Lisa sent me a link to The Brown Dress Project, which I found very interesting. Alex Martin, an artist/dancer/mother in Seattle, made a brown denim dress that she has been wearing every day for nearly a year.
Her artist's statement says that the project is "one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days." And, in her FAQ, she says:
But on a feminist note, let's stop agreeing that the best way for women (in particular) to "express themselves" is by purchasing new wardrobe items and putting together daily outfits.
Whoa! When did I miss the memo that the best way for women to express themselves is through their outfits? Because, really, I should have been on the distribution list for that one, right? You'd think I'd be right up near the top! Dress is ONE way for women to express themselves, certainly, but I feel you'd be hard pressed to find consensus that it's the BEST way. Even *I* don't believe that and I write a blog about dresses.
It's confusing to me that an artist who has spent a year living a project that involves clothing (in other words, expressing herself through dress) could make a statement like that. Perhaps the key word in her statement is supposed to be "purchasing", but, if so, it could have been clearer. And what's with the "feminist note"? I am proud to call myself a feminist, as I believe in equal opportunities for women and men. Last time I checked, feminism didn't have a dress code, and, in fact, now that we're on the subject, I am fed up with people who claim that women who enjoy wearing dresses can't be "real feminists". Yes, dresses are traditionally feminine, but really, part of being a feminist, in my opinion, is finally internalizing that "feminine" does not equal "bad" or "weak" or "unworthy."
Elsewhere, in her blog, Ms. Martin says:
Since I am continuously engaging in conversations about my attire this year, I have become really sensitized to our cultural slant towards giving "compliments" on each others' daily outfit. "Oh, I just love your (fill in the blank – bag, hair, shoes, socks, sweater, dress, earrings, jacket, bracelet, hat, scarf)" – and tragically often, this is the intro to a conversation about where the item in question was purchased, a perfect segue back into our place as consumers in this economy. These conversations are not out-and-out evil, but I do think they are a symptom of the insidious fashion culture that keep us, and here I mean ESPECIALLY girls/women/ladies, so ridiculously busy consuming. waxing, accessorizing, and beautifying to perfect our wardrobes and fashion alignments that we can't possibly find the time to accomplish anything more revolutionary or important.
The scare quotes around "compliments" are odd — does she think such remarks are insincere? Not actually compliments? I just don't get it. I think she's cavalierly dismissing the communal, aesthetic, human pleasure of creating something beautiful and finding it appreciated. What artist doesn't want to be asked about their process of creation? If we consider that we all have the daily opportunity to create sartorial art (even if we don't always take it), why begrudge us a few simple responses?
As for dressing and accessorizing interfering with "real" accomplishment — this is a strawman argument, I'm afraid. When I think of the women I know who are interested in clothes, they're not people whose accomplishments tend to the lighter end of the scale. They're not bubbleheaded dilettantes brainwashed by the glossy magazines, unable to lift anything heavier than a charge card; they're writers (novelists, journalists), they work in public policy, they are doctors and lawyers and artists and mothers; they run their own businesses and they work for causes they believe in. (And I have to say that I don't see male activists calling each other out for being under the sway of the consumerist sports industry.) Sure, there are things in life more important than clothes, but to say that an interest in clothes is irreconcilable with achievement is both ridiculous and wrong.
The Brown Dress project is interesting (although I have to say I'm more intrigued with Martin's nebulous plan to spend next year wearing only things she's made herself) but I feel the artist's assumptions as to what are valid and invalid ways to express oneself through clothing need to be questioned as strenuously as she herself is questioning consumerist culture.
Ms. Martin is right to have problems with unbridled consumerism; I do myself. But a blanket condemnation of taking pleasure in one's appearance does nothing to further anti-consumerist agendas–if anything, it sets them back. She's painting with too broad a brush. People who feel fast food is soul-killing and planet-damaging don't say "don't eat"; people opposed to throwaway fashion and consumerist culture shouldn't say "don't buy clothes." The appropriate, more nuanced tack would be to discuss how to fully enjoy what you wear, where it came from, the story behind it; a kind of slow food movement for clothing, but one that allows for joy and creativity and yes, even has room for fashion.