This is what a feminist looks like

Michelle Garrett of Ravishing Retro writes on the subject of Vintage and Feminism.

Feminism is one of my great loves so naturally, I was thrilled to see the topic come up in the vintage blogosphere. Gemma of Retro Chick wrote a post on the subject, as did Lena of Style High Club. Both posts are very interesting, and it’s cool to see thoughts pouring in on the subject from all their readers. Actually since Lori of Rarely Wears Lipstick added her thoughts, I fear there’s not a lot left to say, but allons-y nonetheless!

Feminism is an issue that I think vintage wearers must confront from time to time, seeing as our clothes quite obviously reference more repressive or tumultuous times for women. Looking like a museum piece has the side effect of people assuming you have some sort of comment on the era you “come from”, and so it is that we are brought into conversations of this nature.

People often like to draw my attention to the irony of being a feminist dressed like a 1950s housewife. More frequently, I’m misread as conservative, as people mistake my aesthetic nostalgia for a moral nostalgia. Some people have trouble seeing vintage clothes without imagining the vintage world.

The truth is that most of us wear the clothes, but not the attitudes. In fact, although superficially “conservative”, the vintage community seems to have produced an unusually high number of kickass feminists, radicals and unorthodox thinkers.

Independent dressing attracts independent men and women. Vintage-wearers aren’t exactly fashionable in their knee-length skirts and hats, but I think that coming to terms with being unfashionable takes a great deal of strength. Choosing to forego fashion trends may seem trivial, but I see it as a form of resistance.

This phenomenon is paraphrased rather nicely by Gemma of Retrochick:

In my experience it’s those women and girls with the confidence to break away from … cultural norms that are more likely to demonstrate  an independent spirit, and the intelligence to deconstruct what they see presented to them as “ideal”.

I don’t mean to suggest that dressing in vintage frocks is in itself an inherently feminist act, because of course it is the strength of one’s conviction rather than one’s wardrobe that makes a feminist; but I do want to suggest that feminism is particularly relevant to the vintage subculture, and that having the confidence to develop one’s own style in opposition to what is prescribed by the fashion industry and/or the media does indicate some sort of radical thought.

I feel like one radical act breeds another, so once one comes to reject mainstream standards of beauty, one is probably a lot more likely to reject other things too, like patriarchy, for instance – cue feminism.

Of course this isn’t to privilege vintage styles over any other styles. The basic feminist doctrine of choice dictates that one should act on one’s own whims, so a feminist can just as easily be found in a mini-skirt or denim shorts as in a 1940s tea frock or tweed breeches.

The problem surrounding modern fashions (described by Gemma and Lena as “hypersexualised”) is perhaps the sense of coercion, by which I mean that a lot of women may feel like they don’t have free license to experiment, or deviate from the trends. This isn’t really a problem created by the particular fashions, but more by mainstream media/etc, although I suppose because the styles themselves channel a level of sensuality that may be unnatural or uncomfortable to some girls, the problem is sort of exacerbated.

Vintage has its problems too – the male gaze has always been around, so the clothes don’t really sidestep any accusations of objectification and such. The difference, as I see it, is probably that a higher proportion of those who dress in vintage have made a very conscious choice to do so, and there’s also therefore a higher chance they’re well-equipped to deal with misogyny.

Although wearing vintage is not inherently feminist, I think it can easily, and often does, produce feminists – and I love that. Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways to rebel, and wearing vintage is just one of them. That independent spirit that makes a feminist can manifest itself in endlessly unique and equally valid ways.

Having victory rolls is hardly a prerequisite for feminism, but they can top off the fabulous vintage look of your local kickass feminist who’s putting up her middle finger to patriarchy.


4 Responses

  1. Vesta

    Being a totally independent woman. Who has actually “kept” her man while he studied, I often feel others may judge my DomesticGoddess blog and viewpoint. I agree with you that someone who decides to go against the norm no matter what that may be is often independent enough to make their own choices and Ultimatly that is what it’s about. I adore cooking I adore looking feminine sexy the vintage clothes offer more for a non stick thin woman than today’s fashion so why not. I hold my own day in day out I manage others and work in a make dominant world. So If I want to dress up play pretend for a while enjoy myself then I will. I hate the often oppressive politics of the 1950s but I LOVED marilyn monroes wiggle and clothes! I guess all in trying to say is you can sit at a computer and pretend your a soldier, or spend the weekend dressed up as a warrior why can’t I dress up as a 1950’s housewife bake gorgeous cakes and feel sexy happy and relaxed before the onslaught of my “real” life??

  2. Paul Hayward

    I agree. Fifties were false conservative, there was a rising status for women, but world see we vintages like a conservative persons. We only are like people was in the bygone days.

  3. La Sweeta Deeva

    The intersection between feminism and vintage bears a lot more discussion. While I agree with the statements made by the author, I think there is a need for women who inhabit the public space cloaked in vintage looks (academics, bloggers, business people, entertainers, authors, artists) to examine and deconstruct what certain things mean. For example, the wearing of bright red lipstick in the 50’s – broadly seen by feminists as an attempt to sexualise oneself as an object of male desire – can have a plethora of other dimensions today. Unless these and other vintage customs are fully explored by modern feminisms, I think we’ll see more patriarchal institutions using vintage imagery to consciously and unconsciously undermine women’s equality.

  4. Paul Hayward

    I recommend an Alan Petigny essay called ‘The permissive society’ to discover Truman and Eisenhower eras were not so conservative like many think. There were a rising status for women, a more equalitarian marriage relationship and a wider point of view about sex that opened the door to the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s. Every vintage era had feminism, but nobody of we can be a ‘pure race vintage’ if we accept modern ideas, especially lies against past, like the false beliefs about the 1950s fortunately unmasked in essays like this. For example, I am a vintage since my birth, and being a man I consider myself a feminist because I wrote an essay to prove sexual equality like John Stuart Mill in 1869, but I not agree with today’s feminism, but the classic because I’m a vintage.