How Do You Dress Like a Feminist? On Learning To Dress How I Want

Back when I was a teenager, I had a shirt that read,"This is what a feminist looks like." It was a black t-shirt with bold, hot pink lettering. I often wore it with short, poofy miniskirts of the Mean Girls variety (it was the mid-aughts, after all). At the time, the combination felt like the epitome of feminism: A short skirt, my scandalous t-shirt, and kitten heels thrown in for good measure. 

How very grown up, how downright cosmopolitan of me, to wear something suggestive-yet-assertive. I had officially leveled the gender playing field! Yes, I was showing the boys who was boss, all while looking really cute. Feminism, FTW.

Short skirts make me feel confident (though sometimes they also make me worry I’ll be viewed as slutty). I love a good high heel (but sometimes become afraid that I’ll look too girly or high-maintenance if I wear them). There are always feelings of contradiction at play. 

Looking back at my bold outfit of choice, I’m equal parts crazy-embarrassed and proud. Sure, the outfit was naïve and a little obnoxious, but I had found what I wanted to say, and I was excited to say it loudly and proudly and to whomever would listen.

The connection between fashion and feminism is something I’ve always been curious about. After all, I come from a line of strong-yet-stylish ladies: My 85-year-old grandmother's style is still impeccable. My single mother may have worked multiple jobs, but she never went a day without red lipstick. And my successful stepmother has both hair and a closet that I would kill for. 

As for me, I’ve always been interested in fashion. It’s never ruled my life, but often, I find that my outfit determines a large part of how I’ll feel that day. Or is it the other way around?

Short skirts make me feel confident (though sometimes they also make me worry I’ll be viewed as slutty). I love a good high heel (but sometimes become afraid that I’ll look too girly or high-maintenance if I wear them). There are always feelings of contradiction at play. 

If I've always felt that the essence of who I am is, more or less, expressed in what I'm wearing, then how am I supposed to know what to wear? After all, how I feel — and what I want to express — can change by the moment, often depending on people's reactions. 

Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed these and other contradictions in a lovely piece titled “Why Can’t A Smart Woman Love Fashion?" In the essay, Adichie discusses the journey of learning to dress for herself, rather than others.

I had learned a lesson about Western culture: Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers.

As for me, I’m still embracing my fashion-meets-feminism style — albeit, with more subtlety than when I was eighteen. I’ve more or less found my style, and it’s one that makes me feel comfortable and confident. 

Some days, the only thing that’ll cut it for me is a pastel skirt paired with lipstick. But most days, I prefer to dress more low-key: Boyfriend jeans rolled to the ankle, cute sneakers, and a button-down shirt tend to do the trick. Mixed prints are also my thing — there’s something in not matching that gives me a weird sense of power. My little uniform makes me feel like me, and I’ve grown to love and accept her. 

I identify as a feminist now as much as ever. But I've also realized that my actions will always speaker louder than any words on a t-shirt could. Since my Mean Girls meets Ms. days, I've gained the confidence to express my true self to the world by choosing outfits that are based on what I want to wear, rather than what anyone else might want to see. 

And that's what a feminist looks like. 



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