Monday, November 30, 2009

Fashion and Feminism: A Style Interview with Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti is the founder of the blog Feministing and the author of three books, including Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters (2007). Representing the fourth wave of feminists, Valenti speaks to young women through her blog, books, and college visits, in language that is both accessible and hip, as she demonstrates that feminism should not be relegated to the days of yore (um, the 1950s through the 1970s).

We bonded over that common cause, decent Italian food, and heels (the kind that you wear). I’m delighted that Jessica was willing to have a chat about the intersection of fashion and feminism, which are, to some minds, antithetical, but equally threatening F words.

Miss Cavendish: How is fashion a feminist issue?

Jessica Valenti: Well if the personal is political, then I certainly think the very personal expression of fashion certainly has to do with feminism! Not only is fashion a feminist issue because of the often-disappointing sexism of the fashion industry—but also because the way that women express themselves through fashion can be used almost as a cultural marker. (I'm thinking the 80s women-get-to-work shoulder pads and the riot grrl stylings of the early 90s.)

MC: A familiar catch phrase used to be “I’m not a feminist, but . . . I want equal pay for equal work.” Now I hear this: “I’m a feminist, but . . . I like to wear high heels.” What do you think is the perceived inappropriateness about “I’m a feminist and I like to wear high heels”?

JV: I think the idea is that heels are an evil tool of the patriarchy or something. (Though, this morning as my feet are killing me, a night after wearing some serious heels to a book event for the Nation—I'm inclined to agree!)

It's unfortunate that we keep putting all of these caveats on feminism—like you can't be a feminist if you wear mascara or heels. Of course you can! What other social justice movement polices the fashion of its activists? I understand the criticism that certain fashion choices are tied to sexism—but so are the majority of the things we do in the world, sadly.

We all have to negotiate our way through a world that's not too fond of women and we all decide what's most important to us. And I say if big tall heels are your thing—so be it! I certainly couldn't do without them.

MC: When you and a number of other bloggers met President Bill Clinton and all posed for a photo with him, one online (female) commentator critiqued not only the clothes you were wearing but your posture as being overtly sexy. How was she attempting to “read” the photo and could you reflect on both her analysis of the photo as well as her desire to engage in such analysis in the first place?

JV: Ah yes, kind of unbelievable that three books and five years of blogging later one of the first things that comes up in a Google search of my name is 'jessica valenti breasts' because of this blogger's insistence that I was wearing a deliberately too-tight top. (Judge for yourself, I say it's pretty innocuous!

I believe this blogger didn't really think much of the photo—but was using the internet's love of anything having to do with women's breasts as a way to drive traffic and cause a controversy. I think the real issue was that we're not used to seeing young women, especially young women who look a certain way, in meetings with powerful people without assuming that something sexual is going on.

I thought of this whole faux-controversy as a reminder to all young women really, that we're there to be looked at and judged. And even if you're successful enough to be invited to a meeting with a former President, your real value is being fodder for tacky sex and intern jokes.

MC: In your recent book The Purity Myth (2009), you argue that girls are given conflicting messages about how to behave as sexual beings. How are those messages delivered via girls’ choice of clothing?

JV: Young women—even girls—are being taught that in order to be desirable they have to dress a certain way (generally pretty sexified). But if they do dress that way, then they're told that they're sluts or being too revealing. There really is no winning. I feel lucky that when I was growing up the trend was baggy pants and the like—I didn't have to deal with any of this nonsense!

MC: If you were designing the t-shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like,” how would you style it?

JV: Wow, great question! I would take the postmodern route, have it say nothing, and let the awesome woman behind it embody the message herself. ;)

MC: And finally, what do you wear when you present in public? When you write at home?

JV: When I present in public, I generally wear a wrap dress (I have two faves, one from Theory and one from DVF) and heels.

At home, however, is another story. For a long time, I was a hot mess in sweatpants and dirty t-shirts—it's just so easy when you work from home! But I really do notice a difference when I actually dress like a normal human being in terms of how much better I do my work. So now I'm sporting lots of comfortable jeans and casual—but still fashionable enough to be seen out of the house in—shirts. And slippers. Sorry, that's one thing I can't give up!

MC: Jessica, thank you so much for this chat and for helping to demystify the relationship between fashion and feminism.


Make Do Style said...

Good interview - I urge all who have a fashion and feminist bent to read Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams.

K.Line said...

Excellent interview! A) That photo of Ms. V is in no way too tight. She has breasts. What's she supposed to do? Hide them?? and B) I am a feminist - no clarifications. Except thanks to every first-wave feminist who has made my quality of life what it is.

Belle de Ville said...

Let me know when the fouth wave of feminism wants to take on issues a little more challenging than heel heights, like honor killings.

Jessica Valenti said...

Thanks so much for the interview; I had a ton of fun!

Belle de Ville, young feminists take on a variety of issues, ranging in seriousness and immediacy. Right now on's homepage we have posts about racism, police brutality, and the Stupak amendment.

Angie Muresan said...

Great interview Miss C.! I don't know if I would call myself a feminist, but I certainly am very happy with the world the feminist movement has created.

LPC said...

Old feminist here from the days when your boss might tell you that a career girl (!) wouldn't want children...LOVE it that you interviewed Jessica.

TheCluelessCrafter said...

Absolutely thoughtful questions, M. Cavendish. Loved Jessica's choice of having a post modern t shirt. I want one of those;-)

I think the words fashion and expression are one of the same. Expression is an empowering concept; fashion is the result of expression. So, self expression comes from the interior and fashion is the combination of self expression fused with external forces. It becomes the facade for the initial, well-intended expression.

Ok, I'm not sure if I really wrote that well, but I can work on clarifying my thought on that.

I posted something today about fashion and expression, which may resonate with this topic.

WendyB said...

Great interview. Whoever got her thong in a knot over that picture was INSANE. I wasn't even sure what I was supposed to be looking at there.

La Belette Rouge said...

This is so great, Miss Cavendish! Fantastic interview, great teeshirt and I am hooked enough to buy her book. Do you know where you can get that tee?
I hate that "feminist" is a dirty word. Anyone who is working to change that is a hero in my book.