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Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, by Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

Review copy provided by the publisher.

What a weird book.

There are places where it does an excellent job of focusing on mainstream fashion, where a lot of what I’ve read about feminism and fashion has been focused on radicalism. And that’s really useful–the places where the average woman’s attitudes about each topic interrelate can be interesting and illuminating. Rabinovitch-Fox is fairly good at looking how white middle-class examples percolate into respectability for working-class and/or Black women, too.

However, one of the major limitations of this approach is that it ends up giving the rather strong impression that fashion flows from White women to Black women–because the pattern of “and then Black women picked up this middle-class White trend to gain respectability” does of course only flow one way, but that is not the only thing that happens in fashion, not in general and not in its relationship to feminism. It’s just the focus of this book that makes it look that way.

Further, as often happens with American history writing, the ideas of race are basically limited to Black/White…even when the fashion in question is “kimono”/”Oriental”-style. Rabinovitch-Fox has a chance to discuss what actual Japanese-American women thought of the Western fashion trends that claimed to derive from their own heritage but actually had only a loose relationship to those garments, how those women’s access to those trends differed from White women’s, but that was an opportunity lost here. As were several others–rural women. Cleaners. The generalizations Rabinovitch-Fox falls back on here hold in many cases but sometimes obscure more than they illuminate. If you want to know what middle-class women are buying off the rack as relates to mainstream feminism, this isn’t particularly deep, but it makes a start.

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