Feminism and fashion have always been uneasy bedmates, linked by a common constituency but separated by very different objectives. The impasse came to a head not once but twice during Paris Fashion Week, where the usually infallible Stella McCartney ruffled feathers after her show when she said, “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time. This collection is really celebrating the gentle side.”
She was explaining the creative construct behind her particularly loose, light, and pastel-inflected designs for the season, in an attempt to articulate her intellectual exercise in what she described as “celebrating the softness in a woman.” But in doing so she, perhaps inadvertently, insulted women everywhere who’d rather be wearing Rick Owens.
Elsewhere in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld staged a hugely misunderstood period piece for Chanel’s show. All designers are expected to come up with an imaginary woman to base their collection on each season — but Lagerfeld takes it one step further and creates entire elaborate environments. He’s done the grocery store, an ice-crystal world similar to Superman’s home planet of Krypton, a wind-powered future; Lagerfeld’s Chanel has been set in many a space, typically for the same type of woman. This year’s setting was a fairly accurate recreation of the near-recent past, the 1970s, and it started with a feminist rally in which psychedelic prints sat side by side with more traditional Chanel tweed, and “I’m Every Woman” blared. It was not an endorsement of feminism, it was a piss-take; it was set dressing; it was exactly the sort of thing Coco Chanel would have enjoyed.
Coco is considered by many to be the person who originally brought feminism into fashion, but those people are granting an awfully large amount of power to sportswear. It seems difficult for fashion historians to accept that while Coco’s 1920s designs were liberating to women, literally and in the most physical sense, they were not created as an act of feminism. They were first and foremost the product of a disruptor. Getting women out of the binding clothes of La Belle Epoque and into pants and jersey fabrics did have feminist implications, but to conflate Coco’s financial independence with feminism is a mistake. While she certainly strongly supported the ideas of economic and political parity for the sexes, it is doubtful she could wrap her mind around social equality.
That has always been the irreconcilable difference between clothing designers and feminists. Obviously, anyone with a women’s wear collection is all for women’s economic equality; it makes sense for their business. Political equality is probably something designers are ambivalent about, but social equality would render the entire business of fashion irrelevant.
Looking back at fashion’s so-called most liberating moments for women — Coco’s introduction of pants and women’s wear modeled after menswear, Mary Quant’s mod mini skirt, and the continuing procession since Madonna teamed up with Jean Paul Gaultier to make underwear into outwear — all this stuff does is present a new way to be sexy or fashionable or fit into a feminine ideal. Perhaps the most genuinely liberating fashion moment for women was Vivienne Westwood’s punk era, because men and women dressed very similarly, in dirty and torn clothes. The fact that British punk was basically a high-concept sales pitch Westwood and then-partner Malcolm McLaren pulled over on a generation of youth kind of takes the kick out of the feminist statement, though.
In recent memory, one of the strongest feminist statements in fashion came from Prada with their Spring/Summer 2014 collection. Designer Miuccia Prada took on feminism as her creative concept in the same way Lagerfeld did this season, with vastly different results. The set was made of commissioned street art with giant frescoes of women’s faces — all different types, colors, and looks — inspired by the work of Diego Rivera.
Those faces made their way onto Prada’s dresses that season as well, looking like outtakes from the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls album art. Even with all Miuccia’s well-meaning artistic intentions, it’s still a high-end ready-to-wear collection that doesn’t fit a woman over a certain size.
What the recent feminist statements of Prada and Chanel have in common is trend spotting, something that’s absolutely essential for the fashion industry. Prada’s idea was born of Miuccia’s observation that discussions around women’s rights were ramping up. Chanel directly references the #HeForShe campaign Emma Waston unveiled to the UN on September 22, but this show was obviously in the works long before that event. After Beyoncé pushed the movement into center stage this year, while wearing custom-designed costumes by Givenchy, Alexander Wang, and Versace (to name only a few), that trend-spotting instinct evidently went into overdrive. High fashion isn’t becoming feminist. It’s simply embracing the moment.