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Is fashion oppressive or fun? Some belated reflections on Tanya Gold hating fashion

Some of you may have seen Tanya Gold’s article on why she hates fashion a few weeks back. It’s been slagged pretty universally and all the bloggers’ reactions I’ve seen have been pretty defensive. I think this is due to the way it’s been framed as an all out attack on fashion, by the intro and the question at the end. Obviously lots of people love fashion and won’t take very well to being described as mindless oppressed drones.

But actually, I think the article is just Tanya Gold’s story of her relationship with designer clothes and her decision in the end not to bother. It’s a pretty powerful personal story, it’s just the way it has been framed makes it seem like some sort of attack on everyone who likes fashion. Yes, there are a few ridiculous assumptions in there (The claim that the girl died because she was wearing high heels is taking the Guardian into scary Daily Mail territory, and if she had left that out, it would have improved the article no end). I don’t think you can tell everyone else that they should stop liking fashion, but if she personally wants to reject it (and it’s not as if she hasn’t thought it through) then that’s fine too. All the comments attacking her body size and the clothes she’s wearing in the photo are just horrible.

But what actually interested me more than the ins and outs of Tanya’s article was the question they put underneath it:

Do you think that fashion is oppressive to women – and men – or should we celebrate it as a source of fun and self-expression?

Why is it a question of either/or? Is anyone seriously suggesting that it is possible to come down completely on one side? I mean, OBVIOUSLY it is always both at the same time, though with a different balance for different people and in different contexts.

Evidence abounds that the fashion industry is pretty racist, sexist, sizist and ableist. And it’s also not exactly falling over itself to change, with all the different parts of the industry blaming each other rather than actually making a positive change. And yes, many underage models live in appalling conditions and risk their long term health. And I’m not sure there are many people who would argue that the fashion media’s representation of idealised bodies is entirely blameless for the increase in disordered eating and body image related mental illness. And the accellerating cycle of trends and the acceptance of bags that cost as much as the average monthly wage as ‘must have’ surely plays a part in the exponential growth of personal debt and all the consequences that has. And the environmental impact of churning out clothes that are worn twice then go to landfill. So yeah, the fashion industry, knowlingly or not, mobilises some social forces that are pretty oppressive and therefore probably does deserve its own death star.

But at the same time its undenaible that fashion is fun! Of course it is, that’s why so many people love it and clever, socially aware people (such as me, ha!) too. Liking fashion does not make you a dupe or an airhead, and it’s perfectly possible to recognise the oppressive tendencies in the fashion industry and still love fashion. For the great majority of people, it’s a hobby, a way of expressing themselves and defining their identity. And at it’s best, fashion is art, a creative practice that challenges they way we see the world.

I think it also makes sense to distinguish between different types of fashion (or between fashion and style). A lot of the problematic things (the ever accellerating cycle of trends, the idea that new is always best, the pressure to ‘keep up’, the over-marketing of the same old ideas, the assumption that people will wear anything if the designers say so) is all about the fashion industry’s cycle of seasons. And if you define fashion in that way, I actually don’t care for it much (and it seems I’m not the only one who isn’t so inspired by high fashion). I don’t follow the designer shows, I don’t read blogs that are about fashion trends, I am actually not aware of trends until they are so big they come and hit me over the head with a hammer.

But I LOVE clothes. I like playing with them, mixing them up, adapting them, trying out different shapes and colours. I enjoy thinking about the possibilities of different clothes, and planning my outfits. I like that I have built up the skills to identify quality regardless of price. Sometimes I even follow trends. I loved the big shoulder thing last year, and will keep going with it. Other trends I have no time for (like the current neutrals trend, not for me!), but I still like having the options that I can incorporate into my personal style if I want. Or not. I like that I have, after all this time, built up a recognisable style that is mine and noone elses. It’s a way of bringing art into my everyday life. If you define fashion that way, then I love fashion, absolutely.

So maybe we should stop seing the world in such black and white terms, no? Rejecting fashion as a whole seems a bit of an extreme reaction to what are (hopefully) solvable problems.

Thoughts, anyone?

photo by verticalhouse.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sal 8 February 2010, 4:48 pm

    Well said, indeed. Fashion – like any industry, culture, or set of behaviors – cannot be boiled down to good/bad or right/wrong. It's a complicated animal, and means different things to different people. That doesn't mean we should stop fighting against the damaging aspects – the unhealthy beauty standards, sizism, unbridled object lust, etc. But it does mean that deciding that all things fashion are damaging is simply short-sighted.

  • Christy 8 February 2010, 4:52 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful defense of fashion (or style or clothes or whatever). I agree with you completely.

    Also, I think it's interesting to consider why fashion in particular might be so easily dismissed as merely oppressive when other potentially oppressive practices or products (in terms of technology or food, for instance) are not. I can't help but think that at least part of that rejection is due to the association of fashion with femininity. Most people don't see fashion/style as art but just as something frivolous that women waste their time on. So I'm glad you addressed this issue by claiming it as "a way of bringing art into [your] everyday life."

  • Chelsea 8 February 2010, 5:26 pm

    I had yet to read or hear of this article.
    I can't help but feeling like a rejection of fashion is a fashion itself. It's like that line in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda says something about "you chose that shirt because you think it makes you exempt from fashion, but really you are wearing something that we picked out for you." Anti fashion is a style. I remember the kids in high school who didn't care about fashion were the ones who shopped at Hot Topic, a pseudo-punk store owned by Gap.
    I take no offense to what Tanya Gold says, but I think it is very sad that she has to live her life hating something so predominate in our culture. She said she walks down the street and sees things that make her seethe. She wants to "spit on Vogue." Must make it difficult to go to the grocery store where they sell it near the registers. It seems like a waste of time just hating it all. She should focus on something she loves, or if she wants to change the fashion world, do it in a more positive way? Her writing, while sophisticated, seemed like her inner 16 year old ranting to her journal.
    It is true, though, that the fashion industry is very sizest. Being a big girl in a teeny girl world could make anyone angry. I feel it when I go shoe shopping and no store has anything in my large foot size. Or how the cute dresses in size large still don't zip up on me. You can take that and feel bitter about it or you can find what does work, tweak it, make it your own, and be happy. Maybe Tanya doesn't have the self esteem or creativity to do the same? You can't blame it all on fashion, part of it is you and your mindset. Like, you let it treat you how you think you should be treated. She thinks that fashion is why she felt bad about herself. She didn't try to own it or find her own style. She is talking from a drone perspective. I've always seen fashion as pieces that I use to create what I want to be. I don't try to be the mannequin or the ad or the runway model.
    I do hope she gets constructive criticism and positive feedback from her article. I also hope that writing it helps let go some of the negative energy she feels.

  • COAFE Amy 8 February 2010, 6:23 pm

    I love the G2, and Tanya's columns are one of the reasons for this. She's a farily radical feminist, and, although I don't agree with everything she says, most of it is very balanced, and reasonable.

    I don't think it's right for the whole industry to "slag her off"; we have to concede that there is a lot wrong with fashion, and that a lot of what she says is fair.

    Thank you for this post.

  • nicola 8 February 2010, 10:10 pm

    I did read the article at the time and was torn between praising it and finding it cringeworthy. People shouldn't be so easily influenced by 'high' fashion, designer labels, trends, etc. They should wear what they like. Exploration of identity and style with clothes is nice in some ways, but people shouldn't do it to the extent that they are endlessly buying unnecessary amounts of clothes and become materialistic consumer driven drones. There is a limit to the amount of clothes one should own and it's wasteful to buy more and more, justifying it by experimenting with style. Be content with what you have, that is the only way to be happy; buying frivolous items regularly will only make you happy for a very short amount of time.

  • ejessop 8 February 2010, 10:35 pm

    This is something I've been thinking about a lot in my recent efforts to have more fun and exploration in my fashion/style choices. Especially as a female grad student at an engineering school, I sometimes feel that "fashion" is supposed to be a waste of my time/energy/money…but as a designer and artist, I enjoy playing with my clothing and self-presentation. I enjoy putting together pleasing combinations of clothing. I like thrift shopping, finding beautiful clothes, and being creative about how I can make things work together.

    Does the fashion industry have its downsides? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel affected by those issues (in particular by the pressure to look a particular way, be a particular shape and size)? Sure. Do I think I therefore must reject the part of me that genuinely likes these style explorations? I don't think so, most of the time. I just have to be careful not to be sucked into the aspects of the fashion industry that are harmful to me, rather than satisfying and exciting.

    But if fashion/style is something that only makes someone upset (as Tanya claims)? They're absolutely free to not enjoy it and reject it. I'd rather enjoy the parts I can.

  • Sara Lynn 9 February 2010, 12:26 am

    I have to agree that fashion is a form of expression and I do personally enjoy it. I do however also agree that fashion is directed towards different age groups, sex, and races. It really is sad that people get worked up over not being able to wear the same exact thing as someone else and have it look the same. We are all made differently, but fashion industries do drive certain "identities" into the buyers minds as well. I guess people should just learn to try on everything, and know that not everyone is a model but everyone can still look good.

  • Lemondrop Marie 9 February 2010, 1:06 am

    What a lovely post, I like your thoughts on fashion- and the way we define it. Like you I love clothes, but am not obsessed with trends about them! I enjoy my expression of clothing love and seeing all of the other views out there in the blogosphere! Fun,
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge
    OWOH necklace giveaway

  • jesse.anne.o 9 February 2010, 3:59 am

    Hmm. Your mention of fashion and style possibly meaning 2 different things resonated with me. I do think there is something quite different in what *we* do and what she is describing.

    I think of fashion as having an "industry" whereas I never think of that with style.

    Also, thanks for the linking!

  • The Waves 9 February 2010, 11:18 pm

    I read Tanya Gold's article, too, and was wondering why so many people took it so personally, as an attack towards them. The first feeling I got from Gold's piece was sadness. I just felt bad for her. The fashion industry can be very exclusive (like you said, in terms of size, race, social class), and I think Anna Wintour was right when she said at the start of The September Issue documentary that fashion scares a lot of people. I, for one, am not ashamed to admit that I go through phases when high-fashion magazines make me feel like a rag doll thrown in the corner. Having said that, I don't think my self-esteem is the problem. The fashion world is a powerful but strangely elusive establishment, and I don't blame Tanya Gold for feeling strongly about it. She feels that it targets her life, her body, her self and the way she sees herself, and those things are worth to be defended.

    I do think her argument is not awfully sophisticated though. Rejecting fashion is almost an easy way out of a world that is going to get you anyway, whether you like it or not. In my opinion it is better to know it and embrace it in order to battle the values it represents. The ugly side of the world of fashion is not going anywhere, but it is possible to change it from within. I think style bloggers are a vital sign of that. Essentially I am saying that Tanya Gold should spend more time reading style blogs and getting acquatinted with wardrobe_remix than waste her time hating and spitting at Vogue – there is so much fun to be had!

    P.S. Sorry for ranting! 🙂 And thanks for stopping by at No Signposts!

  • WildBirdVintage 11 February 2010, 3:50 pm

    Interesting thoughts. Personally I have a hard time reconciling the sort of intellectual and feminist side of myself with the fashion loving side. Sometimes I read Jezebel and cringe, and friends have varying reactions to my blog (not all positive).

    Maybe style is just my own creative outlet. BUT I hate that we are all, on some level, judged by how we look. It was drilled into me in "teacher school" that we have bias against unattractive students….anyway, your post actually makes me want to read that article.

  • Millie 12 February 2010, 10:59 pm

    Count me as another woman who doesn't pay attention to high fashion. I draw quite a distinction between fashion and style, because I associate fashion with very external pressures (garmnet X is fashionable, you should be wearing it), while I think style is very personal (I like this, so I'm going to wear it). I could've written your third to last paragraph myself, so I won't repeat all that, but suffice it to say I'm interested in style, not fashion.

    A great part of that is because that world has such…. issues. I don't like taking cues from an aesthetic that extolls a very narrowly defined body type, while ignoring the reality that humans are diverse. I know this is about fashion that is totally inaccessible to me (which is another issue that factors into this that I don't hear discussed much), it filters down to the retail stores that I can afford on my small budget. I don't like walking into a store and finding that I fit into the largest clothes they have, and I don't like hearing about my friends walking into stores and being told bluntly that they aren't welcome. I don't ascribe to the vitriol in Gold's article, but I can understand her anger.

    I think blogging, actually, has a potentially positive effect on the fashion/style issue. There's lots of women now blogging about their style, their ordinary, everyday clothing, and they look fabulous. They're (we're, I suppose I should say, since I've started blogging too) not wearing expensive clothes, they're wearing clothes they like. They aren't Photoshopped into unrecognizable forms, they get a tripod or a partner or a friend and take pictures in their living room or the driveway or the park down the street. Blogging can have a real humanizing effect on fashion, I think, and I hope that that humanity will filter upwards.

    (Apologies for the essay! I apparently have a lot to say about this.)


  • The Raisin Girl 12 February 2010, 11:37 pm

    I think you're probably right. It is both. At the same time, I think a bigger problem than the oppressive tendencies of fashion is the tendency some people have to blame large, blobby institutions or cultural phenomena (such as the fashion industry, the patriarchy, the color pink, Barbie, etc) for the distorted and disordered views women have of themselves and different aspects of their lives. On the one hand, I think we should always be aware of the messages we're reading, absorbing, or buying into–whether they're explicit or implicit–but we should also take responsibility for our own lives and stop turning correlation into cause-and-effect (aka blaming high heels for the death of a young girl).

  • Rad_in_Broolyn 13 February 2010, 4:09 am

    Thoughtful post as usual. I think that fashion is also a double edged sword. It's fun and great outlet for creativity, but it can be consuming, create jealousy, and unhealthy habits. There are definitely a diversity of communities (the DIY and thrifters, the label folks, the retro lovers, etc.) and the internet is great from bringing specific communities together. I guess the key thing is balance, trying to figure out ways to enjoy the positives of fashion without getting to sucked in the negative. Like the limited bodies represented in the high fashion world. Or the child labor and environment degradation of the fast fashion world. We are all a part of this, and we all need to cover ourselves us, and being conscious about the ways in which fashion (which is such a non-monolithic thing) operates is a healthy way to do it.
    I used to reject fashion too, like Tanya Gold, not because I was not the right size, but because I was afraid that partaking in it would be drawing attention to my looks (which I do like, but can be embarrassing). But one of my friends said to me that I did care a lot about style and fashion, but it was in my own, specific (and very narrow) way. She was a former model and I thought alot about it. Even if I wasn't trying to look modish or trendy, she was right. And I've been having a better relationship with fashion ever since.

  • rose from thule 14 February 2010, 3:37 pm

    I totally agree with this post. I usually sum up my opinion by : "I don't like fashion, I like clothes".
    I don't want to be a fashionable woman, I want to be an elegant one. It may imply the convenient use of current trends that flatter my shape (hello, slightly balloons shoulders, hello neutrals) or not (boyfriend jeans ? No way. Frills ? Completely ridiculous on my tall frame).

  • An Affair With Fashion 14 February 2010, 9:58 pm

    What a fantastic, articulate post! I love this!

  • Rebecca 16 February 2010, 2:52 pm

    I'm right there with you: love playing with clothes and style, but really not into high fashion at all. I hadn't heard of this article before — I read it and I really can't believe people took it personally. I actually sort of agreed with almost everything she said.. 🙂