This is part 3/the last part of a 3 part series.
In the first instalment of this series, we took a critical look at the idea of “quirky” style using the example of Zooey Deschanel in an old-ish article of Lucky Magazine (April 2011). In the second instalment, we reviewed tropes and quirky guy style.
Today is the last (and long overdue) post on our Questioning Quirky Style Series. Of concern for our last portion of this discussion is how “quirky” often seems to be a comment on the abilities of the wearer.
Indeed, the quirky dresser (who is almost always a woman as we discussed in our last post) is presumed to be childish, charmingly naive, and adorably incapable. All of these things, coincidentally (or not) are stereotypes often associated with women who live with disabilities.
Self-identified women in general have a long history of being presumed mentally delicate, the ‘fairer sex’, etc. After all, one of the many reasons women were not given the right to vote from the start was because women were assumed to not have the head for politics, or were considered far too vulnerable to the dirty doings that the political world had to offer–they were childish, mentally inferior and immature, etc. All of these things seem to be magnified for women living with disabilities*.
How all this relates to a women who care for outfits like the one above (The Like) might be a bit of a stretch, but still, think about it: would folks, the media, etc, generally presume that the women above are
A. Physically weak, easily distracted, have a collective sweet tooth, just having fun all the time, in need of protection or guidance somehow, boy-crazy but not sexual
B. Strong in all ways, focused, ambitious, conscientious, balance work and play, need a little help from their friends now and then but is pretty much able to do what they want when they want to?
Now, there is nothing wrong with being either of these things (though the first one in particular is one trope of women that we very often see in the media). What is problematic assumptions that come along with looking like you might be a ‘quirky’ girl. Zooey Deschanel recently came out as a feminist in Glamour magazine, complaining of her frustration that the media wouldn’t somehow allow her to be a feminist and have a love of things associated with the quirky trope.
The first part of this series observed how despite Deschanel explicitly said she didn’t like the word “quirky” or being associated with the concept, she was still pigeonholed as such by the writer of her cover story. In other words, Deschanel was treated like a child, or someone who is just too cute to take seriously. Can you imagine the writer thinking to themselves, “Aw, Zooey is getting all fired up! I just can’t help but call her quirky!” Deschanel’s choices and preferences were overlooked–she was in her late twenties in that interview, and was still treated like she couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about.
The ‘quirky’ fashion figure has long been associated often playfully (which in turn is problematic) with mental health and wellness. We see this with ableist language like “madcap glamour”, “crazy style”, etc.
Interestingly, a quick trip to an online thesaurus shows that synonyms for ‘quirky’ are in fact many words that are commonly used derogatorily against folks living with disabilities. “Weird” is one of those words, which Deschanel noted, and so is “eccentric,” which is one term often associated with the late Isabella Blow.
Blow was a fashion editor who discovered Alexander McQueen, Sophie Dahl, and Stella Tenant. She was and still is a “quirky” style icon. According to Vogue, Blow was, “the embodiment of the English eccentric,” which, though sartorially charming, was and still is very frequently associated with her struggles with depression. As such, we might see the well-established connection between such style and mental health.
Above: The Like
Moving forward, how can we reframe the idea of “quirky” style, if we need to at all?
Three things in particular seem to be satisfactory solutions:
1. Use the term that people prefer. If people want to be called quirky, go with it. If they say no, like Deschanel did, don’t do it!
2. Call yourself out on the assumptions you’re making about how people dress. Are you looking at someone (like one of The Like members above) and thinking you just want to pick them up and put them in your pocket?
3. Expand your fashion vocabulary. Okay, so we’ve got ‘quirky’, but there’s also unconventional, unique, gamine, mod, eccentric, colourful, bright, fun, etc–try them out!
*Women living with disabilities face a disproportionate amount of violence, social barriers, and oppression. Learn more over at DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), which is a Canadian, volunteer-driven, feminist organization.