First of all, I (Millie) should mention that we’re participating in Franca’s excellent Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. Throughout March, we’ll have posts on a different topic (which will follow from a roundtable discussion yet to come); this is the first one. Head over to Oranges and Apples to get all the details!
I had a bit of trouble initially choosing a feminist fashion icon. Though I have a passing knowledge of professional fashion, I don’t follow it, and don’t have an icon of any sorts within their ranks. So I thought a bit, and while it may be an odd choice, I’m going to write about Joan of Arc. Admittedly, she’s way more than a fashion icon — she’s incredible and astounding in pretty much any light, what with the whole demanding an audience with the King to be of France, leading an army in a seemingly impossible to win battle, winning, and sticking to her convictions that she was divinely inspired despite incredible pressure. But, along with all that, she wore pants.
Joan of Arc, in brief: she’s a illiterate peasant girl who at the age of twelve, starts to have divine visions. France is losing badly in the Hundred Year’s War, and at 16, she heads to the Dauphin to say, essentially “Hi, God sent me to take back France. Give me an army.” She gets an army at 17, lifts the siege of Orleans (which was nearly impossible, by most accounts), continues to have incredible success on the battlefield, gets the Dauphin crowned King of France, is captured by the Burgundians while defending, was sold to the English and no-one does much of anything to help her (even though there’s good evidence they could’ve). She is tried for heresy, and ultimately burnt at the stake.
What’s left out of most accounts of Joan is that she cross-dressed, long before she stepped onto a battlefield, and ultimately that’s what she was sentenced to death for. As soon as she left her home in the French countryside, she started to wear men’s clothing, while at the same time calling herself “The Maiden.” Of course, this didn’t go over so well with a lot of people, particularly the Catholic Church, but she was a naturally brilliant commander, and her success in battle overshadowed her non-conformity until she was captured. She insisted on wearing men’s clothing while imprisoned, saying that first, God had told her to wear men’s clothing, secondly it was a form of protection against the guards who tried to rape her, and thirdly one of the guards had taken away her women’s clothing so she had no choice but to wear men’s clothing. The charges laid against her also made note of her short cropped hair and various swords and daggers (which were deemed men’s weapons). She wore men’s clothing to a trial, talked circles around the clerics who tried to convince her that as an illiterate peasant woman, she shouldn’t trust her uncannily deep knowledge, and eventually made her sign a piece of paper (that she may or may not’ve been able to read — there’s some evidence that by this time she had learned to read) that said her cross dressing was in fact not divinely commanded, and instead went against Catholic doctrine. The paper said that Joan would serve a life sentence for heresy and never wear men’s clothing again, but a few days later, she recanted (possibly because she found out what the paper actually said), appeared in court in men’s clothing, saying that she was wearing men’s clothing of her own free will, because she preferred it to women’s clothing. She was denounced as an irredeemable heretic, and sentenced to death, and was burnt to death in men’s clothing.
(Sidenote: There’s considerable discussion now about whether or not Joan was transgendered or homosexual or bisexual, in light of her insistence on cross dressing and habits of sleeping with women. We’ll never know, of course, and it’s difficult and potentially problematic to assign modern understandings of gender and sexuality to historical contexts, so I’m not going any farther with this train of thought, but it is worth noting.)
Clearly, she was absolutely incredible.
But the crucial bit that got her sentenced to death is often omitted or glossed over. Images and statues of her frequently have her in battle gear with long flowing hair — and images of her out of battle gear usually show her in women’s dress (again with long hair). It’s not like her image was undocumented: her trial proceedings were well kept and have survived to this day, and of course her dress is brought up throughout the proceedings. But a determined woman who defies convention is a difficult figure, and it’s not like we’re, as a society, at ease with gender-nonconformity (or the appearance of such). It’s easier as a society to sweep away the specifics of why she was deemed a heretic and leave a simple, iconic image of a hero instead. But feminism is, in part, about non-conformity: not accepting what society tells us our place is, not accepting institutionalized discrimination, not accepting being erased, whether it be for our gender, race, sexuality, or other reason we’re marked as different. Feminism is about standing up for our identities, stories, and selves, proudly stating that we are who we are, and we aren’t going to step aside. Joan of Arc could teach us a thing or two about that.
I put this together from a variety of unfortunately second hand sources on the internet — most of them referenced scholarly work which either I don’t have access to or isn’t online. I linked to this post by Sady at Tiger Beatdown in the Thursday Links a while back, and if you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend taking a few minutes and clicking over.