Vintage Feminism

Friday, January 20, 2012

I can’t quite believe I haven’t written about this already!

But it seems I haven’t. Whilst I’ve written about other aspects of the construction of an identity of “vintage” I’ve never actually talked about its relation to feminism and my feelings about it.

Lena from Style High Club has written an excellent post about a vintage identity and feminism. It, and the comments section, make fascinating reading. I urge you to go and read it!

It’s true that the images we see of women every day have a certain homogeneity about them. The modern cultural ideal is an identikit bambi legged, big haired, perma tanned woman in her mid 20s. All-girl pop bands have a pick ‘n’ mix quality. There’s no suggestion that these women have anything to offer beyond their appearance, we don’t even care if their singing voices are authentic. This isn’t about slating other women’s appearance, it’s about turning women’s presence in popular culture into a sexual fantasy. They are comodified, packaged and served on a platter. Buy these shoes and you could be as sexy and attractive to men as Cheryl Cole. Even Nicola from Girls Aloud has spoken out about her desperation to tone down her red hair and fake tan her pale skin to fit into the mould.

The Saturdays

It’s easy to say that this isn’t new, 1950s Pin Ups weren’t exactly sold on their educational qualifications, and the idea of a woman whose goal was to marry a rich man and live happily ever after is hardly a new concept either. That’s why we had the “bra burning” feminists of the 60s and 70s. They stood up for the rights of women to be whatever they wanted to be.

In the 90s we had ladette culture, young women asserted their sexual independence by behaving as they saw men behave. Drinking pints of lager, getting fighty, having one night stands, yet always aggressively asserting their right to behave as they wanted to. It was a rebellion against their parents form of Feminism, the kind that saw them bare foot in a field praying to the earth goddess.

In the last 2 decades the internet has seen a progressive pornification of culture till it seems that women now feel that they can’t assert their own sexual independence, that they have no choice but to buy into this porn star, brainless ideal of female beauty and passive sexuality. They are modern day Stepford Wives, emotionally passive and sexually compliant. Brainwashed by television, magazines and the internet into thinking they can’t make emotional demands and that sexual liberation means always wanting to have sex.

You only have to watch the women chosen as the first wave of contestants to enter the “Celeb” Big Brother house (I only watched them go in so can’t talk about any subsequent contestants!) They were page 3 girls, models and “kiss and tell” girls, the only exception was Natalie Cassidy, largely famous these days for her weight loss and gain stories and plastic surgery. To see popular culture taking such a backward step in its portrayal of women in the modern world is sadly regressive. Seeing this kind of over sexualised bimboism dressed up as a form of feminism is even worse.

So, what about “vintage”?

Obviously vintage isn’t the only sub culture, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to classify myself as goth or an indie kid, so I talk about what I know! Cathy from Perditas Pursuit makes a very good point in the comments on Lena’s post that she has come across this kind of independent woman who dresses very “indie” or “goth”. In my experience it’s those women and girls with the confidence to break away from those cultural norms that are more likely to demonstrate  an independent spirit, and the intelligence to deconstruct what they see presented to them as “ideal”. So maybe that explains why they’re so often the “different” ones.

But, back to vintage!

We’re not talking here about those pneumatic 1950s sex symbols. The Marilyn Monroe wannabes with breathy voices and pouty lips. That was the look society deemed attractive at the time, and those girls were just fitting in. What about the Women that chose that look now? Out of all the looks and lifestyles available they chose to be a breathy voiced Marilyn, or no nonsense Jayne Russell, or even a barefooted Sandy Shaw, but they want to work, socialise and earn their own money on their own terms.

The Puppini Sisters

I find this construction of identity as both feminine and feminist really interesting. I have come across people on my travels that for some reason think returning to an age when Women weren’t expected to worry their pretty little heads about complicated things like Politics would be a wonderful thing, but on the whole the “vintage” ladies I’ve met have been some of the most independent, forthright and modern girls I’ve ever come across.

Lena notes that often the women we take our inspiration from in the past tend to be those strong, ground breaking women.

often they take inspiration from those pioneers of feminism, the smoking, partying 1920s garconnes, the sports-playing, car-driving women of the 1930s, the home front workers of the war years, the 1950s office workers slowly edging their way into the work place and the sexually liberated dollybirds of the 1960s.

We pick and chose our role models, not looking to return to a previous time in history, but take those bits from it that we feel appeal to us, suit our bodies and our lifestyles. We might want to lose a few pounds or tone up, but on the whole “vintage” women blame the clothes, not their bodies. They say “I love the 60s look but it just looks terrible on me as I’m curvy” rather than “I’m far too fat to wear that dress”. They even say  things like “I love the look but I mostly buy repro as 1940s Women were all tiny” rather than cursing their modern, well nourished bodies for not fitting into a dress designed for a body bred on rationing.

To me part of the look isn’t about recreating the past at all. It’s about a rejection of the current popular culture definition of “attractive” and my place in it. I don’t believe that I can’t be “attractive” if I’m not a hyper tanned size 6 with hips the same size as my waist. It’s not about rejecting fakery, there’s massive amounts of fakery involved, it’s about faking that I’m the best me I can be instead of the closest I can get to a version of what someone else wants me to be.

No amount of control underwear is going to give me much smaller hips (there are bones in the way!), longer legs or knock 10 years off my age. I can, however, take control of my own look. I can accentuate that 11 inch difference between my waist and hips, play up my naturally pale skin and wear dresses that use enough fabric to make an entire new wardrobe for The Saturdays. And no one can criticise for not conforming to the popular cultural ideals of beauty, because I’m quite obviously not trying to.

But is it Feminist?

A feminist doesn’t have to look a certain way. Surely that’s the whole point of feminism. The “hairy legged” feminist of the 70s was raging against an ideal of feminine beauty, just as I feel the “vintage” look is. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be beautiful, it’s wanting to be beautiful on someone elses terms that’s the problem.

You can’t stop the Male Gaze (Unless we stop them having eyes) but we can stop pandering to it. A lot of people have issues with Burlesque and Pin Up being lumped with Vintage, but I feel this way about much Pin Up and Burlesque as well (I think you can’t help them getting lumped in when half the time the performers are wearing the same underwear on stage as vintage ladies often wear every day!).

The fact is that if you happen to be a straight woman, you’ll at some point want a man to find you attractive, and vice versa, but generally the images and acts in Burlesque and Pin Up aren’t constructed in the same pornified way that is the dominant cultural motif. They don’t say “find me attractive” they say “I AM attractive”. They’re not asking for confirmation of that fact from a male viewer, they already know it and they don’t really care if you disagree.

Cheryl Cole for FHM and a pin up shot from Banbury Cross

This is why it’s so irritating and shocking when idiotic men arrive at burlesque shows and shout “BOOBIES” at the performers, or comment on pin-up photos calling the models fat. Not because criticism isn’t allowed, but because they’re missing the point, trying to make this all about them and what they want to see, when it really never was. If you find them attractive, great, if not, then they’re not the one for you, it’s not for you to criticise them for failing to appeal to your needs.

The Vintage Girls I know are business women, students, and professionals and they have the critical faculties to realise that a life where washing your clothes takes 2 hours in the washing machine, Sainsburys deliver the shopping and domestic violence is unacceptable is a GOOD thing. However they also use those critical faculties to realise that we might have lost something along the way as well. That the over sexualised Woman of modern popular culture don’t do us any favours, that how you look sends a message to the world and that it’s important that women are in control of that message.

To some people the message might be “I want to be a housewife” but I think the message is “I deserve your respect”

Of course, these are just my thoughts on the issue, I want to know what YOU think?

Do you consider yourself feminist?

What does feminism mean to you?

Do you think that the way you chose to dress bears any relevance to feminism at all?


87 Responses
  • Mim
    January 20, 2012

    As a lapsed goth/ not-very-good-at-vintage / occasional dips into dieselpunk type, I like the fact that there’s not a massive amount of pressure in any of these subcultures to be sexy. You CAN be sexy, and there are stunning ladies and gents in all of them, but it’s up to you. You can channel Marilyn, you can unleash your inner Miss Lemon. Your choice. And choice is what all human beings should have.

    I do feel that by putting on my Miss Marple suit I am immediately signalling to the world that I am not playing the game of sexy. Not that I’m losing it, but that I’m not even getting the board out.

    • Natalie
      January 20, 2012

      yes i agree with you. i feel the same about my wardrobe.

      • Paperdoll
        January 20, 2012

        Love this phrase “not even getting the board out”, I dress to please me and how I feel on the day, and not the people who buy into the media bombardment of the ‘perfect woman’. I think that’s what I love about our little vintage world, that it doesn’t judge, excellent post Gemma, really enjoyed reading it and all the fab comments! X

  • Natalie
    January 20, 2012

    I consider myself a femminist. Obviously women were made to bear children, there is no denying that, but they also deserve respect. There are many other fine qualaties women can have such as intelligence, beauty, wit, strength, passion and affection. Not only is vintage fashion flattering, but I believe it reminds people of maturity and that women are not objects, but people that men have to live the rest of their lives with. The chauvenist opinion may have changed over the years. Men no longer view their wives as russian dolls (the children bearers), but instead view them as barbies(fit tan, trophy wives). I think women stepping out of the mould is a great thing. We are remindig people of the past sexist views with our old fashioned clothes, while being individuals. showing that not all women have to be or are the same. great article!

    • Gemma
      January 20, 2012

      Yes, from a biological perspective I suppose women are made to have children. But I strongly feel that as a species Human Beings have moved beyond pure biological drivers. As long as their basic needs are met I would hop we’re a bit more sophisticated than that! I certainly don’t want to be a baby making machine 😉

    • Perdita
      January 20, 2012

      Careful about stereotyping men! I don’t think 50% of the human race ALL went from ‘want babies’ to ‘want Barbie’! Well certainly not my husband, nor the way my dad treated my mum … in fact I can think of only 1 guy I know like that and I avoid him!

      • Natalie
        January 23, 2012

        well. i don’t actually want to be a baby making machine either. i’m just going off the way that some people talk about how women should have kids. i don’t want to have kids, but apparently that’s not conventional according to some people 🙁 and i know that not all men are like that. My dad is a very nice person and all he cares about is that we are happy and respect ourselves. what i was trying to say about the baby thing is that men should appreciate women more because they need them to have babies. just like we need them. lol. being a teenager in a small cliquey town, the way that the opposite sex meet each other requires alchohol (for the majority) . actually this goes for friends as well. and I find myself being pressured to look a certain way to go out. one girl tried to get me to dress in ‘suitable’ night clubbing clothes and i felt like the biggest tart and didn’t go. so yeah that’s where the barie thing comes in. i don’t have anything against barbie, but it’s the idea of it. That people can dress up other people and give them a makeover because they aren’t pretty enough. and that they all want to be like barbie. technically barbie din’t make them do anything, but they all think they should look like her and that is disturbing. and that’s how that girl made me feel. So i guess it’s not just men who want us to be oversexualised or viewed a certain way. So yes i stood my ground and stayed the way i am (possibly got a little bit more quirky, just to piss the girl off more) and I think that’s pretty femminist of me and probably a bit non-conformist too. i’ve read ‘the bell jar’ probably one too many times and i find myself agreeing with a lot of it. and even though theres all this pressure to look sexy theres still a big stigma about this/that girl being a tart if she actually did the deed a few times. which is what i thought the point of being ‘sexy’ would lead to… (so many controversial thoughts)

  • Clare
    January 20, 2012

    Great post – I think all to often the relationship between feminism and fashion gets overlooked as ‘we shouldn’t care what people wear.’ I think that is broadly true that we shouldn’t judge people on appearance, but we also shouldn’t judge people for caring about their appearance if it is important to them. I used to be a goth because as a teenager I was sick of people saying ‘you could be so pretty if you just….’ and I wanted to show that there are other categories to judge women by than ‘pretty’. I’m still working on my personal style, my personal feminism and the relationship between them, but I love any kind of conversation about this stuff. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

    • Gemma
      January 20, 2012

      Oh yes! I had that as teenage indie kid. I’d have been so pretty if I’d just swap DM’s for some nice delicate shoes!

      • Caroline
        January 23, 2012

        You were pretty in DMs too!!!!! 🙂 xxx

  • Louise
    January 20, 2012

    What a fantastic and thought provoking post. Despite being an independent, headstrong and well educated career woman I’ve never considered myself a feminist. I’m not afraid to admit that I like being ‘looked after’ by my husband and partake in some very traditionally female pursuits, but reading your post makes me realise I may be a bit more feminist than I think purely because I strive to be an individual. Of course I want to look nice, but my idea of nice isn’t fake tan and bleached hair. I wonder is it feminism though or just intelligence and independent thought? Anyway, I’m really glad you posted this because it’s definitely an angle I’ve never considered before. X

    • Gemma
      January 20, 2012

      I think feminism goes hand in hand with intelligence and independent thought, because those things are exactly the things that weren’t thought to be female traits.

      I think the word feminism is one a lot of women don’t like to be associated with as they associate it with man hating, but it isn’t about that.

      • Roisin
        January 20, 2012

        It’s one of the great shames of recent years that the word ‘feminist’ has become so abused that women are reluctant to identify with it for fear of seeming like a hairy, manhating, humourless harridan. I’m a feminist because I believe that I am equal in worth to any man, and I believe that women are equal in worth to men. It’s as simple as that, really.

        I’ve gone back and forth a lot in my mind about vintage and retro styles, because I have uncomfortable feelings about burlesque. BUT, I think you’ve summerd your argument up really well, Gemma. What I enjoy about dressing the way I do (not strictly vintage, but retro ish) is that I’m not being dictated to by a fashion industry that is damaging and harmful to humans everywhere. The pornification of our culture is bad for EVERYONE, and I’m glad to be able to stand up and show that I’m not going to let that define ME. So, basically – yes to everything you’ve so clearly articulated, Gemma! x

  • Steph
    January 20, 2012

    I think it’s mostly about confidence, if you are confident in your appearance – whatever that is – you will feel sexier. I am not a bra burning feminist ( I need that bra ) but I believe in making my own choices so I am a feminist. What I’m wearing doesn’t change that. Wether I am sitting with my dressing gown covered in baby sick or rocking a pencil skirt that hides stockings & suspenders doesn’t change who I am. My husband would argue for the stockings though.

  • Faith
    January 20, 2012

    I put up a discussion about this on my Facebook yesterday (when you posted the original article) and just got attacked for being against feminism (because apparently feminism is fake tan and boobs after all – or at least showing however much skin you want. Disagreeing with this is slut shaming) and also being classist (because it’s a perfectly valid working class aspiration to be a Page Three girl). There is no way on this earth I am either of these things. I just thing it is much more RESPECTFUL of yourself to cover up your assets and leave a little something to the imagination. I am NOT slut shaming in saying this. I do not think it’s a woman’s fault if she gets raped whilst wearing a mini skirt. It’s not as though rape didn’t exist before they were invented.

    They don’t say “find me attractive” they say “I AM attractive”. – THIS. Yes. So much. I hate seeing that kind of modern ‘sexy’ pose which is completely vacant, lips ever so slightly open, no sign of any pleasure from the model whatsoever. Both vintage and modern-vintage pin-ups always look so confident and joyous in themselves.

    • Gemma
      January 20, 2012

      I think it’s not about criticising how individual women dress, it’s about criticising a culture that portrays women in a certain way.

      If a young girl aspires to be a page 3 model we shouldn’t attack them for it, but rather look at WHY they think that’s the best career path for them!

      • Andi B. Goode
        January 20, 2012

        I agree, Gemma! I know plenty of intelligent, thoughtful feminist women who wear tiny skirts, get tans (fake or not), have long fake nails, etc. who are probably more radical and activist than I am. It’s important to educate young people on these issues. And to let women know it’s their choice if they want to wear the tiniest skirt ever and put on fake tan or if they want to cover up completely. I can’t stand slut-shaming, fashion policing or body policing. I think it’s important for ALL women (of any race or sexual identity etc) to work together to break down these ways of thinking that are so ingrained by society, media, etc. It’s pretty late on a Friday night & I’m getting tired so I’m going to cut my reply to your reply short. Great post, by the way! I’ve only really addressed what was relevant about this particular reply, though.

      • Curioserandcurioser
        April 5, 2012


  • Jessie in Fashion Limbo
    January 20, 2012

    I have seen the girls in the celebrity BB show – don’t know who they are though – but I do believe they represent a big chunk of women who believe they need to fit into what mags like FHM and GQ seem to promote as their idea of beauty. I see how certain vintage looks, the longer skirts, the lack of self tan is classier, more elegant, and to me, personally more about what’s on display, it seems like it’s a look you have chosen yourself, for yourself. Slapping on fake tan, the bigger bobs, the bodycons, to me, again, seem to have been imposed by lad’s mags. So yes, in a way, the way you dress does tell if you’re a feminist or not.

    I like to think I’m a feminist, but sometimes I’ve stupidly let society/mags dictate what’s sexy, and in consequence felt exposed, uncomfortable, but I did it. Now I actually only go for what makes me feel comfortable and in control, and that means longer hems, loving my pale skin etc

  • Roxie Roulette
    January 20, 2012

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. Every point rings true, and unfortunately saddens me. So many times I’ve heard young women saying they want to give up weight because they didn’t get any attention for lads on a night out, or they (shock horror) had to buy a size 10 in Topshop rather than a size 8. Of course we all like male attention when they say “Your skirt is nice” or “Have you cut your fringe?” (That is my boy’s favorite compliment!) and this should be encouraged! I hate it when I hear young men exclaiming “She’s fit!” and “Look at the t*ts on her!”. Some girls might like that but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to rely on those compliments to make ourselves feel better; being proud of what we have made ourselves as individual women is the most powerful form of feminism there is.

    Saying that, I am guilty of complaining my waist/boobs are too big to fit into authentic vintage…

    • Kate
      January 23, 2012

      It depends why you’re complaining, if you’re complaining because you can’t find those clothes that’s fine, if you feel bad about your weight that’s a sad reflection of our culture. I get annoyed that I can’t fit into my old clothes but it’s partly because buying new ones costs money xxx

  • Quirky Genius
    January 20, 2012

    Thanks Gemma for highlighting such an interesting subject. I’ve never considered myself a feminist but have always been fiercely individualist. When I dress either in vintage or contemporary clothes I want to look good and to stand out from the crowd, my political point is that I’m an individual. Personally I do not think the issue with the way some girls dress today is influenced by men more with the current slavish obsession with media and celebrity. My hope for my three young daughters is that they will have the confidence to develop their own style rather than what is prescribed by ok/hello etc.

    • Perdita
      January 20, 2012

      Totally agree! You are indeed a genius, Quirky!

  • Carly
    January 20, 2012

    I totally agree with this artical. I would consider myself a feminist through and through, yet at the same time part of me does believe in the whole always looking glamourous and taking on a persona of ‘ I am beautful, you will want me.’ This does make it seems like i feel women are meant to be objectified by men, but this is not why i have this opinion. I think you should take on that persona for yourself, so you always look glamourous therefore feel it. There is certainly no denying that that image of Banbury is 1000% more attractive than the image of Cheryl Cole. In that picture Cheryl just looks cheap, due to the setting and wardrobe of the photosoot. Banbury just looks sexy and expensive!

  • Perdita
    January 20, 2012

    I agree with everything you say here!!

    I know I ALWAYS mention this on feminist posts…but… I think it’s important to separate the REAL women from the media. You do this in your post but it bears repeating as we both know sometimes I find some comments on posts like this rather ironically stereotypical about women.

    What I mean to say is, the media (including feminist media when criticising) might push it to us that everyone with fake tan and a push up bra is a meek follower, gullible and low-self esteemed. But any reasonable person, walking into a professional place of work or university would know otherwise. If we do that to ‘norms’ we are no better than the people who assume Vintage Women to be 50s housewives; attiributing EVERY connotation of the outfit to the woman without asking her to speak. Bunching a female ‘tribe’ together purely by clothes and judging that…and we get enough of that from men and the media!

    Independent dressing attracts strong women (but perhaps also – in a minority of cases- less secure ones who find security in cliques, or the odd one who is just attracting/obeying a partner of either gender) – just as mainstream doesn’t take much nous and courage to wear, it doesn’t mean everyone who does ‘buys in’ to all of mainstream’s values. I have a long term friend who dresses Essex. She works in theatre management and has a perfect academic record, is vehemently moral about monogamy and a great mum. Of the two of us, I’m the one who buys into the ‘go out and pretend you’re 20′ stuff outside of our wardrobes, using text speak etc’. To advise her on her clothes or suggest she’s been tricked would be patronising in the extreme. Likewise, a teen girl encouraged to wear seamed stockings (for the male gaze) would creep most of us out on some level. Like you say, it’s to do with the choice and attitude not just the outfit – what girls and women need is to be confident that it is 100% OK to dress as THEY want, without taking judgement (male or female). There’s little room for that in the media at the moment.

    But I like to think ‘2 wrongs don’t make a right’ so try (which is hard given human nature) to judge the person not the look.

  • Becky Alyssa
    January 20, 2012

    Great article 🙂

    I was reading through the Eff Yeah Ugly 90s Fashion blog and realised already how differently young girls dress now than just 15-20 years ago. We wore baggy jeans, our dad’s old t-shirts and sparkly platform trainers and felt cool and sexy and awesome, whereas now many girls feel that lingerie constitutes an appropriate going-out outfit and it’s difficult to find a cute outfit in Topshop or New Look without sifting through racks of crop tops and ultra-tight denim hotpants. Shame all these godawful girl bands and plastic supermodels are pushing these ridiculous ideals that we should be half-naked and dress to appeal to men and nothing else, and people like Cheryl Cole and Katie Price are actually seen as role models in our society – what does anyone see in them, and what on earth do they have to offer us?

    Much of the reason I got into studying/working in fashion was to start challenging these modern ideas and start promoting fashions that make ladies feel confident and sexy where they’re not in stilettos and bandage miniskirts or shorts with slogans bedazzled across the butt. I don’t necessarily label myself a ‘feminist’, I just feel that clothing and personal style should still enable ladies to feel happy and confident in themselves rather than feel they should only be dressing up for men.

    • Perdita
      January 20, 2012

      Hmmm. It might depend on who/where you were in the 90s. I often wore very cropped t-shirts with crude slogans, and see-through ones with just a bra under (in clubs I saw girls who didn’t even wear a bra)- combined with tiny skirts. In reality (as one who works with urban youngsters) what they wear day to day now is less revealing. There’s always a tendency to view the past in an idealised way. Ladette culture had some serious down sides and outrageously sexy fashion.

      • Gemma
        January 20, 2012

        Oh yes, And that mid 90s look with skin tight satin shirts showing off a wonderbra. In fact I had the most amazing lime green mini skirt. I miss it now.

        Laddete culture certainly had it’s downsides, in fact it’s probably partly responsible for the current situation, but at least at it’s heart it was a female led movement.

  • Fabulous miss k
    January 20, 2012

    Yes I am a femminist.

    Femminisum means having the choice to do what I want, the freedom to being able to be a housewife if I want to and take pride in the way my house looks and a business women the next day, earning my own money and choosing to spend it on whatever I want.

    Dressing in vintage is a choice I make not beause I harp back to another era but I love the style of previous decades, it suits my figure and I find that vintage clothes are made better (they have lasted 70’s – how many of the new high street ones will be around 70 years from now?), the fabric is so beautiful and it makes me feel fabulous whih to me is the most important thing.

    • Gemma
      January 25, 2012

      Fantastic blog post – & I can definitely identify with the Fabulous Miss K.

  • Lori Smith
    January 20, 2012


    “To me part of the look isn’t about recreating the past at all. It’s about a rejection of the current popular culture definition of ‘attractive’ and my place in it.” — You are spot on with this, and I’m sure many other women who dress this way agree with you. I have a slight vintage/retro twist to my look because I don’t want to look like your average Heat reader. Those clothes just don’t suit me and, to be perfectly honest, they just don’t fit either.

    You’re right about burlesque/pin-up looks too. Those who adopt them are just not begging for male attention in the way that strippers and glamour models are. It amazes me that some folk can’t see the difference.

  • LandGirl1980
    January 20, 2012

    My mind is too whirly from this wondrous post and the fab replies – but me likes!

  • Stephanie
    January 20, 2012

    I really liked your comments about how vintage loving gals tend to blame the clothing rather than themselves. I think it’s wonderfully liberating to have all of these different decades of fashion to choose from rather than just the one “it” thing that’s popular at the moment. I’d say women who dress vintage tend to have a better body image and self-confidence than the average woman on the street. We might not all be bold, hey look at me type people (I’m certainly not!) but once you get past that fear of dressing a bit different, the joy of wearing something that not only fits your body shape but also fits who you are is so confidence boosting.

    • Perdita
      January 20, 2012

      In terms of body image- I for one had an unhealthy OCD/disordered eating thing around vintage when younger. People were smaller then and I saw it as my weak, modern ‘MTV generation’ greed that I couldn’t fit into the smallest of 60s stuff, until I made it a point of pride that I was the same size as the smallest of original Mods. Who, of course, with icons like Twiggy, were just as far-too-slim as me.

      I am much more sensible now.

  • Straight Talking Mama
    January 20, 2012

    What a great post! I haven’t read Lena’s post yet, busy work week but I was having a tweet discussion with her about it. I am a feminist but I don’t think it does go hand in hand with my vintage self, I only say this as I do associate with a large subculture of vintage types who admittedly probably originally were interested in the music, but the look is very much a part of it. I would say those people come from all walks of life with regards to eduction, political views etc etc. I know some women who wear vintage clothes/listen to vintage music are feminists, I also know those to whom it would be a dirty word (sadly!)

    I think the thing we have in common with bucking the norm when wearing vintage is that we have strength of character to ‘rebel’ in some way, not the best choice of words but I’m sure you know where I’m coming from, I don’t think it necessarily means we are going to think independently in other ways too although I think it gives us more of a propensity to do so.

    I’ll probably be shot down for this now, but it’s certainly my experience

    • Gemma
      January 20, 2012

      I’m wondering if there’s a difference between the music and dance led side of the “scene” and the more fashion led side that might come to music and dance through the clothes?

      I certainly won’t shoot you down! 😀

      I do think the idea of rebellion is part of it. It’s just often been my experience that rebellious people rebel in more than one way.

      • Straight Talking Mama
        January 20, 2012

        Maybe that is it? I don’t know it’s just my experience, I would love it if the part of my scene I belong to were all fabulous feminists but it’s just not so.

        I agree rebellion in one way often does lead to rebellion in others!

  • Susie
    January 20, 2012

    Totally agree with everything you say in this post Gemma and yes I would say I’m a feminist. It’s about choice, about choosing to be a strong and confident individual not following the rest of the herd. That’s also my reason for dressing “vintage” I really despise what is seen as attractive by the media. I have a 2 year old daughter and I try to shield her from the typical fodder that’s aimed at girls her age. I want her to be her own person not what someone else thinks she she be or look like.

    I hope that makes sense!! Brilliant brilliant post Gemma xxx

  • Jenna
    January 20, 2012

    I do consider myself feminist. I think feminism is hard to define, but I guess to me it just means someone trying for equality and not viewing gender as some sort of ultimate factor.

    Like many of the other commenters I dressed goth in high school. I think it goes along with what you said in the post, where it was a way for me to distance myself from mainstream culture. Now that I’m older I’m drawn to the vintage look, because it’s flattering. Although the way I actually dress has more to do with comfort and cost than anything else.

  • Glamour_ologist
    January 20, 2012

    Great post Gemma and am loving reading the comments.

  • Janiece
    January 21, 2012

    That was an excellent post – bravo!

  • Tina
    January 21, 2012

    For me, this is a very tricky subject. On the one hand, a part of feminism is about owning one’s sexuality and that concept, very frequently, seems to be displayed through dress. For some women, “owning sexuality” is about wearing the skin tight sheath dresses and mile-high platform shoes and becoming, in essence, a walking display of hyper-sexualization. For others, this swings the exact opposite way where there is a sort of gender neutralization (these are the women whose gender is not immediately identifiable). For others, “owning sexuality” is about reclaiming the extreme feminism of earlier eras. What I think is the problem here, is that too much emphasis is put on look and CATEGORIZING a look by society in general (not just male, not just female). Most definitely there is a pressure to dress a certain way in order to live up to expectations of “sexy” or “pretty” or “beautiful” or even “authentic”–and I don’t think these pressures are prevalent in just dominant main-stream culture. I think each subculture, in it’s own way, also experiences these pressures. If you are “goth,” there is a certain way you look–a certain way you do your hair, wear your clothing, apply your makeup. The same applies to vintage or any other category by which we identify a group of people. It’s kind of fascinating, to me, to see even feminists, who on some level are supposed to be a united front, tear down other women. In my humble opinion, the nastiness and cattiness between women is just as much to blame as the “male gaze”–which there is no denying exists–for the degradation of women. We should be holding each other up, not tearing each other down.

    As for the male gaze, it’s every where and the media–in all it’s forms–especially shoves it down our throats daily. There are so many strong and independent women out there who need to be recognized for the accomplishments vs. their “good looks.” They should be celebrated for being an excellent business woman, community leader, great entertainer, etc. vs. a pretty face. And really, the way to start breaking down the male gaze is to turn it on it’s head and, as women–as FEMINISTS–start saying “Yes, but did you know that..” and fill in the blank with accomplishments vs. reducing a woman to the sum of her physical body parts (exposed or not).

    • Gemma
      January 21, 2012

      That was part of what I was trying to say. It’s not supposed to be about how individual women dress, but about a popular culture that presents them in a certain way and reduces them to appearance without taking any interest in their other acheivements or attributes.

      • Natalie
        January 23, 2012

        Yeah. I get that. I don’t think this post is about tearing down anyone. It’s just informing people that there are other ways to think. you don’t have to be ‘vintage’, ‘vintage’ is just a method of rebellion and saying you are smart and independant. I agree that feminism can go two ways. Some people can cover themselves up and some can expose themselves. i don’t think it’s about tearing down the other one (which is definitely not what gemma is trying to say), but it’s about doing whats right for you at that time, rather than what everyone else wants you to do. being feminist is having the strength to decide to be your own person and not fit the latest mould. if somebody wants to fit the mould than that is okay, so long as they are comfortable there.

      • Yaqelin
        February 9, 2012

        Great web deigsns, it will be very effective and would surely catch more cyber visitors. Hope you continue to share and create more unique and attractive deigsns.

  • Terry Mendoza
    January 22, 2012

    Very interesting analysis. I shoot vintage, retro and burlesque, including the image of Banbury Cross you have used…that particular image was shot as a conscious tribute to Marilyn.

    Each age has its own concept of idealised beauty, and in my experience ladies asking for me to recreate certain stylised pin-up looks are anything but airheads, but are confident in themselves regardless of body shape (shooting up to size 26 is not unusual). Oddly the images they are seeking to create are those that will appeal to men as well as women.

  • Isis
    January 23, 2012

    Yes, I do consider myself a feminist. I have been thinking a lot of the subject of vintage dressing and feminism lately and think you have summed it up beautifully in this post!

    Feminism for me is to have the right of being an equal human being. Nor worth more than anyone else, but not less either. Freedom from not having my sex degreaded or looked down upon or seen as a joke. The Swedish academy recenlty claimed that “tjejsamla” ie “collecting like a girl” is a word that means that you collect in moderation as opposed to collect like an ordinary human being, ie a man. Things like that makes me rather mad.

    If my way of dressing has any bearing for feminism? Well, it has for me. I feel that in Sweden, at least, feminism has been an ugly word a word that you berate women with. I have a lot of friends who are, in my view, feminists, but shy away from it, because they feel that it is so negative. I rather call myself feminist and hope that helps to make it a more positive word.

  • Liz Tregenza
    January 23, 2012

    Read this now for perhaps, the fourth time. Ha ha. I would never in a million years conisder myself a feminist (infact i think i have quite backward looking views!), but this made me reconsider myself a bit and also the confidence wearing vintage has empowered me with. I think it is alot to do with the confidence that wearing vintage seems to give alot of us who wear it. It is something about a feeling of self worth and dressing for myself rather than anyone else, which is what vintage really allows me to do! Many of my close friends do dress in what i would call the “saturdays inspired” look and I have to say there is a difference in the confidence we feel in the clothes we wear. I find there is continuous questioning of do I look ok?…Maybe I’ve just got past caring what other people think now I’m not entirely sure, but this definitely got me thinking!

    • Gemma
      January 23, 2012

      I think a lot of people associate feminism with a very political outlook, or a certain type of person, and I really don’t think it has to be.

      It’s simply about believing that women deserve fair treatment and equality in all areas of life and the freedom to make their own choices!

  • Kate
    January 23, 2012

    Sorry but this is dreadful, wearing a nice dress and doing your hair has got fuck-all to do with feminism.

    Just because you like something it doesn’t make it feminist.
    I like listening to hip-hop but it’s not feminist. I like having purple hair but it’s not feminist.

    There’s nothing wrong with women who want to wear fake tan and get their boobs out, it’s just as valid a culture as dressing like a 1950s housewife.

    These arguments hold absolutely no traction. They are middle class feminism of the worst kind, patronising women who shop at Primark because you can afford to buy nice corsets.

    I’m a feminist and I find this highly embarrassing.

    • Clare S
      January 23, 2012

      I’m not trying to get into an argument here, but I do think you might want to reconsider your own comments: “Just because you like something it doesn’t make it feminist.” Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it not feminist.

      As the writer has already said – it’s not about bashing anyone else or what they wear, the problem lies with the hypersexualisation of women in the media, which isn’t necessarily a new thing. How long have women been discussed in terms of how they look rather than who they are or what they’ve done? The problem is not with people who shop in Primark (I’ve never bought a corset, but I do own items from Primark, thanks), it is with a culture that tries to persuade women that there is one way and one way only to look attractive and that involves imitating that Cheryl Cole picture above. Wearing vintage or goth or indie or whatever is one way of saying “I have a choice in what I wear and this is the choice I’ve made” and there is nothing wrong with choosing to wear the look seen in ‘celeb culture’, but there is something deeply wrong with showing women and girls that that is the only choice they have.

      I am a feminist and I find it a shame that you seem to have almost willfully missed the point.

      • Kate
        January 23, 2012

        Joining in with a sub-culture is no less repressive, inherently, than joining in with mainstream culture.

        The look of vintage is hourglass, people who don’t fit into that try to make their body look like that through various means.

        People should wear what the hell they like (and women doing what they want is vaguely feminist) but that has nothing to do with vintage culture, which is just a different look than the one that is popular in Desperate Scousewives, TOWIE etc.

        Just being different does not make something better.

        I wear vintage, curl my hair, wear 50s skirts, love corsets – but just because I like that look, not because it is feminist. It’s just a different way of doing femininity, and femininity is not necessarily feminist.

        I’ve been involved in sub-cultures including BDSM, metal (tho’ mainly as an outsider) and vintage and they are just as sexist and repressive as mainstream culture but in different ways.

    • Gemma
      January 23, 2012

      Thanks for finally commenting, I was disappointed to see comments on twitter from someone who hadn’t actually engaged with what I was trying to say.

      I rather think you’ve misread the piece though. Clare S has put it very well actually.

      At heart this is a vintage style blog, and therefore the piece I have written is targeted towards a discussion of feminine identity and what it means to me. I’m not arguing that you can’t be a feminist however you look.

      At no point did I suggest there was anything wrong with wearing fake tan and getting your boobs out. I was merely attempting to start a debate exploring the relationship women have with their clothes, and how the construction of an external identity can be a feminist act. It isn’t always, but it can be.

      I am a bit sad that you feel the need to attack it really. Women are so often judged on their appearance, at the extreme is the attitude that women in short skirts who are raped where somehow “asking for it”. I personally find it interesting to examine how that external appearance relates to an identity as a feminist.

      So many women are put off by the word feminist as they think it relates only to sweary, man-hating, lesbian, extreme left wing women and they don’t identify with that in their lives and therefore think that feminism and fighting for equality isn’t something that’s for them.

      I’m glad you’re a feminist in your way. I resent the suggestion that I’m not.

      • Kate
        January 23, 2012

        I’m literally what you describe: a sweary, man-hating, lesbian, extreme left wing woman. I have hairy legs and armpits too. I’m sick of people apologising for people like me, I don’t want to be apologised for by other feminists.

        I don’t think that shaving one’s body hair, getting your hair done or wearing nice dresses is bad but it’s not feminist either.

        I’ve not just come on here to attack, I did try to understand especially as I actually do wear vintage clothes a lot. Why do we need to justify wearing clothes we like? Who cares? Can’t we just wear them and not apologise and not justify it? Why does it matter if it’s feminist or not to wear a skirt?

        Frankly a lot of this kind of debate about ‘is this thing feminist’/ ‘is Margaret Thatcher a feminist icon’/ trying to prove not all feminists are shouty lesbians is completely missing the point.

        We need to define the terms of our own liberation, and then get on with doing it. Who cares how other people see it?!

      • Kate
        January 23, 2012

        actually I’m not really man-hating but I am all of the other things 🙂

      • Kate
        January 23, 2012

        Sorry for replying *again* but this has upset me on a basic level as well as it being logically confusing. What’s wrong with being a lesbian? 🙁 🙁

      • Clare S
        January 23, 2012

        Kate – thanks for making me chuckle (at your last comment, but it won’t let me reply to that particular comment): “actually I’m not really man-hating but I am all of the other things” Sometimes I worry a bit of humour is lacking in feminism and that’s truly what gives us a bad press! 🙂

        RE your reply to my comment … I would say it depends on the sub-culture and also that you can wear vintage style clothes without joining in with a sub-culture (which suggests buying-in to all sorts of other things, not simply a style of dress). Also, not all vintage eras are about an hour-glass shape, so again, it depends on what era you favour. I do find the idea of bodyshaping (corsets, bras, girdles and whatnot) in terms of feminism interesting, but that’s a whole other debate in itself!

        I agree that specifically vintage clothing is not necessarily more or less feminist (and I never said that I thought it was ‘better’ than anything else), which is why I mentioned goth and indie style as well, however I do believe that an individual’s reasons for wearing something can be feminist, which doesn’t necessarily mean that all people wearing that same thing are being feminist in doing so. And it doesn’t mean that all feminists will agree that that person’s reasons are ‘feminist’, because let’s not forget that you could get 100 self-proclaimed feminists in a room and come out with 200 definitions of what it means to be a feminist.

        I do also believe that saying ‘I am attractive on my terms’ or that ‘it doesn’t matter whether or not you find me attractive’ are (or can be) feminist ways of approaching personal and female identity, which is another element of this article. So, saying that in order for women to be attractive, they must all look like Marilyn Munroe is just as damaging and sexist as holding up mainstream style icons and saying the same – the point about vintage style is that it opens up styles from 1900 to the 1970s for us now to choose from and it allows for and displays different kinds of attractiveness.

        I think this boils down to Gemma’s final comment above: “I’m glad you’re a feminist in your way.” But I’d appreciate it if you could acknowledge that just as you don’t agree with others’ concepts of feminism, others may not agree with yours and have their own ways of approaching it. Just because you don’t approach vintage clothing as ‘feminist’, doesn’t mean that it cannot be approached in a feminist way by others. And until we have a ‘grand high judge of feminism’ no one has the right to say that someone’s argument regarding feminism is untrue, merely that they disagree with it and their reasons (which surely is a massive part of what feminist discourse is about?!).

      • Kate
        January 23, 2012

        @Clare Hmm fair enough 🙂 It just seems that trying to make vintage clothing feminist is like trying to fit a square into a circle. Women have never (well not in the last few thousand years) been free to do as they wish so wearing our mothers’ clothes isn’t particularly empowering to me. It is environmentally sound though.

      • Gemma
        January 23, 2012

        Clare appears to be making my points for me and therefore saving me a lot of time 😀

      • Clare S
        January 23, 2012

        Lol, sorry!!! Don’t want to assume what you mean, because how could I know :/ Just my interpretation. 🙂

      • Anushka
        January 24, 2012

        I really enjoyed this post, it was thought-provoking and extremely well-written. Have you read Natasha Walters’ book ‘Living Dolls: the return of sexism’? Facets of your post reminded me greatly of things she has touched upon in the book.

      • Gemma
        January 25, 2012

        I haven’t actually, I probably should by the sounds of things!

      • Clare S
        January 23, 2012

        Kate – Sorry you’re upset – I wanted to clarify that I definitely am not chuckling at that! I would imagine that the only thing wrong is the assumption some have that all feminists are lesbians, which isn’t true (obviously, but some do believe that). Hope you’re OK! Wow, now I really need to stop replying repeatedly! 🙂

  • Clare S
    January 23, 2012

    This is such a wonderful post. I found myself nodding with every point – thank you for expressing so well what it looks like many of us have long thought!

    I am a feminist, though I wonder if that word needs re-thinking: when I was around 10, I can remember saying that I wasn’t a feminist, I was an ‘equalist’. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but the idea I was trying to get at, and which I still agree with, is that these ideas apply equally to men as to women. To me, feminism means having choice, or fighting to have that choice. And I think that just as society/media attempts to limit women, it also limits men and the roles they can choose. Too many people still raise an eyebrow at the idea of a man staying at home to look after children or wearing make-up. If I as a woman should have the choice the wear make-up or not, so too should a man.

    Wearing vintage styles (I wouldn’t say I wear vintage all the time, but my style is heavily influenced by the 50s and early 60s) is definitely related to my feminism. It is about me making a choice about how I appear and choosing clothes that flatter my shape, not fighting with my shape to squash it into what has been dictated to me as ‘fashionable’ (skinny jeans can look fab on some people, but definitely not me!). It’s not about me telling anyone else what to wear beyond wear what you feel comfortable in, wear what is ‘you’ and make that choice knowingly, rather than following ANYONE (Cheryl Cole or Marilyn Munroe) blindly.

    “They don’t say “find me attractive” they say “I AM attractive”. They’re not asking for confirmation of that fact from a male viewer, they already know it and they don’t really care if you disagree.” – Yes, yes, YES! I know I am attractive and while you can look and agree if you want, I don’t need your affirmation, thanks. Too many males (definitely not all) seem to think that women exist solely to conform to their personal idea of attractiveness and woe betide the woman who doesn’t: she is instantly assaulted for daring to deviate (by being ‘fat’ (which may just be not being a UK size 8), by having boobs that are too small/big, by not having a button-nose, by not having big hair/extensions, by not exposing enough flesh, by exposing too much flesh). Guess what, I’m a person, not your personal fantasy to be moulded or dictated to by you. And I think that is what many pin-up ‘types’ are about (though not necessarily all).

    Brilliant post – thank you!

    • Lena
      January 23, 2012

      Ah thanks for posting this Gemma and continuing the discussion. I find it really sad that being a feminist has been equalled to ‘men-hating’ for many people so talking about what it means for women on an individual, personal basis is something I find so refreshing and interesting.

    • Gemma
      January 23, 2012

      Thank you.

      I agree with you about the word feminism, it seems to carry so many negative connotations to many women, and that leaves them feeling like they can’t ask for equality in many areas of their lives for fear of being somehow equated with the negative connotations of the word!

      I certainly wouldn’t ever argue that all women who wear vintage are doing so as a feminist point, or that as a sub culture it can’t contain a variety of people who are as sexist and repressive as anywhere else, just that actively a look outside the main stream can be a feminist act!

    • beti
      January 23, 2012

      I just am so sick of all of this “dressing vintage shows you’ve made a choice” nonsense and actually- really sick of middle class liberal feminist arguments about how “feminism is about choice”

      1. choosing to dress vintage is no more a signifier of the right to choose than dressing as a pantomime horse is. I just am so frustrated by this argument. If we have the right to choose, then that means that vintage is no more valid and no more a signifier of choice than dressing any other way. Stop judging women on how they dress and whether they had a choice in it.

      2. Feminism is about smashing the patriarchy- after that we will have the choice to live our lives how we please. Until the day we no longer live under a patriarchal system, we will not have free choice, our lives and choices will be informed by standards that the patriarchy sets.

      3. Over romanticising a period of extreme oppression much? I, like Kate, wear vintage clothes, because I like them, nothing more than that. I do not pretend that women of the 50s were feminist pioneers- normal women up until the 80s and 90s were living in a society where their husband could rape them and it be legal, purely for the fact that he was their husband. They were paid far far less than their male counterparts, if that is that they were lucky enough to get a job that a man could have done. They were horribly oppressed. (we still are) There is nothing empowering about being a 1950s housewife. If you want to dress like that then fine, but don’t pretend it’s some kind of homage to feminist icons. If how you dress indicated how feminist you are I would be wandering about in 1910 suffragette full skirts.

      4. So full of cognitive dissonance. the “I like this, I like that, therefore they go together” argument is genuinely just nonsense. Like i said, I wear vintage clothes, I also listen to music from that 1920-90 and like black and white and old films and musicals, this could cause problems. A lot of music, films and musicals that I like is inherently not feminist. Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face for example- I LOVE Funny Face. I love it so much! But it is in no way feminist. I love the Andrews Sisters, but they don’t sing about feminism, they sing about heteronormative relationships mostly- the isn’t feminist. But I still enjoy it. And that’s ok. You have to accept that it was different then. And that’s fine. Just because you as a feminist like something, doesn’t make that thing feminist, it’s just easier to say “but yeah, look at this things feminist credentials” rather than accepting that it’s not feminist but you can like it anyway.

      5. All of this is so white middle class privileged. It’s so utterly patronising. There is such a strong element of class divide in things like this.

      6. Feminism should NEVER be apologised for. That “its not accessible because people think it’s just hair man haters” well what if they do? Feminism is not about putting on makeup so that people will take your political arguments seriously. Men don’t have to, why should we? We need to stamp out all of this “I’m an equalist” stuff not by saying “but feminism isn’t about being hairy, it’s about choice” but by saying what feminism is about which is liberation. It’s about smashing the patriarchy. It’s about liberating us from oppression.

      7. finally, come on ladies, feminism has more to worry about than “is it more feminist to do cat eye makeup for the 40s or smoky eyes from the 20?” by allowing ourselves to be distracted by shit like this we are allowing the patriarchy to divide and conquer.

      • Gemma
        January 23, 2012

        1. I say several times through the piece that this isn’t about judging how individual women dress. It’s about the way women are presented in popular culture with very little deviation.

        2. Ok. I wouldn’t put it like that myself. I believe feminism is about equality and control of our own lives and representation.

        3. Again, I don’t think you’ve actually read the article. I address this point in it. I meet very few people interested in a return to this period.

        4. I also never suggested that just because I like something it is feminist. I think exploring the relationship between identity, appearance and feminism is a perfectly valid thing to do.

        5. Do I have to apologise for being middle class now? I though it was ok to be yourself, whoever that is? Who cares if it’s middle class? Why does that make it less valid?

        6. I didn’t apologise for feminism either, but wouldn’t it be nice if all women felt they were able to be involved in a fight for equality, rather than worrying about being attacked by self defined feminists when they advance a point of view.

        7. Never said it didn’t. I write a vintage fashion blog. I don’t intend to apologise for that.

      • Clare S
        January 23, 2012

        Hi Beti – I’m going to address your points because your comment was in reply to one I made and it seemed directed at quite a few things I’d said. If not, sorry for getting the wrong end of the stick!

        1. That is pretty much what I’ve said in the comments here, which is why I also mentioned goth and indie styles – vintage isn’t ‘more feminist’ or ‘better’ than other styles, it is simply that I choose what I wear in line with my feminist ideals.

        2. Isn’t the problem with patriarchy that it limits our choices about EVERYTHING? It means I can’t choose how women are portrayed, it means women are given the illusion of choice as they are expected to choose between a limited range of roles (and the modern ones aren’t really much of a step past Victorian angel/whore female identity) and if they deviate from that they are unacceptable to patriarchal culture. (Incidentally, men’s roles are also limited by that same culture, though not to the same extent, and that is what I mean about ‘equalist’.) Suffragettes fought for the vote so that I would have a choice about how my country is run. Feminism comes into play beyond the sphere of politics – although you may be a political feminist, others consider feminism in all/other aspects of life. Feminism affects the choices I make at so many different levels, so no, it’s not just about making choices about clothes, it’s about it all.

        And I do agree with you about not having full choice until we live outside of the confines of patriarchy, however, I currently live within it, whether I like that or not, so I am not going to put my life on hold until it falls. I also think there’s more than one way for us to escape patriarchy, so because my ideas about that don’t conform to yours, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong (though you may think they are and you’re free to do so).

        3. In my life I have never (and would never) said that I would like to go back to the 1950s and nor have I said that the women of the time were feminist pioneers and I didn’t notice Gemma say that, either, so I’m not sure where that point came from. In large part I would never say that for the reasons you give – it wasn’t that it was legal for a man to rape his wife then, the law didn’t even consider it was possible for a man to rape his wife because a wife’s duty was to ‘obey’ her husband and be his sex-object. The fact that that didn’t change in the UK until the 90s is one of the first things I bring up when someone tries to tell me that I ‘don’t need to be a feminist anymore, ’cause you got what you want, didn’t you?’ Never mind the fact that we’re STILL paid far less than men for doing the same work. As I said in (1), I don’t consider making the choice to dress vintage to be ‘more feminist’ than dressing in a skater style or wearing modern office wear – for me it is that my choices about clothing and style are choices that reflect and are informed by my feminist beliefs. It is not the choice of vintage that is feminist for me, it is the act of choosing and what informs that choice that is.

        4. Again, not sure where this comes from – I wasn’t saying that I like x, y and z and I am a feminist, therefore x, y and z are feminist. It’s funny that you mentioned Funny Face, in fact, as I love that film, too, and I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s earlier and find the portrayal of her upstairs neighbour (who’s meant to be Japanese, I think) really racist – it’s an ‘of the time’ blight on a film that I otherwise love. I don’t think that Funny Face is feminist because I like it any more than I would consider myself a racist because I like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (or that I would think that aspect of the film wasn’t racist because I’m not a racist and I like the film).

        5. I find it interesting that you’ve made this assumption. If I were saying that corsets and 1950s clothes are better than ‘that trash you working class people buy from Primark’ or something along those lines, then I could understand your point. However, as I have already pointed out, I haven’t said that any one style of clothing is better or worse than another. The only value judgements I have made are that:

        (a) a certain period of clothing flatters my figure and is more aesthetically pleasing on my body than those from other periods, including modern and

        (b) the pervasive pornification of current culture is a bad thing for people and women especially. To portray women as little more than one kind of hypersexualised appearance and attractiveness and for their worth to be solely based on that is a bad thing. Women can be attractive and can base their style on that appearance and that is fine, but for that appearance to be the overwhelming norm in mainstream culture in a way that makes it seem that that is the only option (for women to follow and for men to base their picture of female attractiveness on) is not fine.

        (And no, I’m not from a middle class background, and I’m ethnically mixed, too.)

        6. I’ve never apologised for feminism in my life. Saying ‘I’m an equalist’ (when I was 10 years old) and questioning the term ‘feminism’ is about (a) recognising that while males are privileged by patriarchy, they are also controlled and constrained by it and (b) that the word feminism, with its focus on the female doesn’t suggest equality and greater freedom for both men and women in the same way that a word based on the word ‘equal’ would. Again, this is a huge area of debate in itself and is what gave birth to the study of ‘gender theory’, so I wouldn’t expect us to be able to solve the issue of terminology here and now.

        “Feminism is not about putting on makeup so that people will take your political arguments seriously.” – I never said that it was.

        “It’s about liberating us from oppression.” – Yep, I’m with you there! I consider that liberation is being free to make choices in all aspects of life, be that relating to clothing or seeing a choice of female role models.

        7. Again, I’ve never made a value judgement about one era or style being ‘more feminist’ than another. I do agree about the distraction though and that’s why, for me, I wanted to consider the way I style myself with reference to my feminist beliefs (as mentioned earlier) – some argue that women spending any time or thought on the way they look is a distraction from what patriarchy is up to, and as I’ve also mentioned in these comments there are arguments amongst feminists about corsetry/shapewear/bras, high heels and all these issues. Those arguments are what made me step back and start to work out what I thought about those issues and about how I wanted to dress.

        As for divide and conquer, isn’t that exactly what’s happening right now in this thread? When I first read your comment, I felt it was aggressive and quite exclusive in its view of feminism, so I waited a while before I responded. I have attempted to reply in a calm way (hope it comes across that way!) and accept where you views and mine differ (which I also did with the ongoing discussion I had with Kate), because ultimately I consider debate to be A Good Thing, but it’s only a debate when it’s constructive and respectful, once it becomes aggressive it starts to get into attack territory. Feminists attacking each other doesn’t help anyone except anti-feminists! Feminism has never had a single identity united in how to achieve its aims (or even, always, what those aims are), but I don’t see that as a reason to react in an aggressive way. Apologies if you didn’t intend that, but some of your phrasing came across that way.

        Similarly, I’m gutted if I came across as patronising – that’s definitely not what I ever intended.

      • Cassie
        January 24, 2012

        Bravo Kate and Beti – you’ve said everything I was thinking, and didn’t have the energy to say! I’m very glad you did.

    • Natalie
      January 24, 2012

      not all vintage is hourglass. what about the twenites? or the 60’s?

      • missmatilda
        January 24, 2012

        Couldn’t agree more Natalie!

  • Gemma
    January 23, 2012

    Kate – Sorry, can’t reply on the threaded comment as it’s reached too many levels!

    There is nothing wrong with being a lesbian, or having hairy legs, or being sweary. I was just suggesting that women who aren’t any of those things feel excluded from the feminist movement as they don’t think it relates to them.

    I also wasn’t suggesting that merely putting on a nice frock and some red lipstick was in anyway, in itself, a feminist act. I was trying to suggest that *some* women, myself included, turn to sub cultures and alternative forms of dressing as a way of rejecting the established popular culture definition of attractive.

    I don’t think we need to apologise or justify the clothes we wear, but examining why we wear them and what that says about our identity can be an interesting topic of discussion. It doesn’t matter, in the whole grand scheme of things. It’s more important to focus on actual issues rather than trying to tear each other down because we might have a slightly different view on one thing.

    • Kate
      January 23, 2012

      But the implication is that I put off women from being feminists by being myself 🙁 I’m a bit of a stereotype but I’m not going out of my way to be, I just can’t be bothered to shave my legs. And fancying women is probably genetic. Let’s just say we’re feminists and we don’t care about what stereotypes people have of us, that’s a lot more sisterly than trying to move away from lesbians being dominant in feminism – which, by the way isn’t even true… we tend to be pushed aside because we’re seen as an embarrassing stereotype.

      I don’t like the original post at all, but what you say above (other than the stereotyping stuff) is pretty much fair enough 🙂

      • Gemma
        January 23, 2012

        I think it’s more that women feel they can’t be feminist as they’re not part of that sterotype. I didn’t mean to stereotype you, I don’t know you and have no idea who you are so I apologise for inadvertantly hitting the nail on the head 😉

        I think it’s terribly sad when any woman feels that she has to behave a certain way, or be a certain type of person to fit in. Your initial comments, and what I saw on twitter, made me feel exactly that way, that what I was saying was somehow not valid and I couldn’t count myself a feminist.

        I consider myself a feminist, obviously this is a vintage fashion blog, so I’ve tried to write about how that relates to my idea of myself as a feminist here. I am aware there are far more important things than a frock!

        Sorry, you didn’t like the original post, but I’m fairly sure we’re just arguing slightly different sides of the same coin! 🙂

        Thank you for commenting. It’s been interesting!

  • Miss Rosie Beau
    January 23, 2012

    Thanks for such an interesting blog post. I think it’s getting more and more inportant to discuss the topic of feminism again as sexism takes more devious and covert routes these days.
    In answer to your questions:

    Do you consider yourself feminist?
    Yes, both myself and my boyfriend consider ourselves feminists.

    What does feminism mean to you?
    Feminism to me means equality but also celebrating difference. If I wanted to be a man I’d get a sex change but I don’t want to be a man. I enjoy being a woman and I want to celebrate that, not be made to feel inferior for it.
    I also feel that men are entitled to the same in return, they should have their own version of feminism like masculinism?

    Do you think that the way you chose to dress bears any relevance to feminism at all?
    I feel that my vintage style has a direct relevance to my feminist views. I enjoy wearing clothes which “show off” and celebrate how my body is different to that of a man’s and I feel that, for me, vintage styles do this the best. I like skirts which excentuate my hips and waists which nip in.

  • missmatilda
    January 23, 2012

    I REALLY REALLY enjoyed your thoughts in the above article.

    Gemma, you have done it again made me think about something I had never really considered before in relation to my own clothing choices.

    To answer your questions:

    Do you consider yourself feminist?
    Depending upon the definition ~~~>
    “(Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a person who advocates equal rights for women”

    See above – then it’s a yes.

    What does feminism mean to you?

    I do think in the current age women are still regarded as a lesser species!
    I say this because in certain careers it is well documented that women are paid less for doing exactly the same role as their male counterparts.

    If you care to look at a female dominated workforce such as Nursing the majority of qualified nurses numberwise on the ground are female, yet the majority of Nurse managers (senior) are Male.

    (A total of 65,755 nurses – representing 10.21 per cent of the workforce – are male, figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council)

    I think we have a long way to go to further equal rights for women!!

    One of my favourite quotes:
    “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” [Rebecca West]

    Do you think that the way you chose to dress bears any relevance to feminism at all?

    Well, of course it does as it’s all about freedom of choice.

    I am a little bit annoyed by the twisitng of your words by some very vocal folks,
    you were simply making an observation and expressing your views.

    So I’ll express mine here. WTF has being middle class got to do with dressing vintage? I came from a working class background and have been dressing vintage for more years than I care to admit to, I did this because I could pick up the most BEAUTIFUL individual pieces and prices that my Saturday job could afford me.
    It certainly wasn’t to attract boys or girls. It was about choice and personal style.

    Right now I dress vintage as a little old middle aged lady because I LIKE it, it’s about style and expression and the right to choose.
    Strangers come up to me and comment on my style, guarenteed the youngsters stare and giggle, but what the hell!!


  • Lady Cherry
    January 23, 2012

    Wow…errr….wow. Lots of healthy debate here.

    I am disappointed that the media feels the need to constantly bombard us with images of the so called perfect woman. And ways in which an ordinary gal can get to be one of these perfect women. How did this ever get to be acceptable? I think that generally the model that is held up as being perfect is one of a tanned, long legged very slim woman with long hair. Usually straight. And dark, or blonde. No room for middle of the road brunettes here. No pale skin, no hips, no unslightly fat.

    Choosing to buck this trend and accepting myself for who I am is a part of being a feminist to me. That doesn’t mean that someone who does fit the perfect woman ideal cannot be a feminist – if they fit it naturally. If they spend their lives being miserable trying to attain the unobtainable, they are falling into the media trap.

    The point is, we have a choice. A choice to please ourselves, not what others want. If that means dressing in the latest whatever, or dressing in vintage, well then that is our choice to exercise. It may only be a very small part of being a feminist, but it is a part, nonetheless. Particularly when many women feel that the way that they look is a part of their self expression. If someone doesn’t feel that way, that is their choice. My choice to wear red lipstick is no different from someone else’s choice to not bother shaving their legs. It’s a choice still made, a right to do, or not do, ‘something’.

    I find all these accusations of ‘middle class’ feminism odd. Can middle class women not be feminists then? Does it matter whether someone is more radical than someone else, as long as the cause is the same? I thought that as women we were all on the same side…

  • A.M.
    January 23, 2012

    Dear retro-chick
    this is a well conceived & balanced article. Absolutely agree with your summing up – and surely ‘feminism’ is always about taking control of our own bodies (work and home) lives, fashion’style’ or whatever, and not letting others choose for us. I think of myself as a feminist and I’ve supported causes. ( Fairness in the workplace, equal pay, abortion and Women’s rights in ‘developing countries’ Some things have improved somethings haven’t.) One thing is still fundamentally true, how we choose how to present ourselves to the world is up to us! Or damn well should be! Whether we’re Goths, Vintage, classy or trashy as long as we are comfortable in our own skins… That’s what is important.

    • Rocky
      February 11, 2012

      Can I write? I pteosd a link AT Shakesville TO this article… ugh, it’s annoying that there isn’t an edit comments section.

  • Helen
    January 24, 2012

    (a Barthesian bricolage of comments I made discussing this rumpus on Facebook).

    I thought your blog entry was very and very well-thought out. It made an important point which I think people who aren’t involved in vintage aren’t aware of – that styling yourself after the past doesn’t mean you automatically are conservative and sign up to the restrictive worldview mostly associated with past periods.

    [regarding the negative reaction in some quarters] What I find irritating is that there are many people who call themselves feminists and refuse to see anything in context. I saw this when The Guardian did an article about designer vaginas. The writer of the piece was making the point that certain women thought their vaginas were ugly because they didn’t look like ones in porn. She explicitly said in the article that this is what a doctor told her, who’d had women crying in his surgery that they had an ugly vajayjay because they’d compared it to porn.

    Cue loads of commenters saying “feminism is about women doing what they want, this article is really patronising, if a woman wants genital surgery then she should.” BUT WHY DOES SHE WANT GENITAL SURGERY? Because of the social context. It’s not patronising pointing out that people *are* affected by the images they see in various media around them.

    [to the comment that “wearing clothes isn’t feminism”] Well hello there, I went on a Slutwalk, and pretty much, “wearing clothes” is a pretty large element of that. Y’know, women being slut-shamed for how they dress and how (mainly) MEN regard it. This ties back into your article – women dress how society dictates – all the vapid looks, tiny miniskirts, spray tans etc, they’re raped and then it’s THEIR fault for how they dress. But they dressed as society told her to. So it’s society’s fault, ultimately? I dunno, but this is why context is so essential to any of these debates and I’m sick to death of this simplistic feminism of “you should respect other women’s choices”. Do we ever really freely choose to anything, separate from the status quo, either by slavishly following it, being subconsciously influenced by it or reacting against it (consciously or no)?

    [regarding Gemma’s reply to a commenter] Your comment here sums up how I feel:

    “I think it’s not about criticising how individual women dress, it’s about criticising a culture that portrays women in a certain way.

    If a young girl aspires to be a page 3 model we shouldn’t attack them for it, but rather look at WHY they think that’s the best career path for them!”

    And if feminists reject that, then it’s worrying. I’m all for being sex positive (heck, there’s photos of me in undies on the internet!), but I did those photos after having thought about the presentation of women’s bodies in the media. I find it somewhat hypocritical that the same feminists who want to “smash the patriarchy” are the same feminists who defend other women’s “choice” to ravenously give the patriarchy head. HELLO HERE’S A FUCKING NEWSFLASH – the pornification of culture is MASSIVELY connected to the patriarchy.

    [On feminists pulling other women apart – not just saying “I don’t want to dress like that woman over there but actually being a dick about someone’s opinion because it doesn’t reflect the exact same view of feminism as them]. It’s mental because there’s so many different waves of feminism. And as the comments on your blog revealed, there’s plenty of women who have feminist views but don’t use the name. And it’s not surprising when these particularly vocal feminists, the feminist twitterati if you will, behave SO FUCKING OBNOXIOUSLY. I mean, I don’t want to be involved with people like that; I don’t want ANYTHING TO DO with people like that. They’re absolutely vile.

    I think some commenters (here and on twitter) have been stirred up by their own prejudices & bullshit shouty egos and miss the point of the article, levelling accusations at it which sound like the kind they wheel out, unthinkingly, and apply to anything that runs counter to their exact worldview, because I just don’t think they’ve actually taken the time to read the article. They’ve gone “Oh well, this doesn’t fit my exact perspective” and then took a massive dump all over it. They’re treating this blog as if it’s the enemy. It’s not.

    Also, to say “dressing like a 50s housewife” isn’t feminist is pretty insulting to 50s housewives! How patronising to think that all 50s housewives loved the situations they lived in. I know for sure that neither of my grandmas “liked” it, but hey, my mum’s mum is one of my style icons! In fact, I think being very stylish was her way of being subversive in a bad situation, refusing to let her identity and personality be ground down by the historical epoch she happened to be born into.
    It is *hugely* hypocritical to demand women’s choices are respected (e.g. the choice to dress like Cheryl Cole) while criticizing other women’s choice to dress in vintage style. Or indeed not just criticizing Gemma’s blog but expressing the wish to commit acts of violence against people who’ve commented on here. YAY GO TEAM SISTERHOOD.

    The negative reaction to your article in certain quarters is a very good example of how certain people behave on the internet. They emit vast farty clouds of smug. If you write something which isn’t reflective of their exact worldview, they won’t try to understand it but will treat you as if you’re the enemy. They’ll blind people with their book learnings – oh here’s lots of long words, let’s say “heteronormative” and “middle class white privilege” (just flinging it out there and not actually saying where in Gemma’s blog she says this – also accusations of “body policing” – you can’t just sling this shit about, make a comment and BACK IT UP like you would with an essay or any expression of ideas). Let’s face it, being university educated (and humanities educated, too) is pretty much as “middle class white privileged” as you can get! It is just so fucking entitled. Never mind about communicating with people, sharing worldviews, perspectives, ideas, etc., it turns into people being bitchy (or just bitches who constantly need material to rip to shreds to flatter their own ego and fragile sense of self). It’s so FUCKING NEGATIVE and FUCKING POINTLESS.

  • Ali Bunn
    January 24, 2012

    Husband: What are you doing?
    Me: Reading a blog post about feminism.
    Husband: Oh, do you actually think there’s a place for feminism in our society?
    Me: What?! Do you know what feminism is?
    Husband: Yeah, it’s when all those women burnt their bra’s back in the day. They got their equality. What’s the point nowadays?
    Me: Right… I’m going to go and wash up then.

    The conversation went on for a while longer, but I found it quite hard! My husband (along with most men if we’re honest) believes that there is equality between sexes in our society, that there is equal pressure on men to look ‘sexy’ and that any woman who follows the stereotypes does so through choice.

    • Gemma
      January 24, 2012

      That’s a conversation I’ve certainly had before as well!

      I’ve also had the conversation that it should be about equality for all, not just for women. I said I obviously agreed with that, but that at some point you have to say “I’m not being treated equally because X”

  • Melissa S
    January 24, 2012

    I loved this article, and nodded and “mmm-hmmm-ed” all the way through.
    Being very severely disabled, I’m the fantasy of a microscopic amount of men. In fact, probably only the one who contacted me on an alternative dating site, offering up a night out because he’d “always wanted to f*** a cripple”. Unfortunately for him, I’ve never wanted to shag a sweaty, vile, objectifying perv.
    But I’ve never really cared about whether men want me or not. Or, despite being Bi, whether or not women find me sexy. What I despise is magazines on shelves, screaming that if you weigh more than six stone, you’re fat and ugly. If you don’t have a fake tan, a Brazilian and two bags of silicone for breasts, you’re a hideous excuse for a woman.
    Don’t get me wrong, if women feel happy and confident to dress their bodies those ways, it’s none of my business. I just wish they would put more emphasis on being healthy than worringly thin (not forgetting naturally very slim women, who have unfair and hurtful accusations hurled at them constantly).
    My point is that my body, where my skin falls off in lumps, my eyeball is scarred, my fingers and toes are fused, and people actually try to avoid touching me often makes me feel bad enough. I don’t need a vacuous magazine editor telling me that I’m even more repellent than I feel already.
    I do see myself as a feminist. I want equality, I want respect, I want to choose to have babies and/or be a housewife because it’s what I want, not what is expected of me. I’ve no desire to learn how to make the perfect roast dinner, or have my hubby’s dinner waiting for him as he steps through the door of a day’s ‘proper’ work. But that’s MY choice, and I wouldn’t look down on a woman if she had CHOSEN that life.
    Unfortunately, I know that I would have to be dependant on my partner, out of absolute necessity, but I don’t think that makes me any less of a feminist. I have to be dependent on my dad for lifts, but he still respects me. Anyway, I digress.

    I, like many of you, went through the goth/punk/indie phases, trying to find something that felt like me. But I still felt unbearably shy. I’d always loved vintage, but felt too fat, short and deformed to dare try to step into that glamourous world.
    Then, two years ago, I went to Tart at 40 Winks, and the female camaraderie was palpable in the air. Only compliments, suggestions of how to accentuate this or that “amazing” feature of each other and friendliness were heard. No bitching, no talk of men. And for the first time in my life, I got changed in a room full of people – without a thought to my dressings and scars. My friends were gobsmacked, quite literally open mouthed.
    I digit because I knew I wouldn’t be judged. I wasn’t cringing away, trying to hide myself, I felt good and happy. Not because I had been validated by other people, but because no one gave a toss how I looked in a negative way.
    I learned which styles suited me, during a day spent with Miss Naomi Thompson, and my life changed.
    I feel I’ve found me. A me who still wears jeans and weird All Saints knits some days, but a me who can hold her chin up high. And I do that best in my vintage and repro. They make me feel like a woman; powerful, in charge, confident, ready to challenge those I disagree with, rather than shrinking back and thinking “how dare a freak like me dare to speak out?”.
    For me, vintage clothes have formed a strong bond with the feminist in me. I’m soon to go on my first ever date (I’m 25), and I know I’ll be rummaging in my vintage wardrobe that night, while deciding where we’ll go, and how far I’ll let him get!
    Thanks for yet another wonderful post, Gemma xx

  • Gemma
    January 24, 2012

    I am a feminist. Feminism to me to about respect. If you are spoken to or treated in a way that you find disrespectful then it’s not right. We should all, both men and women, have the right to live as equals and express ourselves as individuals. Therefore, in my opinion, how you dress is nothing to do with Feminism but to do with personal choice and freedom of expression. However, I do realise that the lines become blurred when the objectification of women starts to come into the equation. If a woman chooses to dress in a certain way the she should be allowed the choice, without being deemed “tarty”, “frumpy” or otherwise.
    It’s one big mess of blurred boundaries. We have some a long way but I do feel the treck to get to pure egalitarialism is still a way off.

  • Lucy Griffin
    January 28, 2012

    A very good point made about the ‘intent’ of modern verses vintage pin up photography. The way a vintage pin up was happy and smiley, confident and friendly, and yes you can find her attractive if you like, but if not it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her.
    And modern ‘pin ups’ where it’s SO consumer based, the woman is a consumed product, and where the men who value that, seem to expect their needs be catered for, and get aggressive when they aren’t.
    You articulated it much better than i did just there, three cheers for you.
    Lucy xx

  • Bernadette
    January 28, 2012

    Hi there,
    First up, what a great piece on retro/femininism, etc currently on your blog; some excellent points.
    I have just come to your blog for the first time via the tornado the very recent Maggie Alderson post on flat shoes, DVT, etc unintentionally created. I am absolutely sure that Maggie meant NO HARM what so ever to anyone, but the backlash she attracted is a reminder of just how easy it is to offend. Having said that, in the early 80’s, Oxford St, Sydney, I magically found myself part of a wonderful group of friends (including a variety of transgender sex workers). Several of them wore incredible amounts of makeup, huge wigs and very HIGH heels all the time. Despite being straight, blonde and 20 years old (and from a very different environment) they accepted me into their vibrant community which was made up of just about every type of person imaginable – gender and sexual orientation (too many to list), race, age, colour and creed (many of them professional entertainers). Friendship in this fold was based on one thing only, acceptance. There was a lot of love and laughter (as well as some political protests) and I always felt very protected by these sometimes much older and vastly more life-experienced folk. Sadly, most of these people are no longer with us (as a result of the horror of the early AIDS epidemic), but I feel quite sure that if they had read Maggie’s post of a couple of days ago they would have 1. roared with laughter, 2. agreed with everything she said and 3. definitely not been offended.
    Back to your post piece, I know how important it is for people to feel comfortable with their looks. I have been making clothing for a living for over 20 years. We all get up in the morning/night and get dressed to go out into the world and conduct our business/relax, etc. If one is comfortable with one’s appearance one tends to get more done happily. What we wear doesn’t really matter its what we ACHIEVE/EXPERIENCE in the outfit that’s really important. Bernadette