Femme Feminism: Is Wearing the Past a Step Back for Women?

What does the revival of a trend that was once associated with thinking of women as passive, decorative beings mean when it is revisited by women today?

This is the question that was on my mind when I came across two articles while I was gathering this week’s household recycling.

The first was a July 17 article in The Star Tribune (my local newspaper) titled “This isn’t your grandma’s girdle” about how women are (once again) embracing figure-changing undergarments with  the new moniker (and new elastics) of “shapewear” titled “This isn’t your grandma’s girdle.”

I’ll admit I gave a disappointed sigh when I read it. Shapewear is apparently now made to wear at the gym, while pregnant, under pants, under dresses. What would a baby-boomer – when she was in her prime – say? The 1960s A-line dress (particularly the trapeze style) with its structured fit that hung away from the body, and denim jeans of the 1970s were experienced as liberating for young women because they didn’t have to wear girdles under them. It’s worth noting, however, that the 1960s good girl was still supposed to don a girdle because jiggling flesh potentially meant a loose woman. Nonetheless, the new styles raised the possibility of not needing one. Kevyn Burger reports that the idea that a body shouldn’t jiggle –  now in the name of displaying weight-trained firmness rather than hiding loose morals – has revived along with the Spanx trend.

I’m reminded of a quotation by early 20th century editorialist Edgar Watson Howe (probably not a self-identified feminist): “A man has his clothes made to fit him; a woman makes herself fit her clothes.” Yes, the new “shapewear” is lighter and less binding, but it’s still tight unbreathing synthetic fabric right next to the skin that compresses the torso. The idea that women should wear sweat-inducing, acid-reflux producing foundation garments for everyday wear does feel like a step back to me. I’m not saying that all women should eschew shapewear (and yes, men are increasingly wearing it too), but I do wish all the excitement was about a trend for wearing well-fitting clothing rather than synthetic body-constricting undergarments.

Then, I was re-visiting the March 2012 Elle magazine and read an editorial by Daphne Merkin called “Portrait of a Lady,” about her unease with Spring 2012’s retro feminine looks that recall 1950s demureness. Merkin associates Spring 2012 designers’ looks featuring peplums and floral prints as “the kind of clothes that convey unadulterated, unsubversive femininity.”

She goes on to say:

“Then again, I can’t help feeling some unease about all this reclaimed femininity and where it might lead. Does dressing like Doris Day in an A-line or pleated skirt mean that we have to go around batting our eyelashes and acting all helpless? Is it possible, that is, to go back in time without feeling railroaded into an older, discarded style of being? [Prabal] Gurung, who insists that “there’s got to be something that cuts the sweetness, a bit of grit,” sounds a cautionary note: “Femininity is good, but conflict and confrontation are not a bad thing. Are women really going to dress up in clothes that look like a rehash of vintage? It feels a little regressive.” Merkin goes on in “Portrait of a Lady” to speculate that maybe the “New Prettiness” look reflects a larger cultural sense of nostalgia, a longing for more traditional values, and a less complicated template of femininity.

Advertisement for Louis Vuitton spring 2012 collection

And unlike my reaction to the shapewear, I find myself answering Merkin’s question, “Is it possible, that is, to go back in time without feeling railroaded into an older, discarded style of being? with the answer “Yes, definitely. And it’s not about nostalgia or going back to a simpler idea of femininity, but I would say moving to a more complex, multi-faceted femininity.”

I live in a city where it’s very common to see vintage 1950s looks worn by women as everyday wear (as well as the new revivals of 50s looks). As a convenient example, the barista in the coffee shop right now has arched eyebrows recalling old-Hollywood, high-waisted floral shorts and a gray linen blouse tied at the waist. Feminine and 50s for sure. Many of these 50s-look-loving women also sport tattoos (and not tiny little butterflies), have crew-cuts, dreadlocks or more feminine Bettie-Page bangs – in blue. They have all sorts of bodies – broad shouldered, buxom or boyish. They speak confidently, are witty and fun. I imagine that in the right mood they swear like sailors and can drink their boyfriends and girlfriends under the table. Their 1950s dressing is not about longing for a simpler template of femininity, though they may engage in “traditional” feminine hobbies like knitting and sewing. They’re the yarn-graffiti-bombing DIY crafters of Bust;  they’re the readers and writers of Jezebel.com. What does dressing feminine mean to them?

I suspect that apparel which recalls the 1950s feminine past has a couple of meanings. One is that it’s a sort of camouflage, or rather a mediator, that softens and eases social relations. I know that I have personally used vintage-y feminine dress this way – I am far too direct and blunt for Minnesota Nice sensibilities, and I sometimes put on a delicate embroidered 1950s  cardigan or a flowery print to soften the messenger, since I can’t seem to master softening the message.

Another interpretation is that we’re wearing the 1950s looks with a sense of irony and that our ways of performing femininity today — coupled with the older feminine looks — create new meanings for femininity….and feminism. Back in 1986 [in Studies of Entertainment edited by Tania Modleski] when the 1950s trend was having its first go-round, Kaja Silverman wrote “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” an essay that defends (what was then the new) retro style as a way for women to draw upon the historical images of female subjectivity and give them new meaning, while acknowledging women’s past roles.

“[Retro] inserts its wearer into a complex network of cultural and historical references. At the same time, it avoids the pitfalls of naive referentiality….By recontextualizing objects from earlier periods within the frame of the present, retro is able to ‘re-read’ them in ways that maximize their radical and transformative potential — to chart the affinities, for instance, between fashions in the forties and feminism in the eighties…”

feminine and feminist? from Drops of Jupiter blog

As I sit here, writing, a woman in her late 20s just came in. She has on a (new) long black cotton halter dress in a 1950s style. She is also wearing an adorable straw cloche hat with upturned brim in the front, and a black grosgrain ribbon hatband. She looks feminine. When she turns around to face me, she wears no make-up, her short thick bangs are green, and her bare arms are covered in large tattoos. It’s vintage-y 1950s (with a touch of 1920s) dressing for sure, but submissive? No. Feminine? Sure. Feminist? Definitely. And way cool.

– Nancy L. Fischer



Filed under Feminism and Fashion, Why We Wear the Past

3 responses to “Femme Feminism: Is Wearing the Past a Step Back for Women?

  1. Pingback: Go Home, Retro, You’re Drunk: On Political Conservatism And Vintage Subcultures | Junkee

  2. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve bern to this bloog before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized
    it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly pleased I found it and I’ll be book-marking it
    and checking back regularly!

  3. I am from the Golden Age of Girdle, a vintage era where all women without question were daily always firmly girdled. What I have noted is that women who serioiusly do wear a vintage daily seem to be very much in touch with the own feminity and this is very attractive. Wearing a decent well fitted girdle is not just for getting all dressed, but also for feeling great. Women would be pleasantly surprised as to the posibve results wearing a decent vintage girdle worn every day would be like.

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