Fashion, Freedom and Gender Norms

Having never been much of one for fashion, I was quite intrigued today to hear some of the praise and mourning for legendary designer Oscar de la Renta.

He made powerful women beautiful and beautiful women powerful, they said on the news this morning.

We will always remember him as the man who made women look and feel beautiful,” former first lady Laura Bush said in a statement.

Commentators talked about what a profound respect de la Renta had for women. A respect which he expressed in part through his art of fashion.

In some ways, these comments struck me as odd. To be fair, I know nothing about fashion or about de la Renta, but this connection between women and their looks strikes me as unsettling. Where is the line between supporting women and objectifying them?

It’s commonly argued that one’s fashion is a key way of expressing oneself. About 19 percent of U.S. public schools require a uniform – arguably infringing on those students freedom of expression.

But if indeed clothes make the man (or woman), is there anything wrong with a woman wanting an outfit that will make her feel beautiful? Or, perhaps more cynically, an outfit that will make her feel like she fits society’s expectations of beauty.

And this gap seems the real challenge.

I have heard my friends struggle with how to respond to their daughters’ princess-loving ways – How can we teach our daughters that they can define their own standards of beauty and success, but also support them if they pursue a gender-normative approach?

There’s nothing wrong with being a princess. There’s something wrong with being expected to be a princess.

High fashion for me has always seemed to cross this line – leading the charge in developing standards no healthy person ought to pursue and warping people’s own inner sense of fashion.

But I’m also reminded of that scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep derides Anne Hathaway for thinking she exists outside of fashion – it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

So perhaps we are none of us immune from the machine.

But, it seems, there must be room in this world for clothing which can help a person express themselves, which can empower and, perhaps, even make someone feel beautiful. Clothing which doesn’t have to fit gender norms, but which can help a given person in a given context express who they are to the world.

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