Confessions of a Failed Fashionista

I know what I should be. Don’t we all? You only have to look around you at the magazines or watch TV. What should I be? I should know the difference between Versace and Louis Vitton; between Prada and Paul Smith. Shopping for clothes should fill me with orgasmic delight. I should come home staggering down the street in strappy heels clutching hundreds of designer bags. I should notice what other women are wearing, notice the LV logo print on their handbag or know that the cut of their clothes indicates they’re wearing Dior. I should be poring over fashion magazines, spending hours debating which off-the shoulder t-shirt to wear to the next party. Isn’t this what it is to be a young, intelligent woman today? Isn’t this what I’m supposed to be?

And above all else, like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, I should love (although “love” does not seem a strong enough word for the passion I am supposed to feel) and desire shoes.

I’m very young. My mum and gran are standing, perplexed and bemused in the front room as I cry and cry and insist that I won’t wear the trousers they’re trying to get me to wear. It’s as if they’ve asked me to wear a beard – it’s unthinkable, horrible. I’m a girl. Girls wear dresses, not trousers. My mum doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Looking back, neither do I.

Fashion seems a strange issue to be discussing on a feminist website. What is there to say? We aren’t forced into corsetry anymore (now if at all, it’s by choice), our toes aren’t broken and bound into tiny shoes for fashion’s sake. Surely feminism can’t stil find anything wrong with fashion?

Well, I don’t know. But what I’ve been wondering lately is: does fashion mean anything? Do clothes actually mean anything? Do they signify anything? Are they an issue feminists should think about? Is fashion political?

This may seem like a stupid question: does fashion mean anything?

This may seem like a stupid question: does fashion mean anything? But even at such a young age, I knew damn well that it did, when just the thought of wearing trousers made me scream. Nowadays I think I know what was going on. At that age, children are so intent on identifying themselves with one gender or the other (thus affirming their own identity) that they become gender police. Everything has to be strictly defined. Girls like pink: boys like blue. By expressing a love for pink, a girl is affirming her identity as a female creature. So fashion surely means something, even at that age. But does fashion mean anything for adults? In a world where in certain female circles, a shoe is not just a shoe – it’s a Manolo or a Choo (Carrie Bradshaw: “I lost my Choo!”) – you bet your Fendi handbag fashion means something.

I’m not entirely sure what a fashionista really is. All I know is that I’m not one, but I know I’m supposed to be one. You just look through any mainstream woman’s magazine and you’ll see what messages are being sent out.

But what’s feminism got to do with it? Today there would seem to be no contradiction in being both a feminist and a fashionista. Young feminists have reclaimed everything traditionally feminine, including a love of dressing up and fashion. Feminism has reclaimed the girlie look. Nail painting is a pleasure, not selling out the sisterhood. The babydoll look is an ironic riot grrrl comment. Lippy is no more than something to express yourself, to make yourself loud and proud. Feminists can take enjoyment in fashion now. Make-ups ads use slogans like ‘Empowering’ and ‘Be Radical.’

“a path to simple delight”

Indeed, writers like Natasha Walter and some in the American thirdwave have argued that feminism has over politicised things like fashion and dress, the reason why women say things like “I can’t be a feminist because I like wearing miniskirts.” Feminists have argued, and rightly I think, in general, that the simple enjoyment of adornment and clothes should be beyond the influence of feminist argument. “The catwalk will then cease to be a symbol of our subordination,” wrote Natasha Walter, “and become a path to simple delight.” Fashion, it is argued, is today seen as a source of power for women and girls. If anyone suffers from the constraints of fashion, it’s boys and men.

This may all be true. I don’t see anything wrong with enjoyment in clothes. But, I don’t know, something still disquiets me, but it’s difficult to pin down what it is. I think fashion can be a source of joy and fun for both sexes, but to place it beyond feminist comment and criticism at all, I think, might be going too far. I wonder sometimes if fashion sometimes is political. I think this is an unpopular view.

Slammed by feminists yet claims to be one himself.

Earlier this year, the Barbican in London ran an exhibition of Helmut Newton’s photographs. Helmut Newton is the man who is thought to be the godfather of modern-day fashion photography. The man who has influenced the style of so many others, who has been slammed by feminists yet claims to be one himself. Helmut Newton, the man who put the s&m back into feminism?

It goes to show how much he has influenced fashion photography, that when I saw the poster for the exhibition displayed on the underground I assumed it was just another (slightly disturbing) advert for clothes or make-up, just something I see around me every day. It showed a black and white image of a woman – depressed, stony faced, eyes blackened so much you can hardly see them – stepping down a metallic staircase, seen from below. She wears black, her skirt minuscule, her long, stick thin legs stretching down towards you. This is average fare in any fashion magazine.

Newton’s photos show women in humiliating situations, often naked, being watched by clothed males. Two of the most infamous photos show a woman kneeling on a bed with a saddle on her back, and a naked woman riveted to the wall like the car parts which surround her, as factory workers pass by blindly below.

Apparently, Newton is a feminist. Apparently, these photos portray women as “commanding,” in control, powerful. The images are jokes (ah, that old excuse). The photos aren’t being misogynist and voyeuristic: they are making a statement about misogyny and voyeurism. Right. Whatever. Maybe The Sun should use that excuse for Page 3.

Woman often shown as dolls, puppets or children in these stories, posable and malleable in any way the photographer pleases

But fashion photography is weird. I’ve read magazines for a long time, and I’ve noticed some real trends. In the fashion magazines, I’ve seen women awkward, stiff, unsmiling. They pose like Barbie dolls (sometimes literally) or puppets with strings broken. Their arms dangle lifeless at the elbow in un-natural positions, or their hands cover their mouth or their eyes. Woman often shown as dolls, puppets or children in these stories, posable and malleable in any way the photographer pleases. In a fashion shoot called Doll Drums, the model lies limp and stiff, draped over chairs as if she’d been thrown there by a petulant child. In a story subtitled “fashion goes back to the cradle”, a woman lies huddled on the floor in foetus position with a fearful look on her face. In one extreme case, a shoot showed a women lying limp, collapsed on the cobbles at night as if drugged or dead in a story entitled “Drop Dead Fashion.” In another, they’ve gone a step beyond death: women are ghosts or angels, wearing white, a supernatural glow coming from their eyes. And what on earth was heroin chic all about? It all disturbs me. Can you tell me fashion doesn’t mean anything?

Another trend in the past few years was for models to be covering their mouths or faces, blanking themselves out. There was a fashion spread in Frank in 1998 with four models, in a row, all with their hands covering their faces. The same year, Frank reported on a make-up trend which involved heavy blocks of colour painted in a rectangle over the mouth area – like a clown, perhaps – or a piece of tape across the mouth?

Because she is black, the photographer seem to treat her as alienlike, exotica, a novelty

Black models – rare though they are in Western fashion magazines – get things worse, I think. In an issue of The Face from 1998, Alek Wek, the stunningly beautiful, very black model, features in a fashion “story” called La Sizzla. She is pictured as an exotic bird, she wears feathers and poses with her hands limp and twisted, with her eyes rolled upwards inside her head. Because she is black, the photographer seem to treat her as alienlike, exotica, a novelty. There is one image in that story that really shocks me: the whole page is taken up by a shot of her feet and lower legs, bent at the knee, and the image is distorted somehow so her legs look no thicker than a child’s wrist, conjuring up the image of a (sexy?) famine victim. She wears shoes by Alexander McQueen.

Alek Wek seems to have been typecast as an alienlike creature in the Western fashion press. An advertisement for Issey Miyake, again in 1998, shows her frozen in the act of walking stiffly across the page, her arm raised and her hand bent, her fingers contorted like an arthritic woman. In 1999 she played “December” in the Pirelli calendar, symbolising the future, in perhaps the most bizarre image of all. Shot by Herb Ritts, she poses naked, shining and moulded like a plastic mannequin. But her feet are in the shape of stilettos, as if she had been born with heels attached. She doesn’t have hair, instead she has reptilian spines coming out of her head. This image is supposed to represent the future.

In fashion, all traditional ethnic clothing is exploited and eroticised, all the real meaning sucked out. “Foreign” looking women, to white male, Western eyes, can be simply photographed as sexy exotic objects. In another fashion shoot called Bollywoord Nights, a heavily made-up woman wears middle-eastern veils, bindis and purdah-like capes and scarves. In one picture, her feet are chained together like she’s some kind of slave. In another, she has her eyes closed submissively, and her hands are raised up, held together at the wrists as if waiting for them to be tied. Was it Hussain Chalayan that infamously sent his models down the catwalk, naked except for a black, middle-eastern veil which covered their head completely but only came down as far as their navels? Sometimes fashion seems to be nothing more than the worst kind of sex tourism.

Why is this ‘joke’ almost always at women’s expense?

The catwalk is a whole other bizarre world where designers can seemingly do anything to their female models, all in the cause of fashion. In the book Different for Girls, Joan Smith writes about Alexander McQueen’s “freakish ideas” about women, expressed in models walking down the catwalk as car crash, famine, or rape victims. Sometimes they have blood splattered on them, sometimes their clothes are ripped and torn, sometimes the models are manacled as they hobble down the catwalk. Like Newton’s work, all this is dismissed as a joke. But why, asks Smith, is this ‘joke’ always at women’s expense? And why are the most famous women’s wear designers almost always men?

I never thought of fashion as political until I read Backlash by Susan Faludi. In a chapter entitled “Dressing the Dolls”, Faludi described how the backlash against feminism affected something as transient and superficial as fashion. As feminism made strides in the 1980s, allowing women to go into work, giving them the choice of whether to glam up or not, fashion responded. The designers decided that the new trend was “High Femininity”: girly, pretty, flouncy and frilly clothes. Clothes for women who want to “dress up like little girls,” as Lacroix said. Faludi reckons this wasn’t a coincidence, and I’m inclined to agree. It just makes me wonder if fashion is still subject to political influences today.

But it’s difficult to really see if there is any deeper meaning behind fashion. All I know is that to be a proper young woman, I’m supposed to be what the magazines tell me to be. Fashion is all around, if you’re female. Shopping for clothes is no longer just something you do because you have to: it’s “retail therapy”. It’s “A Girl Thing”, as the new tv fashion show calls it. It’s what women do. So what’s wrong with me if I don’t get it?

The thing is, I’m drawn to it and sometimes I like it, but I never quite get there, like I’m trying to get “in” with the popular girls at school who really understand. I’ve tried to make myself interested in overlapping images of models from the latest catwalk show or learn what’s “in” and what’s “out” from one week to the next. I’ve tried to find enjoyment in pages simply showing blouses or t-shirts in different patterns or colours, but it just reminds me of learning to smoke: something you have to train yourself to enjoy. Seems I don’t have the fashionista gene.

It’s 10.30pm and I’ve just left Borders bookshop on Oxford Street (sometimes I just love living in London). Earlier I met a good friend for drinks and meal, and stopped off at the bookshop on the way home. I’m happy, I’ve just spent thirty quid on books that I’ve wanted to buy for ages. I’m in such a fantastic mood. The sky is bright, the streets are light, the night is fresh, and I’m strolling through central London. I’m wearing old trainers instead of Manolos, my bag was a bargain buy from Clarks at £12 not Louis Vitton, my trousers are pinned together where I haven’t got round to sewing up that tear. You wouldn’t look twice at me if I passed you. But inside, inside – I feel just like Carrie fucking Bradshaw striding the streets of New York. It’s the closest I’ll ever get.