Fashion / Feminism

Chanel Spring/Summer 2015, from Summer 2015 Feature Fashion Feminism
Chanel Spring/Summer 2015, from Summer 2015 Feature Fashion Feminism

Feminism is all the rage for spring/summer 2015! And, as with many things in the fashion sphere, its appeal stems not so much from present-day necessity as it does from cool retro allure. British designers Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchoff took their collection back to feminism’s third wave in the 1990s, when punk was renascent and women were impelled by righteous indignation. Meadham Kirchoff accessorised riot grrrls of various shapes, sizes and colours with bloody-tampon earrings, latex washing-up gloves and stockings embroidered to look like they’d sprouted leg hair stubble.

In the period Meadham Kirchoff is channelling, punk feminist heroines like Kathleen Hanna, of the band Bikini Kill, scribbled ‘Slut’ on their stomachs onstage and outed taboo topics like rape. Their rallying cry was ‘Revolution Girl Style Now!’, a sartorially involved yet still urgent slogan for the sisterhood. Compare that to “What do We Want?!! Tweed!!”, which issued forth from quilted bullhorns at Chanel last September. For Karl Lagerfeld, too, had his thing to say about the woman’s condition, and the hullabaloo he kicked up at Chanel overshadowed all the rest.

The clothes at Chanel, paint-bombed and impasto-effect tweeds, and chiffons and knits embroidered with silvery thin ‘paving stone’ appliqués, were beautiful, practical and filled with sincerity. But, ever the lightning rod for whatever zeitgeist is hovering in the ether, Lagerfeld accessorised them with accoutrements of revolt.

‘I like the idea of feminism being lighthearted, not a truck driver for the feminist movement’

Like many of his fashion colleagues, Lagerfeld spun the collection off the 1970s, an era crowded with protests of the feminist persuasion. Disarmingly, he told, ‘In France, in Paris, there are demonstrations all the time because I don’t see why not every single human being is on the same level. Especially in our business. I am just like a gigolo. I live from women.’ And true enough, this falls in line with Lagerfeld’s declaration that he is an ‘opportuniste au dernier degré’. Yet barbs about singer Adele being ‘a bit too fat’ or that Coco Chanel ‘was not ugly enough to be a feminist’ aside, placard signs like ‘Boys Should Get Pregnant Too’, ‘Be Your Own Stylist’ and ‘Women’s Rights Are More Than Alright’ were too ham-fisted to be accidental, especially for someone like Lagerfeld, who is capable of the lightest, most erudite touch in the fashion business. Many did not know what to make of Lagerfeld’s brand of feminism. Did he think it was a trend? Did he think it was a joke? After the show, he said to Fashionista, ‘My mother was very much a feminist and I thought it was something right for the moment. I couldn’t care less if people are for or against. It’s my idea. I like the idea of feminism being something light-hearted, not a truck driver for the feminist movement.’

Few feminists think of the fight for equality as a lighthearted one, and yet they have been careful not to drive a truck over the Chanel show. Prominent activist Amy Richards, who is a well-known author and cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation, told me, “I loved the Lagerfeld moment – I didn’t take it to be a turning point in feminism but a fun expression of women’s freedoms. Freedom to choose fashion – and expensive fashion at that – is certainly low on a priority list, but certainly powerful people expressing a need for feminism is a potential positive for us all.”

God knows feminism and fashion have rarely shared the same positives. Fashion has had its moments of emancipation – Paul Poiret’s Directoire collection freed women from corsets during the early 1900s; Chanel’s jersey sportswear made clothes still more comfortable; and Halston told The New York Times in 1971 that pants were ‘part of women’s liberation… They don’t have to worry about getting into low furniture or low sportscars.’ In more recent times there was Rick Owens’s much applauded Spring 2014 runway show, featuring foot-stomping, teeth-gritting African-American girls. Much sturdier of build than the standard runway model, these step-dancing high-school students created a rare fashion moment of warm and fuzzy political correctness.

Still, for retail reasons, fashion’s preoccupation is to make women pleasing to the eye, while feminism’s preoccupation is its opposite, to break women of the habit of pleasing, in dress or otherwise. As Mary Wollstonecraft wrote disapprovingly in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), ‘….[Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, and most of the male writers who have followed in his steps, have warmly inculcated that the whole tendency of female education ought to be directed to one point – to render them pleasing’.

Lena Dunham and Girls (…) Beyoncé’s untouched photos and cameo appearances by feminist godmother Gloria Steinem in The Good Wife, have fashioned feminism into a shimmering cause célèbre

But pleasing, nay downright seductive, is what feminism has become over the past 18 months as it has steadily accrued pop-cultural capital. Lena Dunham and Girls, Taylor Swift’s public conversion to the cause, twerking, Emma Watson’s speech for the HeForShe campaign at the United Nations, Beyoncé’s untouched photos and cameo appearances by feminist godmother Gloria Steinem in The Good Wife, itself a primetime meditation on the peaks and pitfalls of women in power, have fashioned feminism into a shimmering cause célèbre. Now this was something fashion could embrace! And so, moving in symbiotic lock-step, these two opposed forces, feminism and fashion slowly advanced, achieving brilliant apotheosis in the form of Beyoncé, encased in a glittering Tom Ford bodysuit, backlit by the word ‘Feminist’ in monumental letters on MTV’s 2014 Video and Music Awards night.

Is the Tom Ford bodysuit the suffragette bloomer of the twenty-first century? A feminist update of the Working Girl pantsuit? Politically, the bodysuit is cousin to the Mary Quant miniskirt, which ushered in the ‘Because I Deserve It’ era of women’s lib, and is a distant relative of the hotpants worn by 1970s women’s libbers brandishing ‘Screw Sexists’ placards. The bodysuit echoes today’s scantily clad Slut Walkers as well, who continue to demonstrate against the blame game in rape. Like Lagerfeld, Tom Ford has never been a friend of feminism – a quick refresher on his recent ads will tell you that – but his bodysuit suggests a sea change in feminist strategy. One that draws in men in the style of the UN’s HeForShe campaign and Benedict Cumberbatch wearing a ‘This Is What a Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirt. If this is what fourth-wave feminism looks like, then Beyoncé in the bodysuit is very much sailing into it. Wind machine at her back and the captain of her own ship, the singer is a new-model feminist who pleases and seeks pleasure.

Is fashion the traitor or sidekick in all this? In 1968, demonstrators outside the Miss America pageant trashed their bras and girdles, makeup and high heels. The Barbie-doll women Jeremy Scott gave us at Moschino last September were a satirical poke at all that. The industry has become harder to read of late, not in its practices, because Third World sweatshops are still manned by exploited women, but in the images it projects.

Lagerfeld’s protest-styled runway show at Chanel was a diversion in a larger, yet slow-moving current in high fashion. It cannot be properly called feminist; rather, it leapfrogs maleness and femaleness and their ensuing conflicts. Its interest is neither masculinity nor femininity nor feminism but genderlessness, and it is designers like Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, J.W. Anderson, Hood by Air and Alessandro Michele, newly at Gucci, who are its vanguard.

The edgiest stuff has come out of menswear, where effeminate fashion like clingy tops and off-the-shoulder shirts are slowly becoming acceptable. And while it seems superficial to think that men in slit skirts and hot pink, or the occasional transgendered model on the cover of a magazine, can dynamite female–male power relations, the way we dress is the way we enact and construct our gender identity, or perform it, to use a Judith Butler term, day after day.

Many believe that gender, biologically understood, has been and will always be a rigged game in the way it distributes power between the sexes. If so, then mixing and merging gender shuffles the deck, evens out the chances, or at the very least, confuses the players. While high fashion has never been at ease with traditional feminism, it is very happy pushing the topsy-turvy, and the matchups are weird. For every Julia Roberts in a man’s suit for Givenchy, there is a male Gucci model in a peach-coloured pussy-bow blouse. For every transgender model Andrej Pejic in a Gaultier wedding dress, there is a guy wearing a draped J.W. Anderson tee or a slit-up-to-the-hip Hood by Air skirt. Two years ago, Givenchy prescribed this new state of affairs with a small manifesto titled ‘Future Feminism’. It was written by transgender singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, and was left on every chair at the show: ‘Men must find the humility to retreat. Women must step forward and start to forge a new way forward for our species and for all of nature.’

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue. 

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