By sewing garments from recycled or found materials and photographing them, I am exploring how realities of femininity and feminism manifest within my mother, my grandmothers, and me, and how these realities materialize in our relationships. I have always been drawn to aesthetics of femininity – soft, floral, light – and I have also always felt connected to a feminine identity and image, especially in terms of my interests (art, reading, writing, sewing, etc.). I have been enthralled with clothing and fashion design as a means of expression and creativity since I was young. The fashion industry, however, is inherently oppressive on every level; it is exploitative in terms of sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution practices, and it is exclusionary in advertising and sizing. The current predicament of our earth and society – defined by irreversible climate change and struggles for worker’s rights and liberation – begs the question: where does fashion fit into our society?
Given this bleak reality of the fashion industry, I am using the lens of ecofeminism to ground my inquiries, which is founded in the belief that feminism and ecology are inherently intertwined. The theory highlights the dynamics of gender within human domination over “nature,” which manifests in imperialism, colonialism, animal agriculture, materialism, capitalism, and, ultimately, climate change (Gaard, Oksala). While ecofeminism has been criticized in the past for being ethnocentric and essentialist, especially regarding cisgender normativity and the exclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, it is, in its truest form, an intersectional framework (Gaard). Feminism, as an anti-oppression movement and ideology with its primary focus on opposing patriarchal power structures, must necessarily extend beyond the gender binary (as the gender binary is a product of the patriarchy itself). Ecofeminism implicates all modes of oppression, recognizing that all oppressive forces are inextricably linked (Gaard, Oksala). Thus, “a viable feminist critique for our time requires confronting head-on the severe ecological crisis that we are currently living through” (Oksala 216), and confronting ecological crises is crucial to feminism because patriarchal values and norms have served to oppress women and nature simultaneously. (I would expand “women” to “all non-cisgendered and/or heterosexual men.”) The oppression of one necessarily impacts the other: people exist within an environment and are impacted by its destruction, and the environment itself is harmed when it is commodified within a patriarchal and capitalist structure (Gaard, Oksala).
I am considering how patriarchal structures take advantage of femininity as a tool to profit from and control women, and how ecofeminism acts to resist this exploitation. Patriarchal exploitation is evidenced in human rights abuses and the ever-increasing threat of climate change as byproducts of excessive materialism. In looking at domesticity and the historical confinement of women to the private sector, we see how women’s work – including reproductive work (which implicates sex) – have been invaluable yet unpaid commodities: they inherently uphold capitalist society by providing free labor (Oksala). Simultaneously, sex and eroticism have become shameful topics and thus a way to further control women through shame and to further commodify bodies and desire (Gaard). The social realities that inform my personhood – both historical and current – are often defined by patriarchy, capitalism, and production. Thus, much of my personhood, perhaps including my affinity for femininity, is a product of these realities.
In order to connect to and investigate femininity as it manifests within me and my matriarchal line, I have constructed a pair of underwear out of old fabric with leaves and flowers sewn on as decoration, two bras made of leaves, and an undergarment set with embroidered floral designs, and I have photographed them in different contexts: on the body, in ambiguous natural backgrounds, with blank backgrounds, and in places we would normally find undergarments, such as the bathroom.
As a traditionally domestic and feminine practice, sewing not only produces feminine aesthetics, but allows me to perform domestic rituals and feminist resistance by mimicking the practices of domestic seamstresses and craftswomen such as my grandmother, and drawing from the traditions of feminist artists who embroider to resist, such as Judy Chicago (Kim). Further, sewing garments references the body – they are meant to be worn – andexpression – wearing clothing necessarily manipulates the presentation of the body, so donning clothing is tied to defining the self through performance (Butler). Some of the photographs of my garments on the body echo Sally Mann’s early work; Mann examines the body’s relationship with fabric, plants, water, and different textures, and displays how fabric plays off of and interacts with the body in different contexts. The body itself is intrinsic to identity, and in order to highlight the roles of the body and of performance in personhood, in my work I draw attention to the body by photographing the garments on the figure.
Further, types of garments, construction techniques, decorative traditions, different ways of sewing, and materials themselves are grounded in histories, and present a way to connect and identify with these crucial aspects of personhood (Tranberg Hansen). The third garment in my series, for example, draws inspiration from the embroidery practice of my grandmother, and is made to look like a vintage undergarment set – something she would have worn – which hearkens to my personal family history, and my grandmother’s expressions of femininity. More tangibly, in using recycled and found materials, I heed the notion that each piece of material has its own history – it has come into being in the world and has followed a certain progression of transformations in order to come into my possession; I draw on the work of Valeska Soares to emulate this notion of history, whose sculptural installation works of found domestic objects portray a sense of intimacy and timelessness, and promote nostalgia. In my work, I study manifestations of femininity by connecting to personal history and nostalgia.
Additionally, through using recycled materials with inherent histories, I ponder the general throwaway mentality and materialism of our society as driving forces of climate change and exploitation, and place value upon individualized and handmade pieces of clothing. Further, in using raw foliage for some of my garments, as I collect and work with the materials, they are necessarily decaying and dying; through capturing decay and death, I ponder the desolation that humans subject the Earth to by exploiting natural resources, and the lack of sustainability within actual garment production and the cycle of consumption.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, London, Routledge, 1990.
—. Undoing Gender. New York, Routledge, 2004.
Gaard, Greta. “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism.” Feminist Formations, vol. 23, no. 2, 2011, pp. 26–53, 10.1353/ff.2011.0017.
—. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 1997, pp. 114–137, 10.2979/hyp.19188.8.131.52.
Hansen, Karen Tranberg. “The World in Dress: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, no. 1, Oct. 2004, pp. 369–392, 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143805.
Kim, E. Tammy. “Opinion | The Feminist Power of Embroidery.” The New York Times, 29 Dec. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/12/29/opinion/sunday/feminist-embroidery-korea.html.
Kotz, Liz. “The Body You Want : Liz Kotz Interviews Judith Butler.” Artforum, vol. 31, Nov. 1992, pp. 82–89.
Oksala, Johanna. “Feminism, Capitalism, and Ecology.” Hypatia, vol. 33, no. 2, 23 Jan. 2018, pp. 216–234, 10.1111/hypa.12395.