Fashion is often dismissed as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, downright counterproductive to the presumably more serious and high-minded business of political action. But is it possible to think of fashion not only as compatible with politics but also as a form of political engagement in its own right? This essay offers one possible answer to this question through a case study of a virtual fashion community that represents bodies typically excluded from participation in mainstream fashion—namely, fat, queer, and femme-identified bodies. This online community disrupts the politics of body size, gender, beauty, and consumerism that predominate in fashion as both an economic and a cultural economy, creating a virtual "counterdiscourse" (Deleuze and Foucault 1977) in the process. Exploring how this counterdiscourse was constructed, contained, and challenged, this essay demonstrates the very real potential of fashion as a site of political action and contestation even as it also reveals formidable limitations to this potential.
Sociological considerations of fashion commonly characterize it as a key marker of social distance and distinction (Bourdieu 1984; Simmel  1984). According to this literature, fashion is a vehicle for conspicuous consumption (Veblen  2007) and the accrual of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984). While these definitions of fashion capture its ability to produce social distinctions, they do not, on the whole, attend to ways that fashion's meanings are mediated by bodies (Entwistle 2000). As Crane (2000) points out, part of the function of fashion is to produce bodies that are easily distinguishable by sex, race, and class. Particularly because the case study at hand attempts to disrupt this sorting process, it [End Page 209] is appropriate to instead draw primarily on Entwistle's (2000) definition of fashion as a "situated bodily practice." This definition brings the importance of embodiment to the fore, which shifts the unit of analysis from fashion as cultural artifacts to fashion as styled bodies.
Further, there is a tendency in sociology to characterize fashion as a strictly constraining and regulating social process, thereby ignoring or dismissing the pleasure of fashion. Yet there is reason to suggest that fashion can be more than just a source of oppression. Chittenden (2010) examined the phenomenon of fashion blogging and found that it can mitigate social isolation and create a sense of community that goes far beyond displays of conspicuous consumption. Pham's (2011) analysis of fashion blogging done by Asian Americans argues that it also has the potential to disrupt racist hierarchies of beauty, authority, and knowledge production. In light of such analyses, this essay defines fashion not only as a situated bodily practice (Entwistle 2000), but also as one that produces unique pleasures—and pains—with respect to gender, race, class, and sexual identities.
Fa(t)shion February for Femmes and Friends: A Sociological Case Study
Chittenden's (2010) and Pham's (2011) works suggest that online fashion communities might be an especially promising venue for assessing fashion's potential as a tool of resistance and social justice. New media scholars argue that the Internet is, by its very nature, a form of participatory culture (Shirky 2010) where ideas and language provide the grounds for community (Lehdonvirta 2010). Crane's (2000) historical analysis of fashion and identity shows that the Internet has increased both the diffusion and the democracy of fashion discourse. The extent to which the Internet can facilitate a freer exchange of ideas remains hotly debated within media studies (Pham 2011), but the increased ability of former fashion "outsiders" to participate in the production of fashion discourse through the medium of the Internet has been persuasively documented (Pham 2011; Rocamora 2012). The proliferation and popularity of virtual "taste communities" (Blakley 2001) through fashion blogging has diluted the power of mainstream fashion tastemakers and created a symbiotic relationship between mainstream and virtual fashion communities (Rocamora 2012). It stands to reason, then, that the possibility of disrupting normative fashion discourse through online fashion projects is a real one. [End Page 210]
Fa(t)shion February for Femmes and Friends, or Fa(t)shion February for short, is one such project. Fa(t)shion February makes for an...