People often forget that style is more than just clothes. Clothes are a form of self-expression, creativity, and most importantly communication. Especially now in the age of social media, personal style has been more evident than ever before. There are many different aesthetics and subcultures of fashion, each with its own origins and messages: there is “no more clear boundary between high and low, mainstream and alternative culture” 1 This also corresponds with the rise of fast fashion and the popularity of secondhand clothing, thrifting specifically. Now more than ever women have access to clothing that expresses their own ideas of fashion and individuality.
However, modern-day society remains patriarchal even with all the strides that have been made for gender equality. Women in media: film, television, music, theatre, dance, etc. were and are still being viewed under what is referred to as the male gaze. 2 The male gaze is to represent women as “objects of desire, as legacy bearers, and as real estate rather than imagined sex partners” 3 This directly benefits and is a result of the patriarchy. The idea of the male gaze has also been embedded in women’s fashion hiding under femininity. While many feminists have been advocating for women to take their femininity with pride, there are ways that the male gaze turns femininity into a realm to benefit the patriarchy’s inherent need to sexualize women at all times. Men are in control in regard to the male gaze. Alicia Malone describes the male gaze as “men are almost always doing the looking, with women left in the weaker position of being looked at” saying that it “affects how each of us view women – and how women view themselves.” 4 This includes very sexualized hyperfeminine, and often uncomfortable and impractical, clothing for women. So, while women can believe they are embracing their feminine side, it could present itself as in agreement with the male gaze.
In opposition to the male gaze, a new feminist form of thought arose. The female gaze presents women as proponents of popular culture making them “both performers and fans” 5 The female gaze is women expressing themselves only for themselves. This breaks open the box that the male gaze had trapped women in. In regard to modern women’s fashion, this can express itself in unconventional femininity. This can manifest itself in many ways since it is personal in nature. The female gaze can prioritize different aspects of clothing such as comfort, function, versatility, and sustainability. the female gaze also opens up more room for women to develop their personal style, and in the age of fast fashion and micro trends, personal style is far more difficult to achieve. Fashion under the female gaze also tends to lean into a more practical clothing shift-clothes that can be worn on many different occasions and that can be layered easily with other pieces.
The most upfront example in recent years is the depiction of the character Harley Quinn in the DC Cinematic Universe. The modern Harley Quinn audiences know, played by Margot Robbie, was first introduced in the 2016 film Suicide Squad. 6In the film Quinn is dressed in a ripped t-shirt with the phrase “Daddy’s Little Monster” printed along the front of it, shorts cut in the shape of underwear, fishnet stockings, heeled tennis shoes, and topped with a blue and red bomber style jacket. Throughout the film, Quinn is expected to fight in various modes of combat, however, her outfit does not reflect the clothes of a person who is running and fighting others. While the outfit itself is very feminine, it is apparent that this version of femininity is directed towards the predominantly male audience that the film was geared towards. Especially in comparison to the male characters of the film, who gets to wear more conservative and practical attire, Quinn sticks out like a sore thumb. In opposition, Quinn’s outfit in her subsequent film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)7, Quinn is dressed more towards the female gaze. Harley gets a series of outfit changes, all that feel more realistic to a combative fighter and woman. While the outfits are still flashy and outlandish (after all she is still a comic book character) they are geared more towards a female audience. She is still dressed in a feminine and sexual way, but the clothes express her personality far better than in the previous film. As Harley gains independence from her once abusive boyfriend in the previous film, she is able to dress for herself and her own self-expression.
Seeing Harley Quinn’s fashion evolution in media is a prime example of the shift that women’s fashion regarding the male and female gaze. While dressing towards the male gaze is not inherently awful, having the male gaze be the primary lens women are perceived in fashion only enforces the patriarchal influence on women. The female gaze is to “give women agency” on how they can be perceived by both men and women. 8 The female gaze is about expressing femininity without the sole purpose of benefitting men. It is about showing personality, uniqueness, femininity, interests, and style. Clothing is more than clothes. Clothing is a message and a reflection of the person.