Christian Dior Spring-Summer 2017, first show of Maria Grazia Chuiri as creative director of the House, the first woman to occupy this position.
WHO RUN THE WORLD? GIRLS!
Well, yes, of course, of course we run the world. Well, we’re trying. At least we’d like to. Anyway, anyway. Whether it’s in Queen B’s songs, on H&M’s new teenage line or on the podiums of the Fashion Week, feminism is everywhere.
Of course, we can still hear and will always hear this paunchy macho guy moaning from the back of the room that women dominate the world and crush men when they should be making apple pies and children. But strangely enough for a few years now, he seems to be making his voice much less heard. (Oh really?)
Feminism has conquered pop culture and the fashion world is not exempt from it. It quickly became the standard bearer of a committed youth, both in its ideas and clothes. Would we be winning the battle?
Well, not really, no. And at the same time, maybe a little bit anyway. Let me explain to you why reality is more complicated than that…
To begin with, we should mention an important thing that many seem to forget today: feminism is not new. And neither is fashion. Their alliance even less. When Gabrielle Chanel refused the corset and imposed straight cuts, it was feminism, when Saint Laurent was making a woman walk in a tuxedo, it was feminism, when Courrèges propelled the miniskirt on the podium, it was feminism. And I’ve chosen only the best known examples, but it’s been a while since some people in the business have been fighting to break the dress codes that lock women up. How? By making a scandal. Shocking public opinion.
So what’s changed today? It turns out that in this day and age, anything can cause a scandal, and at the same time, nothing is scandalous anymore. In a world where nothing really shocks, the cursor moves. Where in 1966 many saw a zealous creator’s mere intention to shock, most people now see a political intention.
The creative process having been demystified, the intellectualization of fashion being more and more assumed, the opinions of the creators are liberated and expressed quite naturally in their clothing.
The result is quite striking: some like Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi take over the Haute Fur fashion show to the end, in an era where respect for animal life spreads, others like Maria Grazia Chuiri, the first woman director of creation in the history of Maison Dior, choose to parade mannequins dressed in minimalist T-shirts stating to the fashion world “We should all be feminists”, such as the essayist, author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proclaims.
These T-shirts, in spite of their fairly prohibitive cost for many, multiplied the stock-outs of Christian Dior shops. They have been seen everywhere, from the cheap and general public women’s press, to the myriad of Instagram accounts and blogs, to the most cutting-edge magazines. They have been featured in newspapers that do not talk about fashion or feminism. They triggered a few indignations, very quickly buried by the deafening majority of voices rising to applaud and approve the creator’s initiative, and the audacity of her choice for her very first fashion show within the House. These basic T-shirts, all in all, have certainly made a nice sum of money for the giants of the haute couture industry that is Dior, and behind which hides the multi-billionaire group LVMH.
Would the feminist turn of fashion serve only to sell more and more? Some people ask themselves the question, and it deserves to be asked. Several problematic points must be raised when the links between fashion and feminism are mentioned. First of all, because it is very easy to shout loud and clear that fashion is feminist and that it liberates the woman, but we know how many models were destroyed by the increasingly aberrant criteria of thinness and appearance. Because it is easy to make women walk in a political T-shirt, or to stage them in a demonstration (cf. Chanel Spring-Summer 2015), but it is quite different from actively participating in this political movement, for example by taking their place in these processions that blacken the streets and demand equality.
Often, fashion, in its desire to please and paradoxically to follow trends, depoliticizes the movements it appropriates.
Thus a movement as eminently political as the struggle for women’s rights, can find itself emptied of its essence and meaning, when in the long run it serves only marketing interests: to please a new generation whose concerns have changed. For example, brands such as H&M or Zara find themselves selling clothes that are flocked with girl power slogans, each one more than the other… While exploiting young girls who are barely of full age in their factories in developing countries like Bangladesh.
Yet these pieces of fabric, whether they cost $710 at Dior or $7 at H&M, all have in common an interest that cannot be denied: they change the world in their own way. So no, not in the way we would have liked to see it, not by triggering demonstrations, not with an uprising of young girls who are angry and revolted at being confined to the same squares, not feeling listened to or understood, at seeing themselves mistreated, disregarded or even assaulted on a daily basis, because they are women. That’s what I’m dreaming about. But by giving support and a voice to the same young girls, by offering them a voice through their choice of clothing, fashion offers them the opportunity to express themselves more freely. The opportunity to have the feeling of belonging to a community, a movement, and not fighting alone in thin air. When I was 14 years old, the only choice of slogan I had for my shirts was between “I’m beautiful and rebellious” and “100% brunette, 100% me”. I might as well tell you that at the time I would have jumped on a t-shirt that allowed me to express and insist on something other than one of my physical characteristics. The evidence of my brown hair never needed to be demonstrated so far, so I didn’t feel the need to belong to a brunette community. A community of teenage girls revolted on the other hand, yes.
And these T-shirts are not the only ones that have this empowerment, this special little power that gives you that particular and pleasant feeling, that sense of control over your own life, and the possibility to change it if you wish. This thrilling feeling of being proud and whole and the only master on board my own boat. Many other initiatives in the world of fashion deserve to be highlighted, for the involvement and role they play in the world of feminism. Stella McCartney, with her eponymous brand, employs single mothers in India who find no jobs because they have been denied by their families. It helps them reintegrate and provides them with a very good salary. LVMH and Kering, the world’s two largest fashion conglomerates, recently signed an agreement on how models are treated during fashion shows, their minimum legal age and health conditions. It’s not much yet, but it’s already a lot. Ashley Graham, the largest and most bankable model of the decade, multiplied magazine covers and appeared in January 2017 on the cover of British Vogue, one of the most popular publications on the fashion planet. She is also known for her cellulite photos on Instagram and her body positive Ted Talk on self-confidence (it boosts your spirit, I strongly advise you to watch it!). Asos, world famous retailer, stopped touching up his models pictures a year ago. Looking for a pair of shoes or a new pair of panties, you can find real women, with hair and stretch marks, women small, large, big, pregnant, racialized, smiling and not smiling, just women, you know. And of course, not all the examples cited are from companies and houses that have always been perfectly ethical and feminist in every way, but these initiatives deserve to be highlighted. If one last one should be mentioned, here is by far the one I would choose:
Adwoa Aboah, the famous runway model, elected model of the year 2017 at the Fashion Awards, is firmly committed to feminist and Afro-feminist struggles. She has directed short documentaries about women who are changing the world through their professions for the i-D fashion magazine. She founded Gurls Talk, a platform for girls and women to share their art, experiences and opinions. The aim is to create a women’s community that is as diverse as possible, reflecting all facets of women of the 21st century, through words, action and listening. When asked by a journalist whether her modeling career contradicts her political commitment, Adwoa replies: “Fashion has a huge impact and global communication potential. This visibility must be used to serve urgent causes, such as the feminist struggle.”
Would fashion, then, be nothing more than a platform for spreading an important message to as many people as possible? Well, maybe. But personally I don’t believe it. As an avid clothing enthusiast, often even a groupie of designers, I remain firmly convinced that fashion has a role to play in the emancipation of women. After all, if garment could have been such a tool for controlling women, could it not, with good intentions, free them and serve them?
After all, why not?