Fashion for Feminists: How fashion and dress shape women’s identities

By Varyanne Sika | January 10th, 2014
BUWA! - Feminism and Culture

Fashion is viewed by some as retrograde, profligate, superficial, even anti-feminist, while others have a deep passion for fashion and describe themselves as ‘fashion addicts’ or ‘fashion junkies’. Fashion – being a largely female dominated sphere – generally affects women’s lives more than it does men’s. Drawing on Erik Erikson’s theory of development and identity formation in which an individual’s development spans his or her lifetime, this paper explores the different ways in which women’s identities are shaped by, and expressed through, fashion. It also discusses the notion that being fashionable is anti-feminist and explores the various ways in which fashion can be used to achieve feminist objectives.

A matter of identity

"You ought to have some papers to show who you are," the police officer advised me.

"I do not need any paper. I know who I am," I said.

"Maybe so. Other people are also interested in knowing who you are."

--B. Traven, The Death Ship

Our identities are not only ours to form and to anchor our existence on; they guide other people’s interaction and behaviour towards us. A myriad of opportunities exist to present or express ourselves to the people around us, to guide them about how they should act towards us, to have their actions towards us reinforce our identities or to disregard them when they fail to. We have bio lines or ‘about me’ pages on online social platforms, signatures at the end of our emails, passports and identification cards, body language, opinions, behaviour and mannerisms, and tools with which we communicate our identities. And visual communication of our identities through dress and/or fashion is ubiquitous and a fundamental tool that proclaims who we are, both to ourselves and to people around us. Getting dressed every day is a compulsory, non-negotiable activity for most people; we can hardly ever exercise our preferences on the matter. Instead, we decide how to execute the dressing process. What we choose to wear can determine rejection or acceptance into different social groups, whether or not we get a job, a promotion, respect, admiration and attention. Our dressing and fashion choices have psychological, social, political and economic meanings and consequences.

Identity is a complex and sometimes ambiguous concept, which can be loosely understood as the set of different meanings that define a person in his/her society (Burke 1980). An attempt to understand identity has resulted in an agreement by scholars of the subject that we possess multiple identities. There are three widely accepted bases of identity – social, role and personal identity. Our overall identities are a blend of the three identities we possess. We play different roles in society – one could be a student, mother, daughter, wife, politician, woman, mentor and many others. The roles we play in society dictate our identities and our identities prescribe our feelings, mannerisms, thoughts and general behaviour. Our identities are inextricably linked to our society; we cannot be understood outside our societies, as Erik Erikson postulated. Personal identities are tied more to individuals than they are to social and role identities. The three bases of identities – social, role and personal – are interrelated but expressed separately in separate contexts (Burke, Stets, 2000).

In discussing how fashion has shaped the identity of women, we must examine the ways in which fashion has shaped women’s social identities, role identities and personal identities. Greg Stone (1962: p. 93) says “a person’s identity is established when others place him as a social object by assigning him the same words of identity that he appropriates for himself.” According to Stone, outward appearance and presentation helps in forming and maintaining one’s identity. Presenting ourselves in whichever way we choose proclaims to the society and to ourselves the identity we are enacting or embodying.

Fashion shapes women’s social roles and personal identities

Fashion, whether in urban or rural areas, is one of the many symbols of class division in society. There exists ostentatious fashion and more financially accessible fashion, but never cheap fashion. Our focus will be on women living in urban areas who interact with fashion the most.

Women’s social identities – these are their identities in relation to various social groups they belong to or aspire to belong to – are arguably the aspect of their identities that fashion influences the most. Women get a sense of social identity from social groups, which could be based on race, class or politics; they enhance their status and self-image by enhancing the groups to which they belong. Note that interaction is not a prerequisite of social group membership. Since fashion already divides women into those who can afford it and those who cannot, women who can afford to interact with fashion are already considered de facto members of the middle class and the upper class. Sub groups within the two classes exist, each with its own subculture. An example of these subcultures is the ‘Afro’-prefixed subcultures.

Fashion among middle class Kenyan women in urban areas and women living in other urban areas in Africa, for instance, can be described as ‘Afro-contemporary’, ‘Afro-centric’, or ‘Afro-chic’, especially during this period of the rise of African prints and fabrics, such as the shuka, kanga, batik, and the famous Ankara fabrics, among others. There are African print shoes, African print runway designs, African print accessories, African print umbrellas and African print car seat covers. African print is basically ‘in’ right now. There are those women who want to belong to this group and they want to be seen as fashion-forward without ‘succumbing to western culture’. These are poets and artistic personalities, who attend Afro-fusion concerts and art exhibitions: they are Afro-centric Afropolitans.

On the other hand, there are those women who consider the African print trend a fad. They know that the only reason the trend exists is precisely because of Western influences, such as famous fashion designers who have looked occasionally to Africa for inspiration – like Louis Vuitton, who used what is popularly considered East Africa’s maasai traditional fabrics for his entire Spring-Summer 2012 collection, or Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2005 Hommage á l’Afrique haute couture collection or Yves Saint Laurent, whose African inspired collections date back to 1967. The women who consider fashion itself a fad tend to be women who are non-conformist or simply women who are not at all concerned with fashion per se – they merely wear clothes because of social pressures.

Whatever the case and whatever the current fashionable trend, there are always women who buy into the trend, those who rebel against it and those who are unaware of it. Fashion in this particular case separates social identities into fashion-forward, non-conformist and those oblivious to it. According to Henri Tafjel’s Social Identity Theory (McLeod, S. A. 2008), social categorisation takes place first; we categorize social groups and identify which group we categorize ourselves as belonging to. Social identification takes place next; we adopt the identity and values of the groups we have categorised ourselves as belonging to. Finally, social comparison takes place; we begin to compare the group to which we belong to other groups. For instance, a woman who categorises herself as belonging to the ‘Afro-centric’ subculture will begin to dress in a certain way – by paying close attention to or emphasising or incorporating fabrics and accessories that are considered to be African – and she will adopt the value system of this group with exceptions to things that are in conflict with her other identities. For example, she might not be willing to cut off all her chemically-treated hair and start growing her natural hair because she prefers wearing her hair straight. Or she might cut off all her chemically-treated hair and keep her natural hair but she will not be willing to wear kitenge fabric trousers or any ‘Afro-centric’ outfit for that matter. An urban African woman will express and proclaim her social identity by adhering to the fashion trends or parts of the trends associated with women who belong to this fashionable middleclass group, while another urban African woman will rebel against the trend to indicate that she belongs to a different non-conformist middleclass group.

Role identity – the core of our identities – lies in the categorisation of the self as an occupant of a particular social position and adopting the meanings and expectations that are associated with the given role and its performance (Stets & Burke, 2000). Although different people may have different meanings and different expectations for the same role identity, we can explore some of the more universally accepted role meanings and expectations for women. Women play roles such as mothers, wives, students and professionals. Role identities are only ever expressed in relation to the society or to other identities. There are fashion choices that are considered appropriate and inappropriate for mothers in the society – respectability and modesty are generally guiding principles for fashion among mothers and wives but there is leniency towards younger women who are allowed to make bolder and more provocative fashion choices for which they are not judged. Such younger women are simply called eccentric personalities. A mother who makes a young girl’s fashion choices is frowned upon in society, gossiped about and ostracised in some cases.

Occupational attributes are also affected by what women choose to wear. These attributes include honesty, professionalism, efficiency, reliability, intelligence and competency (Kwon, 1994). In work places, successful women who wear mini-skirts and high heels generally have a negative reputation and the notion is usually that they gave sexual favours to achieve their success. On the other hand, women at work who wear clothes that are considered decent are associated with positive values and attributes, such as being hard working, focused, honest and trustworthy. With knowledge of social norms and the culture of the society they live in, women’s role identities tend to lean more toward the socially acceptable values even if they are in conflict with their social or personal identities.

Personal identity is the lowest level of self-categorisation according to the social identity theory (Brewer, 1991). Personal identity is how we see ourselves distinct from other people in the groups to which we belong. Our personal identities focus on our own beliefs, goals and value systems, and our fashion comes in all forms. At this level of identity, women often wear whatever they like because it makes them feel good about themselves and makes them feel happy, confident, less self-conscious and free from social expectations and constraints. Similarly, fashion restricts women’s freedom and self-confidence because of the image of perfection synonymous with fashion marketing. Hence, some women will work hard to become as close to the perfection advertised in the fashion industries, while others will decide to peg their self-confidence on other things outside of fashion. In this case, the aspects of women’s personal identity that are affected by fashion tend to be self-esteem, self-confidence and self-acceptance.

Is fashion anti-feminist?

“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.” - Coco Chanel

So what do feminists say about fashion trends and the fashion industry? Feminism’s overarching credo is that women must be allowed the right to be who or what they want to be and to do whatever they want to do, as long as they are not breaking any laws or infringing anybody else’s rights. As such, it is not surprising that some women hold the belief that fashion is anti-feminist. Some feminists argue that the fashion industry has for decades favoured one female body ideal over all others and peddled the notion that a woman is not much if she isn’t adorned in the latest fashion. Indeed, it is easy to understand how and why most people think of feminists as being anti-fashion and of fashion as being anti-feminist. This is mainly because of how fashion models tend to be objectified – and how they represent only certain body types. This objectification can be blamed on what drives and motivates most designers: sex appeal. Models will often present designs worn without bras, extremely short shorts, transparent clothing, backless dresses, pelvis-high slits and ‘barely-there’ blouses, which wouldn’t be a problem in a ‘perfect society’. However, it is important to note that these body revealing designs are solely for the pleasure and gaze of men. Thus the sexist nature of the fashion industry aggravates feminists, who struggle to curb the objectification of women. Women are forced to believe that unless they resemble as much as possible the ideals advertised in magazines, advertisements and runway shows, they are simply not attractive or appealing to men.

However, not all fashion is overtly sexual and objectifying. Feminists can enjoy fashion without being vilified for it. After all, women should be able to do what they want and be whomever they choose to be. The idea of women formulating rules to control other women’s freedom by dictating what they are allowed and not allowed to be interested in, even if these preferences are negative products of patriarchy, is itself an anti-feminist idea. Not everything born out of patriarchy and not everything born out of fashion is oppressive to women. Fashion may be considered by some women as superficial, sexist and oppressive, but if feminists refuse to participate in it, we are signing away our power to influence it.

And differences over fashion should not be a divisive issue among feminists. Instead, our differences should be addressed comprehensively to unify feminists and bolster feminists’ efforts to achieve their goals. As Audre Lorde says in her essay, The Master’s Tools will not dismantle the Master’s House (2007):

“As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression…in our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

Based on the above assertion, it can be concluded that fashion is and also isn’t anti-feminist. As far as the feminist movement is concerned, differences of opinion on the matter should not separate feminists into various camps because unity within the movement is vital to the cause. We simply cannot – and must not – allow the cliché that ‘women are their own worst enemies’ to be perpetuated.

In the past, women were oppressed by corsets, which restricted their movement, and were not allowed to wear trousers, which were much more comfortable and appropriate for sporting and other activities, and in both cases fashion contributed significantly to the liberation of women. Chanel made – and popularised – non-corseted dresses to allow women to move freely, while Amelia Earhart wore trousers because it was ridiculous to fly a plane in a dress, which helped to popularised not only trousers among women but also the notion that women could do anything. African women can learn to enjoy fashion, harness and exploit its power, and change the patriarchal aspects of it, which they may find problematic.

Fashion as machinery for feminist activism

Fashion has been used by feminists in the past to make political statements and break free from oppression. Black American women in the 1960s and 1970s wore denim overalls instead of dresses as they fought to dress on their own terms. Women all over the world have embraced the colour pink as the universal colour for breast awareness campaigns and breast awareness month. Fashion typography is growing in popularity and being used everywhere to declare different personal or political messages. We have black women wearing t-shirts and other clothing with tags such as ‘I love my black’, ‘I’m a natural’, and ‘I love my kinky hair’, among others. Chimamanda Adichie said in a recent interview that her hairstyle is a political statement against the idea that “beauty has become this homogenous thing.” Marc Jacobs designed ‘Free Tibet’ tote bags, which were purchased by many women who shared his sentiments. International pop stars Beyoncé and Katy Perry wore ‘Obama’ dresses and accessories in support of his re-election, while Vivienne Westwood wore an ‘I am Julian Assange’ t-shirt in support of the Wikileaks founder. Lady Gaga wore a satirical meat dress at an awards show, which ridiculed the notion of women’s bodies as meat, while the popular fashion blog ‘Man Repeller’ creates an anti-sexist and anti-‘male approval’ outlook on fashion. And various women in Arab countries have posed in pictures wearing their burqas but slightly revealing the lingerie they wear underneath them.

Fashion has thus been used in feminist and other such campaigns and succeeded tremendously – and could be again. And two key questions that need to be addressed by feminists in societies and organisations – as well as by feminist intellectuals – are how can feminists further exploit the power that fashion wields to their advantage? And how can feminists use fashion as a tool for activism instead of dismissing it as anti-feminist?

For instance, what if all working women were mobilised to only wear trouser suits to work for a week (or even longer) to campaign against the infamous pay gap between men and women? And what if women decided not to carry their handbags or purses to work but to turn up with briefcases instead as an additional aspect of the pay gap campaign? I believe that this would send an important protest message in a non-violent, legal – and powerful – fashion. Or what if women universally refused to purchase clothing from fashion designers who insist on using size zero models and instead purchased clothes from designers who create items for women of all sizes? It is highly likely that designers would be forced to stop pushing impossible body ideals on women because at the end of the day, the designers want to sell their work and earn a living.

As an industry whose consumers are mostly women, fashion could be a powerful tool for feminists. However, just like any other machinery, efficiency depends on knowledge of the machine’s parts and functions. Fashion should be explored further because the possibilities of using it for good are as endless as there are questions surrounding its relationship with feminism.

Thomas Carlyle in his book Sartor Resartus (1836) – meaning The Tailor Re-tailored – said of clothes:

“We have disquisitions on the Social Contract, on the Standard of Taste, on the Migration of the Herring…Philosophies of Language, of History, of Pottery, of Apparitions, of intoxicating liquors…The whole life of humanity has been elucidated: scarcely a fragment or fibre of his Soul, Body, and Possessions – not a cellular, vascular, muscular Tissue – but has been probed, dissected, distilled desiccated and scientifically decomposed… How then comes it that the grand Tissue of all Tissues, the only real Tissue, should have been quite overlooked – the vestural Tissue, namely, or woolen or other cloth; which Man’s Soul wears as its outmost wrappage and overall; wherein his whole other Tissues are included and screened, his whole Faculties work, his whole Self lives, moves, and has its being?”

It is a fascinating point. Why don’t we have a collective body of knowledge on clothing and fashion, given its ubiquity and the complexities of our attitudes towards it and interaction with it? Why don’t feminists have a collective body of knowledge on fashion?


our hCard

Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
E 28° 2.1600000000001" S -26° 8.7420000000001"
Telephone: +27 (0)11 587 5000
FAX: +27 (0)11 587 5099

Twitter Feed

Our newsletters

Sign up for our newsletter to receive stories, research, and news, delivered periodically to your inbox.