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Fashionable Feminist Icon: Björk

Bjork swan dress

You’ll remember a couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network to explore the intersections between fashion and feminist issues and make friends across blogging niches. The group now has an amazing 40 members so far and there’s been some great discussions already!

Anyway, today is the first of the weekly coordinated posts the group is doing. To kick things off, we are each featuring a personal feminist/fashion icon – a feminist who also has great style, or a fashion icon who also works with and for women, someone from history, or someone active just now.

I was having a really hard time time picking someone. I had initially wanted to pick someone who was primarily known for being a feminist, but it was hard! I spent quite a while researching Germaine Greer who is not particularly stylish now, but was very glam in the seventies, but I’ve never read any of her books, so in the end I didn’t feel I could do her justice, and I kept coming up against her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother which put me off.

So in the end I decided to go with Björk, a strong independent woman who has consistently inspired me with both her style and her music.

I have followed Björk since her very first record and I have never stopped being amazed by the strong artistic and stylistic concept that accompanies each album. Björk’s style always seems highly thought through at the same time as being very conceptual and off the wall. I think she is beautiful, but her clothes are never about being pretty or sexy, which I love. They’re clothes as art and as something to play with and explore. That swan dress she wore at the Oscars is generally seen as a complete fashion faux pas and the only thing most people remember her for, but I loved it and still do! It didn’t take itself seriously, it was poking fun at the spectacle that is a red carpet event, and it was ace!

Björk are also never in danger of simply following fashion. Everything she does is so uniquely her. Whenever she wears a fashion designers’ clothes it seems more of a collaboration that her simply taking the designer’s clothes and putting them on. Her collaborative relationship with Alexander McQueen is a testament to that.

While most of her outfits are quite obviously stage wear and not normal clothes, and therefore not directly translatable into everyday wear, I have still been massively inspired by her. Not necessarily by any specific items, but by her uniqueness, her confidence in her own choices and the sheer joy of playing with clothes.

Bjork fashion

As to whether Björk is a feminist, in this interview from 2005, she said that she initially did not see herself as a feminist and got into knitting, sewing and housework as a reaction against her second wave feminist mother, who refused to do anything domestic. But as she grew older and had a daughter she recognised the problems around gender roles and the expectations of women to take care of everything and became more interested in women’s rights:

It’s interesting for me to bring up a girl. You go to the toy store and the female characters there – Cinderella, the lady in Beauty and the Beast – their major task is to find Prince Charming. And I’m like, wait a minute – it’s 2005! We’ve fought so hard to have a say, and not just live through our partners, and yet you’re still seeing two-year-old girls with this message pushed at them that the only important thing is to find this amazing dress so that the guy will want you.

I have been noticing how much harder it is for me and my girlfriends to juggle things than it is for men. In the 1990s, there was a lot of optimism: we thought we’d finally sorted out equal rights for men and women … and then suddenly it just crashed. I think this is my first time in all the hundreds of interviews I’ve done, that I’ve actually jumped on the feminist bandwagon. In the past I always wanted to change the subject. But I think now it’s time to bring up all these issues. I wish it wasn’t, but I’ll do it, I’m up for doing the dirty work!

This raises some interesting questions about whether being interested in activities traditionally done by women makes you unfeminist. A lot of the discussion in the FBB google groups keeps coming back to this question and I’ll be doing some more thinking and hopefully some writing about this topic in the next few weeks.

Bjork fashion

The other thing that fascinates me about Björk is that she had a child in 1986, aged just 21 (she has had another in 2002). This is possibly more of an Icelandic thing than a Björk thing – according to this (pre financial meltdown) article, it is perfectly commonplace for 21 and 22 year olds of all educational and social levels to choose to have children, without feeling like that would compromise their future. Children are part of life and everyone is involved in their care, including lots of men who are the main carers. And where relationships end, it tends to be amicably, and custody is shared equally. At least that’s what the article says.

I don’t want to go on here about my recent preoccupation with childcare and parental leave and suchlike (though more than happy to at another time, should anyone be interested), but it really made me think. Even if everything goes completely according to plan, I’m going to be 31 by the time we have a baby, and it just fascinates me to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where having kids young was normal and not a tradeoff with the mother’s career (never the fathers) and a choice to be timed just so. Where I didn’t feel I needed to get the promotions at work and the housebuying out of the way first. It’s almost impossible to picture and I’d love to seem more women find a way of doing this without always having to enter Nicola Horlick superwoman territory.

Bjork fashion

So there you are! I was already in danger of veering off into various tangents, but I’m saving that for the next few weeks. So much to talk about!

If you are interested in Feminist Fashion Bloggers, find out more about the group here, the blog event we are hosting on the 16 March here, or join the discussion in the FFB google group.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • poet 2 March 2011, 9:05 am

    I didn't previously know much about Björk (her kind of music isn't my kind of music) but she always appealed to me as a person who does her own thing. I find this view confirmed in your post, which is excellent (both the post and the confirmation!). Also, you picked really beautiful pictures to showcase her crazy sculptural/art-fashion (the swan dress is really somewhat strange, but I love the idea; I would have executed it slightly differently though…) I also loved the quote about her journey to feminism – looks like it was really similar to what I think a lot of women in our generation (and the semi-previous one) went through. I certainly did! And I keep thinking, wow, the mistakes of second-wave feminism really, really continue to hurt us current-day feminists. It's come up in every single FFB post I've read so far!

  • Leia 2 March 2011, 10:52 am

    She is incredible!

  • Claire 2 March 2011, 11:52 am

    I think it's a little unfair to phrase it like that, poet – second wavers did a LOT, they got a LOT of social progression done; it's just human nature and the impossibility of perfect immediate change that led to a great, great deal being not-got-to and a whole new set of problems surfacing after the 1980s. I don't think it's fair to say, in historical terms, that the second wave's mistakes are hurting us because their actions were REactions and wouldn't have been necessary without the good ole patriarchy. It's important for us not to fall prey to the urge to turn up our noses at That Kind of feminist, because that's the attitude that makes people turn their noses up at *us*, of at "feminism". The first wave changed perceptions and achieved rights but left out a lot of stuff that the second wave got to, the second wave changed perceptions and achieved rights but left out a lot of stuff.. which only means that the progression isn't finished yet. It's not us vs second wave feminism, it's all feminism in a continuum. We have the responsibility to everyone still marginalised to keep going, just like the second wavers dealt with the problems they were able to see and reach at the time.

    ESSAY COMMENT

    Franca, great choice! I enjoyed the way you spoke about Bjork, and GOSH does she have some fine photographs in her portfolio.

  • madam0wl a.k.a Sandra 2 March 2011, 11:55 am

    Bjork fan here, and it is interesting to read her quote about finding feminism. I myself have tended to veer away from the subject because I feel like I don't know enough about it. Is there a quiz or something you can take which tells you what % feminist you are? 🙂 That probably sounds totally naive but it is true. I should probably hike on over to your FFB and start reading to educate myself. I guess the reason I've always not really know for sure is related to what you say is being debated… i.e. interests in traditionally female activities.

    Also I like the fact you brought up that we mostly see Bjork's "stage wear" and that this isn't really her normal wear, merely another aspect of her art & performance. I wonder what her daily style is?

  • oranges_and_apples 2 March 2011, 12:28 pm

    I agree that mistakes is putting it a bit strongly! the second wave achieved
    a lot of great things and what we have ended up with is by no means a direct
    results of any feminists' actions. Yet, I do understand the frustration that
    somehow we are still stuck with this perceptions that feminists hate men, or
    want to be men, or are constantly angry. I am still mulling this over but I
    think it has to do with the visibility of third wave and beyond feminists.
    During the 1970s it was a very visible movement and people were really clear
    about what it stood for. But now we've got people acting in feminist ways
    but saying they are definintely not feminists, and the people who do self
    identify as such doing so quietly. Maybe there's something in there, i don't
    know!

  • Claire 2 March 2011, 2:34 pm

    I'm definitely ears-open to the dislike of being thought of as 'wanting to be like men', but looking at it from afar.. it's still, at least, another costume in the cupboard. Little girls are 'allowed' to play with boy toys because we have the idea of a "tomboy", maybe big girls are "oh, just a feminist" now. "Huh, don't try to talk her out it it, she's A Feminist". It's disrespectful and annoying, but it isn't direct aggressive attempts to tell a lady she is wrong. An eyeroll is weaker than a sneer and the silent treatment and comments about how your husband should know better than to let you. That's down to visibility, I'd say?

    As a lot of the FFB posts today have shown, we don't HAVE to identify as feminist to make political or lifestyle choices that we see as feminist. We can, we have the choice, because scary loud angry second wavers made Feminism into something powerful to wield. We can take the title and prove that it doesn't have to be that way, or we can reject the title and act exactly the same as we would otherwise, or we can do what we like. It's all moving forwards. Hopefully.

  • Laura Connell 2 March 2011, 3:26 pm

    "I'm going to be 31 by the time we have a baby." Are you pregnant or psychic? If the former, congrats!!
    I love your choice and nice to see Bjork take a feminist stance. It's so important for people of influence to speak up and be an example for others women who may be struggling.

  • Rebecca 2 March 2011, 3:45 pm

    Bjork is a great choice. She makes some good points in that quite, and has really interesting style.

  • oranges_and_apples 2 March 2011, 3:51 pm

    Haha, no! But we do have a plan! We are getting married in September (when
    i'll just have turned 30 and plan to try for a baby straight after! Hence my
    preoccupation with all things childcare and paternity leave related!

  • oranges_and_apples 2 March 2011, 3:53 pm

    I meant parental leave. Though paternity leave as well of course. I am still
    hoping they'll change the law soon!

  • Elly 2 March 2011, 5:05 pm

    This is terrific! I agree that it's a really interesting question how engaging in traditionally "female" activities intersects with feminism. While my personal perspective is that one isn't more or less of a feminist when doing "male" things or "female" things, I'm aware that's much more of an ideal and not necessarily the reality of how women are currently perceived. It's still a lot easier for me to say, "Look, I'm a feminist computer scientist!" than "Look, I'm a feminist in a dress, heels, and mascara!" I know both those images have their own cultural/societal histories that I hope to understand and purposefully appropriate rather than blindly perform…though there's a bit of a question how far I can ever get away from the standard cultural perception of behavior, even if I know the history behind it and am actively choosing that behavior even with the weight of its stereotypical "meaning". Eh, it's complicated. Still really tossing this question around for myself, as I have been for a while.

    Also, you picked great photos, really showcasing how elegant and beautiful Bjork's fashion sense can be while maintaining how it's so completely her own…

  • La Historiadora de Moda 3 March 2011, 12:09 am

    Claire, I agree, and you have put this very succinctly!

  • Claire 3 March 2011, 12:13 am

    Well hey, thanks! :]

  • Marissa 3 March 2011, 2:44 am

    Great choice! These have been so much fun to read – from Frida Kahlo to Bjork. 🙂

  • Citizen Rosebud 3 March 2011, 2:56 am

    And another awesome pick! Bjork is so strong and independent, and really made her own rules in male-dominated industry (music) and is mos-def a fashion icon.
    Enter to Win My Shabby Apple Dress Give-Away- the Citizen Rosebud

  • Misfitsvintage 3 March 2011, 3:09 am

    Fantastic post Franca – THANK YOU! And what a perfect choice in Bjork – who I also adore and find inspirational in many ways. I LOVE that last pic of her.

    Sarah xxx

  • Lyddiegal 3 March 2011, 4:30 am

    I think Bjork is awesome. I love her music, and I always like to think about her morphing into a polar bear.

  • Jeanofalltrades 3 March 2011, 6:14 am

    Great choice! I love her music and originality. I didn't know about her ideas on feminism. Thanks!

  • cervixosaurus 3 March 2011, 8:43 am

    Wow all that stuff about the role of kids in Icelandic society is fascinating- perhaps even more fascinating than all these photos. I actually don't know that much about her, but this post convinced me that i should change that. thanks!!

  • MrsBossa 3 March 2011, 12:56 pm

    Björk for me is one of the most inspiring women – a true icon in every sense. She manages to be so unique both in music and in attire; the collaboration between her and McQueen made perfect sense. I wasn't aware of her feminist attitudes, though. Great post, F! x

  • Kelly 3 March 2011, 5:27 pm

    I loved this post! I'll admit Bjork's music is sort of hit-and-miss for me but I love her attitude toward fashion and clothing. For her it really IS more about the "art" and the concept and, it seems, less about the body underneath. I love that she seems to have so much FUN "playing dress up."

    Also – that last photo is stunning.

  • oranges_and_apples 3 March 2011, 6:30 pm

    I know! thanks for visiting L!

  • oranges_and_apples 3 March 2011, 6:38 pm

    We'd love to have you! One of the things we've been talking about is that
    feminism is such an exclusive, theoretical thing! come join!

    I only found a couple of photos of bjork in everyday clothes:
    http://celebrities.biteus.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/03/Bjork.jpg
    http://www.babble.com/CS/blogs/famecrawler/archive/2008/11/30/bjork-and-her-mini-me-in-new-york-city.aspx

    I would
    totally wear both of these!

  • oranges_and_apples 3 March 2011, 6:39 pm

    thank you!

  • madam0wl a.k.a Sandra 3 March 2011, 7:34 pm

    Oh, those ARE fun, and now I think I remember seeing that one of her with her daughter before. Maybe I'll have to do some more searching and blog about it if I find anything.

    And guess what? Your reply totally came in the email to me!!! That is the first time that has ever worked, what a miracle! ha ha I was beginning to think the whole 'DISQUS sends reply notifications' was a big myth. Of course now it will probably never happen again. Maybe that was just a fluke 🙂

  • feministified 4 March 2011, 4:45 am

    Really, really, well done! I have not always appreciated Bjork, but in the last couple of years, i have found myself attracted to the awesome imagery and moods that she can create.

    Amazing post, Franca. xoxo

  • Shakespeare's Feminine Ending 4 March 2011, 4:48 am

    I also have loved Bjork's swan dress since I saw it years ago. And I also loved the "Dancer in the Dark" performance. It was haunting.

    And it wasn't a tangent (the baby thing). I think a lot of us think of these things and because they've been at the forefront of our minds since we were young women–probably the age when we first started referring to ourselves as "women" rather than "girls."

  • Fabienne Jach 4 March 2011, 5:32 am

    I've always found Bjork really intriguing. Women like her cross so many barriers. As much as I wish it weren't true in my life, I have, either by birth order, gender, personality, or life experiences, been the one who nurtures and takes more on. It IS work to balance things out even with the most well-meaning partner. What if we could swap personalities for just one week? I bet I would get more rest! This isn't meant to be a rant but revisiting particularly interesting and hot topics is good for the soul. We need to re-examine our lives with some regularity.

  • Terri 4 March 2011, 6:06 am

    I am catching up on several days of blogs this evening. I like your selection and what you have discovered about Bjork's thinking. So much of my hesitation about second-wave feminism is in knowing that there has been this third-wave reaction…but it is sort of like divisions within any sort of civil rights movement. If the "oppressor" can create a division, then the "oppressor" continues to win. Third-wave reaction has often seemed like daughters just being angry at their mothers, justified or not.

    As for child care, if culturally we were less focused on individualism then we might still live in extended families and have built-in day care.

  • oranges_and_apples 6 March 2011, 6:04 pm

    Actually, I never really thought I wanted kids til like 3 years ago because
    I was so focused on my career and achieving job security, I just could not
    even imagine caring for a baby at the same time. It still feels like an
    overwhelming task just now actually! Which is why I wish the two things were
    a bit more integrated!

  • oranges_and_apples 6 March 2011, 6:06 pm

    Yes, exactly! it isn't that men are actively resisting, its just that there
    is no social expectation for true gender equality in house and caring work,
    despite everything! But I do believe and hope it is changing!

  • oranges_and_apples 6 March 2011, 6:18 pm

    Totally! where children are seen as a social good for society as a whole,
    rather than just the responsibility of parents, investing in good public
    childcare facilities would be so much easier politically!

    and totally agree re divisions within feminism!

  • Kelly 10 October 2011, 7:25 am

    I loved this post! I'll admit Bjork's music is sort of hit-and-miss for me but I love her attitude toward fashion and clothing. For her it really IS more about the "art" and the concept and, it seems, less about the body underneath. I love that she seems to have so much FUN "playing dress up."

    Also – that last photo is stunning.