At the start of my junior year of college, I was elected co-chair of an organization called WomenSpeak, which hosted a series of events on campus each spring. A week of lectures, film, readings, symposia—the usual consciousness-raising whatnot. And to plan it, we organizers would convene every Thursday over dinner, half a dozen underslept young ladies in flannels and baggy jeans, fired up on Faludi and railing against the patriarchy. Aux barricades! I enjoyed those dinners, but I remember feeling a sheep-in-wolf's-clothing unease about the whole thing. At the time, you see, I was terribly preoccupied with matters I considered un-feminist. There was the matter of my recent breakup with my longtime boyfriend, and the related matters of wanting to "get back in shape" and flirt with other men. I was also looking ahead to postgrad life, and had sussed out that flannels, jeans, and rumpled hair wouldn't cut it in New York. Amherst College was only a few hours' drive from the city, and so I'd steal down there every month or so, sometimes with my friend Mary, and sometimes on my own. I noticed on those trips that you could get away with dishabille as long as there was a specificity, an inflection to it—a cool, in a word. The cool interested me. So did the look of French actresses in the 1960s—Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve. I read Paper magazine and The Face, and I bought coal black liquid eyeliner and a NARS lipstick—color "Belle de Jour"—that I never, ever wore at school. I still have the case.
So there I was, Thursday after Thursday, raising verbal hell about reproductive rights and structural misogyny, and meanwhile, in the book bag strung over my chair, there was probably a copy of Allure, dog-eared to an article about mastering frizz. Oh—and I was coveting a pair of Prada shoes that year, too. "Really selling out the sisterhood," I commented once, to the memoirist Lucy Grealy, who had taught briefly at Amherst and was something of a mentor to me. Among other things, she was trying to teach me to play pool. "Oh, please," she said, racking up the balls in a hall on Houston Street, "having a sense of style is not selling out the sisterhood."
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She said something like that, anyway. I wasn't taking notes. But I should have—I should have had those words tattooed on my left forearm, where I have the last line of Ulysses, instead. That way, every time some guy at a party asks me whether I feel like working in fashion is a betrayal of my gender, I could just point at the tattoo and walk away. I also wouldn't have to explain why I have the last line of Ulysses on my arm, but that's another story. As long as I'm digressing, though, I may as well point out that not a single one of these guys—and yeah, they're invariably men—has been a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières or an activist trying to save the rain forest or anything like that. It's always some banker or DJ or conceptual artist. So, you know, fuck you.
Really, the condescension some people direct at fashion is just unbearable. I've got a speech I trot out now, when someone throws shade on what I do, and it goes like this: We all have bodies; we all wear clothes; we all have reflections that vex us; we all exist in dynamic relationship to our communities, and fashion is a medium for testing or strengthening those bonds. It's a vehicle for self-expression, and—to flex some of the old WomenSpeak patois—anyone who diminishes the significance of that is carrying water for the patriarchy, deferring reflexively to those thousands of years of human history when men got to decide what was frivolous or not. You know what's frivolous? Fantasy football. Fashion is a multibillion-dollar industry that touches craft, identity, dreams, and art.
Thus do I rise to a ringing endorsement of fashion. But I'm always upset by these conversations because I'm not convinced I believe what I say. Or, to put the conflict more exactly, I believe what I say, but there are a lot of things I'm leaving unsaid, too. And these unsaid things trouble me. The way the vast majority of clothes are produced today is a moral horror. The ideal of ultra-thinness that the fashion industry promotes is terrible—not because the ideal is unattainable, but because for most women, the attempt to attain it entails degrading amounts of time, money, mental energy, and hangry-making self-deprivation. Camille Paglia made some interesting, indeed important, points about the challenge of female sexual authority—as embodied by "Justify My Love"-era Madonna—but I hate the way her arguments are deployed, in cheap form, to defend modes of dress that rehash the stock characters of male fantasy. Vixen. Nymphet. Backup dancer in a hip-hop video. You've got the right to wear whatever you like, ladies, but come on. Let's create some new identities.
I could go on. And the temptation, thinking about fashion through the prism of feminism, is to go on in the direction of appearances—to elaborate on scholar Linda Scott's point, in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, that "the ability to control what is fashionable is a form of power women wield over each other," or to get deep in the weeds about whether certain designers, abetted by editors and buyers, advance atavistic notions of a woman's place in society. But that's too easy. Feminism is not a matter of appearances. Feminism is about building a world where women—all of them—have the opportunity to live rich, satisfying lives. It's about making women—again, all of them—safe from violence and other forms of coercion, and ensuring they have access to education, family planning including abortion and birth control, and careers wherein they are paid and promoted on par with men. Feminism isn't about improving women's self-esteem, it's about giving proper value to the various kinds of work women do, on the clock or at home. It's about restructuring our society such that youth, beauty, and sexual availability aren't a woman's most vital currency. Can we talk about that stuff, please? Because when I tune into the pop-feminist chatter online, I'm dismayed by the degree to which feminism has been defined down to debates about Miley Cyrus, Photoshop, slut-shaming, and the vaguely oppressive "I woke up like this" meme. Talk about that stuff, by all means. But it can't be the whole conversation.
Consider fashion from another angle—not as a dream factory but as an industry proper. Fashion employs legions of women. I'm guessing, but I imagine that alongside the "caring" industries—teaching, nursing—fashion is one of the most female-dominated businesses around. And women are empowered here: We don't have many big swinging dicks in fashion, but we've got a lot of big swinging handbags. I've worked in male-dominated fields, and in comparison, fashion is a delight—at least insofar as women in fashion are, as a matter of course, encouraged and expected to succeed. I suspect that the XXs on Wall Street or over in Silicon Valley would tell a far different tale.
We could do better, though. There should be more women on the executive floors of the big fashion conglomerates, and a more diverse array of women at the entry level, which would mean raising pay. The emphasis on unpaid or barely paid labor in fashion shuts a lot of talented people out—and though that's not a problem specific to women, as a female-dominated industry, the pay issue affects women disproportionately. Another thing: Why are there so few women heading up major fashion houses? Miuccia, Phoebe, Donna, Stella…Clare Waight Keller at Chloé and Sarah Burton at McQueen. DVF. Rei Kawakubo. Tory Burch has muscled her way into the lineup. Jenna Lyons makes the list, I guess. That's ten. Am I missing anyone? I suspect that correcting such a crazy imbalance is going to require an industry-wide rethink about what "fashion" is—and that, dear reader, is a topic for another time.
You see how easy it is, getting into those weeds? But I don't want to talk about clothes. I want to talk about labor rights. A hundred years ago, garment workers were at the forefront of the union movement, spurred on by the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Women working in fashion can play a similar role today: We've got a critical mass going, and we can push for changes that would make this industry a model for many others. Take childcare, for instance. Having free or low-cost childcare at work would be a godsend for the many mothers who work in fashion, and it would take pressure off of young women who worry that having a baby will come at the cost of their careers. Better yet, the women who work in fashion—and, sure, the men, too—could advocate for universal pre-K, starting at age 3, which would be a boon for all working people. Is the stunning expense of good childcare a fashion-specific problem? No. As a female-dominated industry, does it affect us disproportionately? Yes.
Here's another one. The fashion industry is heavy on freelancers, male and female. Meanwhile, the United States has these asinine self-employment taxes, which effectively penalize people for being entrepreneurial. Let's get rid of those stupid taxes. Women will benefit. So will men. I haven't done the math, but I suspect the government could more than make up the revenue by closing the carried interest loophole. Or, to demagogue the issue: Hustling stylists, writers, makeup artists, photographers, journeymen art directors of the world, unite! The private equity fat cats are taking money out of your pockets!
I kid. Sort of. But not about the unity. Last month, 1,600 workers at garment factories in Bangladesh went on an 11-day hunger strike. They were protesting unpaid wages. Police came at them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Now, I realize it's been a busy news cycle—one fucking horrible thing after another—but this is our business and those women should be on our radar. We should stand with them and be outraged. Closer to home, the women selling clothes (and everything else under the sun) at stores like Walmart don't suffer the way that seamstresses in places like Cambodia, China, or Bangladesh do. But they deserve to earn a living wage. Let's fight for that.
These issues may seem quite distant from the fairy-tale world of runway shows and fashion spreads. But it's all on a continuum, and just because we—meaning we Style readers—crowd around the top of it doesn't excuse us from considering the lives of those nearer the bottom. It's the flip side of that famous speech Meryl Streep gives in The Devil Wears Prada, about haute couture's trickle-down influence and Anne Hathaway's ugly blue sweater. We celebrate our influence, on an aesthetic and cultural level, and we rightly query it, too. But the fashion industry, writ large, has failed to take the political responsibilities that come with its influence on board. When we do, that will be a fashion feminism for all women.
I don't have all the answers. I know I'm not even posing all the right questions. For God's sake, I've gone on at length and not even talked about fashion's commendable progressivism on gay and transgender rights, or the need for enforceable standards for models' working conditions. But my essential point is that we—meaning, we feminists—have got to expand our horizons and stop worrying so much about who got airbrushed and how for the cover of Vogue. If we all put our heads together, we can figure out how to make fashion a tool for empowerment. Pace Lucy Grealy, there's nothing un-feminist about having a sense of style or loving clothes. But as I've told many dickheads at parties over the years, with an epic eye roll, fashion is about more than clothes. Repeat that. Get it into your heads. It's about more than clothes.
 Briefly, the carried interest loophole allows partners in private equity groups to have a significant proportion of their yearly earnings taxed not as income but as investment profit, at a substantially lower rate.