Two big F-words come to mind when I think of women: fashion and feminism.
These two terms, or ideas, were always an enigma for me growing up, especially since I’ve always revered my mom’s avant-garde sense of style but also watched her play the role of a Stepford wife–with arms rubber-gloved up to her elbows, my mom practically lived in the kitchen and always flashed a large toothy smile to match her glowing skin, twirling around in Kimono-style robes tightly cinched around her waist as she welcomed my family and I at the end of a long work (or school) day with meals she’s been cooking since that morning.
The passenger seat was her spot as my dad sat behind the wheel, dictating where we’d go for our weekender trip in the family SUV. She taught both my sister and I the importance of owning cashmere scarves and told tales of her lost dreams as bedtime stories. While my sister eventually grew to resent fashion and the vainness of it all, I remained hooked. The subliminal messages from my mom and seeing the gender dynamics at home kept me believing that what interested me most–fashion–also epitomized what I needed to avoid in order to redeem myself as an independent, educated, and strong-headed woman, or in other words, a woman who leads a different life from her stylish mom.
To compensate for my lack of commitment to neglect fashion altogether, I geared myself in mini-skirts paired with my best hosiery and platform shoes, while clutching on to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Despite my futile attempts to remain impartial to my love for chunky heels, vintage jewelry, and brightly hued lipsticks, it was short-lived and my affair with the glossy pages of Harpers Bazaar magazine conquered and endured with me all throughout my adolescence. It’s often assumed that women committed to feminism and its ideals can’t also have the same reverence towards fashion and beauty. It’s one way or the other: Choosing the latter makes the woman seem air-headed and submissive, but the former would imply the woman is a bitch and undesirable by men.
For Seattle Met Magazine’s style editor, Amanda Zurita, fashion is a way to express her emotions and individuality. “The way I dress is deeply personal–an outward expression of how I’m feeling inside,” she says. “We are lucky to live in a day and age where fashion can truly serve as a tool for self-expression and individualism…I have the choice to wear whatever I’d like–and that’s a powerful thing.”
Fashion can be used as an empowering tool for the sartorially-driven to march forward in facing challenges. Friday nights spent drinking Merlot while wearing your best silk nightgown with a spritz of perfume aren’t useless; it serves as much of a powerful antidote to ward off the weight of the week as watching Friends or reading Sylvia Plath. “No one is saving the world because they put on a wrap dress, but sometimes the right wrap dress can offer security, confidence, and comfort to help you take on the world,” says Zurita.
The discourse of women and fashion is in a sense, a form of liberation, just like when second-wave feminists presumably burned their bras, baring their breasts (and the debate whether the burning actually happened is a different story altogether). “I think probably people confuse fashion with being beautiful or being sexy or attractive,” Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada tells Newsweek. “Sexy dressing is fantastic if it’s a choice…if you want to go out naked, I like it. But if you do it because you want to get a rich husband, no, I hate it.”
Choice is the key word.
If fashioning myself gives me such contentment and freedom to choose how I represent my physical and intellectual self, then I can’t see how feminism doesn’t play a huge role in my choices. I feel sexiest when I wear my oversized heather-mustard coat with my favorite high-waisted Levi’s circa 1970, and if that repels men from asking me out on a date, so be it.
These desires, no matter how trivial and superficial it may seem from an outsider looking in, does not make me any less of a feminist than a woman sporting a choppy hair-cut attired in a navy pant-suit. Having flair for tailored shirts and owning a personal style doesn’t make me a victim of oppression, and certainly not vapid.
For ‘sassy, saucy, and sexy’ local illustrator and artist Kelly Jackson, the idea of dressing-up is a ritual she follows with glee every morning. You can spot her in a vintage, frilly dress paired with kitten heels and always with a deep-red lip, walking around her neighborhood in Queen Anne. Bright-eyed with a haircut so distinctive and painfully chic, Kelly is a walking figure of her own illustrations: Vintage-inspired, feminine, and colorful. “Even when I’m working from home or around town, I dress for myself,” Jackson said. “It’s not that I feel like I can’t exist without putting on lipstick, or wearing brooches or earrings, but it’s really about playing dress-up and having fun.”
Climbing up three flights of stairs and walking into her parisian-style apartment, I immediately sense that her living space is a sacred sanctuary; a creative hub for her and her 11-year-old daughter, Lily, to lose themselves in creativity. There isn’t a vacant spot in her home; every corner is tastefully filled with flea-market finds, handmade treasures and artwork.
Straight ahead, vintage pin-up posters are strategically tacked on the living room wall and to my right is her kitchenette filled with opulent jars filled with dreamy pastel-colored confectionary, and just as I’m walking across to gaze at what looks like a crow perched a top of a lattice-top pie headpiece, her feline, Sir Benjamin Gigi meows and rubs against my leg. Kelly giggles and calls for Gigi while throwing cat nibbles across the floor.
Before discovering her own talent in vintage illustration and filling the niche market, she was often left wandering in developing her art and personal style. “I could draw and get freelancing gigs but I didn’t have my own personal aesthetic so I felt like I was always trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, unfulfilled in the artistic realm and always searching,” she said.
It wasn’t until 2009, when Jackson was introduced to the revival of Seattle’s burlesque community, that she was riveted enough to change her old look altogether; her nude lips became bright red, her fringe was dyed a glossy jet-black with high-bangs, and chiffon and vintage buttons became staples in her everyday dresswear. Along with my choice in developing personal style, I also choose to be an advocate for equal pay, reproductive rights, and want to keep my maiden name after marriage.
“If you want a turquoise bra to shine through your white shirt, go for it, rock it.” said Ellen Donbeck of local lingerie boutique, Bellefleur. “Clothing and lingerie is a chance for women to be an artist the second we wake up, and best when it’s purchased for yourself because it’s taking the time to take care of you.”
My affinity for cashmere and thigh-high boots are akin to my belief that women have the right to exercise control over their own body and how they choose to adorn it, whether it be with piercings and tattoos, cropped-tank tops or otherwise. Fashion is about choosing to represent myself and an outward form of what I’m thinking. Having the ability to choose my own parameters and being the creator of my personal style is what makes me a feminist and in control of my desires as a woman.
Despite the Seattle weather and precariously scattered bricks along my university campus, I will bravely strut along walkways wearing my 4-inch platform heels, because after all, I am a woman and I am what I wear.