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All Dress Is Feminist, No Dress Is Feminist

Recently I found myself bombarded by a series of conflicting articles, all telling women how they should dress. Strangely, for articles that seek to police women’s behavior, each one claims that its dress prescription is the only way women can be respected from a feminist perspective. A personal favorite of mine is former Power Ranger turned swimsuit designer Jessica Rey’s Q talk , where she argued that modesty is “about revealing our dignity.” There’s no such thing as a feminist way to dress. Any feminist argument that supports a certain clothing style can easily be overturned by those who believe the style to be anti-feminist. Whether someone is arguing for modesty or immodesty, for masculinity or femininity, there is no style of dress that some won’t deem anti-feminist. 

A common feminist argument I hear in favor of dressing modestly is that it works against patriarchal beauty norms that objectify women.  In other words, dressing modestly means you will be seen for your intelligence and personality, and not as a sexual object. This argument is suspect because one could easily argue that dressing modestly supports the assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and that women who don’t dress modestly are opening themselves up to sexualization. At the same time though, it could be argued that buying into mainstream beauty standards – spending hundreds of dollars on makeup and wearing painful shape-wear all to be “sexy” – is hardly feminist. Women in our society often feel pressured to show more skin than they want to show, and pressured to dress in a way that attracts men. Feminism is about rejecting patriarchal pressures, not embracing them; however, whether one dresses modestly or not, these pressures persist.

The idea that women should reject feminity is prominent in many feminist circles (especially in the second wave). The argument is that high heels and dresses are impractical and hold women back; only by dressing like a man – namely by cutting one’s hair short and wearing pants and combat boots – can a woman overcome patriarchal oppression. I find this incredibly disturbing: a woman shouldn’t have to look like a man in order to be treated as his equal. What’s the point of having a feminist movement if the conclusion is that, in order to be treated the same as men, women have to become as much like men as possible? On the other hand, simply conforming to feminine standards to avoid sticking out is hardly feminist. However, some women feel empowered by wearing traditionally feminine clothing, and others feel that it best expresses who they are.  While feminine dress has potential drawbacks and isn’t for everyone, those who like it should absolutely be allowed to embrace it.

At the end of the day, no one style of dress is the right style for every woman. Some women feel empowered by modesty, others by dressing masculine, and still others by dressing feminine. Feminism is not about controlling women’s behavior; if anything it’s about fighting those who seek to do just that! There’s no one way to dress that’s completely free of patriarchal influence, but there is actually a way to dress that’s inherently feminist: wear what you want! The only way to dress like a feminist is to wear clothing that makes you feel empowered, and no one can dictate that. 

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But in the case of (patriarchal) religion-imposed clothes, as is the case with some Islamic countries, what feminism is there in such a "choice"? I think there is a clear difference between feminists in the past who chose *themselves* to free themselves from clothes, and in the case of religion-based demanding too many pieces of clothing, which is clearly a patriarchal imposition. I think both women and men should not be imposed any style of clothing merely based on religion.

"Cruel Culture" by Malcolm Evans
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"Cruel Culture" by Malcolm Evans, published January 6, 2011
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How to cite this page

Eigerman, Elisabeth. "All Dress Is Feminist, No Dress Is Feminist." 11 December 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 25, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/all-dress-is-feminist-no-dress-is-feminist>.


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