My relationship with fashion dates back to the early childhood. Dressed in floral ensembles with glittery boots of matching colours, a tiny bow decorating the bob haircut I—to the horror of my mother—had insisted on getting, I daydreamed about becoming like the empowered, stylish woman that brought me up: always immaculately dressed with pastel-coloured pantsuits, sky-high heels, and long curls framing the beautiful smile that still manages to comfort me more than anything else in the world. The early ensembles were often replaced by full-skirted dresses for special occasions; later, and more permanently, by outfits made up of cropped tops, bell-bottom jeans, and 5-inch platforms; and eventually by pussy-bow shirts, culottes, and floral Gucci slippers. As I grew, the ways I fashioned myself changed, but one thing remained constant: the sense of empowerment that I give myself with clothes.
I wouldn’t be certain of the precise moment I realised the importance of fashion in my own empowerment. It might have had something to do with my school friends praising my style as young as 11 or 12, or perhaps with the process of designing the gown I wore to my Sweet Sixteen—fifteen, actually, as is the tradition in Colombia. But by the time I left high school, it was pretty clear to me that fashion was to be my great ally in the fight for women’s empowerment, for feminism, and for my own sake.
In a highly patriarchal society, I had to see in my teens some of the women closest to me being treated as prostitutes, as rubbish, by those who claimed to love them, using their style as an explanation for such accusations. I had to hear husbands insult their wives for wearing over-the-knee boots, figure-hugging dresses, high heels. And, even worse, I had to hear women criticise others for exactly the same reasons. The skirt too short, the dress too tight, the heels too high… All of these signifiers of a moral too low.
As if the clothes made the woman. As if the thousands of years that have passed since the patriarchy formally started moralising women and relegating us to vain copies of a virgin had never passed. As if feminism had never existed in this world.
And the worst was yet to come.
When I chose to study mathematics, I realised that clothes on women are more than a measure for morals: they also reveal our intellectual capacities. Being a nicely-dressed, feminine-looking woman, I soon caught the attention of more than one professor that, based on the predominant archaic patriarchal judgement, saw no potential in my brain. I could see the look of disapproval in their faces, feel their rejection, notice their pleasure in my struggles. And, although this pushed me to stay there for longer than I should have, I finally ended up moving to greener pastures.
But one thing I learned: fashion is my tool for feminism.
The more rejection I felt, the more effort I took into dressing the feminine part: wearing dresses, carefully making up my face, blowing up my hair. Few things I enjoyed more than getting good grades while also looking great. My weekend pastime soon became seeing the confused face of young men who hit on me when they learned I was in college for mathematics; because of my looks, they usually expected something “more feminine”—whatever that may mean. And although the math word has abandoned the discourse, I still get the look—and the inappropriate comments—when I mention I’m en-route for a PhD.
It was my personal struggle with fashion—wanting to simultaneously dress well and be intelligent—what brought me to fashion studies. It is this same struggle what continues to guide my research in the history of fashion, art, and women.
Fashion is too often equated with the frivolous, fickle and irrational—characteristics that, at least from the 18th century on, have been unequivocally associated with the feminine. It is often dismissed as “unimportant, ephemeral nonsense” (in the words of Polhemus). Men and women reject it alike, for being too feminine, too superficial. Even feminists have declared war against it, for being the main reason for the subjection of women in our times.
But, I have now learned, fashion is much more than subjection or superficiality.
Take the corset, for example. For years, it was considered an overtly oppressive garment on women, not only shaping their bodies for the pleasure of the male gaze, but also impeding their movement, even displacing their internal organs, turning them into nothing more than good-looking objects to be placed inside the home. But, as Valerie Steele has argued, women also played an important role in the perpetuation of the fashion, even finding a sense of empowerment in it. Today, after centuries of re-signification, it has even become a symbol of feminist resistance (see: “Can a Corset Be Feminist?” on the NY Times).
In a time where we need to remind our governments and our societies of the importance of equality, of human rights, of the richness in diversity, we need more such symbols. We need to use fashion to subvert gender divisions, to empower ourselves—all of them, because it is not just women who suffer from patriarchal hegemony—to advance towards a new feminist rebellion. And in this new wave of feminism, complicated and contradictory as it may be, fashion is there to remind us, every single day, that feminism is more than a fad, a trending topic, a cultural phenomenon: feminism is a political movement that we need for the advancement of our societies.
And fashion, if we learn to use it as such, is feminist power.