Is Fashion Feminist?

We've come a long way since not even being allowed to wear pants!

While I think most people would offer a resounding ‘no’, I submit that it is – or, it can be. At its most un-feminist, fashion is superficial, promoting personal expression through image alone, and attracts cattle-like trendmongers. But at its most feminist? Let me tell you about my own journey along life’s runway.

Fashionista qualities, to me, do not come from following in the footsteps of the Alexa Chungs of the world. In fact, according to my own personal definition, fashionistas don’t even necessarily have to be fashionable (i.e., trendy). I wouldn’t say a bag lady off the street is a fashionista – but maybe my unfortunate-looking, 10-year-old self was.

I used to wear this giant costume hippie shirt just about every day. I loved it. Every time I went out and I wanted to feel good, I would slip my lanky arms into its open and welcoming dashiki-patterned sleeves, imagining all the heads that would turn as I walked down Aisle 3 at BJs with my mom, or the model scout who would approach me as I stepped off the escalator at the mall. “Wow,” he’d say after catching up with me, panting, “I’ve never seen anyone with so much style and grace! Will you please be a model?” I’d whip around, my shirt rustling in the breeze of the air conditioning, flash him a winning smile and say, “Oh, alright, why not?”

One day, I was walking with a friend to her house and the most popular (and, according to everyone else, most fashionable) girl in school was sitting on her stoop across the street with one of her cronies. She got up and yelled out at me – the first time she had ever addressed me directly. “Hey Maura!” I felt my stomach lurch. What could she want? Then I thought, well, it couldn’t have been a better day for Miss Popular herself to finally acknowledge me – I was wearing my favorite shirt! I finally managed to answer, coolly, “Hey, Gail.”

“I want to ask you a question.” I offered an emphatic nod, grinning. “Why do you wear that shirt?” Her sidekick had been snickering the whole time but now practically keeled over onto the sidewalk. “I happen to like her shirt!!” my friend Nora yelled back, attempting to catch up with me as I speed-walked away, my eyes glued to the pavement.

That night, I had some serious soul-searching to do. This was a real turning point in my life – I saw myself for the first time through another person’s (real, not imagined, like my model scout’s) eyes. Did everyone think that the clothes I wore were somehow funny? And what was I going to do now? Revise my wardrobe – or embrace my strange sartorial inclinations?

For a little while, I tried the former. I traded in my baggy pants for skin-tight, rhinestone-studded jeans. I went to Forever 21 and bought a tight black shirt that said “Angel” and had glittery flames rising from the font. I wore both things to school incessantly, as if to try to blind everyone’s memory of my hippie days with sparkles and raunch (a shirt that reads “angel” but has graphics that suggest otherwise is a little raunchy for a 6th grader, no?). But I wasn’t comfortable in my new clothes. I felt like a dog in the summer whose owner forced her to wear a sweater because it looked cute, even if it made absolutely no sense in 90 degree heat. The clothes I was wearing made no sense to me. So I stopped wearing them.

After that, I was convinced that my ensembles were the spiffiest of them all, even though no one else was. When I was 14, my first boyfriend constantly badgered me about dressing like a grandma in my below-the-knee patterned skirts and fake pearl necklaces (and since he broke up with me inexplicably after only a month-and-a-half, I suspect that might have been part of the reason). At 15, I asked my friend to sew my flare jeans into shorter, straight-leg ones because I was too tall and the flare always ended awkwardly above my ankle. Everyone started calling me “colonial.” (It’s not like I wore long socks and buckled shoes with them but I suppose it’s the same silhouette…) But eventually skinny jeans became the standard and no one ridiculed me anymore for wearing them.

In college I started taking more and more style cues from Ugly Betty – clashing patterns, wearing big, fake jewelry, never leaving home without at least three colors represented in my outfit. I couldn’t muster enough courage to talk to people most of the time, so in my attire I didn’t want to leave anything unsaid. But I started to develop a more fashionable sensibility about the way I dressed without compromising how I felt in my clothes. I’ve always had that dog-in-a-sweater relationship with outfits I know I probably should wear, that would make me look more conventionally attractive and less like a crazy old lady, but I never feel like myself in them. And upon realizing that, I also realized how much I loved clothes and how much a part of me they were because I never (except for a few months in the 6th grade) dressed for anyone except myself.

So even though today it might be everyone else’s, my idea of a fashionista isn’t really a fashion blogger who takes pictures of themselves wearing the same chunky platforms, holding the same Alexander Wang bag. And not too long ago, I wouldn’t have been alone; a “fashionista” used to be a term reserved for the original, the creative, and the proud. So I may not be a fashionista by recent standards, but I’ll always be proud of my hippie shirt – and my ten-year-old self for wearing it. Take that, Gail!


Author: Maura Hehir

Maura Hehir is a writer and student studying creative nonfiction writing at New York University. She volunteer-teaches a creative writing class to kids in Harlem and works in the marketing and design department at a bookstore.


  1. feministme says:

    lipstick feminism

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