You can still be a feminist in four-inch heels

Coco Chanel

In the September 2009 issue of US Harper’s BAZAAR, an interview appeared with Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of the Chanel fashion house, answering interview questions in the persona of legendary designer Coco Chanel.

When asked the question “Your clothing liberated women in the 1920s. Are you still a feminist?” Lagerfield ‘channeling’ Coco said “I was never a feminist because I was never ugly enough for that.”

But why is it that feminism and fashion seem to be mutually exclusive?

This is the plight of many modern day feminists. We can have lipstick lesbians apparently but fashionable feminists are still taboo. So what happens then if you’re a lipstick lesbian and a feminist? The two aren’t mutually exclusive either you know. Sigh. It’s so confusing being a woman.

Women should not have to make a choice between intelligence and beauty. I am not brainwashed by glossy magazines and my self image is not connected inextricably to a mere man. When I put on a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps, I am not betraying my gender nor does my IQ drop. What may change is perception.

Feminists understandably may blame fashion for women’s eating disorders, problems with body image and low self esteem and there are certainly inroads to be made in this area. However, I believe judging women on their lipstick is also a form of oppression. Empowerment is having the freedom to wear what we want, designer threads or not.

Women’s biggest worry at work isn’t the GFC (global financial crisis), it’s the HGQ (high glamour quotient) as one person cleverly posted on a popular women’s fashion forum. A woman may dress down at work to avoid a dressing down or whispers from their women colleagues. Studies may show that attractive people are more likely to be hired but I’ve always felt pressured to tone down my appearance in the workforce to improve my job prospects – not by men but by women.

I do agree that it is harder to climb the career ladder in a pair of four inch heels but I’d like to put forward a counter argument that women who curb their femininity by dressing like a man, and acting like one of the boys in the workplace to further their career aren’t doing feminism any favours either. If there is indeed a glass ceiling in the workplace, are women also helping to hold this up?

Women always seem to be walking a fine hemline with their fashion outfits and are constantly scrutinised whether it’s in the workplace, in the media or being a politician or dignitary’s wife. Michelle Obama recently created a stir around the world by wearing shorts on a family holiday and Kevin Rudd’s wife, Therese Rein, is in and out of the media spotlight for her fashion choices.

There is also pressure on women in the media to look young or risk being boned by a network. So as a woman, you’re either over dressed, underdressed or mutton dressed up as lamb. You can’t win.

But is it men who are constantly deriding women on their fashion choices? Or is it women who are sniggering at other females, buying gossip magazines or reading popular blogs like to make fun of women’s fashion mistakes? And how is that helping the cause? As most women know, women dress for other women. Men usually would not know the difference between Portmans or Prada.

And yet, if you asked most females whether they believed in equal rights for women, they would probably respond back with a resounding yes but do not classify themselves as feminists. Feminism has lost its allure along with shoulder pads and harem pants. But if these fashion items can make a comeback in 2009, then why can’t feminism? It’s not that feminism doesn’t sell. It just needs to be rebranded. Look closely because this is the new face of feminism, mascara and all.

Feminists paved the way so I could vote, work for a living and have rights in the workplace, protection against domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, reproductive rights, access to education and own property. Textbook definitions aside, feminism for me is all about choices – the choice to be a career woman, stay at home mother, working mother or indeed not to be a mother at all.

The battle isn’t over yet. Women still get paid less than men for the same job, domestic violence is among the leading causes of death and injury to women worldwide and double standards still exist when it comes to the sexual behaviour of men and women. Feminism is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. We can’t afford to be infighting.

Coco Chanel made clothes for enlightened women. Isn’t it about time we had our Chanel and wore it too?

Published on The Punch, Copyright Gillian Nalletamby 2009. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to email notifications.

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  1. Randy Nichols, 27 August 2009, 7:28 am

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

  2. Ronaldo, 27 August 2009, 4:12 pm

    When I hear feminism I think of Germaine Greer. I saw her walking on Market St, and she’s scary. Seriously, she’s like an aging drag queen with a perpetual hangover (!). Not sure if she’s married or have a partner, but I wouldn’t want to be sleeping next to her. She looks like a loud snorer.
    Anyhow, I agree with Karl (and Coco), I still have to find a feminist who’s not rather unfortunate or has a “face for radio”.

  3. Anonymous, 27 August 2009, 7:25 pm

    Another great article… Women need to stop being so tough on each other in the workplace.

  4. marthe nalletamby, 27 August 2009, 8:41 pm

    Go Girl ! love the statement ” when I put on a pair of Louboutin pumps my IQ does not drop”, indeed ! I also agree that women in the work place contribute to the glass ceiling syndrome.

  5. Maria, 28 August 2009, 12:36 am

    Wow! This generated so much response on The Punch. I see your post is the fourth most commented post.
    Almost 90 responses as I write this. That’s awesome!

  6. Tash, 28 August 2009, 1:19 am

    I agree us women are way too tough on each other. I also agree that you can have beauty and intelligence.
    I was oblivious to the amount of areas women still are getting a tough time in. I was unaware that we are paid less. That is unfair. Tutt tutt!
    Thanks for such a great article

  7. Iheartfashion, 28 August 2009, 5:15 am

    Wow! Great article once again. You’re right that we shouldn’t have to choose between beauty and intelligence.

    One comment on The Punch struck me as interesting “Put simply have more important things to do (such as study, exercise, cook, work, and do housework) than read fashion magazines and go shopping for overpriced frivolous items.” First of all, if people think fashion are overpriced items, then they need to start thinking again. As you know, true style is about shopping at Target but also shopping at Chanel.

    Second of all, I don’t like the snide undertone that fashion is ‘frivolous’, ‘have more important things to do’, the mention of doing ‘honours’ etc I would never put other people down about what they wear but women who think they are empowered or intelligent, whether they realise or not are the usually the first to put down other women who are choosy about what they wear. I think it comes down to an insecurity because they feel they can’t compete and nor should they need to. Fashion is about personal choice.

  8. Anna, 28 August 2009, 4:51 pm

    Great article Gillian. Sucks that talking about feminism always devolves into such a mudslinging match though re: the ever-present ‘Eric’ types on such threads. sigh.

  9. Heidi McElnea, 2 September 2009, 9:32 pm

    Hey Gillian,
    Thanks for posting the link with the Writers’ Centre. Funny, it all boils down to stereotypes, doesn’t it? Some people (and wow- you sure got some responses!!) can’t seem to let go of these stereotypes… they need these exaggerated pictures of ‘others’ so they can feel better about themselves!!
    Cheers, Heidi.

  10. Onadrought, 10 September 2009, 10:28 am

    It’s sad how and I can’t quite comprehend why women still won’t call themselves feminists. Unfortunately people like Ronaldo associate feminism with ugliness or snoring of all things. Gee, Ronaldo I don’t snore so therefore am I not a feminist?

    I have always called myself a feminist and always will. I also like dressing nicely. I was just going to explain why I like dressing nicely, but then why should I have to?


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