do get the chance to escape, I’m similar in that I love to dress up in shirts, dresses, etc. I like being visually loud and making a statement when I go out but being comfortable is my first priority.

    But that’s just me… president of a social media company, blogger, twitter obsessed feminist. I think a feminist in another profession, say a lawyer, would dress differently.

    All in all, you dress the way you need/want to depending on the kind of life you live.

  6. How about a button that reads “ERA YES”? And a smile?

  7. I do think it’s kinda indicative of their disconnect to ask you to look like a ‘professional feminist.’ Oh, and I also love your long embroidered coat, but it might be too hot for that.

  8. While I don’t believe there is a feminsist uniform, have you ever noticed how many of us wear scarves?

    • Yes! I’m not sure why but Samhita (from Feministing) and I were talking about that the other day – she’s almost always rocking an awesome scarf. Maybe it’s because a scarf can be used as so many things in so many situations: a jacket, to keep your hair back, to comfort a baby, to keep out tear gas, to clean up a spill…feminists are always prepared!

      • good point! I’m a feminist, and even though I’m not femme, I definitely incorporate scarves into my wardrobe – I like that they are gender-flexible like that. And just so darned useful!

  9. Samantha

    I don’t dress a certain way to debunk myths about feminism–that is more of an outlet of personal expression and what’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. However, I do abhor the stereotype that feminists try their hardest to separate themselves from “femininity” because of the notion that it’s a societal construction and therefore confining (e.g. the “Iron Maiden” metaphor frequently used in The Beauty Myth). I don’t think we analyze style of dress to the point where we agonize every morning in front of the closet over what outfit would send the right message.

    Anyway, I find myself wearing dresses with leggings, tube dresses, or mini dresses with skinny jeans and ballet flats. I can’t wear heels without tripping, so I stick to flats pretty much all the time. Now that I think about it, the only feminist indicator that I have is on my purse: a small button featuring a coat hanger with a slash through it (which, I have found, is quite esoteric).

    Then, of course, there are the things that I do and say that are good indicators. Also, we have this discussion because it is still necessary; women are judged yet in ways that men are not. We talk about appearance because before qualifications and credentialing and competence, women are the first to be judged on appearance alone. We still have this conversation because people resist social change as much as they can.

    Good luck with everything. :)

  10. I view fashion as a way to express who I am. It is an artform and a tool that can be used to convey a message. Wear your smile, and your head held high and you will look like the rock star you are.

  11. I do have to say that when I think of a fierce feminist fashionista, the first image that comes to mind (after my mama of course “)) is Frida Kahlo rocking her suit:
    http://www.chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/frida/frida_suit.jpg

  12. pennygirlpearl

    Maybe it’s a southern thing or my being raised in a city and on a farm simultaneously but even in this Tx. heat I always rely on anything in black (on top), blue jeans, and red boots…it’s my “artist uniform”!

    Lately my black railroad hat comes in handy to help people point me out in a crowd to say; “you should go talk to her, she’s there in the black hat”…see quick and to the point.

    Found an interesting contradiction while reviewing the color psychology of the color black:

    Black = Black is the color of authority and power. It is popular in fashion because it makes people appear thinner. It is also stylish and timeless. Black also implies submission. Priests wear black to signify submission to God. Some fashion experts say a woman wearing black implies submission to men. Black outfits can also be overpowering, or make the wearer seem aloof or evil. Villains, such as Dracula, often wear black.

    All of this to say yes, I do think about what I’m going to wear before I go most places…even to the grocery store…but usually don’t wear my choices as a billboard of identity. Just a few subtle hints here and there to keep people wondering just who/what the hell am I doing!

    Thanks for raising the question…now off to find my Dracula teeth and whip!

  13. I guess there is no getting around the fact the feminism will always be associated with gender and therefore with clothes but why is it civil rights activists are never asked “What does a civil rights activist wear?” Or that progressives are never asked “What does a progressive wear?” As you say, Shelby, why are we having this conversation anyway? In any case, your three outfits sound great to me!

  14. Tanya

    I posted on your FB page but when pondering it a little more- I think today’s feminist wear whatever makes THEM comfortable- for me that is looking sexy like a pair of jeans, heals and a cute top to go out on Sat. night. For Sunday church it could be the same or might slip on some slacks or a skirt -just depending on my mood.

    I think some women wear clothes that reveal their cleavage or show a little more leg because THEY feel sexy and want to. If I don’t want to dress that way I may put on a cute t-shirt & workout pants & flip flops to go shopping.

    As I stated on the FB page feminism definitely comes from within- an attitude, a way of carrying self, advocating for self & women etc.

    This can be done as you say above; in pajama’s at a computer desk writing & researching, wearing a pair of jeans & t-shirt walking with ones children in the park, dressing in a power suit for a business meeting, wearing a frilly flowy dress to a wedding, wearing short, long, curly or straight hair, braless or with the sexiest lingerie… and the list could go on.

    I mean, I love to dress sexy & as a lesbian I am definitely not looking good for a man LOL! I always have a feminist attitude! My idea of a feminist attitude is a woman who walks & leads life in confidence, who voices her opinion & doesn’t back down from controversy or opposition to her viewpoints. A woman who fights when necessary for equity but expects & demands it always in both quiet & loud ways.

  15. Nicole G.

    I have to admit to falling into the scarf-wearing feminist category! And, er, I also love Birkenstocks. But of course that doesn’t mean we should be stereotyped because of it.

    How does one dress like a “professional” feminist? It’s a question that boggles me and I have never really thought about. My style is totally eclectic. I love long flowing dresses because you don’t have to match anything–just throw it on and you’re done! I have some totally rockin’ Michael Kors platform heels that I LOVE. But my favorite outfit consists of baggy jeans (I refuse to call them “boyfriend” jeans), a t-shirt and Converse. I don’t make any conscious “feminist” decisions when I get dressed. No one could “guess” I’m a feminist by looking at me. I say wear what you’re comfortable in! Just like you said–isn’t that what feminism is about? Being comfortable with yourself and making your own choices? I think your three outfit choices are great if they represent who you are as a person, not just a feminist.

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  17. Alex

    I’d suggest wearing what makes you feel and look good. Do you have enough editorial control or influence to insist they include a callout that says “A feminist wears whatever the hell she wants”? Or perhaps you could get a large button made up and wear it with one of your outfits…not subtle, but it gets the point across that while you may dress a particular way, not every feminist should.

  18. Pingback: My Day as an Anti-Feminist (Role) Model « The Ms. Education of Shelby Knox

  19. Like a true feminist, I dress the way I want to, whenever I want to, however I want to. That’s what our cause is all about. Loved your post, Shelby.

  20. Cat

    Great post! As a costume designer who took a job on the edge of fashion (I needed the job!) and decidedly feminist, I was daily assaulted constantly by the mindset you describe. No, you’re not making it up. It is real.

    I dealt with it by using my theatrical skills and thrifted my way to a great personal wardrobe that I didn’t feel compromised by (fashion victim–not) and was a tenth the price of their get ups.

    I’ve set up a thrifting class to share what the pros know doing movies and theater do. Anybody can look great and like themselves. Check it out at:

    http://www.meetup.com/New-York-Simple-Pleasures-Artisanal-Crafters/calendar/list/

  21. Pingback: Paradigm Shift » Blog Archive » Guest Post by Shelby Knox: My Day as an Anti-Feminist (Role) Model

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  23. Mark

    It seems to me that your first sentence is the key. Expanding on that, I think that being a feminist probably means being more aware of societal pressures aiming to objectify a woman’s appearance than might otherwise be the case, so being socialized into wearing stereotypically ‘girly’ attire is probably less of a risk than the opposite, namely being stigmatized away from it, despite there being occasions where you might otherwise wish to dress that way. For instance, feeling under pressure to wear ‘butch’ attire to keep with the cause or being reluctant to wear, say, skirts and dresses because they have in the past been forced onto women as a form of control, may be real risks.

    It seems to me as a straight male who tries to be respectful of women as equals that the best attire to choose is that which offers you the best mix of comfort, desired self-image, practicality and value for money. And I particularly like your hat ;-)

  24. Grace

    I represent my political beliefs through what I wear- I wear army pants, combat boots, feminist t shirts and hair in a high pony tail – and I wear mascara and pink lipgloss. I’m a 15 year old girl, and I get compliments on my pants, shoes and how my views are expressed through the way I dress.
    So I dress kinda butch but look feminine… I am happy with it :)

  25. Brandy

    Let’s talk about why men don’t walk out of the house with lipstick and high heels (scientifically proven to be bad for feet!) but women do. High heels literally make women weaker. Literally. Can we realize the power in that? Can we realize that while men walk around in flat tennis shoes there are many women who can’t even run in their heels? Are women just more shallow? To an extent, this is giving in to the patriarchy, regardless of whether or not one is a feminist. And no, I don’t buy the “I wear them for myself” argument. If you wore them for yourself, you’d walk around your house in heels for YOUR EYES ONLY. So many inconsistencies.

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