Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes

Sophie Harman

This morning I was having the usual what to wear dilemma of everyone living in the UK during summer: it had pissed it down with rain the day before and now it was sunny, so what to put on my feet? Boots or sandals? While contemplating this daily dilemma John Humphrys was interviewing ex-Editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman on Radio 4’s Today Programme. The subject of the interview was meant to be changing fashion trends over 60 years but in effect the questions asked to Shulman can be summarised as: skinny, thin, skinny, skinny, Theresa May’s shoes, you’re not skinny.

 

At a basic bitch level this is a set of boring questions, asked by someone who clearly thinks fashion is frivolous, and is a dial-in what-to-ask-a-fashion-person-when-you-know-nothing-about-fashion. Kudos to Shulman for calling this out. However the disregard of fashion as frivolous plays into the unchecked political power fashion has. I don’t need to recreate the cerulean shirt scene from The Devil Wears Prada because you know it, because everyone has seen that film, because fashion in powerful. But you get my point – billion pound industries are not frivolous.

 

On the one hand the frivolity argument overlooks the inequalities in fashion: male ownership of fashion conglomerates; cultural appropriation of every culture possible; the dominance of white models, editors, designers, company owners, PR teams; the age of models, and yes the demands on them to be skinny; supply chains; labour standards and working hours, I could go on but these arguments have been rehashed countless times (and yet still ignored by interviewers obsessed with skinny).

 

On the other hand the frivolity argument ignores the close alignment between fashion and politics. This is evident in how magazines pursue political agendas – see US Vogue and the Democrats or British Vogue and the Tories – and can be a humanizing and legitimating force for political actors; fashion fundraising for politicians; and fashion aspirations for political office, see for example Anna Wintour as genuinely rumoured to being Hillary Clinton’s pick for US Ambassador to the UK. It is also evident in how fashion engages activism. This is often badly done, however most people in the know know that the Trump resistance is more likely to be found in Teen Vogue that the FT or the New Yorker.

 

Over the two minutes it took for Humphrys to interview Shulman and for me to choose to wear boots (never trust the blue skies), I could think of a list of alternative questions:

  • What impact will Brexit have on the fashion industry and its contribution to the UK economy?
  • What do you think of Naomi Campbell’s comments on the picture of the Vogue team in the latest edition of the magazine? Does Vogue and Fashion have a diversity problem? Or put more bluntly, Vogue so white?
  • Should designers such as Gucci and Vetements be allowed to steal ideas from hip hop culture without attribution?
  • What did you make of the Lucinda Chambers piece in Vestoj? Have advertisers compromised the artistic part of fashion magazines?
  • Does high street fast fashion have implications for labour standards throughout the fashion industry (child labour, supply chains, and pressure on designers at the top end)?
  • Are the number of fashion shows excessive?
  • How can a new designer get into Vogue when it only showcases people you know or are related to? Ahem, Samantha Cameron and Deputy Editor Emily Sheffield.
  • Is Teen Vogue the vanguard of the revolution? (Okay this is a bit far-fetched, but more interesting than why so skinny?)

These are uncomfortable questions, but not any more uncomfortable than the usual questions posed by Humphrys. The Today Programme missed two tricks here. The first, not delivering on the holding truth to power style journalism that is often claimed to be the programme’s core public good: here they had one of the most powerful women in Britain and they stuck to a tired script. My sense is Shulman may even have wanted to respond to the more difficult questions and offer her opinion without the constraints of advertising, publisher, and colleagues to keep happy. You don’t get to be an editor-at-large without some political savvy and it would have been interesting to hear how she responded or dodged such questions. The second trick is that in not posing these questions, Today missed an opportunity to create more news headlines – the benchmark of how their editorial policy resonates with the wider public – as had Shulman said anything with a smidge of controversy it would have gone viral.

 

The only saving grace of the whole interview was no-one mentioned or compared Shulman to Anna Wintour. That would have been the cherry of the dial-it-in yawn. The other source of optimism is that there are hints that the new Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful may take on some of these questions in the magazine itself, and perhaps political journalists may (wrongly, of course, this is a feminist blog) see Vogue as less frivolous if a man’s in charge.

 

Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes. I have personal reasons for writing this piece; one colleague looked at my Zara zebra print shoes and declared them ‘very Theresa May.’ This happened years ago but I’ve not forgotten and I have not worn these shoes since. But the more fashion is dismissed as frivolous and interviews continue to obsess over the skinny, the more insidious forms of power in the fashion world go unchecked and unseen.

In praise of my local boxing club

Charlotte Godziewski

As a child, sports was always part of my weekly routine. I enjoyed trying out and pursuing a variety of different disciplines, mostly gymnastics and tennis. Doing sports was pleasantly uncomplicated. I was having fun developing skills, improving my body’s abilities and strengths, and I was getting the excitement of competing at a small-scale, ‘no pressure’ amateur level. Growing up, though, I found it increasingly difficult to retrieve the same feeling of satisfaction that sports once provided me. It was when I recently joined the Women’s Boxing Club that I finally found that wonderfully fulfilling way of doing sports again. It dawned on me how challenging it can be, as an adult and as a woman, to find a sport club that is genuinely about learning a new discipline, with the multitude of benefits it entails. Yes, I was moving to different countries fairly often, which made it hard to sustainably join a club or a team. But I’d argue that there’s more to it.

The dominant discourse around ‘sport’ changes as you grow up. Sports changes from being ‘a fun and empowering activity’ to a depressing ‘public health discipline’. Even worse, and especially if you’re a woman, physical activity becomes merely a tool to (try to) improve your appearance.

Governing healthy bodies

Much social science research has drawn on Foucault’s concept of (neo)liberal governmentality to better understand the contemporary shape and discourse of health promotion (Ayo, 2012; Crawshaw, 2013; Mik-Meyer, 2014; Thompson & Kumar, 2011; Warin, 2011). In a nutshell, the act (or the art) of ‘government’ is understood by Foucault as a nexus of practices, institutions, techniques and discourses that construct our expectations of how society and individuals ought to behave and lead their lives. He famously refers to this as the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991). Governmentality is liberal insofar as it promotes a society of free individuals operating in free markets. However, there are expectations as to how an individual is to enact and make use of this ‘freedom’. The individual is presented as dual: free to enjoy certain rights, but disciplined into enjoying them in a particular way. This discipline, it has been argued, is reflected in public health messages that tend to emphasise strongly – or even solely – healthy lifestyles as a matter of individual responsibility. Citizens are encouraged to become ‘food smart’, active, responsible ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’.

While it can be argued that of course people are responsible for their actions, there are fundamental issues associated with a discourse strictly limited to individual responsibility. For example, the fact that it neglects, and actively draws attention away from, structural determinants of ill-health and unhealthy lifestyle, including socioeconomic inequalities. This sort of discourse, in turn, can have ostracizing effects on precisely the population groups it is supposed to encourage and help.

Another, perhaps more mundane and definitely subjective consequence (which I don’t intend to generalise here), is that this responsibilisation tends to take all the fun out of sports. Which is a bit counterproductive frankly. Responsibilising citizens into getting physically active may be a good thing in itself, but the way it is done is just so tragically unimaginative! Fitness centres that pop up on every street corner. Sure, many people genuinely enjoy going to the gym, and the fact that they are becoming increasingly accessible is great, but isn’t this trend the quintessence of making sports merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Personally, I always struggled to go to a gym on a regular basis. Children can play, but adults have to go to the gym.

You’re here to lose weight, right?

Wright et al. (2006) have investigated the way in which discourses on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and physical activity were taken up and appropriated by a sample of young men and a sample of young women. Their interviews showed that, when talking about physical activity, the young men would mostly talk about skills, strengths and generally fitness as providing the muscular capacity and stamina to enable them to do things. In the female group, however, physical activity was very often associated with desirable body shape and appearance (Talleu, 2012; Wright, O’Flynn, & MacDonald, 2006). It is true that pressure to conform to physical appearance standards is also increasing amongst men. However, weight loss is still rarely stereotyped as the one and only, obvious reason men work out. I’m not sure I can say the same about how society makes sense of women working out. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working out as a means to lose weight and it is really not my intention to imply any judgment about anyone’s motivations, reasons and goals. What I do bemoan, is the all too common assumption that the only reason an adult woman can possibly work out must be because she wants to look more attractive (subtext: for men) (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998). My point is that women’s sports is too often conceptualised in an androcentric way. This ingrained assumption that female physical activity is reducible to weight loss and toning is only reinforced by the gendered ‘healthism’* trend (whose advocates abound on social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube: #fitness #healthybody). In turn, ‘feminised’ versions of sports facilities targeting purely aesthetic goals are booming (Craig & Liberti, 2007). This goes from sexy women’s sports clothing trends to your famous ‘get-a-nice-booty-like-Beyoncé’ fitness class. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite to deny my own motivation to be, and to look, fit. That’s not where the problem lies. All I’m saying is that ‘women working out’ cannot be systematically reduced to ‘wanting to look good’. Body shape is – if anything – only a small part of a much wider ensemble of motivations for working out.

It’s time to challenge these assumptions and redefine physical activity, not just as an obligation to remain healthy, and certainly not just as a tool to become prettier, but as the fun and empowering leisure it used to be when we were kids! Such possibilities exist. I am incredibly lucky to have found a club that enables me to do exactly this. A sports club that does not buy into limiting gendered stereotypes, and that does not believe in adjusting the workout to conform with feminised, patriarchal clichés. And it feels amazing. Not only does the club reject gendered stereotypes, but it also provides an opportunity for women to get involved in a sport discipline that is strongly male-dominated, boxing. And if people asked me why, ‘as a woman’, I like boxing, I’d say it’s pretty much for the same multitude of reasons any man would enjoy it.

*Healthism: “A discourse in public health practice, [which links body shape to good health and] in which individuals are held to be morally responsible for the prevention of illness by knowing and avoiding the risk factors associated with ill-health. Individuals thus have a duty to monitor their own well-being constantly and to mediate and invest in choices and practices that are health enhancing and can prevent illness.” (Wright et al., 2006)

References 

Abrahams, A (2017). Why do people presume I’m at the gym to lose weight? The Pool. Retrieved from: https://www.the-pool.com/health/fitness-honestly/2017/18/amy-abrahams-on-not-losing-weight-at-the-gym

Ayo, N. (2012). Understanding health promotion in a neoliberal climate and the making of health conscious citizens. Critical Public Health, 22(1), 99–105.

Burchell, G., Gordon, C., & Miller, P. (1991). The Foucault Effect. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. The University of Chicago Press.

Craig, M. L., & Liberti, R. (2007). “’Cause That’s What Girls Do” The Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, 21(5), 676–699.

Crawshaw, P. (2013). Public health policy and the behavioural turn: The case of social marketing. Critical Social Policy, 33, 616–637.

Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). “No-Body’s Perfect”: Women, Aerobics, and the Body Beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109–137.

Mik-Meyer, N. (2014). Health promotion viewed in a critical perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 42(15 suppl), 31–35.

Talleu, C. (2012). Gender equality in Sports – Handbook on good practices. EPAS Council of Europe.

Thompson, L., & Kumar, A. (2011). Responses to health promotion campaigns: resistance, denial and othering. Critical Public Health, 21(February 2015), 105–117.

Warin, M. (2011). Foucault’s progeny: Jamie Oliver and the art of governing obesity. Social Theory & Health, 9(1), 24–40.

Wright, J., O’Flynn, G., & MacDonald, D. (2006). Being fit and looking healthy: Young women’s and men’s constructions of health and fitness. Sex Roles, 54(9–10), 707–716.