Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Fashioning the Second Wave: Issues across Generations

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Fashioning the Second Wave: Issues across Generations

Article excerpt

I write as someone who was a teenager in the 1960s and by the 1970s had engaged with Second Wave feminism. I look now on a new generation of young women, far removed from my own in many ways and yet in some ways worryingly close in the contradictions and tensions which exist for them in relation to fashion and dominant representations of femininity in the media. Feminism has failed to adequately address these problems in the past twenty years and it is only now beginning to re-appraise the work done by the Second Wave in interrogating the cultural construction of femininity. The position taken by Second Wave feminism on fashion and female representation has been consistently associated, especially since the 1980s, with "bra burning" Puritanism. This cliche belies the complexities of approach to be found in the range of feminisms of which the Second Wave was comprised. Unfortunately, however, such reductivist representations of Second Wave ideas have become culturally embedded and contributed to and conditioned a great deal of Post- and Third-Wave feminist writing on the subject from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.

In the early 1990s, so called Post-Feminist writers such as Camille Paglia in the USA and Natasha Walter in Britain argued that the concerns with sexual objectification of women so central to Second Wave consciousness were no longer relevant to a subsequent generation who experienced fashion as playful and fun and as part of their own sexual empowerment (Walter 88). A recent flurry of Third Wave feminist writings which revaluate of the Second Wave feminist position on the politics of appearance in a positive way has been reassuring to women such as me who have long expressed concern over the collusion of post feminism with mainstream consumer culture in the excessive commodification of femininity. Writing by younger academics such as that by Gillis, Howie, and Monford has identified the generational divide between the Second and Third Wave as "a family affair" and located a reproductive narrative in the marginalizing of the aging body of the Second Wave. Yet if as Elizabeth Wilson states: "Dress is a cultural metaphor for the body, it is the material with which we write or draw a representation of the body into a cultural context" (Ash and Wilson 6), then many Third Wave Feminists inhabit the young body of the Second Wave through the current obsession of the fashion industry and the media with the look of the 1960s.

The 1960s is the subject of a wide and continuing cultural pre-occupation. Ever since American Graffiti graced our screens in the early 1970s, nostalgia for the 1960s has been an increasingly significant part of the postmodern cultural landscape. This has been particularly obvious in fashion markets to a point where now the look of the mid-1960s has become synonymous with youthful femininity, the definitive expression of female identity in the early twenty-first century. Obviously other periods have been strongly referenced, most recently the 1980s, but it is the '60s which is the most consistently represented across popular culture and most visibly in fashion. Young men too cannot escape from the decade in terms of style, but I would argue that the significance for women is more profound as the look of the mid-1960s speaks so powerfully about female sexuality.

In the constant touching and reworking of the 1960s in the media, the terms "permissive society" and "women's lib" are amongst the most frequently quoted and misunderstood. In contemporary fashion where styles of the 1960s are reworked, they are constructed in a way which implies freedom and glamour and contributes to a larger mythologizing which simply misses the point and the reality of the decade. Jeffrey Weeks said of the '60s: "the sexual liberation of women was developing in a dual context: of male definitions of sexual need and pleasure, and the capitalist organization of the labor market and of consumption" (26). …

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