Women’s fashion is not a homogenous, singular entity as it varies across regions, religions, classes, and ethnicity. Moreover, it is an ever-expanding, continuously dynamic field which rapidly shifts and keeps on coming up with newer trends and more extensive possibilities. It has become a commonplace idea that women’s fashion no longer adheres to the distinction between the clothing of different genders and that it has appropriated men’s fashion styles. It has been a long time since women ditched their conventional clothing and broadened their horizons to encroach upon pants, shirts, jeans, and jackets. This has influenced many of the latest trends in the fashion industry, such as the inclusion of ‘boyfriend jeans’ or other such garments with oversized clothing. All of this might give the illusion of bridging the gap between men’s and women’s fashion. However, the ideology working behind fashioning women’s clothes is still largely patriarchal. This article attempts to show that, despite their diversity, women’s fashion is still a constant continuation of misogyny.
Primarily, women’s fashion still propagates the sexualisation of women’s bodies as it still caters to the male gaze. Women’s clothing is advertised in a way to appeal to men as they focus on a woman’s desirability and attractiveness. It would seem that the targeted consumers are not women, but their male patrons, where women become further products for male consumption. Emma Hakansson, in her article, elaborates upon such sexist advertisements: “Fashion advertisements also tell women that they are not attractive enough, not thin enough, but also not curvy enough, not interesting enough, and not sexy enough if they do not buy new products. Clothing designed to alter your silhouette, to hide parts of your body, are becoming more common”. Such marketing strategies posit women as sites of criticism which attempt to fulfil the inadequacies within women (not the inadequacies faced by women) through their products.
The ostensibly progressive movement in the women’s fashion industry, which allows women to wear men’s clothes, is not free of misogynist strain. Women can indeed wear shirts and pants, but these clothes are insidiously altered to still carry the stamp of women’s fashion: they are often too tight, which would accentuate a woman’s figure, even if it reduces functionality, to still mainly sexualise women. The idea of ‘boyfriend jeans’ or ‘boyfriend t-shirts’ also inherently links women with their male counterparts. It asserts that women are ‘unsexing’ through such baggy, comfortable clothing, or it carries the insinuation of intimacy where a woman is wearing her lover’s clothes which can be titillating for men.
Women’s fashion can be often associated with a trap which penalises women for dressing both conservatively and provocatively. Based on the idea of Madonna-whore binary, women have to constantly face the injunctions of covering-up their bodies to maintain their respectability. Connotations of immorality, loose character, and promiscuity are attached to how a woman dresses to conveniently slot them as the ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ woman. Kailey Jankowski identifies this as the prevalent “dress codes”, which she explains in her article: “Dress codes are targeted to women, and signal to females that their bodies are inherently sexual. It promotes the idea that if her skin is showing, she doesn’t deserve the respect and human decency shown to everyone else. It also signifies girls that someone else can control your own body and how you design it”. However, this is a double-edged sword. On the other side of it, women are cast as objects of desire and are encouraged to opt for more revealing clothes. Otherwise, they can be termed as prudes. This implies that fashion is not an innocuous domain; it is incessantly guided by the norms of gendered morality and sexual politics.
Additionally, women’s clothing is still deficient in fulfilling practical, functional purposes. The collusion of capitalist greed and patriarchal mindset impacts the fashion garments manufactured for women: non-utilitarian pockets, the pressing need for handbags, uncomfortable heels, mobility-restricting dresses, and so on. While women might have grasped the masculine right to wear pants, however, they are still far away from enjoying their convenient usefulness, having to cope with tiny or non-existent pockets. The fashion industry tackles this problem through the introduction of handbags which are neither convenient to carry nor affordable to purchase. They even help in sustaining gender roles, where men’s compact wallets are designed just to carry the money, projecting them as the financial provider. On the other hand, these large handbags further reinforce women as nurturing figures as these bags are spacious enough to carry food, water, medicine, and other essentials. Women’s handbags are, thus, triply detrimental to women: financially taxing, physically difficult to maintain, and ideologically orthodox.
Fashion trends can also add to women’s bodily discomfort with their single-minded insistence on following beauty norms. With the fad of accessorizing, a claustrophobic environment is created in women’s fashion as women don excessive jewellery, wear uncomfortable high heels, make cumbersome hairdos, handle multiple items of clothing, and so on. An article in The Spectator, dealing with the misogyny present in the styles posited by famous designers, states: “Many will design clothing and accessories that, when worn, cause pain, discomfort and, in some cases, disfigurement. Many will design clothes that will not even fit the vast majority of adult women”. This article argues that such fashion choices are part of the violence committed against women.
Finally, as indicated at the start of the article, women’s fashion is not a homogenous sphere. Intersectionality of identity is an integral part of this process as social, cultural, and geographical factors influence fashion choices. However, the dominance of Western fashion trends tries to obliterate this multiplicity and attempts to form a uniform mould for all women based on Western norms. A popular image of a tall, white woman is used to fashion clothes, which become misfits for other women, making the Western norm the ideal all must strive for. Models, sizes, advertisements — all follow this standard which, in a neo-colonial move, deems all other colours and sizes as lacking. Moreover, many of the fashion trends also pander to classist ideas which constantly put pressure on people to adapt to fast-changing, expensive fashion.
In conclusion, it can be said that we might have come a long way from the times of corsets, fluffy clothing, elaborate wigs, and so on, but the fashion industry is still working with a misogynist mindset. Forces of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy put a combined effort into creating women’s fashion that is inconvenient, unaffordable, demeaning, moralising, and objectifying. Ultimately, it is evident that the apparently superfluous field of fashion is not away from the politics of gender.
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