“American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” is opening at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum this week, showcasing the development of women’s fashion from the 1890s to the 1940s, and its influence on modern fashion.
According to The New Yorker, the show’s curator, Andrew Bolton, frames the exhibit as “a face-off between Old World and New World ideals of femininity.”
[Bolton] cites the Paris couturier Jean Patou, who decided, in the nineteen-twenties, “the slender American Diana” was superior to “the rounded French Venus,” at least as a clotheshorse. In Bolton’s opinion, not only Diana’s silhouette but also her attitudes would “triumph” over those of Venus to set the standards of style… “Fashion intersected with feminism to become a liberating force for women in America,” he writes in the show’s wall notes.
Bolton’s lofty comments on the intersection between fashion and feminism immediately brought to mind a hilarious article I once read in The Onion, “Women Now Empowered by Everything A Woman Does.” Just to give some highlights:
Clothes-shopping, once considered a mundane act with few sociopolitical implications, is now a bold feminist statement…
Not every woman can become a physicist or lobby to stop a foundry from dumping dangerous metals… Although these actions are incredible, they marginalize the majority of women who are unable to, or just don’t particularly care to, achieve such things… Fortunately for the less impressive among us, a new strain of feminism has emerged in which mundane activities are championed as proud, bold assertions of independence from oppressive patriarchal hegemony.
The article is a satire but, despite being a bit mean-spirited and misogynistic, I think it accurately reflects a lot of the confusion surrounding feminism, particularly when the article came out in 2003, the heyday of the show “Sex and the City.” Debates about the influence of “Sex and the City” on modern feminism were continuously hashed and rehashed during the time, and I can’t tell if a consensus was ever reached. What is clear, however, is that while “Sex and the City” spawn continue to crop up – e.g., the subsequent films, similarly-themed books, newer shows like“Gossip Girl” and “The Hills,” etc. – no one in their right mind would call any one of them even remotely feminist. If anything, the sustained interest in glamorizing the lives and wardrobes of wealthy young women, even when completely drained of all remnants of feminist thought, is an indication that what people found compelling about “Sex and the City” probably had nothing whatsoever to do with feminism in the first place.
I have managed not to get too depressed about all this. But now that we’ve come to a tenuous peace with the fact that American women are more interested in fashion than feminism, it struck me (and The New Yorker) as entirely odd that the curator of the Costume Institute would so confidently intersect the two of them, describing fashion as a “liberating force” for American women.
It seems clear that to look at the intersection between fashion and feminism in the most generous light would be to say that there isn’t one. For example, when I studied Sex Equality in law school with the legendary feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, one of the first things the female students (including myself) whispered about was how very beautiful and put together she always was. But not one of us thought we could be more like “Catharine MacKinnon” by dressing like the professor standing before us. That MacKinnon’s students compliment her for her appearance is unrelated to the fact that they revere her for her accomplishments.
On the other hand, to look at the intersection between fashion and feminism in a harsh light would be to point out the fact that this so-called “intersection” is born from the fashion industry cynically manipulating whatever poorly-informed impression of feminism we have and turning it into a marketing tool. And though that may be standard fare as far as marketing goes, one cannot deny that it has resulted in the dilution, if not the ridicule (a la The Onion), of the influence of legitimate feminist ideology.
Once again, I’m not particularly depressed about this. I’ve spent just as much time devoted to equal rights as I’ve spent shopping in boutiques, and I refuse to take sides. I’m merely offering my advice to those who must publicize museum exhibits exalting the role of fashion in the 20th century: try not to bring feminism up.