I Went To Fashion Week And All I Got Was A Feminist Conundrum

by Erika W. Smith

Noon by Noor

I never feel shorter or fatter than during New York Fashion Week. I’m 5’2” and a size 12, and I don’t wear heels — for clumsiness reasons, not feminist ones. I’m a full-time freelance writer and editor, and I’ve been attending NYFW for three years now. I go to the teeny-tiny-to-medium-size shows, not the biggest ones: Noon by Noor and Taoray Wang, not Marc Jacobs and Yeezy Season 3. Still, going to even the smallest shows and parties is enough out of step with my day-to-day low-key Brooklyn life that I feel very out of place. And as a BUST writer, I kept coming back to an unanswerable question: Is fashion feminist?

The answer is the same as when you examine any broad category (movies, video games, music, etc.) under a feminist lens: Kind of. Sometimes. Maybe. It can be.

Ca dhZ9UUAAF94SYeezy Season 3 (photo via Twitter/Kanye West)

My experience at fashion week has always been, for the most part, positive. Here are a few good things that happened to me during fashion week this season: I spent time with the former coworker who set me up with my first fashion show, my first red carpet and my first celebrity interview and had some warm and fuzzy thoughts about women mentoring women; I met a model who complimented me on my lipstick and a PR girl who told me my hair looked great; a few people recognized that my dress was a thrifted Betsey Johnson, which made me feel very proud of my $30 find; I saw spaces, like the top floor of the Gansevoort, that I normally would never have access to; I drank a lot of free drinks.

Nothing bad happened, unless you count people ignoring me to focus on the more important people, which is 100% fine with me. I often felt like an outsider, but I never felt like an unwelcome outsider. Even if I was the only one eating the hors d’oeuvres at the party, nobody said anything to me about it.

Screen Shot 2016 03 01 at 2.52.03 PMJill Haber had a delicious open bar (photo by me)

Fashion, and fashion week, is unusual in that it’s a major, money-making industry marketed almost exclusively towards women. It’s cool to see an industry acknowledge that women are worth marketing to — in comparison, how many major blockbuster movies do we see marketed towards women as opposed to fifteen-year-old boys? 

However, although fashion is marketed towards women, many of the major labels are headed by men: Last year, fashion blogger Leandra Medine of Man Repeller wrote, “Barely any of the fashion world’s head designers are women,” and pointed out that it seems to be getting worse. Certainly, there are many exceptions — Jenna Lyons, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo — and I would argue that women can probably get further as fashion designers than they can as film directors. But when you look at the big picture, fashion is still something of a “boy’s club.”

CbCsQ3iWIAAOVLsVogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour watching Yeezy Season 3 (via Twitter/Kanye West)

The fashion world — from designers to models to everyone else — is also overwhelmingly white. There are a few exceptions — designer Tracy Reese, supermodel Naomi Campbell — but racism is definitely evident on the runways. However, advocates from inside the industry are pushing for change and are dramatically affecting it. Naomi Campbell, Iman and Bethann Hardison’s Diversity Coalition has not been shy about naming designers who don’t cast black models, and many high profile black models, such as Jourdan Dunn, have spoken out about their experiences with racism and pushed for change. According to The Fashion Spot, this season had the most diverse runways in recent history, with 31% of the models on the runway being nonwhite. I bet we have Naomi, Iman and Jourdan — as well as fashion bloggers and activists — to thank for that.


12705269 10153530738747893 7259614048348869214 nNaomi Campbell at Yeezy Season 3 (via Facebook/Naomi Campbell)

The fashion world is, at least at first glance, apparently quite LGBT-friendly. Transgender models like Andreja Pejic, Hari Nef and Lea T. have made headlines for starring in major campaigns and appearing in major fashion magazines like Vogue. However, the fashion world’s embrace of transgender models is not without its problems: Andreja Pejic has spoken out about facing obstacles from within the fashion world when she decided to transition after presenting as a male model for most of her career. “There was definitely a lot of ‘Oh, you’re going to lose what’s special about you. You’re not going to be interesting anymore. There are loads of pretty girls out there,’ ” she told Vogue last year, adding, “It is about showing that this is not just a gimmick.”


untitled article 1433590627 body image 1433590802Andreja Pejic’s Make Up For Ever campaign

The fashion world is also picky about who it welcomes: It’s rare to find high-profile lesbian or bisexual women or transgender men in fashion. Last year, Broadly asked, “Where are all the queer girls in fashion?” pointing out, “While gay men rule the roost (think of A-list designers such as Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, or Karl Lagerfeld), their female counterparts are nowhere to be seen.”

“New York Fashion Week is very exclusive. When people say it’s very gay—they usually mean it’s focused around cis, white, gay men who are producing very binary clothing. There’s a whole group of people who are not included in that: People of size, people of colour, people who are outside of the binary,” Anita Dolce Vita, the lesbian editor-in-chief of DapperQ, told Broadly.

Fashion is famously exclusive to people who are bigger than a size 2. Any model size 8 or larger is usually labeled “plus size” (in comparison, plus size clothing usually starts at a size 14) and most designers don’t make clothing larger than a size 12 — smaller than the size of the average American woman. This means that when I go to fashion week, I’m too big to fit into most of the clothes I see. 

12733393 10154024706519379 5927105858667343607 nRobyn Lawley is categorized as a “plus size” model

Which brings me to the price of fashion. While higher prices certainly make clothing more exclusive (and often the prices are driven up needlessly to reflect that “exclusivity”), a higher price tag can also mean that the item was made more ethically than fast fashion. Affordable retailers like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 get their low price tags by hiring garment workers to make their clothing for pennies in dangerous factories — remember the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed over 1,000?

So yeah — there are pluses and minuses to the fashion industry. But there are so many ways to use fashion as an art form or a means of expression — just look at our “Fashion Nation” series in BUST. And there are many, many people who are working from inside and outside the fashion industry to make fashion more inclusive to people of all ages, races, genders, sexualities and sizes.

12734186 10153924152487930 4123407236530469753 nDesigner Hester Sunshine, featured in BUST’s “Fashion Nation”

My last stop at fashion week was SmartGlamour’s fashion show. Although it wasn’t an official part of fashion week, SmartGlamour designer Mallorie Carrington purposely timed her show to coincide with the official NYFW. The body-positive brand — which we’ve previously featured in BUST — offers sizes from XXS to 6X and beyond. Models of all sizes and races walked the runway to cheers from the audience. For me, the show proved that fashion can be feminist — if the designer is.

“Growing up — fashion was what I used to express myself — and I believe that is a feminist act,” Mallorie told BUST in an email. “To decide who you are (and also to allow that to evolve) and decorate yourself how you please — regardless of others’ opinions — is feminist.”

unspecified 10A gorgeous SmartGlamour model; photo credit 3rd House Media

She added, “In a world where we are constantly being told we aren’t enough, held up to unachievable beauty standards — to get to the place of being able to say – no, I am enough, this body is enough, and I am worthy of all the same fashion and beauty as anyone else — is a powerful feminist statement. I believe that being body positive is one of the most feminist things a person (especially women and female presenting people who bare the brunt of beauty standards) can do.”

I love that idea — that by asserting a place for themselves in fashion, people that the fashion world would normally exclude are making a feminist statement. I’ll be thinking about that the next time I get dressed — and the next time I go to Fashion Week.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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