An Introduction to Fashion and Feminism's Third Wave

Categories: Feminism

Fashion and Feminism's Third Wave It is easy to encapsulate the Third Wave feminist movement through the joint identification of its time period and most critical contributors thus far.

It is a greater challenge to pinpoint the Third Wave's three greatest conceptual contributions to the overarching body of the feminist movement.

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Many of the efforts of the Third Wave have contributed and continue to contribute to specific ideas of individual empowerment and the flexible identities of feminists universally.

It can be said that the Third Wave won the fights the Second could not due to a lack of popular backing to finish—including a battle for a true measure of self-expression through feminist means, a counterattack against the mainstreamed feminine ideals critiqued by the Second Wave, and a final battle to break down the diverse cultural, racial, and sexual walls separating women within the feminist movement itself—all executed through various means of pop and youth culture.

"Progress thinking”—or believing that the final influences of a movement are its highest and most articulate points—is not necessarily correct in analyzing the progression of a multi generational movement such as the feminist movement.

However, it is clear that feminism's Third Wave moves beyond the boundaries of the First and Second in relation to its power. This power has spread to the dictation of new norms in female expression through speech and dress, leading to the empowerment of women in reclaiming control of the external labels attached to their fashion choices.

The most radical changes to the women's fashion industry have come particularly with those made to the social and political aspects of the West.

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This is not to say that the Third Wave brought with it the height of Western fashion, but rather, a heightened sense of variety and freedom of choice offered to and exemplified by women easily and unreservedly exhibiting their own individual senses of style.

Fashion, as seen as an ongoing social movement concerning everything from the everyday to the avant-garde, integrates various properties of interdisciplinary frames of life, including those frames of expression such as film, literature, music, politics, and philosophy. As a rule of thumb, the ideas demonstrated through the most recent publications and projects of the time tend to dictate the fashion surrounding them.

Just as social and political ideas seem to sharpen in edginess and youth appeal generation by generation, fashion does, as well. The chronological evolution of fashion greatly mirrors the evolution of feminism—the newest trends equaling the most progressive in the eyes of the generation enacting them—the application of these concepts, up for debate each time they are introduced.

The way that fashion, especially women's fashion, assists the analysis of the Third Wave is through its own innovations and modernizations as explored through the progression of time. Fashion, as a challenge to the objectification and classification of women, serves a distinct function as a communicator of rebellion sans verbal speech.

Ms. Magazine firmly asserts, in a pretext to Rebecca Walker's “Becoming the Third Wave," that feminism is still very much "vital, necessary, and urgent," as represented by Walker's proclamation of identity as a Third Wave feminist. Walker compels her readers to contemplate: "Can a woman's experience undermine a man's career? Can a woman's voice, a woman's sense of self-worth and injustice, challenge a structure predicated upon the subjugation of our gender?" (Walker 3).

The unlikely hero, the fashion of the Third Wave, answers and encompasses the breadth of these questions. If the Third Wave is to be considered through a lens of time period beginning with Walker's declaration of its existence through her spirit, then it can be established as a movement originating in the roots of the winter of '92—a year of overalls, neon windbreakers, and those equally vibrant Zubaz shorts.

What these fashion trends challenged was a general adherence to gender norms in clothing and in the perceived experience of “the human spirit” through these articles of clothing, using Walker's poetic description of the individual soul.

Walker asserts that the Senate hearings of Anita Hill's prosecution of Clarence Thomas in 1991 on the grounds of sexual harassment concerned themselves with a more loaded struggle—they were, conceptually, “about checking and redefining the extent of women's credibility and power.” Walker goes on to comment: “I am sick of the way women are negated, violated, devalued, ignored. I am livid unrelenting in my anger at those who invade my space, who wish to take away my rights, who refuse to hear my voice.”

She extends her message to women across borders of color, class, and orientation: “I write this as a plea to all women, especially the women of my generation: Let Thomas' confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight it far from over" (Walker 4). It is important to point out, however, that Walker's call to action did not only affect the intersectional women of the Third Wave—it extended to the movement's male counterparts, as well.

Walker is referenced in the preface to her text “Being Real: An Introduction” from To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism as a promoter of intersectionality in feminism from its infancy in the Third Wave: This essay, which introduces To Be Real, was the first to face the issue of generational conflict head on.

What “being a good feminist” meant for second wavers seemed to be "without contradiction and messiness:" gender, unity between women, and solidarity based on gender seemed to characterize the world view of the second wave. This view does not make sense to third-wave feminists because third-wave lives are nothing if not messy, contradictory, and multifaceted, combining a number of identity factor (race, class, sexuality, ethnicity) that seem just as important as gender (Walker 20).

This switch in perspective and focus from the Second Wave's unilateral view of feminism to the Third Wave's cross-sectional feminism broadened the spectrum of included feminists in political and social movements worldwide for the current generation.

As stated previously, fashion in the early 1990s mirrored a cross-reference between the genders powerful enough to catch on in the mainstream media. Both boys and girls began to wear clothing of the exact styling, color palette, and sizing—a trend born in the '80s, only to reach its zenith of popularity in the '90s.

The unisex and unisize components in particular of active wear bridged a long-standing gap between clothing designed and designated separately for women and men, allowing both sexes to enjoy and sport the same exact outfits without sacrificing their individual male or female identities beyond their fashion choices.

This challenge to the previously boxed identities of who could wear specific types of clothing based on their sex was challenged at the same time Third Wave authors and speakers again challenged the notions of who could be considered a feminist of the time-carrying into today's pro-feminist campaigns, including the most recent, celebrity-endorsed "HeForShe" campaign led by actress Emma Watson. By involving more than one race, gender, sexuality, and sex, social movements proved more effective, as did fashion trends.

Conversely, a celebration of “girl power”—a superficially defining concept designed to applaud the most exclusively feminine aspects of the female gender—could be found in “that shared set of female experiences that includes Barbies and blowjobs, sexism and shoplifting, Vogue and vaginas," as deftly put by Karp and Stoller in the preface to Rebecca Munford's “Wake up and Smell the Lipgloss:' Gender, Generation and the (A)politics of Girl Power" (Munford 266).

To explain this point further, Munford uses prominent female pop artists of the '90s as examples of the mainstreaming of feminism into popular culture, a phenomenon unique to the Third Wave. “Girl culture is a far more eclectic and politically grounded phenomenon,” Munford states, citing Queen Latifah and Courtney Love as examples “of that intersection of culture and contemporary feminism called 'Girlie” (Munford 268).

The article continues to discuss slight differences between Third Wave feminist and Post feminist movements in relation to the phenomenon of "girl power," finding "slippage” between shared "mainstream notions” that ultimately lead to the location of "girl power" as a conflation of "mass-mediated manifestations of girl culture that have been central to self-proclaimed third wave feminists' formulations and contestations of [Post-feminist] identities since the beginning of the 1990s" (Munford 267, 268).

"Girl power," as a force of celebrating the iconic feminine element, presented itself in fashion as a counterpart to the same-sex trends of the early '90s—a new wave of “girl power” as fulfilled by the clothing industry dominated the market by the late '90s into the early 2000s.

Mary Janes and lacy socks, pink dip-dyed tips, baby doll dresses and the infamous crop top-all invariably feminine trends of the mid-to-late 1990s, sought after young, trendy female consumers willing to portray the loudest, most “feminine” look possible. The intent of this clothing was to bring out the most iconic feminine elements of dress conceivable; however, a sacrifice of freedom or sovereignty was never implied nor taken by the young women donning the latest and laciest looks.

Embracement of "girlie" culture was on pointe-a sacrifice of personal freedom was even more "out" than ever before. Fashion of this time celebrated a revival and reclamation of the "girlie girl," "a celebration of popular modes of femininity, including the tabooed symbols of women's feminine enculturation—Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazines, high heels,” of which “using them (wasn't] shorthand for 'we've been duped” (Munford 268).

Walker describes this contradiction between the feminist and feminine in the body of "Being Real: An Introduction." "The concept of a strictly defined and all-encompassing feminist identity is so prevalent that when I read the section in my talk about all the different things you can do and still be a feminist, audience members clap spontaneously," she says (Walker 21).

“Depending on which mythology she was exposed to,” Walker states, a woman “fears that if she wants to be spanked before sex, wants to own a BMW wants to be treated "like a lady," etc., that she can't be a feminist” (Walker 22). The difference is, Walker says—she can be, and many women who do and enjoy the same things, are. And a woman who wears Mary Janes and lacy socks, pink dip-dyed tips, baby doll dresses and crop tops, certainly can be a feminist, too.

Last, but not least, the contributions of the Third Wave in inspiring and supporting DIY or "do-it-yourself” trends have critically helped in the development of youth culture. DIY feminism is the notion that grassroots activists of all ages, races, genders, and sexualities can create and promote their own choice causes in relation to the feminist cause, sans academia and monetary wealth.

Regardless of relative capacity to inform on a mass scale, feminists can act on their personal missions as activists for social change through the creation and promotion of independent forms of media and communication. This idea is most commonly presented by Third Wavers in the form of zines and grassroots-organized rallies, such as Riot Grrrl and SlutWalk, respectively.

As Munford states in “Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss,” “Through the circulation of girl-centered zines and the creation of all-female record labels, the do-it-yourself' ethos of early Riot Grrrl challenged conventional conceptualizations of the necessarily gendered relationship between (male) production and (female) consumption within the corporate music industry” (Munford 269).

Punk as a perpetrator of a rugged and rebellious style falls hand-in-hand with the DIY elements of Third Wave feminism. Unreduced, real, and tangible, the 1980s punk scene carried with it ripped jeans and bad-girl attitudes, attaching itself to the feminism of tomorrow.

The specifically feminist punk blend of the Riot Grrrl movement provided "a response to dominant representations of patriarchal girlhood by forging spaces in which girls and young women [were] empowered to resist and moreover, to produce their own self-representations,” Munford states, suggesting that this element of the Third Wave carries on through to the current day (Munford 269).

It is particularly interesting to note that the fashion choices made by the performing artists of Riot Grrrl often carried the overtly feminine features mentioned previously as being parts of the mainstream fashion scene in the mid-to-late 1990s.

While Riot Grrrl may have expressed interest in remaining underground, many the DIY elements of Punk crossed over into the mainstream from its underground roots in rebellious youth music culture. Harking back to the intersectionality of the Third Wave movement, Riot Grrrl music and DIY style allowed a revolution of multiplicity to occur in the fan base of subterranean Punk culture.

“We fear that the [feminist) identity will dictate and regulate our lives, instantaneously pitting us against someone forcing us to choose inflexible and unchanging sides, female against male, black against white, oppressed against oppressor, good against bad,” Walker proclaims in “Being Real: An Introduction” (Walker 22).

Not only were these concepts destroyed by the intersectional perspectives of the Riot Grrrl movement, comprised of female-led bands with members of different races, orientations, and economic classes. Diversity within the realm of music and fashion related to performers within the Riot Grrrl movement allowed the Third Wave to influence the fashion scene through the music industry—a common interdisciplinary interaction between art fields.

Again, the influence of the Second Wave in the fashion and dress of “Girlie” as opposed to Riot Grrrl explains a generational difference in the aesthetic presentation of feminism, as described by Munford in “Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss,” stating, “It is no surprise...that the ‘fashion statements' of this lipgloss-coated form of 'girlie' feminism have been received with suspicion by second wave feminists (Munford 275).

“Girlie risks reinforcing a binary between culture and politics that privileges between embracing lipgloss to revalorize traditional paradigms of 'femininity' and lobbying for change in legislation of public policy,” Munford writes. "The problem with Girlie is that, unlike Riot Grrrl, too often the lipgloss, high heels, Barbies and vibrators are more visible than a body of politics—rendering it a ready site for Post feminist colonization” (Munford 275).

Like in fashion, the catchiest trends in feminism designed for youth are always high-risk. “In foregrounding age as a key signifier of difference in formulations and understandings of young feminists'identities, Riot Grrrl not only points up a politics of gender, but also of generation," Munford states in "Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss” (Munford 269). A generation of rebellion, grunge, and alternative taste, the children of the 1990s raged against the machine in their own, autonomous ways.

The Third Wave has existed since the infancy of the Internet and continues to grow an online presence through categorized “Post-feminist” and Neo-feminist postings and comments on recent media and events. Social media is the new wave of independent feminist expression, just as it is the new medium of fashion communication.

The latest anything is possible to grab at a user's fingertips. This being said, it is truly up to the women and men of today to continue to develop and promote the Third Wave so that it survives—its true impact is doubted by individuals who choose to label this time frame “Post-feminist.”

Feminist activism is still very much a part of Western youth culture and DIY, brought forth by activists of all walks of life, owing to the impact of the Third Wave movement itself. The Third Wave crystallized the concepts its forerunners could not because of other necessities and battles to be won on the social and political stages, so that perhaps now, the rainbow of feminine aesthetic and culture can be truly appreciated, respected, and esteemed.

Works Cited

  1. Gillis, Stacy, Gillian Howie, and Rebecca Munford. "Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss." Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 267-78. Print.
  2. Walker, Rebecca. "Becoming the Third Wave." Ms. Magazine 39.41 (1992): 3-5. Web. Walker, Rebecca. "Being Real: An Introduction." To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995): 19-23. Web.
Updated: Oct 06, 2021
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An Introduction to Fashion and Feminism's Third Wave. (2021, Oct 06). Retrieved from

An Introduction to Fashion and Feminism's Third Wave essay
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