Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Proud To Be Femme And Love Fashion

No doubt, no doubt, by this time you are aware that the decorated Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner made her debut as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair this week. People cheered and then immediately started dissecting what this meant and then dissecting the way that other people were dissecting it. One of the key topics: Good for her, but isn't she conforming to a particular standard of beauty? Should we really be celebrating that? 

Laverne Cox wrote a wonderfully eloquent piece applauding Caitlyn but also reminding us all that not all trans women have the resources to look like her, nor do they all want to. It was a great reminder to celebrate the diverse expressions of trans beauty, and indeed the diverse beauty of all people.

Then there was Jon Stewart's Daily Show segment about the media treating Caitlyn Jenner as a woman--with all the underlying terribleness that that can sometimes include. 

But there was a particular well-meaning angle to this discussion which made me uncomfortable and I couldn't quite put my finger on it--until I found this wonderful article titled Caitlyn Jenner is High Femme, Get Over It.

Read it. It's awesome.

An entrenched and inflexible gender binary doesn't really work for anyone. It excludes trans and genderqueer individuals, tells men they aren't supposed to cry, and tells women that their most important quality is their looks. Which basically makes everyone feel like: 

But in our hurry to break down those barriers, we still somehow end up affirming traditional masculine traits over traditional feminine ones. Rather than celebrating both, we start talking about masculinity in terms like "strong" and "authentic," while femininity is "weak" and centered around artifice. 

As a cisgender woman who loves skirts more than pants and studies fashion for a living, I have experienced this over and over. It is someone saying "that is only interesting to women," and assuming we all agree that to be a negative. It is that little look of pity some people give me when they hear me talk about fashion. They assume I've been "duped" by the system, and can't imagine that I'm capable of thoughtfully engaging with the subject. 

It is that mistake that we have made about feminism over and over: Feminism isn't about women all living one way, it is about women (and all people) having the CHOICE to be who they want to be. It's not about abolishing dresses and high heels, its about making sure that pants and comfy shoes are an equally valid option. So while I absolutely do not think that all women should dress in a hyper-feminine way (because really, when it comes to gender expression no one should to be doing anything) we shouldn't tear down any person for choosing to occasionally or continually dress femme.  

There is this strong understanding in our culture that clothing is false and artificial. If clothing is artifice and women like clothing, then it follows that femininity is all about putting on a fake identity over a real one.  But as Anne Hollander has so wisely pointed out, every culture has some sort of system of dress, and so perhaps being clothed is our most natural state. This excerpt from her book Seeing Through Clothes blew my mind when I first read it: 

Surveys of many cultures lead us to conclude that the truly natural state of the adult human is dressed, or decorated, but that his sense of nature demands from him a deep respect for nakedness...Nakedness is not a customary but rather an assumed state, common to all but natural to none, except on significantly marked occasions. These may be ritual, theatrical, or domestic, but they are always special, no matter how frequent. (emphasis mine)

We all get dressed, and we all define ourselves when we do. Stop acting like its just femme women who do this and that it is somehow bad and fake. Caitlyn Jenner is a woman and is super femme. If that look doesn't resonate with you, that's great! Go and be yourself whatever that looks like. And if you feel drawn to aspects of a feminine look, embrace it! And don't let anyone tell you that it is somehow false or inauthentic.

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