(Identity)

How Fashion Helped Me Fully Embrace Feminism

Style as an act of radical self love.

By Stephanie Pérez-Gurri

I love clothes. I love seeing them hang in my closet. I cherish each piece the same way that someone treasures a lock of their child's hair, in that it provides me with memories and sentimental value. Getting dressed gives me sustenance; it offers me an identity; it helps me push back against outside expectations of who and how I should be. I think of my style as feminism, so much so that I feel a personal responsibility to wear what I want to wear, so that it sends a message that I love my body and feel free to completely express myself with it.

This wasn’t always the case. I am a first generation Cuban-American who grew up in Miami. I was raised close to my roots and very religious. My upbringing taught me to have a sense of ambivalence towards clothing through the idea that women who love themselves don’t actually dress for themselves. I dressed modestly, and not without shame. Generally, Miami is the sun's-out-buns-out city, and the stereotype is that women wear sexy mesh and high-cut bikini bottoms and body-con dresses. Coming from a religious, traditionally Hispanic household, this always stuck out to me; an awareness of objectification is part of what deterred me from having fun and seeking authenticity with fashion. Still, I often felt best when I was in a fitting room trying on bright, somewhat revealing clothes.

Is my need to express myself through clothing a failure to be a real feminist?

Some of my earliest memories of getting dressed are centered around my Catholic school uniform. Girls were required to wear pleated skirts, long sleeve button-downs, and ties; our footwear options were tube socks with either penny loafers or oxfords. This combination also came with several rules: the top button on our shirts needed to be buttoned at all times, our skirts needed to fall right below the knees, and our socks needed to be above the ankle. And girls — even those with straight As — were punished more harshly for breaking these norms while the standard was very lax for boys. So, from a very young age, I learned that my body was a powerful, sexual entity — but instead of embracing that, I believed the female body needed to be tamed.

And yet, there were so many times I wanted to explore the way things looked on my figure. I wanted to dive into the Regina George era of a short pleated skirt and a bright bra that exposed through a white translucent tank top. I wanted to wear skin tight leggings with a sports bra and shimmery eyeshadow à la Britney Spears’s 1999 VMA performance. I wanted to wear jean cut-offs with a daisy print top that showed my midriff just like Hilary Duff in Lizzie McGuire. I wanted to wear big gold hoops and a velour Juicy Couture suit with a bandana holding my boobs up the way J.Lo did in her “I’m Real” music video.

But I also couldn’t tell if my desire to do those things was because I wanted to stand out from my family, or if that's when I felt the most myself. Since I didn’t allow myself much room for exploration, these were things left to fantasy. Meanwhile, I dressed modestly as a means to not ruffle anyone's feathers.

My mindset began to evolve as I learned about feminist movement in college, but my style did not. I am grateful to the women who taught me about equality, throwing red paint at the patriarchy, and how to advocate for women’s rights, but generally, they wore buttoned-up blouses, combat boots, and bootcut pants — an aesthetic that, while certainly different from my strict school uniform, still did not feel like me. Sometimes their heads were shaven, or kept really short to prevent any need for upkeep. Their outfits were mostly in neutral tones, like whites and blacks. But I could tell that they felt comfortable in the way they dressed and didn’t feel like they had any curiosity to change things up. They exuded confidence in their appearance, whereas I still emanated pure uncertainty.

I believed in all feminist ideals I was absorbing, but I also loved clothes and didn’t want to keep my sense of style a secret anymore. So I asked myself: Is my need to express myself through clothing a failure to be a real feminist? Could a feminist reach their authentic selves through clothes? Can clothing amplify a feminists voice instead of muffle it? Can you only be a feminist by dressing like a man?

It may surprise some to learn I found my answers in fashion. When I graduated and moved to New York to pursue a career as an editor, my idea of style was to dress seriously if I wanted to be taken seriously. But throughout my nearly 10 years in the industry what I learned about women and the way they dress is that they should simply do it for themselves. I had a coworker who wore a form of hot pink everyday. Another showed her midriff because it brought her closer to her Indian roots. And one colleague often arrived to the office in fishnet stockings and platform creepers.

I felt lucky to be amongst people who used clothing as a form of expression. There was a sense of cultural ownership, and I saw people dressing as a means to honor their history and identity — not harsh rules. My tenure as a fashion editor solidified my love for clothing and removed the shame that used to come with it. Through my experience in fashion I learned that clothing can be a sense of deep expression: It symbolizes one's struggles, one's triumphs, and overall, one's view of oneself.

Now, fully into my adulthood, I’ve also begun to see the parallels between my relationship to my clothes and my relationship to my body. Over the years, I built my narratives of what isn’t right about my figure and what I should — and shouldn’t — wear. My body affected my sense of self and when I added the concept of clothes, it gave me a further sense of limitation. But these days I’m at peace with myself and the way I look. That is such a big place to come to and to accept, and I’m glad I’ve arrived! I feel free in what I wear, no matter how revealing or colorful or covered-up or muted. I look forward to expressing myself in new ways any given day.

The idea that women should fit any specific style mold is a direct contradiction to feminism itself. Sure, dress modestly if that’s what the individual inside you chooses to do. But don’t hide yourself (literally and figuratively) if that only feeds into the “ideals” your were taught. By simply putting on whatever outfit I want, I’m reclaiming ownership of my body and every opinion that has ever been said about it. Feminism, to me, is loving your body and adorning it with whatever brings you joy. Because what on earth could be more feminist than a person who loves themself?