Fashion and feminism

Story by: Olivia Knott

A conveniently pleasant sounding alliteration or a powerful combination of social and artistic forces?

As Spring/Summer 2015 fashion week, when hundreds of fashion shows occur in several cities of the world between September and October, came to an end in Paris, Chanel managed to capture the spotlight, not for their usual tweed and quilted handbags, but for a full-on runway protest. Imagine tweed, quilted handbags and picket signs referencing current events such as Emma Watson’s “He For She” campaign speech or slogans such as “History is Her Story” and the ridiculous “Boys should get pregnant too.”

Should we all throw our hands up in the air and cheer? Fashion has taken a stance! Fashion and feminism do coexist! And bonus! The two words sound great together!

Unfortunately, Chanel’s “protest” got it all wrong. Feminism is about equal rights. The fashion industry, a business inherently invested in commoditizing a desired beauty standard, consequently bears a highly complicated relationship to the core tenet of this ideology. It seems that before attempting to take a stance on equal rights, fashion houses first need to address their own standards of beauty for women.

More so, this faux-protest uses a movement for equality to create a theatrical visual, trivializing the issues at hand. It played into angry-feminist stereotypes (ahem, boys should get pregnant too?) and created a spectacle of feminism to entertain viewers, rather than using its platform to create a powerful statement about women’s rights founded with context and an explanation.

Fashion Feminism

Photo from Vogue Italia
Models protest at the Chanel fashion show.

Alicia Underhill, a third-year Commerce Student and Vice President of the Futures in Fashion Association, a new CIO for U.Va. students interested in working in the fashion industry, gained her first working experience as an intern at a Washington D.C. modeling agency.

“At ‘face value,’ there seemed to me to be very little room for feminism only because modeling is a part of the industry that is solely focused on a look — and not the ideas and opinions of individuals involved. “

Underhill continues, “It’s a shame that this [aesthetic] part of fashion is how most people interact with the industry as a whole because it makes it seem that fashion only cares about beautiful women modeling beautiful clothes. I think there’s more to the story than that.”

What’s frustrating about Chanel’s fashion show is that the discussion surrounding feminism in relation to fashion has now become centered on the aesthetic, celebrating or renouncing the way in which the fashion house used feminism as a prop for the showing of clothing- when in fact- feminism has almost always existed within the industry.

And while undeniably, fashion does and will likely continue to have a complicated relationship with beauty- designers, stylists, buyers, entrepreneurs- the often unseen side of the industry is proof that empowered women exist within it.

When explaining the purpose of FIFA, Underhill praises the club for having shown her the many different careers possible within the industry. She explains that, “We try to bring in as many guest speakers as possible that are working in the industry to give advice to students.”

Through their guest speaker series, Underhill has even been able to meet U.Va. graduates who have pursued successful careers within the fashion industry.

“Last year, we met Dega Tufts [a U.Va. alumna] who founded the company Top Shelf Clothes a few years back. It was awesome to hear how she transitioned from a career in investment banking into starting her own fashion e-commerce business and how passionate she is about her work. She is a great example of someone who has found success and fulfillment in the work that she does and she was really inspirational to me since I hope to start my own fashion-related company some day.”

Underhill admits that it is these types of connections made through the club that she loves most.

“We can act as a platform to connect these women to current students at U.Va. and show them that it is certainly possible to be successful, happy and fulfilled as a woman working in the fashion industry.”

Now that is the kind of feminism that Coco Chanel would be proud of.

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Photo by Agnes Filipowski
Fourth-year students and LGBTA activists Greg Lewis and Anna Boynton, along with other U.Va. students and Charlottesville community members speak out at a rally in front of the Rotunda on Sept. 26.

Story by: Carly Gorelick

“Hoos Got Your Back” or #HoosGotYourBack has become a familiar slogan among the U.Va. community this fall semester. We read the words on the backs of Corner employees’ T-shirts, see it referenced in emails from administration, and can even see the effect of this bystander awareness campaign on many different organizations on Grounds. However, “Hoos Got Your Back” has a far more expansive influence than its hashtag.

The campaign is a part of the overarching initiative titled “Not On Our Grounds: A University of Virginia Initiative to End Sexual Violence.” Amidst a setting of growing national and state awareness of sexual misconduct in higher education, and the local tragedies of the missing student, Hannah Graham, and other reported assaults in Charlottesville, the campaign is designed to improve the overall safety of the University. Particularly, “Hoos Got Your Back” aims to improve bystander awareness, a goal that many merchants, faculty and student organizers find to be particularly integral to combatting sexual misconduct on and around Grounds.

“We are aware that our community demands more than awareness, it demands change,” said Emily Renda, a staff member for the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer, Pat Lampkin.

Renda has had first-hand experience with the making of “Hoos Got Your Back” by assisting in multiple initiative efforts from speaking to merchants on The Corner to collaborating on the program’s name and purpose.

Regarding the difficulties of the campaign, Renda stated, “While it would be ideal to get everyone on board right away with challenging the frameworks of sexism, classism, racism, etc.(isms) that really underpin sexual assault as a phenomenon, this campaign is aimed first at just getting everyone to the table…”

Will Cadigan, a fourth-year student and member of both the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition and One-In-Four, similarly recognizes the challenges with having an impactful bystander campaign and the importance of community discussion.

“I think college is especially hard because people from all walks of life are pushed into one new social setting and people are really nervous about making impressions on others at college. It should never be a bad impression if you act as an active bystander,” said Cadigan, “but we’re trying to get people talking about this.”

On the other side of the matter, students like fourth-year student Greg Lewis, president of the Queer and Allied Activism group at U.Va.  and fourth-year Anna Boynton, member of Sigma Omicron Rho – the only LGBTA fraternity at U.Va. – both coordinated the Take Action Against Gender-Based Violence rally last month. The rally was originally promoted by the website and a mass email that controversially mentioned Hannah Graham as reasoning for a call to action. Students and community members at this rally made the claim that the University is not doing enough to maintain a safe environment for its students.

Claire Kaplan, the director of the Gender Violence and Social Change program at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, also became involved with the rally when the organizers had asked her to speak at the event. Kaplan later expressed her issues with the manner of the rally’s initial promotion in a follow-up interview.

“There is a place for radical action as well as more mainstream approaches. The issue is one of strategy and how to maintain one’s political values while working in collaboration with others,” she stated.

However, Kaplan also acknowledged the “anger and frustration” that encouraged the approach and mentioned how “the organizers discarded the ‘hoosbackisturned’ the week before, after meeting with Sara Surface and Will Cadigan of the Gender Violence Prevention Coalition” to correct for any offenses.

Nevertheless, the rally proceeded passionately as the attendees heard from Kaplan, Lewis, Boynton, third-year Yahiya Saad, who is the President of Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, and other rally members.

For instance, in her speech, Boynton stated, “The University values my test scores over my body.” Lewis also spoke of how U.Va. has a dominant culture that continues to marginalize minority groups.

The insinuation of the University as an ineffective bystander has also yielded conflict amongst students, as many discuss the University’s action, or lack thereof, in response to recent and old sexual assaults reported around the school.

Regardless of whether or not the University has done enough, both collaborators of the “Hoos Got Your Back” campaign and the rally organizers hope to see changes toward cultivating a safer community.

As Cadigan puts it, “I think that ‘Not On Our Grounds’ has the potential to do so many things, but we’re in uncharted waters. We should make this issue different in its scope. By making this issue paramount, we can really work together and combat sexual assault.”

“Obviously it would be great to see faculty, staff, and students engage with the campaign and be critical of it—host roundtables on its approach, give talks on bystander and culture change, co-brand student events with the campaign, etc.,” said Renda, “this initiative is just a start.”

As we slowly exit out of the “Red Zone”- the time of statistically higher rates of college sexual assaults as described by the National Institute of Justice- it will be interesting to see if “Hoos Got Your Back” develops further and promotes lasting influence on its community, or if the students will be left asking the University to improve its efforts.

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Sara Clayborne at Studio Portrait

Sara Jansen Clayborne is Co-Director of Charlottesville Ballet.

Story and photos by: Michelle Cho

Sara Clayborne wants to change the way you think about dance. She believes that both boys and girls can be ballet dancers and that ballet dancers should study many dance forms like hip-hop, jazz, musical theater. She believes that dance should be affordable and that people should choose to do so as regular exercise. But most importantly, she believes that a dance studio should be a place of health and wellness, of nutrition and exercise. I got to sit down and chat with Sara after one of her classes at Charlottesville Ballet.

Michelle Cho: So as we like to begin these interviews, would you mind starting by sharing your story?

Sara Clayborne: I am originally from New York. I went to school in Manhattan and started dancing at a young age. I danced professionally in the city but then I got sick and tired of the starving artist lifestyle. Literally sick and tired. So I moved to Richmond and joined their professional trainee program. I met my now business partner Emily Mott and we decided we wanted to create a dance studio focused on health and wellness, a place where people would be able to dance without worrying about cost physically, mentally and financially.

We moved forward as a non-profit and brought on a board of directors. We made it our goal that our studio would be for the good of the community. A board member donated a space in Greene County to us for four years, but then decided to sell the space so we had to think about relocating.

Charlottesville Ballet

Charlottesville Ballet Academy is now based in Charlottesville and serves more than 400 students.

That’s when we chose our current space. With our relocation, we were basically starting from scratch again. Emily and I had both heard about CIC [Community Investment Collaborative] and we decided that at least one of us needed to go. Even though we were not technically a new business, we felt it was a good opportunity to learn more and be better prepared to grow. I went to CIC and it was such a valuable experience.

It was amazing to encounter a group of people at CIC that were so genuine in their desire to help the growth of small business. They will give you any support you need. These are people with so much talent and insight, and they’re just at your disposal.

Since our move to Charlottesville, we have seen over a 400 percent growth rate. We originally had about 78 students in Greene County, and now we have about 400. The CIC program helped set us up for how to reach those benchmarks.

MC: One of the tenants of Charlottesville Ballet that differentiates it from other dance studios is its emphasis on healthy body image and wellness. Could you speak a little bit about this?

SC: Lots of companies make their dancers do weigh-ins. This means that dancers get weighed each week and if a dancer is above a certain weight requirement they are not allowed to even rehearse. This puts a lot of pressure on the dancers, and results in unhealthy behaviors to attain standards that may not be appropriate for that individual dancer. Also if dancers are injured, there are not always enough understudies for a performance and they feel pressured to rehearse and perform even if they are hurt. Charlottesville Ballet does not do that. We choose to take a different approach.

We have a medical director that helps guide boundaries. Dancers are perfectionists. They push themselves to extremes. Our medical director, Dr. Heather Snyder helps us assess how much is too much and what appropriate exertions are for individuals. If your mind isn’t healthy, your body won’t be healthy. If your body isn’t healthy, you can’t dance effectively and joyfully. We also do wellness sessions with dieticians and physical therapists that meet with our dancers and help provide preventative measures that address their needs as individuals.

We also chose to not have a mirror in one of our studios. While mirrors can be helpful for self-correction, they can also be limiting and promote feelings that can create an unhealthy environment. So we chose to have no mirrors in one of our studios, which is quite unique, although studies show that children learn better without a mirror.

MC: How do you think that being a woman has affected your business experience? Your dance experience?

SC: Overall, everyone in the community has been very supportive of female entrepreneurs. I do have to admit though that I have encountered some people who have an outdated mindset.

There have been times when people have come in and asked where the boss is. They seem surprised that our organization is run by female leaders.

In the dance community, I would say about 90 percent of the dancers are female. However, most ballet companies are led by men and most choreography is led by men. Historically that is the pattern. Even with pointe shoes: They were created when a male director saw a female dancer and told her to look like she was floating. He kept telling her “up, up, up!” to the point that she was on her toes. But that’s changing now. In the past ten years, much has changed.

It would be wonderful to have a more even ratio of males and females in the management of dance companies. And for the composition of dancers within companies to reflect the population more accurately as well. People tend to not send their sons to dance. If they understood the history and athleticism of ballet though, their minds might change: It takes a lot of muscle and skill to dance!

It’s truly amazing what you can do when you have both male and female dancers. Of our 400 students, probably less than 20 are boys, and we are trying to grow that number. We hope to help change the societal attitude about boys in dance, and build strong male dancers for the future from within our students.

Our children are our true avenue of change!

Sara Clayborne Up-Close Portrait

Sara attended the CIC courses to help her grow the non-profit Charlottesville Ballet professional company and academy.

Read about more women in this series:

Elizabeth James – The Happy Tomato

Stephanie White and Sue Gass – Stevie G’s Gluten-Free Bakery

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Story and photos by: Michelle Cho

Forty years ago, a Bangladeshi economist named Dr. Muhammed Yunus decided to open a bank.

Yunus developed what would become known as micro-financing, a type of banking that grants small loans to interested borrowers to fund business ventures. As a result of Yunus’s belief in the ingenuity and creativity of all people (especially the world’s women, which composed 97 percent of his borrowers), thousands of businesses now exist and are contributing to thriving communities globally.

Yunus’s Grameen bank model is changing lives around the world. What we might not realize is that his micro-lending model is working right here in Charlottesville.

This is the first in a blog series on Iris that will feature amazing female entrepreneurs, as they demonstrate how micro-financing is actively working in our city. These women carry powerful stories: stories of courage, of bravery, of fighting for the chance to impact the community despite disparaging odds.


The Happy Woman Behind “The Happy Tomato”


Elizabeth James Portrait

Elizabeth James, owner and mastermind of The Happy Tomato, pictured with her signature marinara sauce.

As the founder and President of The Happy Tomato, a small in-home business that produces pizza, pesto and marinara sauces, this seems only fitting. I got a chance to sit down with Liz for chilled iced teas to hear her story and how she has transformed her family recipe into a profitable small business.

“I want to treat people the way they want to be treated and that’s local- to be treated like a neighbor.”

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Miller reflects on the meaning of the award and on the evolution of women in sports

Story by: Alaina Segura

For her outstanding accomplishments in athletics, Jane Miller, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Programs at U.Va., will receive the 2014 Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award at a ceremony on Sept. 18.

Jane Miller

Photo by Matt Riley

Presented annually by the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at U.Va. to a woman employee of the University, the award commemorates Elizabeth Zintl, the former Chief of Staff in the Office of the President at the University. The award honors the high degree of professionalism, creativity and commitment that characterized Zintl’s significant contributions to the University.

Miller, who has worked for the Athletics Department since 1983, began her career as a coach for field hockey and women’s lacrosse. In her 12 years of coaching, with a record of 145-44 and two national championship titles, she is the winningest coach in U.Va.’s women’s lacrosse history. In 1995, she retired from coaching to take on a full-time administrative role. Since then, she has been inducted into the state, regional and national Lacrosse Hall of Fames, elected Chair of the NCAA Division I Championship/Sports Management Cabinet, and served as Chair of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame Committee (women’s division).

Throughout her career, Miller has been a fervent advocate for women’s equity in sports and the University community. She has participated in the Women’s Center Advisory Council and the Women’s Leadership Council, which both promote an equitable gender climate at U.Va. In 1999, she was presented the Woman of Achievement Award from the U.Va. Women’s Faculty and Professional Association. Last year, she was awarded the Claudia Lane Dodson Equity Award for her unwavering commitment to furthering gender equality in high school sports. These numerous achievements have made her a role model not only for female athletes, but for all women.

In a 2002 Iris Magazine interview, Miller reflected upon her career in the Athletics Department and the changing role of women in sports. Twelve years later, she sat down with us again to discuss how her views on these subjects have since changed.

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