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An attention to aesthetics in a fashion context has long been considered ‘frivolous’. It’s written off as evidence of a lack of intelligence, a troubling disinterest in more “serious” matters - and relegated to the realm of women and gay men. Women are supposed to be effortlessly beautiful and femme (but isn’t the essence of femme a visible “effort” - a deliberate “excess” of feminine signifiers?), but if we are too femme, too concerned with our own aesthetics, then we must be unintelligent and shallow.
I’ve found that the more high-femme I look, the more street harassment I get, so I feel “safer” when I’m not presenting as explicitly femme. That I can choose to look more or less femme and have it only influence my safety in subtle gradations is evidence of my cis-privilege. In her TEDx Talk “Free the Femme: The Aesthetics of Survival,” Hari Nef talks about how for trans women, presenting as femme (and thus “passing” as a socially acceptable form of ‘female’) can be a means of survival, a matter of life and death.
Fashion is deeply political. Clothes are how we code ourselves in the public realm, they are a language of class, political affiliations, gender presentation, and so much else. 20th Century fashion history teaches us this. When women cut their hair into bobs in the 1920s, when their hemlines rose in the 1960s, when they burned their bras in the 1970s – these were all acts of resistance against a patriarchal control that extended (still extends) into aesthetics. Women have historically been forced to use mundane objects as weapons – the coat-hanger abortion, the keys clutched between fingers on a walk home at night. So why shouldn’t we also use the everyday trappings of femme as a defense against male violence? I’ve always loved the idea of high-femme paraphernalia being transformed into weaponry – lipstick in a bullet casing, nail file knives, stilettos as pickaxes. The female body has always been a battleground (cheers Barbara Kruger). Clothes can be shackles, and they can also be armor.
Getting dressed is a highly evocative act. It can be a textile collage of eras, of film references, of borrowed style. I like to look at my outfits as a kind of pastiche - a tongue-in-cheek form of cultural memory, a campy mix of real and imagined characters. Below are some of my go-to Powerful Femme looks and their imagined associated literature, my personal “binder full of femmes.”
70s Feminist Academic
I like to channel this femme when I do studious things like go to the library or hang out with old people. She’s the sartorial happy medium between Annie Hall (minus creepy Woody Allen) and Therese from Carol, with a wink to schoolgirl and librarian fetishes.
New Jersey Mob Wife
If Carmela Soprano were kitschier, more camp, and the femme fatale we always knew she could be. This femme has a thick Jersey accent, smokes cigars and reads Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus.
90s Power Lesbian
She is somewhere between bombshell Bette Porter from The L Word and the notorious Sex and the City Power Lesbians (Season 2, Episode 6), with some Susan Sontag butchcamp thrown in for good measure. All well-cut minimalist suits, snug mock turtlenecks and Elizabeth Scott wet dreams, this soft-femme is too bougie for Cubby Hole, but is (somewhat guiltily) partial to slicked back hair and sucking on Pall Malls out her midtown corner-office window.
The Love Child of Mrs Robinson & Samantha Jones
Though this is obviously impossible due to era differences, this high-femme pipe dream is a steamy one. All garters, leopard print and suits, this femme is at her most assertive both behind a desk and lounging on satin sheets. Dustin Hoffman has literally nothing to do with it.