In our last event, Identity of Fashion: Beyond Gender, we had the opportunity to discuss issues surrounding BAME folk in fashion both on the daily basis and the industry.
Seeking answers to the question “What is beyond gender?” our panellists referred to their own experiences. “It’s my existence,” says Travis Alabanza, a spoken word artist, activist, and current student at Kings College, London.
But what is gender? How do we define it? Many people see gender as something associated with physicality. However, the politically correct way of explaining gender is a set of attributes assigned to us by society. Gender is a social construct and the fashion industry has a big impact on what genders are perceived to be within society’s framework. The mainstream fashion industry tells us that pink skirts are for girls and black suits and ties are for men, and if someone chooses to challenge these gender stereotypes they might be faced with a lot of weird looks.
Our society is obsessed with what is considered to be “manly” and what it looks like to be a “woman.” How, then, do we define these terms? We may think we know what the general meaning of these terms are, but when considered more closely, the definitions hurt radical and queer folk who simply don’t define themselves by those terms. This is where fashion plays a big part.
What we wear defines who we are to an extent; clothes are a way of wearing your beliefs on your body. However, not all people want to see those beliefs, nor are all people comfortable with a radical challenge or war against social stereotypes. It is important, therefore, to start a conversation about how aggression against the queer people of colour is related to and understood by society.
Everyone’s relationship to femininity is different. Femininity should not be the opposite of masculinity. Many of us grow up to believe femininity is a weakness and masculinity is power. Femininity is a set of attributes that should not fit into a gender binary.
“Femininity is something few people are allowed to safely access”
Privilege is a conversation that should be brought up when we talk about terms such as “femininity” and “masculinity,” as femininity is expected from people with a female cisgender body. Therefore, it is safer to be feminine in a female cisgender body, in a similar way that masculinity is only expected from cisgender male bodies.
These terminologies have a big link to culture and race. In each culture women and men are expected to behave in certain roles, however most patriarchal societies deny power to feminine folk.
Zara has just announced a unisex/androgynous line. However, those who model for the new line were on the whole skinny and white and certainly not representing a variety of races or body shapes. The problem is that these are images people are faced with when searching for “androgynous” online. They are educated that androgyny is only for slim white folk. Androgyny needs to be diverse and represent all different styles of androgyny.
“…if [the fashion world] centres ‘androgyny’ it also has to be fat, it has to be femme, and it has to be Black or brown” SA Smythe
It is sad to think there are only certain spaces as certain times where people can feel safe enough to dress as they please. Why is it that we can’t dress as we like, wherever we’d like? Only certain folk with certain preferences are allowed to feel safe on the streets: who is to blame? Is it the mainstream fashion industry?
Race and industry
LGBTQ culture is also starting to become a fashion trend. However (and as usual), this trend is still very white and cis. The same issues that surround the mainstream film industry are affecting the mainstream fashion industry. All people who are meant to represent minorities particularly in androgynous fashion are very thin, white, and western beauties. Queer and trans people of colour are not represented in this trend and this effects how they are viewed in society. Black and brown nations subjected to colonisation are viewed as behind on trends, and people with roots or hailing from those countries are viewed in the same manner. According to white or westernised thinking, it is unexpected for a BAME folk to be Queer or Trans, and this increases the risk of hate crime and lack of freedom for such folks to express themselves.
As soon as we see the slightest representation of ourselves we shout “THAT’S US THAT’S US THAT’S US” but soon after we realise that we are still represented by people who lack the most important element to represent us. Genuine-ity.
Fashion doesn’t have to be influenced by multimillion-dollar industries; sometimes it is simply influenced by cultures of people who are not represented on billboards. It is important to not forget that this industry is growing from the appropriation of cultures of BAME folk as well as the hard underpaid labour of people from exploited countries that create the textiles for us to consume.
Not for you
Narratives of cultures are highly undermined when represented. The mainstream industry loves “exotic” cultures, but they only like them on people who are not from those countries, e.g. representing India’s rich culture of style using white models. This is because the industry has such a strong link to colonisation; they try to own culture that does not belong to them, and do so without any appreciation of its roots.
Do we need New York fashion week to represent our culture? Why aren’t our own cultural celebrations as appreciated as Fashion Week?
The last question addressed to the panellists was “What does Feminism mean to you?” If feminism is intersectional it will have a strong link to gender and queer culture. Feminism is about freedom of choice, freedom that folk with more privilege than the minority take for granted, sometimes without even realising so. Therefore, it has a strong link with fashion, as we should be able to make a free choice to dress in what we find comfort in.
“It means all the strong black women who paved the way before me,” Alabanza stated. Feminism does not mean white women who erase voices of people of colour. We must lift the women of colour who gave us the power to have a voice. “Sharing recipes and learning how to sew together in the houses of experienced women in Jamaica, feminism is about being in spaces of education and in kinship with femme and female-identified people,” according to Smythe.
Most of the time domestic works such as housework or artwork like embroidery/textiles are underestimated because of their link to femininity, however in feminism there is a place for empowerment of these elements of domestic work.
Feminism is a link to Black British culture for Montana, as a knitwear designer crouching was a craft brought through all the women of Montana’s family, a symbolism of who she is and it embodies strength and empowerment, these skills are also what she uses in her designs.
For Raju, feminism is about women who raised them. They are the women who taught them about both femininity and masculinity but also share stories of migration–and these are usually narratives that are left out of dominate feminist culture.