“Men act and women appear.”
Why does this matter? As much as we would like to deny, women’s appearance holds as much weight as men’s actions. While fashion seems trivial, the act of picking out an outfit in the morning has very real political, economic, and social consequences for women. We become vulnerable in our choice of attire. We risk being too flashy, too showy, too prudish, too not what everyone else wants us to be. In her piece “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion” Minh-Ha T. Phan discusses the appropriation of the power suit and the negotiation of femininity and masculinity, which immediately raised a lot of questions for us.
First: why is it called a power suit? Where’s the power? The tailoring, silhouette, and colors reflect the traditional male business suit, allowing many women to “access the social and economic capital that lay on the other side of the glass ceiling” (Phan).
So are we taking the power by wearing it or are giving the power to the male fashion? In fashion lore, menswear styles imbue women with status, respectability, and authority. In the real world and the fictional TV universe, suits are seen as serious and professional, as opposed to anything “non-professional.” This goes back to the concept of dualism explored in the introduction to Susan Bordo’s book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Bordo asserts that dualism represents the dichotomy and separateness of the feminine self and the masculine body. In terms of clothing, we use the masculine power suit to neutralize our feminine identities.
It’s hard to think about the brilliant Elle Woods from Legally Blonde and her amazing pink power suit.
Elle rocked the power suit, regardless of how shocking it was to everyone around her. How dare she add her own style, how dare she add pink, how dare she add femininity to the power suit in law school. It was just unacceptable to everyone around her. She was juxtaposed with Vivian who wore the dark colors that society deemed as professional and therefore acceptable for her to wear.
In our own experiences, especially job interviews, we found ourselves donning dress pants, pencil skirts, button-down blouses, and muted colors. These weren’t attempts to imitate men, but to conform to norms of business attire. Each of us has our own idea of what business clothing looks like, but in general, if any of us hypothetically went into an interview without having dressed “appropriately,” we admit that we would feel uncomfortable and unprepared. This idea of discomfort stems from an internalized association of masculinity and professionalism.
Appropriation can be a tool for women to regain a sense of power but there are other kinds of fashion appropriation that can be harmful to identity on more than one level. Urban Outfitter is one major culprit: they’ve infringed upon Navajo Nation trademarked styles, and more recently their online store sold a dress labeled as “90s Vintage” that bears a striking resemblance to an Ethiopian/Eritrean traditional dress.
How does this serve U.O.’s female market, and what do women try to convey when they wear ethnically-inspired clothing? What does it say about U.O. that they couldn’t even be truthful about where they got the inspiration for “90’s Vintage” dress? What does it say about their business tactics that they completely disregard an entire culture? Going even further, why does U.O. time and time again attempt to appropriate clothing from other cultures when controversy surrounds each instance? When is appropriation okay, and what makes it okay?
Questions to ponder? We think so.
Authored by victoriadan, bluesharphie92, harveymr, pencee, and brandi