Vintage and Feminism

I’ve been wanting to put up a post about vintage and feminism for awhile now, so with vintage blogs all abuzz with the topic in right now, I thought it was time I published my thoughts on the subject.

Feminism is one of my great loves (some of you may know that I actually have a somewhat neglected feminist blog called Woolf Woolf: A Blog of One’s Own that I set up towards the end of 2011), so naturally, I was thrilled to see the topic come up in the vintage blogosphere. Gemma of Retro Chick wrote a post on the subject, as did Lena of Style High Club. Both posts are very interesting, and it’s cool to see thoughts pouring in on the subject from all their readers.

(Actually since Lori of Rarely Wears Lipstick added her thoughts, I fear there’s not a lot left to say, but allons-y nonetheless!)

This is what a feminist looks like.

Feminism is an issue that I think vintage wearers must confront from time to time, seeing as our clothes quite obviously reference more repressive or tumultuous times for women. Looking like a museum piece has the side effect of people assuming you have some sort of comment on the era you “come from”, and so it is that we are brought into conversations of this nature.

People often like to draw my attention to the irony of being a feminist dressed like a 1950s housewife. More frequently, I’m misread as conservative, as people mistake my aesthetic nostalgia for a moral nostalgia. Some people have trouble seeing vintage clothes without imagining the vintage world.

The truth is that most of us wear the clothes, but not the attitudes. In fact, although superficially “conservative”, the vintage community seems to have produced an unusually high number of kickass feminists, radicals and unorthodox thinkers.

Independent dressing attracts independent men and women. Vintage-wearers aren’t exactly fashionable in their knee-length skirts and hats, but I think that coming to terms with being unfashionable takes a great deal of strength. Choosing to forego fashion trends may seem trivial, but I see it as a form of resistance.

This phenomenon is paraphrased rather nicely by Gemma of Retrochick:

In my experience it’s those women and girls with the confidence to break away from … cultural norms that are more likely to demonstrate  an independent spirit, and the intelligence to deconstruct what they see presented to them as “ideal”.

I don’t mean to suggest that dressing in vintage frocks is in itself an inherently feminist act, because of course it is the strength of one’s conviction rather than one’s wardrobe that makes a feminist; but I do want to suggest that feminism is particularly relevant to the vintage subculture, and that having the confidence to develop one’s own style in opposition to what is prescribed by the fashion industry and/or the media does indicate some sort of radical thought.

I feel like one radical act breeds another, so once one comes to reject mainstream standards of beauty, one is probably a lot more likely to reject other things too, like patriarchy, for instance – cue feminism.

Of course this isn’t to privilege vintage styles over any other styles. The basic feminist doctrine of choice dictates that one should act on one’s own whims, so a feminist can just as easily be found in a mini-skirt or denim shorts as in a 1940s tea frock or tweed breeches.

Potential Feminist

Also a Potential Feminist

The problem surrounding modern fashions (described by Gemma and Lena as “hypersexualised”) is perhaps the sense of coercion, by which I mean that a lot of women may feel like they don’t have free license to experiment, or deviate from the trends. This isn’t really a problem created by the particular fashions, but more by mainstream media/etc, although I suppose because the styles themselves channel a level of sensuality that may be unnatural or uncomfortable to some girls, the problem is sort of exacerbated.

Vintage has its problems too – the male gaze has always been around, so the clothes don’t really sidestep any accusations of objectification and such. The difference, as I see it, is probably that a higher proportion of those who dress in vintage have made a very conscious choice to do so, and there’s also therefore a higher chance they’re well-equipped to deal with misogyny.

Although wearing vintage is not inherently feminist, I think it can easily, and often does, produce feminists – and I love that. Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways to rebel, and wearing vintage is just one of them. That independent spirit that makes a feminist can manifest itself in endlessly unique and equally valid ways.

Having victory rolls is hardly a prerequisite for feminism, but they can top off the fabulous vintage look of your local kickass feminist who’s putting up her middle finger to patriarchy.

Images via here and here.

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10 Comments

Filed under Feminism, Vintage 101

10 responses to “Vintage and Feminism

  1. I definitely agree with everything you’ve said – unfortunately, I think there are still a lot of women out there in the vintage scene(s) that I’ve come across who, whilst being all for free-thinking and independence, don’t appreciate that there are women who choose to dress in a mainstream manner (and I think you addressed that by saying feminists come in many guises and you can’t, as the saying goes, always judge a book by its cover). I’ve met so many wonderful free-thinking supportive women in the vintage scene but I’ve also come across many who DO dress this way to harken back to old morals and/or who are slut-shaming, homophobic, racist and transphobic in their blog posts, tweets and general comments. And it’s not always blatant, either (though I’m clearly not going to name names here). But this is probably more just a symptom of today’s society and how many narrow-minded people there still are, so it’s only natural that they will be present within any scene. There are some other things I’d like to add that I’m not comfortable with saying publicly but all of these posts popping up on vintage and feminism are definitely interesting – I spend a lot of time thinking about how I am possibly, as you said you yourself are, misread as conservative because of the way I dress (I felt very uncomfortable knowing one of my pictures was used in a pro-modest dressing blog) and how the way I’ve chosen to represent myself may not marry with the thoughts and beliefs I have.
    Sorry for the long comment! But this is a great post – I think you were succinct and very balanced in what you said.
    -Andi x

    • Yes, I totally agree with you. I did want to talk about vintage elitism, but I was having trouble wording it the right way because I don’t really want to be throwing accusations out there, and it’s all very sensitive – it almost deserves a post of it’s own too.

      Slut-shaming is something I feel is weirdly rife in the vintage world. I think the whole deviating-from-the-mainstream thing, although radical and great, can breed smugness, and some individuals come to develop a superiority complex. Perceived “sluttiness” is one way vintage-wearers often come to attack more modern styles, as it’s one of the easier avenues for doing so.

      I find it weird, because you’d think such eclectic dressers would be a little more appreciative of diversity. I think maybe when you have a very specific aesthetic taste, it’s easy to feel a little evangelical about it.

      Anyway, I’d love to discuss this more at some point! Thank you for your comment 🙂

  2. I should probably add that it’s the men out there, too! Not just women, of course.

  3. Love it! You have great style! It’s a topic that frustrates me. Why can’t we embrace everything that is our female sexuality (clothes, fashion etc) and not be seen as some subservient chick simply because of the way we look? For me, feminism is about handbags. We have created a multi billion dollar industry that men simply cannot have a part of because these beautiful accessories are created especially for us. There’s something powerful, I think, about working hard to afford something that is expensive and beautiful that I’ve been able to afford for myself, rather than have some man buy it for me. Man, you’ve got me fired up! Would love you to check out our post on fab British designer Peony & Moore: http://carrythisbag.com/2012/02/04/moore-please-peony/

    • Mmm, exactly! I have strong feelings about fashion, femininity and feminism that will probably be making their way into another blog post in the near future. I don’t like that fashion is trivialised like it is, because I think it’s actually a very interesting and sometimes profound form of art. I came across the idea recently that fashion is trivialised because it is primarily a female art, and women are trivialised – I think that’s very interesting. Women shouldn’t be made to feel somehow weak, or as you say, like “some subservient chick”, because they like clothes and make-up.

      Anyway, thank you for your thoughts!

  4. This post made my Sunday! I love when women don’t let trends define who they are. Viva la feminist!

  5. Linda Hartay

    Women don’t dress up in patriarchal culture, they only dress up in cultures where they are free. You see it in history and you see it around the world in the present day. Patriarchal older men and middle class women have more issues with my vintage clothing and self presentation then do radical feminists.

  6. An elegantly articulated, yet diplomatic, post.

    “The truth is that most of us wear the clothes, but not the attitudes.” Does that imply that the women originally dressing that way weren’t feminists? My thoughts turn to the swing dance revival which has taken off in a big way in Melbourne. This is an opportunity for both men and women to go vintage. I think the interest is not just in the clothing but in the times, and I think the times were charged, and the respect sky-high.

    I’m not sure it would count as a subculture if vintage were only about the clothes. There is no ‘Hat Subculture’, despite lots of women having a passion for hats. While it’s perhaps unnecessarily constraining to actually define it, surely the aspect that the wearer looks ravishing but is discerning is prominent. The wearer wants to be noticed but not leered at. Libidos are a given, but nothing’s going to happen until the admirer has earned the right. That knowledge adds to the allure, and the courtship becomes about the whole person rather than their vital statistics.

    ‘Slut-shaming’ (not your words, I know) is a loaded term. If you advocate being discerning there are feminists that will argue you’re being anti choice and therefore sexist. What on earth? I find Charlie Sheen’s sexual antics abhorrent. Does this make me a misandrist? Would I wish to deny him the right of free choice? No and no, obviously. It would be great if feminism could untangle itself from promiscuity – they’re two different things.

  7. Pingback: The Forty-Sixth Down Under Feminists Carnival « Zero at the Bone

  8. Women are fashionable. We are creative especially on how we appear on the public because of our looks consciousness. You could wear anything you want just make sure that you can stand for it and know your limitations. Fit in the era!

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