‘New York’s Man Repeller on sartorial feminism.’

By Leandra Medine
Illustration by François Berthoud

A letter from… New York: Clothes maketh the woman. - © System Magazine

One afternoon, during my sophomore year of high school, I bought a pair of tights. I’d walked to Ricky’s – a beauty hub-cum-pharmacy – located just three blocks from my school to purchase green nail polish. The victim of a strict school dress code, the only place I could express even a morsel of individuality was on my nail beds. There the tights were, though, languishing on a hook, untouched though they appeared bereaved and defiled. Lively and bright pink, it seemed inconsistent that such a convivial set of stockings could appear so morose. I bought them out of pity, but it was getting cold, and I surmised they might find practical use in my forthcoming wardrobe if not provide a genius school uniform loophole.
The following day, while getting dressed to go to school, I put them on. Under the usual ankle length, dark-coloured skirt and equally dismal blouse of my Yeshiva day school, the bright pink tights really did seem like a genius escape route – though coloured clothes were rarely allowed, no authority had ever said anything about the colour of our tights.
While my friends and classmates commended on the vibrancy I’d managed to bring into the school building, I couldn’t make it to third period without being sent to the principal’s office to discuss the state of my legs.

The state of my legs?

‘This is a Jewish day school, Ms Medine, and the rules of our dress code and the colours that outline it are not to be taken lightly,’ the headmistress told me before continuing to request that I remove my new tights. But what was the big damn deal? I was still dressed modestly, so what if I’d used a pair of tights to tell a tale slightly different to all the other stories embedded in the sea of dark skirts?

Ultimately I was sent home, but it wasn’t until almost seven years later, long out of the muddy waters that refused to permit personality cultivation by way of sartorial independence, that I realised the extent to which fashion’s power can inform the course of a woman’s ability to speak on her own behalf. To put it dramatically, I was being silenced and deprived of
the opportunity to use fashion’s tangibility and artfulness to speak for me.

While I will be the first to correct any misguided definitions of feminism – the anterior term is deep-rooted in a quest for equality – the power of self expression should not be overlooked when considering this quest. I often hear a very silly question: ‘Can you be a feminist and work in fashion?’ When offered the opportunity, I counter by enquiring whether it’s possible to do the opposite.

As an industry ruled primarily by women and effectively made in large part for us, we’re fighting for each other to feel unilaterally beautiful and consequently therefore, powerful, so how could we not be ‘feminists’?

It occurred to me around the time I launched my blog, The Man Repeller, that clothing was much more than just clothing. It was a megaphone. A mule for self-expression imbued with a sense of belonging. I for one was using the self-described ‘man repellent’ (harem pants, clogs and the like) to explain my relationship status: single during the site’s earliest stages, assuming control over the status by reasoning that in wearing my ‘repellent’, I was choosing to remain single rather than it choosing me. Yes, this was a conscious choice deeply rooted in my predilection for fabric vis-à-vis gentlemen. And though I’m married now, my token self-expressive mule patents itself differently. My leather jacket paired with leather pants and suede loafers says, ‘Fuck you, I can’t talk right now,’ whereas a pale blue shin-length ethereal slip dress festooned with lace trim denotes a sense of inviting femininity all while reiterating that no, I cannot make breakfast (this is Miu Miu, after all).

The arbiters of the fashion industry are a clear assemblage of women using their mode of dress and the choice instilled in said mode to speak. Never mind the fact that we’re using our sartorial megaphones to speak for ourselves, on a far grander scale, we are in plentiful instances, creating the megaphones that will allow us to use our respective ‘voices’.

As for that Carolina Herrera pant suit, how better to evince that it’s a woman’s world. He’s just living in it.

Taken from System No. 2.