The Politics of Pin Up And the Image of Femininity

The other day I got the "why do you dress like that?" question.

Normally, most of us are used to getting that question - being head-to-toe vintage is not a mainstream fashion choice and it piques attention when someone outside of the scene encounters it. One of the reasons why (I think) it's such a confidence booster to dress this way is because it is different and it is sexy and wearing this clothing is almost an armor - it's one of those things we know more about than the gawker off the street - it's a secret society cavorting in daylight, the way the magicalfolk of Harry Potter were able to walk around in modern London wearing strange hats and robes that caught attention but never gave away who the wearers actually were.

"We must not let the normal people know of The Quidditch World Cup Viva Las Vegas."

So why was I thrown off-guard when I was asked why I dress like this? Because I was chatting with a group of fellow feminists and we were discussing the politics of the feminine image.

Which brings me to something I think everyone should know about me - I am a feminist. I am the pro-choice, LGBTQ rights, socially liberal, loudmouthed feminist harpy your parents warned you about. I've volunteered as a clinic escort, protested California's Proposition 8 before I could vote and I am a monetary supporter of EQCA's recent efforts to uphold trans equality every time I am hit up on the street outside of my workplace. I attempt to make spaces I occupy safe for those who do not share my privilege and I sit back and listen when someone from an oppressed group is talking, regardless of what they have to say about straight, white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical people. I consider myself intersectional in practice, because an "intersectional feminist" is a title coined by women of color and it is not mine to take.

I am a feminist.

Now that I have cleared that up and have probably angered someone (sorrynotsorry) :

"Why do you dress like that?"

I had to stop and pause for a minute before I could answer. It wasn't like every other time at school when some drunk fratstar was trying to get me to take my lovely clothes off - this was a logical question that pertained to the discussion of the feminine image.

"I like it.", I said. And it's true - I love to look pretty and flowery and girly. I love imitating the leading ladies of my favorite classic films. I enjoy clothing that has been well-made enough to survive the whirlwind of the last 60 years of history. I don't like looking like every other girl at USC.

"The standards of beauty in the 1950's and 60's were solidified by the patriarchy just as much as those booty shorts you hate though."

"UGH look at those hussies with their flat breasts and high skirts! I'll keep my hoop skirt and corset! They were my grandmother's and she birthed three children...IN THEM!"

I DO hate booty shorts...on me. Despite the fact that I am the first in line to walk around Viva Las Vegas in a Vintage Suit by Mary or pose on Pin Up Girl in next to nothing, I can't stand the thought of wearing short denim cutoffs out in public because it isn't the image I want to portray of myself.

"You mean a slutty one?"

No, and I don't like that word. I'm one of those women who isn't rushing to reclaim the word "slut" any time soon because I don't think women as a whole (not just white women) can completely reclaim that word yet and until we can ALL reclaim it I don't want it.

I just...don't like the look of denim booty shorts. I don't feel like myself in them. Maybe it's because wasted years were spent in them trying to look fuckable for high school boys and my last boyfriend (despite what I WANTED to look like) or maybe it's because I think they're itchy and ride up my crotch.

But for the record, I also don't like high-low skirts, fringe tops, anything "boho" or anything that my parents wore in the 1980's, because for some reason the 80's is coming back into style.

"As good as people who came of age in the 80's looked, they're still wearing stuff from the 80's."

The discussion was getting a little off-subject and was going into everyone's personal fashion preferences so I finally asked, "What CAN we wear that the patriarchy hasn't attempted to force on us?"

Nothing. There is nothing really feminine we can wear. The "neutral" option is considered masculine, which is a whole other problem in of itself. Masculine shouldn't be the neutral, default option. What is masculine about a loose t-shirt and jeans? Why is it "masculine" and not simply "clothing"?

There is a great quote about femininity involving it being a cage, and women decorating that cage with bows and glitter to cope. I feel it's true to some extent because femininity has been historically portrayed as weak, so we try to punch it up by toughing it up or by going overboard with it.

...which is why you see examples of "weaponized femininity". Examples being people who want to crush the patriarchy beneath stiletto heels, with talon-like manicures. We produce heroines like the girls from "Sucker Punch", "Sailor Moon" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", who all kick ass while looking fabulous. But weaponized femininity is an oxymoron - if it were powerful to be feminine, we wouldn't need to weaponize it. Unfortunately, no man is intimidated by me and you looking like total babes.

From one question, we divulged into a great discussion about what  femininity means in the scope of the world around us. Femininity is pretty and we like it and yet we must acknowledge that it's used against us regardless of how we portray it. How do we do anything about it?

The truth of it all is that there is no right answer. There is no right way to look when crushing the patriarchy, and there shouldn't be in my opinion. At the end of the day, the pretty things we like and the pretty things we gravitate toward have been used to historically oppress us...and if we like it, it's okay because it's both a coping mechanism and a personal preference that our socialization has taught us to have.

A couple of weeks before I shot with PUG I was involved in a documentary (coming out in 2015) about modern pin up culture. The director mentioned pin up being a way to be "sexy" while still being "safe" and not "slutty". While I personally don't see dressing this way as dressing "safe" because I don't believe that looking more modest makes us safer, I can for sure see why it's thought of as such.

At the end of the day, these two women are pin ups and they are both existing for the "male gaze". Why is the image from 60 years ago considered "safer" than the image from today? They are both sending out the same message.

"It's still a little ironic that you dress that way and you're a feminist."

...maybe. Maybe it is. I recall hearing about women protesting a sexist law at the home of a senator while purposely wearing clothing from the 50's to make a point, not because they liked it but because they "were never going back". I don't believe I am making a point by dressing this way, but if someone wants to interpret that as such there's nothing I can do to stop them. I personally wouldn't "go back to the 50's" for anything other than a shopping spree, but hey I like the aesthetic I like.

And that's what this long musing article boils down to: despite how problematic every piece of clothing and fashion is (because it is all developed to make us more "attractive"...whatever the fuck that means), we have the right to look and dress how we want. THAT'S the feminism I adhere to.

And I doubt anyone who critiques your clothing claiming to have a feminist reason to do so is a real feminist.

Unless of course you're wearing a trilby - then I'm sideeyeing you forever.

Views: 2457

Comment by Shy Anne on March 15, 2014 at 12:49am

I love your article. As a staunch feminist I would say that feminists have fought long and hard to allow women to dress however they want. Why wouldn't I take advantage of that and do so? , I mean, you have to admit that the majority of the vintage clothing we wear today is a bit tighter, a bit sexier, the slits are higher, the necklines cut lower, than they were in the 50s, so wearing a knee length dress isn't actually backsliding in terms of boldly proclaiming our sexuality to the world. What it is, is empowering. We get to feel as though we look amazing without wearing the booty shorts or the super short mini skirts or the skin tight jeans that cut off all feeling below the knees. We get to hint at sex without broadly proclaiming it. And, if i may ask, what is the power of a woman but not her sex. Women have and always will be seen as sexual objects whether we advertise it or not, and by taking control of our image and how we present ourselves, we're taking control of how men see us. So while dressing up sexy doesn't empower you, deciding how you want the world to see you does. 

I think that most of us dress for ourselves rather than for anyone else. "Vintage' isn't an 'easy' fashion choice, although I do know that there is currently a raunch culture developing around it with Rockabilly porn and women who do wear the clothes to get male attention (yes they are there but there's nothing wrong with it). But the fact of the matter is that if you look up 'The Simpson's Porn', it exists (*go ahead and gag now). Because everything is sexualized at one point or another, I think that the last thing a feminist should do is run or hide from her feminism and sexuality. It's a part of you, embrace it, wear whatever you want, and if that happens to be booty shorts that show your panties and the top of your thighs then you're just as right as me in my knee length dresses and heels. 

I do however disagree with you on one major point. I absolutely love fringe :P don't dis it, fringe tops and boho pants are amazing. :P Just not the tye dye wild printy patterny ones that make you want to gouge your eyes out.  

Sorry for my long and rambling reply

Comment by Nikki on March 16, 2014 at 2:50pm

Yes. Yes to all.

To me, being a feminist is all about respect. As a woman, I deserve the same level of respect that any man does. Does that mean that men need to treat me the exact same way they would treat a man at all times and in all places? No. (If I need to elaborate on that I can. :))

Does it mean that I need to dress the same was a man to garner equal respect? Heck no.

Being a feminist means believing that men and women should be treated with the same amount of respect- treated equally by all accounts... but equal treatment doesn't mean men and women have to be exactly the same. Our differences make the world a better place! Wearing whatever makes you happy should be appreciated- not scrutinized.

Thank you Sydney and Shy Anne for your wonderful thoughts. And thank you for the great pictures and captions as well!

Comment by Nikki on March 16, 2014 at 2:51pm

And Shy Anne- your first paragraph is so inspiring. I'm going to be thinking about that all week.

Comment by Tahitia Belle Fille on March 16, 2014 at 7:25pm

I couldn't agree with more Sydney. It's so funny that you mentioned the magicfolk in the Harry Potter universe, I've actually picked up on & started calling "non-pinup/burlesque" folk muggles from a burlesque performer friend of mine. It seems like a fitting name afterall ;)

We know who we are and we're proud of who we are, it's as simple as that (and also as complicated and contradicting as that too ;) ).

I'm also really glad to see that Pinup GIrl Clothing has such passionate models that take such an interest in the nature, the history of and everything about the culture of modern day pinups.

Comment by Katherine on April 27, 2014 at 8:30pm

This is amazing and great. I'm also super involved in the feminist movement and I'm happy to see you post this.

Comment by Chelsea Renee on May 19, 2014 at 10:56am

This is an amazing blog post. You hit the nail on the head.

And I may answer your question: 

"Why is the image from 60 years ago considered "safer" than the image from today? They are both sending out the same message." I think there is two reasons for this:

I think that one reason is because people tend to neuter the past. Robert A. Heinlein wrote, "(E)ach generation thinks it invented sex; each generation is totally mistaken. Anything along that line today was commonplace both in Pompeii and in Victorian England..." So the later generations have a disconnect with the previous generation of what was sexy. b/c it's not as titillating to us as it was to them we desexualize it.

Another reason is because the madonna/whore dichotomy. A lot of the allure of the Gil Elvgren is that his subjects almost lack selfawareness. It's mostly "Ooops I was knitting a sweater and wouldnt you know it the darn thing unraveled" or "I was just playing shuffle board and the stick pushed up my skirt" and other such scenarios.  This places the pin up girl closer to the virgin side. Compare that to the other picture where the subject is fully aware of the sexual nature of the photo.

These two things put together make the pinup aesthetic "safer".

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