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The feminist fashion journalist

In my last year of sixth form, my English teacher proudly announced our syllabus would include a favourite author of hers: Angela Carter. As expected, no eyes lit up with excitement or recognition; her enthusiasm was lost on us. Regardless, we would discuss and analyse some of Carter’s grotesque feminist revisions of renowned fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber for our dystopian coursework — whether we wanted to or not. The term started and curiosity quickly turned to repulsion, confusion and, admittedly, a slight fear of our beloved English teacher. Too many references to sadomasochists and split figs later, I loudly renounced the author and vowed never to return to Carter’s work again.

In an ironic turn of events, the culmination of three years studying English Literature at the University of Manchester amounts to a dissertation based on what interests us most. My eighteen-year-old self would be mortified to know I chose to write on Angela Carter and on perhaps one of her most disturbing, confusing, and controversial novels, The Passion of New Eve. I jokingly tell people the plot line, waiting for their repulsed facial expressions with bated breath: ‘I’ve not finished telling you everything yet! So then Evelyn, after he is kidnapped by the feminist cult and surgically transformed into a woman, is to be impregnated with his own sperm to recreate and rewrite Immaculate Conception…’

Carter’s work only really achieved critical acclaim after her death in 1992. In an extract from Susannah Clapp’s A Card From Angela Carter, Clapp jokingly describes the time Carter was a judge for the Booker Prize in 1983. The presenter Selina Scott ‘mistook [Carter] for one of the many hangers-on at the feast, inquiring what she thought of the judges’ decision. “I’m one of the judges,” Angela explained […] Scott seemed mystified: “I’m sorry… What’s your name?”’ Considering Carter’s current status within literary studies, it’s hard to believe such a scenario; her novels and short stories, exploding with magic realism, surrealism, the carnivalesque, and highly debated representations of gender, since gained the recognition they deserve within feminist literature.

However, all writers must start somewhere. With her father’s help, Carter began as a journalist. Shaking a Leg is a collection of her journalist writing and it is fast becoming a favourite book of mine. Carter’s work covers an enormous breadth of topics, from autobiographical articles to cinematic reviews on eighties film, and all beautifully retain her resilient, insightful, and powerful voice.

I began reading Carter’s journalism to aid my dissertation but my self-discipline (which I try to enforce to avoid unnecessarily reading off-topic articles) wavered when I discovered a segment dedicated to fashion. What could be better than the sarcastic overtones of my favourite feminist writer commenting on my chosen journalistic subject?

I’ll admit, I expected a brutal tearing apart of the fashion and beauty industries and anticipated a flavoursome attack over which the editors of Vogue would weep. To my great surprise, I instead found Carter took a great interest in fashion, sartorial politics and the way people present themselves. In a nutshell, she eloquently reflects my thoughts and opinions back at me: ‘Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults […] Eclectic fragments, robbed of their symbolic content, fall together to form a new whole, a dramatisation of the individual, a personal style.’ In all honesty, I’d struggle to build upon her words other than adding a vigorous nodding of my head.

Her commentary beautifully combines her wit and personal experience, in amongst her politics and feminist standpoint. To supply one example of many, in an article published in 1975 called The Wound in the Face she quotes Theodor Adorno, cites Andy Warhol, references Oedipus, and writes the simple statement: ‘A face is not a bicycle.’ Unapologetic, sharp, and intellectual, she invokes a writing style I admire and hope to employ within my own fashion journalism.

Carter wonderfully executes her ability to marry her interests into an enormous range of topics in her journalistic work. But most importantly to me, she demonstrates a fundamentally smart approach to an area of journalism often undermined and labelled as less important or lacking significance.

Tags: angela carter, dissertation, fashion, feminism, journalism, red lipstick, sixth form

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