Love clothes, but not in a ‘Vogue’ way? This collection of essays on expressing identity through fashion could be for you, says Jess McCabe
Feminists, in my experience, often have a complex relationship with clothes. Having questioned the oppressive nature of the high heel and worried about the dungaree stereotype, we also have to deal with the widespread expectation that feminists are a political version of the fashion police. But, although I am falling back on anecdotal conversations with feminists of all stripes (Topshop to pinstripe), the reality seems to be that we are more likely to spend time fretting about our own wardrobes than policing anyone else’s.
Indeed, I hesitate before pointing out that I found it easier to come up with an outfit for my first job interview (suit, shirt: actually quite easy) than for the first feminist meeting I ever went to (it involved a Tank Girl t-shirt). But as well as finding clothes politically complicated, I like them. I like buying them and combining them into outfits which – to me, if no one else – work perfectly. So I was pleased to stumble on a collection of 35 essays by women on expressing our identities through fashion and style. Collated by the novelist and prolific autobiographer Michelle Tea (Valencia, The Chelsea Whistle, Rose of No Man’s Land), the essays take in an happily broad spectrum of both women and outfits.
It’s So You isn’t specifically feminist, but it is inevitably political. Clothes are not just bits of fabric we use to keep ourselves warm. And even if we dress solely to please ourselves, what we wear is interpreted in specific ways and is ultimately a way of expressing who exactly we are to the world. As Jill Soloway – a writer on the TV show Six Feet Under – says in her essay in the collection:
“Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that college sorority girls in sweet tight sweaters and headbands and flatironed hair look askance at community college girls in tank tops and leggings and superhigh stilettos. Does these college girls know that the straight-girl journalism students look askance at the sorority girls? And that the butch, severe women’s studies majors look askance at the straight-girl journalism students for their earrings and shaved armpits? In other words, I am unable to accept any woman’s argument that her amount of makeup/jewelry/underwire/contact lenses/hair product/hair dye/you could go on and on/but I won’t… is the right amount. As I see it, any amount of grooming, dressing or pomading is an entry into an agreement – I know that when I leave the house today, I will be looked at, and this is what I would like people to see.”
While I could take issue with some of what Soloway says, she is essentially right: there is no neutral set of clothing that says absolutely nothing about us. The relationship between a woman and her wardrobe is always going to be a complicated one, which involves income, size, shape, class, sexuality, our relationship to femininity and masculinity, upbringing, place, culture, conformity and nonconformity, and many, many other variables. Which is one reason why this compendium of essays comes together into a much more lucid and valuable insight into the issue than any one person’s book could reasonably provide.
This is a fashion book for those of us who love dressing ourselves, but are far from satisfied by the mainstream press’ failure to cater to us – as this type of journalism revolves entirely around trying to sell us mostly boring, usually expensive, ‘fashionable’ clothes that suit a coathanger better than a woman. Often, the writers take a celebratory pride in not only breaking but deconstructing fashion ‘rulebooks’. Cookie Woolner, former drummer and burlesque performer, sets out her “revolutionary fashion tips for girls”, which include:
“Get one of those What Not to Wear books and rock every ‘fashion don’t’ in it. Yes, it’s that easy! Horizontal stripes? Clingy tops? Exposed upper arms? The muffin-top special? … Bring it on. Just think about it: every fashion tip you’ve ever learned is to help ‘flatter’ your body, which translates to ‘make you look thinner’.”
But the book doesn’t ignore how women’s relationship with fashion is often strained, to say the least. Consider writer and performance artist Frances Varian, who says of the “very straight, diet-obsessed women who generate ‘must have’ lists full of Gucci purses” that she works with:
“Still, I am fond of some of them, especially the woman who said to me the other day, ‘I like the pink fur on your collar. I could never wear anything like that; I’m always trying to blend in and not be noticed. But I like the way you dress. It’s almost artistic.’ All of the feminist theory in the world cannot prepare you for the heartwrenching, maddening, and completely unexpected experience of coming to know other adult women. Of all that is stolen from us and all that is withheld, the loss of a true and spiritual relationship with beauty strikes me as uniquely tragic and problematic on countless levels.”
Then writer and trans woman Sherilyn Connelly says of her first experiences with shopping for women’s clothes: “It was a necessary evil, but I could achieve the same emotional effect by staying home and jabbing a fork in my eye.”
The book sets out multiple perspectives from women who grew up without enough money to conform to the rigid fashion expectations of school, and the difficulty they have had embracing consumerist fashion as adults. Chelsea Starr explains how she often only had one set of clothes as a child, and once ended up having to stay home from school for days when she accidentally wet herself. She now makes her own clothing.
Some of the best essays, though, are the more light-hearted ones. Like Nicole J Georges’ comic explaining how she is magnetically drawn to the sort of clothes she was once repulsed by – such as Peter Pan collars, saddle shoes, sweater vests and ribbons.
Travel writer and journalist Laura Fraser writes about her long journey from the girl who visited her WASPish cousin at university in full cowgirl regalia, to fashion guru who wows Vogue editors – through an insanely expensive Armani suit that was only fashionable for a single season (it was the ’80s, there were shoulder pads involved). Elsewhere, Ali Liebegott explains her long search for the perfect pair of slippers straight from a 1950s children’s book illustration. “‘Can’t you just get these temporarily, until we find the kind you like,” Anna would say, gesturing towards a canvas-backed moccasin. ‘These are plain,’ she’d say. ‘Those wouldn’t be in a coloring book,’ I’d remind her.”
There’s a broad range of different perspectives represented here – albiet heavily weighted towards progressive San Franciscans, writers and artists. The painter Mary Woronov bemoans how American style has devolved to underwear (by which she means t-shirts); Silja J A Talvi, better known as an investigative journalist who tackles issues such as women in prison, explains her love affair with makeup; Ellen Forney provides an alternative version of those paper dolls with the tabbed clothing; Parisa Parnian tells of how some quick thinking when she was caught in class drawing naked ladies (“‘I’m going to be a fashion designer one day, and that’s just my model that I’m about to design clothes for – duh!'”) ultimately led her to create the genderqueer fashion label RIGGED OUT/FITTERS; Dexter Flowers explains about the velour green pant suit that lost its bewitching appeal when her mother’s boyfriend decided to buy a set as well. The list goes on.
In her introduction, Tea says: “These essays show the real possibilities of fashion, as both a delight and an escape in its own right, and as a springboard for talking about, oh, everything worth talking about.” Indeed. Time to ditch the fashion mags and pick up a copy of this book instead.