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Feminism and fashion: the (other) two solitudes

People take part in the "Slutwalk" protest in Toronto, April 3, 2011. Protesters hit the streets to protest against rape and sexual crimes in response to a Toronto Police Const. Michael Sanguinetti quoted in saying "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."


On a cold spring day a couple of weeks ago, 2,000 people, mostly women, took to the streets of Toronto for a demonstration called SlutWalk. Wearing fishnets, jeans, stilettos and turtlenecks - which is to say, wearing everything women wear - the demonstration represented a cross-section of the city, united by a surge of well-placed fury. The catalyst? In late January, a police officer speaking to a small group of York University students about campus safety commented that women shouldn't dress like "sluts" if they want to avoid sexual assault.

For his stunning idiocy, the officer later apologized, but the victim-blaming stench hasn't dissipated. It seems obvious that clothes don't have anything to do with sexual violence - was the 70-year-old woman recently attacked in her Toronto nursing home asking for it? - and, P.S., in Canada, we get to dress however the hell we please. So some university students organized, and women and men gathered, as they will in Boston and other cities next month, under the agitating handle "SlutWalk." The message was clear: A woman's clothing or sexual history or lack of one or excess of the other has nothing to do with her right to be free and safe. As one Toronto protestor's hand-painted sign put it: "A dress is not a yes."

But when it comes to feminism, what is a dress, exactly? Fashion and feminism have long been perceived as antagonists, glaring at each other across the old Birkenstocks-versus-lipstick divide. Perhaps SlutWalk marks reconciliation, all those women sending a feminist message not just through peaceful demonstration outside a police station, but also their clothes. It was a political moment both retro in form - a live demonstration (suffragettes had those!), not a hash-tag - and modern in content, driven by style. So are fashion and feminism finally friends?

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Well, maybe: Style watchers are aflutter over the intergenerational merging of media superstars Tavi Gevinson and Jane Pratt. The former is the 14-year-old superstar fashion blogger with mood-ring hair, the latter the 40-ish editor who ran Sassy. That iconic teen magazine of the eighties and nineties mixed a riot girl scream (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love made the cover) with a fashion-loving giggle in pieces like "Prom Grunge" and "The F Word" (as in feminism, less heard than the other f-word in women's magazines these days).

In an IdeaCity speech last year, Gevinson - who was born nine years after Sassy made its debut in 1988 - waxed nostalgic for the magazine's third-wave feminist sensibility: "Clothes were fun and fashion was fun, but it didn't have to be about pleasing other people, and it encouraged girls to speak up and share their opinions and be themselves." On her blog Style Rookie - one and a half million hits per month - Gevinson champions punk band Bikini Kill and the stylistic leanings of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.

Now Gevinson, who cheerily calls herself a feminist, is developing a magazine and website aimed at teenagers as part of, which will be aimed at the middle-aging feminists Pratt spawned.

In her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, Linda M. Scott argues that organized feminism has historically recoiled from fashion. Female clotheshorses were scoffed at as too frivolous, too look-at-me! to be ready for the fight for equality. Scott includes an anecdote from an 1852 Women's Convention at which Susan B. Anthony sabotaged fellow feminist Elizabeth Oakes mean-girl-style for being too much of a fashionista. Second-wave feminism put the emphasis on "natural" beauty as a middle finger to conventional notions of femininity, embodied in a famous 1972 Ms. Magazine article called Body Hair, The Last Frontier. For Scott, this is just elitist nonsense: Fashion is fun and creative and a route to economic freedom for women. Female entrepreneurs, she says, turned fashion and beauty into a massive industry, financially emancipating women for a century.

But Scott's pro-fun stance isn't really a hard sell (I'm not sure that hairy calves were ever as much of an unconquered frontier as equal pay) and fashion has long been lolling in a porny, troubling place. For years, women have been buying a Donatella Versace vision of sexy-time, accessorized with crippling Louboutin heels and a vajazzling. Yes, dressing as sexy as you want without fear or shame is a key point of SlutWalk, but has this pole-dancing, male-fantasy moment been great for either women, or fashion?

I'm ready for a shift, for a little Doc Marten dust-up in the fashion world, if it means that women's magazines will talk about more than waxing. SlutWalk grabbed the attention of the international media because it showed women considering - and owning - their sexuality outside the realm of Charlie Sheen's harem. If the Gen X and Gen What-ev amalgamation of Pratt and Gevinson can drive fashion toward something sexy but not stupid, that's no act of nostalgia: That's a long walk forward.

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