In order to explain my process in relation to the Feminist world of Female Gang members, I need to start with the symbolism and relation between suits, power and female liberation. I was reading Prof Emma L.E. Rees’ chapter in Harrisons’ 2018 work ‘Pornographies’ and her first paragraph sparked a whole line of investigation for me.
“It may seem strange, but bear with me, to begin a chapter in a book about pornography, and to articulate for the first time a concept – the ‘New Explicit’ – by considering an image not of oiled and lissom bodies intertwined in the throes of priapic agitation, but of the assembled participants of the G8 forum (the leaders of the world’s largest industrial democratic nations). It is an easy enough photograph to find on the Internet (I’m referring to the G8 picture, here, although numerous versions of the other one are, these days, just as easily accessed), and what is immediately striking about it, year in and year out, is how utterly homogeneous it is. The G8 leaders are hegemony and the patriarchy in formation. The picture will, inevitably, show a row of men in an unimaginative uniform of suits and ties, offset by just one woman (still in a trouser suit, but dressed a little more colourfully than her male counterparts). This is a disturbing image: here is where real power resides, in the hands of gurning, well-fed men in suits.” Rees (2018) Chapter 4 ‘Revolting Women Performing the ‘New Explicit”
The part that jumped out to me was this link between suits, male power and female power – or lack thereof. I began reading further into how women have utilised fashion to create a sense of power, this links back to self-representation which I touched upon in my Slut-Sliding Scale piece before Christmas, albeit from a different angle. Betty Luther Hillman (2013) states that ‘self-representation remains a contested topic amongst feminists today, as activists continue to debate the implications of fashion and beauty culture for women‘. (An extract taken from ‘“The Clothes I Wear Help Me to Know My Own Power”: The Politics of Gender Presentation in the Era of Women’s Liberation’) I think the title of the journal speaks for itself if I’m honest! Hillman goes on to discuss suits and the symbolism related to them in the fight for women’s liberation. ‘Growing acceptance of women’s pantsuits signaled an even more significant change. Fashion designers had promoted pantsuits for women as business and evening wear in the 1960s, but the styles were initially controversial. As pantsuits became increasingly popular among American women by the 1970s, women themselves began to fight various social establishments that restricted the style.’ She also points out ‘newspapers and magazines often portrayed the growing popularity of pantsuits and miniskirts as indications of the spread of feminist values among “mainstream” American women’.
The Queen herself puts this whole idea quite beautifully in her 2018 Elle Women in Hollywood speech. I won’t even try to step on her words, quote or analyse them because she speaks for herself.
I then went got a bit of a bee in my bonnet and did a whole deep dive into the history of Women’s Suits and the notion of ‘Power Dressing’. This is a great source from Vogue: https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/the-evolution-of-the-power-shoulder
I also wanted to just set out a clear history of Women wearing suits to see if anything jumped out at me visually. I just popped everything into my sketchbook so I had them to refer back to when sketching out ideas.
Along this journey I came across ‘La Pachucas’, a Mexican-American Female Gang derived from the zoot-suit-wearing Pachucos. These women defied gender stereotypes simply by pushing back against the idea of women being domesticated delicate beings. Their choice to also don the iconic Zoot Suit whilst keeping beautifully coiffed hairstyles and feminine twists encapsulate this way of existing in a man’s world.
I find these women truly fascinating so I followed my nose down the line of enquiry, leading on to other suit-wearing ‘Girl Gangs’ such as the 1950’s British Teddy Girls. This androgynous suit-donning subculture is yet another visible use of fashion in defying gender stereotypes, thus being Feminist beacons simply by existing.
I started to create mood boards and sketching ideas as I was researching, I like the idea of playing with scale to create a fun, fresh take on these styles. Think oversized trilbys and fedoras adorned with flowers paired with comfortable, practical soft tailoring.
I love the idea of uniforms identifying you as part of a gang, subculture or movement so looked into all-female gangs across cultures and decades before I came across the 70’s Japanese ‘Sukeban’ crews. Having not been allowed to join male-gangs, they created their own badass rebellious groups. They took their school uniforms post-graduation and customised using embroidery, punk elements and borrowed-from-the-boys leathers. This Dazed blog is a great quick intro source: https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/28261/1/remembering-japans-badass-70s-schoolgirl-gangs
I began to read up on women in crime, female gangs and female violence to see if there was any evidence to support my visual research, or anything that could enhance the ‘micro-trend’ I was beginning to create. Larkin (2015) states that ‘Current theoretical explanations for young women’s violence examine physical violence as a masculine behaviour. This means that young women are constructed as rejecting elements of their femininity in favour of masculine behaviours in order to perform violence in an acceptable way, which results in them being constructed as violent femmes, new lads or ladettes.’ This little extract supports my vision of female gangs are linked with rejecting femininity and this idea of ‘putting on’ a man’s behaviour in the same way as you would ‘put on’ a man’s suit. I wanted to play with this idea.
I then went back to sketching out and came up with a ‘final line up’ of 6 outfits that fit in with the trend. I added oversized pockets just from personal frustration of the lack of functional pockets in women-clothing, so I thought it would be a nice fun little twist to make them comically big! Ha Ha Patriarchy, take that! I painted in my colours using watercolour just to bring the ideas to life a little more and communicate the feminine sense of fun I wanted to bring to what is a dark and violent strain of research to base work on.
Finally, I drew up my ideas in vector format to more formally ‘plan out’ how the designs would be realised if I were to go ahead and make them in 3D, I decided to add in some Japanese Kanji symbols to celebrate the way the Sukeban would customise their uniforms. Thanks to my lovely translator boyfriend (he does come in handy) I was sent me the translations for ‘Girl Gang’, ‘Suit Up’ and ‘Female Power’.
Outfits 1 and 2 flats
Outfits 3 and 4 flats
Outfits 5 and 6 flats
Finally, to play and experiment, I began to see how I could apply these symbols and phrases to materials.