Fashioning Feminism

Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut collection for Dior, presented in the fall of 2017 in Paris, was surrounded by an unusually intense buzz, even for the inaugural presentation of a new creative director. Chiuri’s arrival at Dior marked more than just a simple changing of the guard; as the powerhouse brand’s first-ever female designer, her appointment was a breath of fresh air in an industry saturated with male creators and executives dictating the latest in women’s fashion. As if making a nod to the historic nature of the collection, model Amanda Googe stepped out for the eighteenth exit wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the title of Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche’s best-selling feminist book, We Should All Be Feminists.1

Dior’s Spring 2017 show is not the first time in recent history that the Paris runways have hosted collections inspired by feminist politics. For his Spring 2015 collection at Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld drew intense media attention for staging a “feminist march” on the runway, with models carrying signs that read everything from the empowering “History is Her Story,” to the less significant “Tweed is Better Than Tweet.”2 It was immediately pointed out by fashion journalists that, while Lagerfeld’s expression of support for gender equality was admirable, it was also abundant in irony given his public denunciations of plus-sized women and preferences for predominantly white casting.3 A master of the spectacular runway show, it was asked whether Lagerfeld truly held feminist beliefs, or whether the theme of the collection was merely a strategic way to capitalize on an uptick in the popularity of third-wave feminism.

Since the Chanel show, the “girl power” narrative has become ubiquitous throughout fashion marketing and celebrity culture, where it is used as an instrument to anoint collections, influencers, and beauty products as manifestations of feminist action. While there is undeniably an economic pursuit at the heart of many of these promotions, the effectiveness of the marriage between fashion and feminism suggests that the two may perhaps be complementary. Feminism has reentered the mainstream conversation, and female consumers, consequently, are more keenly aware of the ways in which industries like fashion have historically had patriarchal points of view. As such, has buying a pair of Stella McCartney sneakers, considering their designer’s gender and politics, become something of a feminist act?

The politics surrounding fashion and feminism are complicated, oftentimes contradictory, and have been an area of tension. When considered as a vehicle of self-expression, fashion is inherently tied to politics. However, this relationship is diluted by various other factors, such as exclusionary practices, economic forces, and the capacity to create tangible change. Considering examples in contemporary and historical contexts, this paper intends to answer the question of feminist fashion, that is, whether or not it is really a valuable tool for advancing women’s political, economic, and social equality.

Sociologist and writer Elizabeth Wilson describes fashion as an instrument used to “cement social solidarity and impose group norms.”4 As such, fashion, and the active choices that one makes to favor certain styles over others, is charged with symbolism. The feminist argument in favor of fashion often corresponds to this line of thinking—that it is emancipatory to dress how one chooses, and to not be held to a singular, restrictive uniform of “femininity.” This ideology has developed in step with changes to the social status of women and with trends that have arisen accordingly as significations of this empowerment. The most well recognized instance of “feminist fashion” is the popularization of women’s trousers in the West. In the late nineteenth century, it became apparent that female dress—often cumbersome, heavy, and unnaturally tight—held women to archaic ideas of beauty and function (or lack thereof), preventing them from participating in modern life.5 During this period, “many people viewed changes in clothing as a natural phenomenon of an advanced society and thus believed that new fashions were an inevitable outward expression of progressive social values.”6 Industrialization, globalization, and political uncertainty marked the end of the century and the dawn of the next one; appropriately, questions of modernity began to seriously consider gender, as investigated by Patricia A. Cunningham:

In the nineteenth century, when all women wore skirts and all men wore trousers, clothing inevitably came to symbolize the mutually exclusive functions men and women were expected to perform. The ideology of the century was that women belonged in the home, running the household and caring for the children, while men belonged in the public sphere, running the world of business […] Cartoons of the period suggest that if women decided to wear pants, it had to be because they wanted to be able to move freely on the streets in the public world […] to compete with men for places of public power.7

Hence, fashion, in the form of trousers, stood in as a symbol of the subversion of gender roles and the hierarchy that they imposed. This tension became more apparent during the First World War, when women stepped into historically male responsibilities; unsurprisingly, they wore trousers to go to work in the vacated factories and offices.8 The progression from skirts to trousers demonstrated a new freedom of choice for women, both in their careers and options for personal expression. Trousers stood as a visual cue to say that the woman who wore them was not beholden to conservative points of view about her role in society—trousers were an illustration of feminism. From 1890 to 1980, the percentage of women in the workforce rose from fifteen to seventy-one percent, an increase that, not coincidentally, coincided with the normalization of women’s trousers.9

The freedom to express oneself without the imposition of gendered expectations has been a hallmark of the feminist movement since the late nineteenth century, and became particularly contentious in Nazi Germany during the mid-to-late 1930s. In contrast to the prior decade’s popular (and very liberal) flapper movement, the Third Reich believed that in order to be proper vessels for multiplying the Aryan race, women needed to dress modestly and remain in the home.10 Likewise, historian Jon Hughes argues that fashion was perceived to stand “in open opposition to the chivalric virtues of self-sacrifice, courtesy, and work […] moreover, a suggestion of individuality expressed through fashion was perceived as a threat to national esprit de corps and comradeship.”11 It is important to recognize the close relationship between women’s emancipation and fashion, which was acknowledged to have powerful symbolic force. In Nazi Germany, women were considered rebellious for having an interest in fashion; those who continued to enjoy subscriptions to Vogue were seen to have insurgent tendencies, and perhaps, more specifically, feminist ones.12 Makela Maria’s text, “The Rise And Fall Of The Flapper Dress: Nationalism And Anti-Semitism In Early-Twentieth-Century Discourses On German Fashion” unveils the ways in which Nazi programs aimed at proliferating their idealized, submissive Aryan woman often targeted fashion, attempting to supplant the popular mini dresses and culottes with traditional dirndls.13 German women by and large chose to continue dressing fashionably, however, using their style to express dissent towards Nazi policies regarding women.14 Women’s use of clothing to demonstrate dissent from exemplifies Wilson’s argument that fashion is an indicator of both differentiation and solidarity. In Nazi Germany and elsewhere, dress was one way for twentieth century women to indicate their rejection of oppressive doctrines and alignment with feminist thinking.

Thus, fashion can have political impetus, and this is particularly true when it is used to undermine dominant ideas about gender.  The manner in which changes to women’s dress have been perceived as threats to gender dynamics has much to do with the relationship between fashion and performance; fashion has long been a highly visible site where gender identity is articulated, and at times, subverted.

Fashion historian Rebecca Arnold uses drag to model the relationship between adornment and the performance of gender, pointing to the manner in which gender is literally a costume.15 Likewise, she describes runway shows at the height of the fashion industry wherein female models are so extravagantly “dolled up” that it appears as if femininity itself is a guise:

For many men and women there is a feeling that women who use femininity as an overstatement, who deliberately ignore pressure to look “natural” and modest are suspicious because they seem to be dressing up for themselves rather than to attract men.16

Complementary to the ideas about women’s dress in Nazi Germany, dressing outside of the expectations for femininity challenges patriarchal authority over women, and forces one to question the distinctions between the genders and their hierarchies. Masculinity has long been considered determinant of norms in Western culture and thus deviance from male-imposed customs is akin to questioning the balance of powers, and by extension, normativity itself. Arnold also acknowledges the ways in which prominent male fashion icons in the late-twentieth century, such as Mick Jagger and David Bowie, have contributed to a disruption of heteronormative masculinity; she cites Mark Evans’ conjecture that “each challenge to masculinity compels the next subversion and blurred gender divisions can never be clarified again.”17

Fashion as performance also often explores sexuality, and overt expressions of feminine sexuality have long been considered a societal taboo. Arnold argues that “many men feel threatened by the overt acknowledgement of female sexual power,” and the conflict between these two poles is often manifested in dress.18 In Karl Kraus’s “The Eroticism of Clothes,” it is contended that “clothes shape our understanding of what a person’s body means.”19 Women’s bodies are ubiquitously subjected to questions of politics and morality in a manner in which men’s tend not to be, thus often charging female dress with controversial connotations. Modesty is commonly asserted as a regulatory measure against the acknowledgement of female sexuality; as such, for women’s clothing to connote sexuality is one manner of challenging the censorship of their bodies.

The late Lee Alexander McQueen embraced the contentious politics of female sexuality in his designs and runway shows, reappropriating the femme fatale figure, “which configured female sexuality as perverse, even deathly, and which echoed fears about the social, economic, and sexual emancipation of women at the turn of the century.”20 However, instead of positing the woman as “an object of fear,” McQueen used his designs to present the female wearer herself as the “frightening subject.” 21 Through fashion that was overtly aggressive and graphic, but perennially intelligent, fashion theorist Caroline Evans argues that McQueen managed to reframe readings of the female body:

Allying glamour with fear rather than allure, McQueen’s avowed intent was to create a woman ‘who looks so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her,’ a statement which was illuminated by the knowledge that one of his sisters had been the victim of domestic violence.22

McQueen became famous for this point of view—namely, that there is power in performative fashion, and that women could make use of this power for themselves as a defense against misogyny. McQueen also made it evident that many of his models, muses, and friends were lesbian, further challenging the domination of the heterosexual male gaze as the authority of women’s dress.23 His designs promoted an autonomous, disobedient point of view that aligned with many of the goals of feminism. Patriarchal culture has historically been bent on keeping women small and quiet, and withholding the confidence to make themselves known as individuals without a dependent relationship to men. Fashion—when produced or worn with a feminist intent—can subvert by giving women the power of visibility and individuality. Rather than collective representation as a subjugated class that exist only in relation to phallocentric distinctions, the woman stands out as herself.

The fact remains, however, that fashion is still based on binary distinctions between the genders. When power and subversion appear in womenswear, they are often coded by a symbolism that reinforces a gendered hierarchy; for one, dressing in a masculine manner has been associated with empowerment, an association that reinforces the perception of male dominance. If women are to take trousers as a signification of feminism, it may be as if to suggest that one must comply with masculinity in order to be accepted as “equal,” a principle that is clearly antithetical to the values of feminism.

In criticizing the feminist idealization of Helmut Newton’s 1996 photograph of Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking suit, model Hari Nef also highlights the faulty logic behind the so-called empowerment associated with the reassignment of male symbolism:

The discourse around this image is that a woman gains this power, this dominance, this sexiness, from donning a man’s suit. If she’s sourcing that from a signifier of stereotypical masculinity, then how sustainable is that as a power source? If she’s putting it on and taking it off, is that really a subversion of gender binaries or is just a reinforcement of that binary as we know it?24

Feminist fashion as it is most commonly presented is limited by its acceptance of binary symbols and the semiotic power with which they have historically been charged; unsurprisingly, these significations consistently relate to masculinity as the reservoir of power.

Third-wave feminism in the twenty-first century has become increasingly concerned with intersectionality and approaching feminist discourses from an inclusive point of view; in light of Nef’s criticisms of feminist fashion as a transgender woman, it is worth considering how the reappropriation of gendered symbolism actually underscores the rigidity of the gender binary and, as a result, is exclusionary towards non-binary identities.

Gender theorist Judith Butler discusses how at times, the discourse promoted by feminists advances the impression that there is a singular, definitive image of femininity:

For feminist theory, the development of a language that fully or adequately represents women has seemed necessary to foster the political visibility of women […] Recently, this prevailing conception of the relation between feminist theory and politics has come under challenge. The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of ‘the subject’ as the ultimate candidate for representation or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women.25

Discussions of gender and fashion often play on the idea that feminine and masculine are fixed ideas; even “androgynous” fashion, which is postulated as gender fluid, is used in relation to styles where “masculine” and “feminine” symbols are used on different bodies. As such, even androgyny works against itself by acknowledging the “lack of correspondence” between the clothing and their wearer’s gender. All fashion choices are coded with gendered significations, such that even when subversion is attempted, they continue to signal an affirmation of binarism. Ultimately, the labels and distinctions upon which the fashion industry is built uphold belief in an absolute femininity and masculinity, rather than a more flexible spectrum.

In addition to its adherence to binarism, fashion is also tightly wound up with capitalism, which feminists have theorized to be an extension of patriarchal dominance. Thorstein Veblen contends that ownership itself in fact began with the capture and rape of women in barbarian raids.26 Moving into the nineteenth century, cultural analyst Ulrich Lehmann describes the industrialization of fashion as “capitalist and patriarchal society, out to dominate the female sex” and as a system wherein “the woman does not really dominate anything but the consumption of an artificial reality of luxuries and vagaries.”27 Lehmann suggests that the business of fashion has inherently objectified women; for example, in a contemporary context, most luxury fashion houses are owned and directed by men, but aimed at a female clientele.

Objectification reaches its pinnacle in the dominion of fashion advertising. According to Caroline Evans, the fashion model is scrutinized “as if she were a luxurious commodity,” trapped by her existence as a voyeuristic object. All of the demands of corporate motivations are projected onto the body of the model—and, by extension, the collectivity of women for whom she is a stand-in—often resulting in images bearing exploitative connotations; in recent years, fashion advertisements have been banned from release for every violation from promoting ultra-skinniness to featuring women in compromising sexual positions.28 The conflict between the free expression of the female body (as addressed by designers like McQueen), versus its commodification, finds its pinnacle in the field of advertising. Feminist author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, whose celebrated book was referenced on the t-shirt in Chiuri’s Dior collection, writes that “bottom power (a Nigerian expression for a woman who uses her sexuality to get things from men) […] is not power at all, because the woman with bottom power actually is not powerful; she just has a good route to tap into another person’s power.”29 Arguably, fashion marketing employs female sexuality as a means and not an end; the hierarchy of the fashion industry rarely affords female and minority workers positions of authority from which to establish their own language for representation and identity.

The female body has become a vessel of capitalism, transformed into a product in and of itself. As Evans writes, “glamour and modernity are allied through the visual seduction of the commodity form, which may be made manifest in the body of a woman.”30 In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey describes the ways in which images of women in media “create the imagised, eroticized concept of the world that forms the perception of the subject.”31 It can reasonably be contended that the idealization of unrealistic body standards and eroticism that are applied to the body of the fashion model often pervade in everyday expectations for women collectively; that the objectification of the female model mimics and amplifies the parallel objectification of the everyday woman. The profit-driven impetus of capitalism actively pursues glamour and eroticism, which more often than not, come into conflict with feminist aims of social justice and emancipation.

A key fact that is often dismissed in the production of so-called feminist fashion, is that clothing is indisputably a commodity. When fashion is an industry that earns billions of dollars per year in a global capitalist economy, it is essential to acknowledge that the industry’s primary function must always be the pursuit of profit, rather than that of a social agenda. Furthermore, even when a particular article of clothing or trend becomes tied to a political idea, participation that requires a buy-in advances an exclusionary narrative that is oftentimes antithetical to the movement’s aims; for example, Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt may have a message that promotes equality, but retailing for $700, this gesture seems much less persuasive (not to mention that it was first modelled by a thin, cis-gendered white woman at a high-end runway show in Paris).32

Likewise, wearing a t-shirt with a slogan, or, for that matter, even defiantly adopting trousers, is arguably an impotent feminist act on its own. During the 1960s and 1970s, youth often adopted styles associated with rebelliousness, connoted by a “bohemian” aesthetic. Marxist thinker Louis Althusser criticizes the stalling of social action following the Parisian student revolts of May 1968, wherein “real” forms of protest were subsequently substituted for fashion.33 Althusser argues that fashion is a non-political response to a political problem, and thus fails to translate to any real forms of emancipation.34 Fashion, in this instance, is an expression of an opinion, often favored over active participation in a cause or movement. As such, even if fashion is compatible with feminist thinking, its ability to effect change may be severely limited.

Fashion sees its fair share of both failures and achievements in the realm of feminist politics, providing women with an outlet through which to express themselves freely, while also finding its basis in an exclusionary, patriarchal history of suppression and consumerism. Therefore it can be said that while the two have become compatible, feminist fashion is still limited; fashion can only be used as a feminist tool when combined with other political actions or dialogue. Whereas the normalization of women’s trousers was a hallmark moment in the women’s liberation movement, the twenty first-century provides fewer garments that connote specific gender assignments where women are concerned. Rather, gender dynamics in fashion have been addressed more radically through the adoption of “womenswear” by men; in 2016, Jaden Smith appeared in a skirt for a Louis Vuitton women’s ad campaign, flanked by female-identifying models.35 Feminist aims in the fashion industry are now best achieved through an intersectional lens, addressing the arbitrary assignment of gender divisions in the first place, as pointed to by Butler and Arnold.

Derivatives of the garment industry, such as fashion photography and modelling, also add a more emphatic political voice to the clothes; in recent years, such efforts have focused on fostering inclusive representations of models of colour, plus-sized models, and trans models. Recurrently however, visibility in isolation is ineffectual without the active participation of the bodies on display; for example, Vogue’s March 2017 ‘Diversity’ issue claimed to celebrate a pluralistic view of womanhood, while simultaneously casting depicting white model Karlie Kloss in yellowface for an Asian-influenced editorial.  The concentration of power amongst highly privileged editors, designers, and fashion creators maintain whiteness and heteronormative masculinity as the gatekeepers of inclusion, often leading to tokenizing, exocitizing, and misrepresentation. The right to speak—not just to be seen—must be redistributed into the hands of more female and non-binary imagemakers; a burgeoning generation of young female fashion photographers, such as Petra Collins and Harley Weir, who regularly explore female sexuality in their work, have used their medium to challenge societal norms about taboo subjects such as body hair and fatphobia.

The progressive movement of women into high profile positions in the fashion industry creates a more autonomous space wherein women may disrupt patriarchal constructions of gender identity and representation. Prominent female designers such as Miuccia Prada and Stella McCartney use their positions of influence to create clothing that authentically reflects their individual female points of view, as well as industry newcomers such as Grace Wales Bonner , whose gender-fluid collections aim to “push a broader spectrum of black representation.”36 In short, in order to accurately celebrate feminist politics, the fashion industry must also embody them as a part of their business culture, by representing and elevating more women of varied and intersectional backgrounds.

Therefore, fashion on its own is perhaps not an effective tool for furthering feminist politics, but the industry as a whole can use its influence to support global conversations about gender and feminist initiatives, by forwarding visibility and using its communicative powers to convey an emancipatory ideology.

  1. Sarah Mower. “Christian Dior Spring 2017 Ready-to-Wear Collection.” Vogue. September 30, 2016. Accessed December 18, 2016. http://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2017-ready-to-wear/christian-dior.
  2. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. “Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Show Ends With Co-Opted Faux-Feminist March.” Jezebel. September 30, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2016. http://jezebel.com/karl-lagerfelds-chanel-show-ends-with-co-opted-faux-fem-1640722530.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, 2nd ed. (London and New York: I.B Tauris, 2013), p.6.
  5. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, 2nd ed. (London and New York: I.B Tauris, 2013), p.6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
  8. Amanda Mason. “12 Things You Didn’t Know About Women In The First World War.” Imperial War Museums. Accessed December 22, 2016. http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/12-things-you-didnt-know-about-women-in-the-first-world-war.
  9. George Guilder. “Women in the Work Force.” The Atlantic. September 1986. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1986/09/women-in-the-work-force/304924/.
  10. Jon Hughes. “‘Zivil Ist Allemal Schädlich’ Clothing in German-language Culture of the 1920s,” Neophilologus 88 (2004): 429-45.
  11.  Ibid.
  12. Maria, Makela. “The Rise And Fall Of The Flapper Dress: Nationalism And Anti-Semitism In Early-Twentieth-

    Century Discourses On German Fashion,” The Journal of Popular Culture 34, no. 3 (2000): 183-208.

  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century (New York and London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001), p.111.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., pp.115-116.
  18. Ibid., p.111.
  19. Daniel Leonhard Purdy, introduction to Karl Kraus, The Eroticism of Clothes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 240.
  20. Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 148.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p. 149.
  23. Ibid., p. 145.
  24. Chantal Fernandez. “Hari Nef Doesn’t Think Fashion Is Fertile Ground for a Discussion of Gender.” Fashionista. May 18, 2016. Accessed May 18, 2016. http://fashionista.com/2016/05/hari-nef-fashion-gender-subversion-moma.
  25. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), p. 4.
  26. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, ed. Martha Banta (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.21.
  27. Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2000), p.14.
  28. Emma Hope Allwood. “Fashion v censorship: a history of banned ads.” Dazed. May 13, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2016. http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/24720/1/fashion-v-censorship-a-history-of-banned-ads-miu-miu-tom-ford.
  29. Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche, We Should All Be Feminists, 2nd ed. (Anchor, 2015), p.45.
  30. Evans, Fashion at the Edge, p. 120.
  31. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. L. Braudy and M. Cohen (Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 837.
  32. enna Clarke. “Dior encourages feminism with a $700 t-shirt.” The Sydney Morning Herald. October 7, 2016. Accessed December 22, 2016. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/paris-fashion-week-2016-jennifer-lawrences-jeans-rihannas-tracksuit-chanel-robots-20161005-grvrgj.html.
  33. Louis Althusser, “On the Contemporary Phenomenon of ‘Fashion,’” Décalages 1, no. 4 (2014).
  34. Ibid.
  35. Tia Elisabeth Glista. “Why Jaden Smith’s Louis Vuitton Campaign Matters.” Couturesque Magazine. January 8, 2016. Accessed December 22, 2016. http://www.couturesquemag.com/2016/01/jaden-smith-louis-vuitton.html.
  36. Fetto, Funmi. “Grace Wales Bonner, The Designer Tearing Down Gender Barriers.” ELLE UK. July 27, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://www.elleuk.com/fashion/trends/articles/a30234/grace-wales-bonner-the-designer-tearing-down-gender/.