In her essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s lifelong participation in American dress reform, Wrisley reveals that despite her forceful critiques of the social pressure placed on women to conform to expectations around clothing, she was still very much interested in dressing well, and dressing fashionably. This contradiction – or maybe it is just an apparent contradiction – is really useful for thinking about feminist approaches to fashion. On the one hand, it’s certainly clear that fashion is a set of cultural practices and ideals that have played a vital role in maintaining gender distinctions. In the lesson, we learned about the ways that Victorian fashion functioned to emphasize gender differences, and we learned about the ways that foundation garments (especially training bras) emphasize the gendered meanings of our bodies.

The Big Idea for this module is gender normalization and although we used the classic example of elevator behaviour to think about social norms and normalization, there are clear parallels to dress. In the same way that we are not forced to stand facing the elevator door, we are not forced to dress “like women” or “like men.” Our sartorial choices, which is to say the choices we make about clothing, are our own choices to make, but they are choices made within a larger social landscape marked by gender ideals. As we learned especially in the lecture by Alok Menon, this larger social landscape is sustained by gender normalization, which can take the form of approving smiles, friendly compliments and social recognition when we follow norms, or raised eyebrows, rude remarks, and even physical violence when we do not follow them.

Test Yourself

Fashion and Gender

CHALLENGE ONE: Find a clothing company that doesn’t subscribe to the gender binary. What opportunities for self-definition or identity formation does this enable? Why is it especially important that these companies exist for kids?

Fashion and Gender

CHALLENGE TWO: The focus of this module on gender and fashion has been on the ways that we consume or use clothing, but a feminist perspective is just as important when thinking about the production or making of clothing. For this challenge, you are asked to explore Read the group’s manifesto and find out more about their social justice work. What strategies does this group use for drawing attention to the conditions under which clothing is manufactured? How does an understanding of the gendered production of clothing shape your understanding of the connections between fashion, gender, and power?