Readings in Feminism: Feminism, Fashion & Failure

Hot Feminist vs. Real Feminism?

Christmas 2015, I unwrapped my present from my Dad and found a new feminist text to get my eyeteeth into. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Years ago, his gift to me of Margaret Wade Labarge’s A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life actually signalled my “feminist awakening”; he has an excellent eye for a good read.

This year I unwrapped Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist. I looked at the cover (tagline “Modern Feminism With Style Without Judgement”), read the blurb, opened it up to the table of contents. Hmm. In the end, the book stayed on the shelf in the guest bedroom at my mum’s place, and I went home to Norwich without it. You tried, Dad, I thought, and buried my nose in something decidedly more academic – I think Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure.

vernon hot feminist

Hot Feminist hasn’t gone away though. My obsessive reading of the Guardian Books pages brought it all up again when I read Vernon’s account of online abuse she suffered upon publication of the book.

So, despite some quite terrible reviews (e.g. herehere and here [ok, that last one was actually five stars, but it’s in The Telegraph, so…]), I decided to give Hot Feminist a chance (fully aware that this chance is still denied to marginalised women in all fields, including writing, publishing, etc. Cf. Sharan Matharu’s excellent piece  on “Privilege in Publishing” over at Dear Damsels). After all, rigorous critique relies on having read the book in the first place, and not everyone has the oppportunity or patience to get through the dry academic texts I usually find myself reading.

As Vernon would have to compete with Roxane Gay for demands on my reading time, I’d read one chapter and see if I felt it was worth continuing.  It wasn’t, and I didn’t. But at least I can now say I’ve read 30-odd pages of Telegraph White Feminism Lite, and if Telegraph White Feminism Lite has the same effect on some young girl out there that A Small Sound of the Trumpet had on me, then good for Polly Vernon. I just hope this isn’t where readers who are new to feminist texts decide to stop.

But something of what Vernon tries and fails to say connects with much of what I’ve been reading over recent months, and perhaps warrants a pseudo-academic blogpost: that is, the relationship between feminism and fashion.


Fashion as a Fabric of Feminism

Eleanor Morgan in VICE is quite right to ask, “how, in 2015, did we get to the point where we’re once again talking about lettuce and feminism in the same breath?” Contemptible watery lactucae aside, however, fashion has ever been a fraught site of white hetero-patriarchal control and of resistance by People of Colour, LGBTQ people and women. being gorgeous

Jacki Willson’s Being Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual springs to mind. This book is one that I have enjoyed sharing with friends, for its defiantly positive take on fashion, performance and spectacle. Willson’s argument is that fashion can be the site of expression for subversive sexualities and identities, and that the gaze(s) of an audience do not always result in negative objectification, but can create a generative intersubjectivity.

This certainly rang true for me as someone who delights in texture and pattern, who is interested in the visual cues people use to express themselves and in the history of women as it is bound up in fabric and textiles, and who loves to appreciate the individual styles of the people around me. Countless commentators, including many exhasperated and perplexed straight men, have over the ages pondered/bemoaned why it is that even straight women will admire one another’s appearance, and why certain kinds of feminine social interactions take place through the mediating factor of clothes and beauty. Willson’s book offers an answer to this, and cites such interactions and instances of intersubjective potential as a subversion of objectifying structures of the gaze. An interest in fashion and spectacle, in the supposedly frivolous and shallow things in life, can be the key to unlocking, performing and creating subversive community.


Failing at Feminism and?or Winning at Life

I can see how Polly Vernon’s book would strike a chord with many readers: everyone wants to enjoy themselves, to feel good about themselves, to resist judgement; no one wants to be abused by the general public for expressing an opinion or enjoying themselves. And everyone fucks up sometimes, including public figures and feminists. Occasional failure doesn’t stop you from being a good person, having good ideas, or being committed to liberation politics. And, as Willson and others (e.g. here) have explored, fashion can be an important site of resistance of hegemonic systems.

Failure has been cropping up in my reading a lot recently. A couple of months ago I finished The Queer Art of Failure, which was an enlightening, uncomfortable, comforting and galvanizing read. Using examples drawn from everything from Finding Nemo and Chicken Run to disturbing nsfw imagery by Judie Bamber and Richard Attila Lukacs and the radical, disorientating, mind-boggling, wonderful work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Halberstam tackles all kinds of queer issues, from childlessness (failing heternormativity, Oedipus, and your grandma) to the unsettling involvement of members of the community in Nazism (failing dominant narratives of innocent victimhood, as well as basic humaneness). From my particular interests, I recommend the chapter on “Shadow Feminisms” as well worth a read. The whole book felt like the equivalent of being hit in the brain with a big queer Pangalactic Gargleblaster.

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. […] I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women […]”

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is currently seeing me through many long train journeys and is touching in all the right ways – I giggle, I sob, I cry single (wo)manly tears as fellow travellers look on in perplexity. I’m late to the Roxane Gay Party, but it strikes me that Gay does a lot of what Vernon attempts – “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. […] I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women […]” (Bad Feminist, p. xi) –  just more convincingly and with a far more radical agenda at stake.

roxane gay
The ever-awesome Roxane Gay

More broadly, these texts suggest that failure is a valid resistance and recuperation tactic for radical politics; if we are able to safely and without endangering ourselves fail the expectations of patriarchy, white supremacy,  and hetero- and cisnormativity, we might find new ways to live that are more fulfilling, destabilising the foundations of those hegemonic systems at the same time. Failure becomes just a different – more wholesome, more holistic – way of winning.

Regarding online abuse, I’m all up for rigorous feminist debate, especially when it brings to light marginalised voices within feminism. Vernon’s book certainly doesn’t do that: Telegraph White Feminism Lite is about as hegemonic as feminism gets. But personal abuse of women whom you happen to disagree with online isn’t the same as critiquing someone’s ideas; personal attacks on other women can even be unfeminist. And while online abuse of a white Western journalist is nowhere near the severity of IRL feminist fashion issues – such as the exploitation of women and children in sweatshops; the simultaneous exploitation and idolisation of Photoshopped models; the under-representation and demonisation of dark-skinned, trans and visibly queer people; the ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots caused and necessitated by the evil behemoth of late capitalism, etc… – it still perpetuates a patriarchal culture in which women’s place in the world of work and the public sphere is jeopardised and unsafe.

The important thing is to recognise and engage with as many facets of feminism as possible, in the ways that we most enjoy, be they fashion or politics, pop-culture or headache-inducing academia. And we will all fuck up sometimes, and yes, we can still proudly call ourselves feminists, dust ourselves off, and continue the good fight.


Currently reading:

  • Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
  • Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
  • Moten & Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study
  • Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  • Ferreira Gullar, Dirty Poem

Last read:

  • Polly Vernon, Hot Feminist


Feature image:


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