How Fashion and Feminism Became Bedfellows
A former Teen Vogue editor explains how Tavi Gevinson's new magazine proves that the two are no longer mutually exclusive.
Of course, I never used the word feminist. No one ever told me not to, but I knew that fashion magazines weren't exactly hotbeds of political activism. The other women in my office didn't even identify with the label; I couldn't imagine my teenage readers did, either. So at a feminist media conference in 2004, I was surprised by how excited college students got when I told them where I worked. A few years later, at a party, I met Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of 1990s feminist band Bikini Kill. "Teen Vogue is my favorite magazine," she told me. Hanna might not be a teenager, but she is certainly beloved among teenagers. I realized that younger feminists no longer needed to apologize for an interest in fashion.
But why? Maybe the stealth feminism young girls had grown up with in their fashion magazines had sunk in. So, too, the more and less explicit feminism of other aspects of their childhood pop culture—like watching a fully made-up Buffy kick guys' asses in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Plus, this generation of girls is more comfortable with queer culture, which is closely aligned with feminism and which valorizes the importance of clothing to identity-creation in a way that typical second-wave feminism did not. Gevinson's readers possibly saw or knew about cable mainstays like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word. If butches and femmes can like, and define their image through, fashion, so could teenage girls—even the heterosexual ones.
It makes sense that Gevinson embodies this new, untormented approach to her interests. For one thing, she was known in the fashion world before she began writing regularly about feminism. For another, the stakes are lower: Her brand began with her blog and Tumblr, which means she isn't particularly beholden to advertisers that want their fall shoes to be shown in an apolitical context.
In fact, Rookie isn't the only place in print or on the web where this easy marriage of fashion and feminism is taking place; it's merely the most visible. Worn, a Canadian fashion magazine run by and for young women, recently featured a series of posts on the anti-rape rallies called "SlutWalks" on their blog. The magazine has also been praised in the feminist magazine Bitch. And there are plenty of Tumblr blogs on which girls post equal amounts of images of runway shows and quotes from 1970s feminist lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. "I can be a femme and still be a feminist," says one post that regularly circulates. Girls on Tumblr tend to be ahead of the curve but, with the advent of Rookie, their need for disclaimers may be behind the times.
Kara Jesella is the co-author, with Marisa Meltzer, of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.