Once upon a time, sexual liberation in fashion circles had at least as much to do with burning bras as it did with strutting around in provocative lingerie. But decades of mixed marketing messages often meant that designers' (and wearers') feminist ideals were misinterpreted or even squashed. Now, there's a new movement afoot among millennials who want to promote meaning through their style choices and occasionally remind the rest of us of what feminism is really about.
Toronto's 22-year-old Julia Baylis met her best friend, 27-year-old Israeli-born Mayan Toledano, when both were fashion students at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Under the name Me and You, they began a series of collaborations, and really hit on something when they printed the simple word "Feminist" in pink bubble letters on the rear of the white cotton underwear otherwise known as "granny panties." The response on Instagram was overwhelming. When the women set up a shop on their website, www.itsmeandyou.com, they quickly sold out of the irreverent undies.
Baylis is a member of the all-female creative collective The Ardorous, founded by Canadian photographer Petra Collins. Its goal is to explore feminist topics from a millennial point of view, and it has received recent attention from the Today Show, BBC and the New York Times. I spoke with Julia Baylis about New Age feminism, the thongs-versus-panties debate and what's at the heart of true feminist underwear.
A lot of us who grew up in the '70s look at what our daughters are doing and think about the importance of this new wave of feminism. Do you think about the groundwork our generation laid down for you or do you feel like you're seeing the world in your way for the first time?
Our community of friends and other artists definitely think about the work our moms did and even what our grandmothers went through.
The amount of progression that's happened is amazing. It's fascinating how the things that are available to me and that I take for granted as a woman just weren't available to my grandmother.
There was something that happened with this generation though, where the word "feminist" took on a bad connotation. Girls started to not want to associate themselves with the word, even though if you're simply advocating for women's rights, then you are a feminist. That was a huge part of our brand: We really wanted to take that word and that message and make it something very approachable and easy and likeable – because someone told me that "feminist" is one of the most hated words in the U.S.
Why does your generation think negatively about the word?
There's a strange idea that because you're a feminist you hate men.
Which we all know isn't true. My boyfriend is a feminist. Most men are feminists… at least I would hope they'd be feminists.
Your feminist "granny panties" are sending shockwaves through the conventionally sexy lingerie world. Tell me how that particular notion came to be. Why did you think this was something young women wanted in their wardrobes?
It was never a sitdown thing where we were looking at underwear trends and decided to do a so-called "granny panty." We just picked that kind of underwear for functional reasons: It looks the best to be printed on.
But our friends don't shop at lingerie stores. We just aren't interested, because most lingerie stores don't cater to women. A lot of women pick their lingerie based on what they think men will think, which is not our approach. It should be about what makes you comfortable and what you feel personally sexy and good in. If you look sexy to another person, that's great, but the decision should start with you. And whether that means you want to go with a thong or a granny panty – we call ours "undies" – girls should just be supported to make any decision they want.
Do you foresee the day when you would have a thong or something that wasn't necessarily a granny panty in your line?
We're open to anything. If our fans and our followers want to see that, and that's what they feel comfortable in, of course we'd do our own take on a thong. But the message behind it would be that it's because this is what these girls want.
We also use models who aren't conventional. They're girls who inspire us. That's what's real, and that's what's applicable.
Are you intent on getting messages of feminism out there beyond the underwear drawer?
For sure. When Mayan and I first started this line together, we did a pop-up shop and we donated some of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood.
We're still supporters. Hopefully, in the future we're going to partner with a women's shelter and try to give back to the community.
It sounds like your message extends beyond the product.
Of course. When we first started this label, we didn't want a brand in a traditional sense. We both really wanted to create a whole world. We wanted to have a site and a space where girls can be inspired by the photos and communicate a message beyond just showing and selling clothing.
This groundswell movement that you have going is made doubly interesting by the fact that it just sort of happened.
It's great to live in a world where you have the internet and can reach out to customers all around the world.
You no longer have to depend on buyers' or magazines' approval. You can take the power into your own hands, which is amazing. Also, we love being able to communicate with customers so intimately. It takes out the middleman, so to speak. I love that I can really understand what people want. We're not going to produce per season, we're just going to keep it going on a per-product basis.
It's great being able to get that kind of immediate feedback.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail