Why Fashion Isn’t Frivolous.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gender Politics.

There’s a phrase to send casual readers looking for pictures of pretty frocks running for the hills.

I actually started thinking about this while watching The Apprentice the other night. It was the Fashion episode. The teams were asked to select and sell fashion labels from a pop up shop in Manchester.

Unsurprisingly they were pretty bad at it, but that’s not what struck me. What struck me was the speed with which the male candidates fought to distance themselves from anything so frivolous as “Fashion”. Remember, these are candidates who a week earlier were falling over themselves to prove how good they were at selling bread, roll up towels and spades, but put a pretty frock in the mix and desperate protestations of ignorance abound.

We can’t deny that the largest market for fashion and clothes shopping is Women, but why is it viewed as such a frivolity in the way that more male dominate shopping experiences aren’t? There seems to be a perception that Women shop as a hobby, that this is a shallow and worthless pastime from a gender obsessed with appearance and unable to worry their pretty little heads about anything bigger.

Men, of course, buy important things. They don’t shop, they invest. They research the latest consumer gadgets and spend wisely. Electrical goods, cars and power tools, these are the things marketed at men. Even computer games, though with a slightly geeky undertone, come with a veneer of respectability and IMPORTANCE.

Why is it less crazy to queue all night for an Apple iPad than it is to queue all night for the Harrods sale?

Aesthetics aren’t an irrelevant consideration, you might enjoy the purchase of an iPad or a copy of COD Black Ops as well, but those purchases aren’t more important or more valid than a new handbag.

I steer away here slightly from a discussion of the craziness of disposable fashion and obsession with “must have” pieces that everyone else will also have. Though in reality that’s surely just the fashion version of the “collectors mentality” that is so often viewed as a particularly male preserve.

Presenting women’s clothing purchases as frivolous and wasteful means it’s no real surprise that many women confess to feelings of guilt after spending. It must also be part of the reason behind those cliche stories of women hiding purchases, removing price tags, and that scary slippery slope to secrecy, addiction and bankruptcy.

You already know my views on dressing up and self respect. So isn’t it about time that we acknowledged that whether we’re shopping for vintage, from tiny independent designers and boutiques, or the latest must have designer collaboration from the High Street it’s nothing to be ashamed of?

Fashion is a multi billion pound business that helps keep the economy afloat and provides employment for millions of people. Yes, that’s right. Those shoes you really want because you don’t have the exact right heel height to go with the length of your new skirt. They’re an important economic purchase. Go get them.

So be proud of your desire to be well dressed. Flaunt your Fashion sense and stick a perfectly manicured middle finger up at anyone who tells you it’s a waste of money.

Disclaimer: Please don’t buy things you can’t actually afford. That’s just stupid. Food comes first, and heating bills. There’s a difference between spending your spare cash on things you find pretty and a shopping addiction!

Want some further reading?

Dramatis Personae : Finance & The Fashion Blogger: Happiness Is…

Already Pretty : Women & Money

Debutante Clothing: Is Fashion Frivolous?

Evening Standard : Don’t you dare call it frivolous, now we need fashion more than ever.

Softpedia: Women Feel Guilty For Shopping But Can’t Stop

photo By anyjazz65 and LIFE via Bryan Boy

25 Responses
  • Fiona - Notorious Kitsch
    November 10, 2010

    I wonder if it is the fashion tag rather than clothes or style that makes it seem frivolous? Not that it should but I can see that might be it.

    I’m personally not a fan of ‘fashion’ and it’s not because I wear more vintage stuff, I just don’t quite like the idea of being told what to wear this season, if you know what I mean ;o) Maybe others see it as that too?

    • Retro Chick
      November 10, 2010

      Yes, but you like to buy pretty things!

      Why should buying, for instance, £100 worth of your fakelite jewellery, be seen as more frivolous than spending £100 on a mobile phone?

  • Penny Dreadful Vintage
    November 10, 2010

    YES. I have thought this for quite a while, it makes me mad that no-one criticizes men for spending money on ridiculous (to me) computer games and football tickets and sports gear and boozy nights out flash cars and fancy gadgets… but woman are looked down on for liking shoes and dresses. It makes furious that women are made to feel guilty for indulging in something that is an enjoyable, creative, confidence building and often very social hobby.

  • vicky
    November 10, 2010

    LOL!!! As you well know I am doing my bit to ease the recession! I love buying investment piece clothing I adore my Laura Lees dress I searched for daily on eBay for for about eight months! a tad extreme but saved over £150 off the price and I adore it my other half thought I was a tad mad and then queued up at midnight for the new COD.

    I see your point exactly!!!

  • Ashe Mischief
    November 10, 2010

    I feel very fortunate that my beau understands my love of the pretty and doesn’t shame me for it. Because he KNOWS it’s just as silly to spend $50 on a video game as it is for me to spend $50 on a new skirt. But we both work hard for our pleasures, and they both give us pleasures…

  • Fashion Limbo
    November 10, 2010

    Have to agree with this post. I also watched the episode and thought what kind of idiots did they have there? the ones and especially one, that were dissing an industry that’s doing A LOT for people’s jobs and keeping the country a lot. Couldn’t help but think “yes, mate, you are so smart and I can sooo see you in the final”. Rookie mistake to think of fashion as something not worth considering.

    It is true, as well, that it may be one of the reasons why we are always pursued by that guilty feeling after a purchase. I’m after a 25 pound pair of military boots from New Look, and as the weekend approaches I cant stop thinking about how my boyfriend will react if I do buy them (they are comfy and rain proof, good for rainy Belgium, my opinion). Then he’s the one driving the Alfa Romeo (I don’t have a car as can’t afford it), he bough a media centre for his ipod on a whim, a… and…who am I trying to kid? Maybe I shouldn’t spend my money after all, I won’t hear the end of it!! 🙂

  • Emily
    November 10, 2010

    Love this post.

    My boyf and I have this discussion often. I spend spend spend on clothes and accessories and shoes. He meanwhile spends spends spends on guitars, guitar amps and pedals and many other things that I do not understand!

    Different? I think not!!

  • Erin
    November 10, 2010

    Great post, said it much better than I could’ve phrased it.
    I actually jut posted something similar recently about shopping and considering it an addiction.
    That would be the underbelly of what you’re talking about, which is normal shopping habits and how those play out 🙂
    Either way, I agree. No one should be ashamed of shopping. It is what it is, and we are a consumerist economy over here in the US.

  • Fiona - Notorious Kitsch
    November 10, 2010

    oh totally, sorry I was probably misunderstood there, I don’t think it’s frivolous, I just wonder if the reason it’s thought frivolous is the judgement people have of fashion?

    I actually like gadgets & clothes & of course shoes, I would spend equally on all and don’t see a problem with any of it!

    • Retro Chick
      November 10, 2010

      Yeah, I guess I was talking about clothes shopping generally rather than the specific “on trend” shopping! I don’t do much of that either, and if I buy it because it’s trendy I’ll probably still be wearing it 5years later!

  • Lady Cherry
    November 10, 2010

    Very interesting post. Perhaps as you have said traditionally women do all the shopping, going back to days when women were seen as inequal (still so in some parts), so it was okay to ridicule it to some degree. But now men’s shopping habits have changed…and it’s okay, because they are men, therefore they are right. LMAO.

    Re The Apprentice and all those ‘I don’t do fashion’ statements…but they do ‘do’ clothes presumably…?! There is a reason why they choose to buy suits over whatever cheap crap they could find to cover their essential body parts and keep warm. And it doesn’t have anything to do with fashion, it’s about how they present themselves. Lots of women see clothes as a form of self expression too….but that is just frivolous…

  • Ca
    November 10, 2010

    Hear, hear!

    As well as spending my money on clothes, I also have pretty decent yarn, fibre, fabric and bead stashes. My other half sees all that as the equivalent of him spending shedloads on a season ticket plus away games.

    They’re just different interests, there’s no logical, objective reason why his should be considered less frivolous than mine. Which means that the only reason I can see that they are considered so is because they’re traditionally female interests and I am female. Infuriating.

  • LandGirl1980
    November 10, 2010

    Another stonking post from your good self. I display a (slightly chipped manicured) middle finger – and sometimes the one next to it for good measure – on a daily basis at those who think spending money on clothes is frivolous. It is usually at someone who had ironed hair, orange skin and appears to be wearing pj’s in the street *shudder*.
    That said – looking styled and well dressed doesn’t have to cost the earth. My weakness are charity shops, as you well know. Will I wear all of the things I buy – doubtful.
    But – you are completely correct in your views and I salute you!
    Hurrah for a fab post!

  • Nikki
    November 10, 2010

    great post 🙂 I hate it when people assume that if you love fashion you must be a shallow airhead!
    I care deeply about a lot of things and I also like to look good, these two things are not mutually exclusive!
    I totally agree that fashion is viewed as a silly woman thing by some people…I also know plenty of males who would queue in the cold to get their hands on a video game or a new apple product!

  • melina bee
    November 10, 2010

    hi; great post and a very good point, especially as it relates to 3rd wave feminism. I react in many ways:
    For one thing, keep in mind cultural differences. In many other cultures, as well as different epochs, fashion has had different levels of significance, both in terms of gender and economics. For example, in many Mediterranean/near eastern cultures today with which I’m personally familiar, it is not considered effeminate for a man to groom himself and own designer clothes despite the overall cultural focus on masculinity. The details of men’s fashion may be very different and perhaps more subtle than that of women’s, but no less self-conscious, complex or expensive (see this book for example: http://www.amazon.com/Gentleman-Timeless-Fashion-Bernhard-Roetzel/dp/3829020295/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289427261&sr=1-3)

    Also, in many different times throughout European and American history, fashion and even makeup has played an important role in signifying status amongst men, take for example court paintings from Versailles. Icons of virility such as the vikings and romans were said to use, even indulge, in cosmetics.

    Sadly, it seems that accusing women of vanity, frivolity and childish interests is a timeless and global phenomena used to diminish our importance and value to society and family. Thanks for pointing out yet another instance of what I think is no doubt projection. How many of the things that these men sell are actually useful product? they are on reality tv for goodness sakes, that’s about as frivolous as you can get for most people. In my opinion, life without the “extras” such as fashion, good food, cars, leisure hobbies, wouldn’t’ be terrible appealing to anyone.

  • kerry
    November 11, 2010

    This is where vintage & second hand comes in to it own. My lemonade budget and an eye for a bargin has got me some gorgeous quality wardrobe pieces that I would never have been able to afford otherwise.

  • kerry
    November 11, 2010

    although just to add…..limited budget can also equal addiction. I genuinly look forward to payday when I trawl the charity shops and see what lovliness I can get. ( 2 weeks to go till payday at the moment though booo!! I have a few hours off and am just itching to go for a charity rummage!) I try and limit myself to taking a set amount of cash with me and once it’s gone it’s gone….although I have been known to get my card out in those shops that accept them…

  • Mr Chick
    November 11, 2010

    Just for the record I want three cans of Montana spray paint, a desiel generator and a Dremel. Do these count as gadgets?

  • Susan
    November 11, 2010

    fantastic post! and something I have been discussing all week actually, that episode of the Apprentice got to me too!
    Yay for intelligent, self respecting women who take an interest in fashion and dressing well


  • oliver Prout
    November 15, 2010

    This looks like an old Norman Parkinson picture. I love it

  • poet
    November 16, 2010

    Thanks for pointing this out, it can’t be said often enough!

    Actually I think some gadgets are more frivolous than fashion. I mean, you need to be clothed because you’d be frozen or sun-burnt otherwise, and since it’s a necessity, why not make it pretty; on the other hand, you don’t need to do half the things that you can do with gadgets (be available on phone and email? yes, but beyond that?)…


  • Laura Connell
    November 19, 2010

    Great post. Historically anything associated with women is devalued while men’s activities are valued. It’s simple sexism and it’s systemic. However, articles like yours will get people talking and thinking about it and that’s how we effect change. So, thank you for writing it.
    My friend told her husband he could buy a new $1,000 TV he wanted if she could buy $1,000 worth of clothes. He agreed. The clothing, in my opinion, is far less frivolous than a TV. You have to wear clothes; you don’t have to watch television.

  • lisa
    November 19, 2010

    Great post! The boy isn’t too judgmental (thankfully), but there are a few times he’ll blanche when I would tell him about my latest purchase: “Whoa, you spent that much?!” But I pack lunches to work and try not to eat out during the week while he eats out all the time and doesn’t cook at all. If my new pair of shoes from the sample sale cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of lunches, who is he to judge?

  • Style Geek
    November 19, 2010

    Just imagine if for one day, women didn’t buy clothing because they too decided it was frivolous. I think one day would put a large dent in the world economy.

    Take that guilty spending! lol


  • Andi B. Goode
    November 21, 2010

    I definitely agree that we shouldn’t feel so guilty, in some ways, but I think (and this is completely unrelated) that a lot of shoppers need to be more aware (and I know you’ll agree because you know a lot more on the topic of ethical shopping than I do) of where certain things are coming from and then where that money is going to and what it supports.
    However, as I said, I agree that the fashion industry is very important to the economy and that women ARE judged more harshly for their purchases than men.
    As someone who is unemployed (I’ve been looking for over a year but not finding so I live off of government benefits) I definitely come under harsh judgement because, not only am I spending money on ‘frivolous’ things, I’m not even spending ‘my’ money it’s the “government’s” and, therefore, tax payers’ money that I’m ‘wasting’. Not many people actually say that, but the implication is often there…
    -Andi x