Cover for LAYNE: Feminist Technology. Click for larger imageOne of the questions raised by the discussion with my students regarding the virtues and vices of making birth control packs look like compacts is the relationship of fashion with feminism.

I refer here not to the perennial questions of whether one can be ‘pretty’ and still a feminist or whether one can wear (or adorn one’s kindle or phone in) pink, and still be a feminist, though these questions remain compelling for my students almost all of whom began the course unwilling to label themselves feminist. 

I’m thinking now of the role of fashion in consumer culture and whether its pervasiveness serves women well or ill.  ‘Fashion’ is one of the primary means for getting people to buy goods they don’t need.

According to Strasser (1999:188), in her book on the social history of trash, middle-class Americans women were introduced to the concept of fashion through clothing in the 1850s, and the notion had been extended to many other items by the 1920s. It was at this time, for instance, that bathroom fixtures started to be available in different colors.

As Sallie Han notes in her comment to my previous post, when we personalize mass produced items with fashion accessories, we often do so with other mass produced, often gendered items. 

From an ecological, socialist, or existential feminist position, the spread of ‘fashion’ to every increasing range of cheap, mass-produced goods, such as the ‘fashionable’ pill pack is not in women’s best interest (or men’s either). At an individual level, it’s a waste of money, is probably made by underpaid, toxically-exposed women in the South, uses nonrenewable resources to produce and transport, and when it ends up in a landfill will be nonbiodegradable.

Does this form of self-expression serve women well? How do such products extend their capacities, and/or further their life projects?

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Linda L. Layne is the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of anthropology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She co-edited the new book Feminist Technology.

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