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Fashion is new form of expression for feminists

Elizabeth Kelly | Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The feminists from “The Feminine Mystique” era were intentionally everything but feminine, but that attitude has eroded, the director of women’s studies at Oakland University said Tuesday.

Jo Reger argued that modern feminists not only embrace stylish clothes and makeup, but they also use these symbols of womanliness to make political statements.

Titled “Fashion and Feminism in the Contemporary U.S. Women’s Movement,” Reger’s lecture focused on the research she conducted over the past five years of young women across the country. She supplemented her case studies with content analysis of a fashion column that appears regularly in the popular feminist magazine “Bust.”

The “Bust” articles feature a different woman each month, describing the subject’s outfit in great detail. Reger noticed that the featured women often chose to dress in clothing either purchased in thrift stores or vintage shops, or they made the apparel themselves. After noticing this trend in the magazine and spending several years interviewing young women across the country, Reger came to the conclusion that this trend – which she describes as “oppositional fashion” – is making an important statement for contemporary feminism.

Reger noted that the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s “looked at fashion as a form of enslavement” and viewed conventional concepts of femininity and sexuality as something created by patriarchal society. In her research, however, she found that contemporary feminists “are now reclaiming the feminine as something powerful.”

She suggested that the trend is a backlash against the 1960s feminist stance on sex. Reger said some contemporary feminists complain that earlier feminism “made feminists so repressed and uptight that feelings of sexuality had been totally destroyed.”

Women who were a part of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s often have trouble understanding this trend among contemporary feminists, viewing current fashion statements as a step back in the fight for women’s rights, Reger said. Others may trivialize contemporary feminist fashion as “just playing with clothes.”

Reger, however, said the women who make full use of their clothes and bodies to express themselves – and in the process redefine ideas of femininity and sexuality – are doing something significant.

“In politicizing fashion, the body has become a sign of resistance,” Reger said.

She told the audience about a photograph taken at the 2004 March for Reproductive Rights, in which the two women are shown topless – with the exception of two carefully placed stickers promoting abortion rights.

“They want you to look at them in a certain way,” Reger said. “Where they’re drawing your eye has a political message.”

But because of the tendency to ignore the reality of contemporary feminists’ “oppositional fashion” as a form of protest or expression, several sociologists believe the feminist movement is dead, Reger said. But Reger believes the movement is “very much alive,” even though modern feminists may not organize in the same ways they did 40 years ago.