When a woman goes out wearing a miniskirt, an article of clothing most strongly associated with female sexuality, she becomes a symbol of two paradoxical ideas. On one hand, she is liberated through her rejection of traditional female images, such as the housewife, and is proud of her feminine sexuality. On the other hand, she is oppressed, and no more than a product of male desire. Wright states that “[p]erhaps assertion of gender difference challenges the power relationship more effectively than any attempt to emulate what is seen as male” (202). According to him, women wearing and using objects that bring out gender differences are accepting these differences as positive attributes and therefore putting themselves in positions of power. While it is true that the mini skirt asserts these gender differences by bringing attention to the female form, Struder explains why it fails to challenge the power relationship:
When Mary Quant popularised the mini-skirt in the mid 1960s, it functioned as a strong sign of social, cultural and political freedom. Yet it was a fragile symbol […] its wearer was treading a fine semiotic line between provocative self-affirmation and would-be provocative self-objectification. (48)
The mini skirt started out symbolizing modernity, freedom and confidence, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it – but like anything associated with femininity, it has withered under the male gaze. The only way to bring back the power of the mini skirt, a feminine article, is by having femininity befriend feminism. Instead of defining femininity from a patriarchal lens, define it through a feminist one, so that the qualities associated with women are not passive and weak, easily oppressed by masculinity, but active and strong, capable of gazing back at their gazers.
The fact that both mini skirts and feminism set out to liberate and strengthen women at the same time signals that they are not as different as they seem. According to Borrelli-Persson, Mary Quant, in her 1995 interview with Vogue said that mini-skirts “signaled great high spirits […] They celebrated youth and life and tremendous opportunity. They had a kind of ‘Look at me’ quality. They said, ‘Life is great.’” Like feminism, they started out as a sign of rebellion, a break away from tradition. By showcasing gender differences, mini skirts became a tool for putting women in charge of the laws that ruled their sexuality.
Despite these positive attributes, mini skirts are still critiqued by feminists. This is because the ‘look at me’ quality that Quant speaks of ended up subverting women’s rebellious nature and turned them into sexual images of male desire. Although mini skirts were designed to empower women and give them the freedom to choose their appearances, Groeneveld points out that there is “an implicit assumption about ‘free choice’, which fails to acknowledge the way in which choice occurs within contexts that are socially constructed” (182). Since women are raised playing with grotesquely disproportionate Barbie dolls, and following media that shows women as individual body parts, as cleavages and vaginas, instead of whole individuals, a woman’s ‘free choice’ is quite constrained and limited. Mini skirts’ good intentions do not stop them from promoting sexism by fragmenting and sexualizing women’s thighs and legs, and in doing so, promoting women’s images as sexual commodities (see fig. 1 and 2). In this way, they pass women from the entrapment of home and tradition, to that of sexual commodification. Despite their controversial nature, Wright questions why “[f]eminists, in an attempt to express their reaction against traditional female roles, have often cast […] items of clothing which appear to be inherently feminine [as objects of exploitation]” (197), His question can be answered with another question: outside of our current socially constructed system, which values women based on their appearances, how many women would continue wearing mini skirts? Feminine objects are deemed as exploitative by feminists because they pair women’s physical discomfort with a single image of beauty that every woman has to aspire to. The mini skirt then, is the antagonist of feminism as it puts the women who wear it at a disadvantage – to place it back in a position of power, feminism and femininity need to become interchangeable terms.
More specifically, femininity, like feminism, has to come out of the shadow of our current society and redefine itself as assertive and political. For that to happen, women have to start questioning the patriarchal standards and norms that constantly shape them. Laurie notes that challenging sexism, acknowledging women as complete human beings, and achieving social justice are the tenets that feminism has built itself upon (37). These tenets can be upheld if the women who wear mini skirts wear ones that they are comfortable in, and wear them for the same reasons that they were first designed for: to accentuate and celebrate the female form as different but just as powerful as the male form. Moreover, if women find themselves under a sexist gaze, and choose to turn around and glare back at their gazer instead of walking away, they will gain agency and showcase themselves as powerful feminine individuals. In this way, not only will they express their strength through their appearance, they will also establish their power through their feminist/feminine gazes, and break through the social constructs that associate femininity with weakness and shallow beauty. This move can eventually achieve all three of the feminist goals; with one gaze, from being passive objects of male desire, women can challenge sexism, establish their individuality, and in doing so, promote gender equality. By breaking through stereotypes, they can redefine what it means to be female according to their preferences, and merge the gap between mini skirts and feminism.
In short, mini skirts and feminism can and should be friends as they can both help each other with their shared goal of liberating women. The mini skirt is a symbol of femininity, and if femininity is still being defined through a sexist lens, the mini skirt, like its wearer, will remain a symbol of oppression. But with the strength of feminism and femininity behind it, it will become a symbol of boldness and confidence. However, it is important to note that the mini skirt is an inanimate object and that everything it symbolizes is an extension of its wearer. As long as the wearer remembers to say, “I want!” before “I want to be wanted”, mini skirts and feminism will get along just fine.
Fig. 1. Love Shack Fancy Ruffle Mini Skirt. Blue and Cream. Web. 10 Nov 2014.
Fig. 2. Love Shack Fancy Ruffle Mini Skirt. Blue and Cream. Web. 10 Nov 2014.
Borrelli-Persson, Laird. “Viva la Miniskirt! Charting the Right to Bare Legs through History.” Vogue. Vogue., 24 October. 2014. Web. 4 Nov 2014.
Groeneveld, Elizabeth. “‘be a Feminist Or just Dress Like One’: BUST, Fashion and Feminism as Lifestyle.” Journal of Gender Studies 18.2 (2009): 179-90. Web. 20 Oct 2014.
Gaughran, Laurie. “Gender Reflection: Reconciling Feminism and Equality.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 24.5 (1998): 37-51. Web. 20 Oct 2014.
Struder, Brigitte. “1968 and the formation of the feminist subject.” 20th Century Communism 11 May. 2011: 38-69. Academia. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.
Wright, Lee. “Objectifying Gender: The Stiletto Heel.” Fashion History: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard, New York: Routledge, 2007. 197-207. Print.
Published on: Dec 7, 2014