Are fashion and feminism compatible? – The Guardian
Kathryn Flett, journalist and author of Separate Lives:
Are feminism and fashion incompatible? I should Coco Chanel! Did you see Karl (“Adele is a little too fat”) Lagerfeld’s collection for Chanel last week in which the models carried placards, while Gisele and Cara (a pair of first-name-only Supers, for those tragically still out-of-the-loopy-Lou-Lou) shouted “What do we want?” through, uh, megaphones?! Rumours from the FROW* that US Vogue’s editrix, Anna Wintour, replied “No 5? But I’d settle for 19” are sadly un-based in anything approaching a fact. Fash-n-fem are patently (mmm! Love patent!) entirely incompatible. I mean PLACARDS? MEGAPHONES? It’s all very well Chanel-ling 1913 for the purposes of documenting fashion’s hemlineage, but someone really needs to break it gently to “Kaiser Karl” that la mode has demonstrably moved on a bit. Hell, it had already moved on a bit in Paris in 1968.
But joking aside (tricky, admittedly, but I’ll try… ), all Chanel actually demonstrated last week was that demonstrations are having a moment… which immediately reduces whatever it is that feminism has become (I’ll check with Emma Watson) to yet another this-season-must-have. Personally I’d prefer one of those lush fake furs by Shrimps…
[*Front row, sadsters].
Liz Hoggard, writer and author of Dangerous Women:
It’s true that a perfect storm of events – the catwalks showing “wearable” clothes and flat shoes (shock); Victoria Beckham speaking at the UN; Lagerfeld’s mock demo – might make you think fashion is having a feminist moment. And you are right to be extremely thoughtful about what is going on. Because we’ve been here before. In March, Karl’s Chanel “supermarket” with models walking the aisles (to give the luxury brand more edge) made me far more uncomfortable than his feminist love-in (has the fatist, cat-loving one ever shopped at Lidl?). But there’s no denying he understands great theatre. And my heart did skip a beat to see those young women streaming down the Grand Palais. It felt like a show of raw female energy. Of course models aren’t activists, but this is a generation that looks outside its own shop window (Cara, Rihanna et al have joined protests against FGM, lobbied to #BringBackOurGirls). Five years ago that would have been unthinkable. And we’d have been watching the usual etiolated mannequins (I take your point that they are still very thin) paraded by a puppet master. This time the girls are leading him. Around grassroots feminism, there is an extraordinary energy and wit and, yes, anger. It’s a good time to be a 15-year-old girl, from Caitlin Moran’s feminist rock’n’roll readings to seeing Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson stand up to creepy trolls. I’m not surprised powerful corporations want a share of that. In many ways it represents a panic around 21st-century capitalism. Economists have linked a new trend for utilitarian clothes with anxiety about the markets. So this isn’t altruism for normal-shaped women (as if). But the very fact that fashion needs a piece of feminism makes me oddly happy.
KF: You’re right – five years ago models aligning themselves with issues such as FGM would have been unthinkable – just as the idea of Victoria Beckham as a top fashion designer would have been unthinkable. Far easier, in fact, to picture VB at the UN; former Spice-mate Geri Halliwell was appointed a representative for the UN as far back as 1999! But that’s fashion – always full of surprises, right?
In fact, five years ago the autumn 2009 Chanel show had great reviews for casting Karen Elson in runway pole position: “Here was a fabulous-looking 30-year-old woman rather than some anonymous waif… ” said Vogue’s Sarah Mower. Never mind that Elson was wearing what amounted to a posh French maid’s outfit; fashion thrives on such “contradictions”. And of course I love the idea of raw female energy. I’d just prefer it if that energy hadn’t been corralled in the pursuit of flogging perfume.
Just as V Beckham’s burgeoning brand was a very smart move on her behalf by her manager, Simon Fuller, so Chanel’s quasi-political statement is patently (patent? Urgh! Sooooo ovah!) another canny marketing device. And I don’t have a problem with canny marketing devices, per se (Lidl is doing a brilliant job at the moment); however, I do eye-roll when something real and tangible — kick-ass contemporary feminism — is reduced to a money-spinning slogan tee by a multibillion-dollar corp. And I can’t believe that you don’t, too…
LH: Ah, yes, flogging the perfume. You are quite right to remind me that it is never actually about the clothes. But you know I do sense a shift in the fashion hierarchy. I don’t think Chanel can own that power. If fashion is run by old white guys who don’t really understand kick-ass contemporary feminism, then they’re the ones on the back foot at the moment. I like the idea young women might look at that Grand Palais show, and think: “I want that attitude.” Not: “I want that dress.” For once, it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing. I’d suggest it is possible to love clothes – that expression of character and spirit and sheer animal display – and be deeply suspicious of fashion itself. Or am I being naive?
KF: Of course it’s possible to love clothes and be suspicious of fashion. In fact, it’s essential! However I do think you’re naive about the mores of the majority of young women; it’s mostly the Kardashians, not Caitlin, who rock their consumerist world.
And of course while Chanel kicked (skinny) femme ass, our very own Stella McCartney (though not technically ours as her name is owned by LVMH) was on an entirely different page. In fact she’s just apologised for a picture of a patently (patent’s SO cool and retro, no?…) unhealthily skinny model taken backstage at her show, while also displaying a great deal more interest in the “feminine” than the “feminist”: “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive sometimes,” said Stella. “This collection is about celebrating the softness of a woman and the fragility that, for me, actually gives you a strength.” Hm. During my years as a magazine fashion editor we had a non-technical term for this stuff: fashion bollocks.
Fashion is, by its nature, entirely bipolar. You can love it, live for it, invest all your time/money/energy in it, but clearly what it says today will in no way reflect what it says in six months’ time. Indeed, surely the entire point of fashion is that it mustn’t really believe in anything…
LH: Yes, the Stella photo was shocking (if you live in the real size-14 world). But I have always considered her a woman-friendly designer (her style icon is after all her mother, Linda, who endured real misogyny over the years). Attempting to define femininity is never wise. Maybe designers of all genders should avoid cod-philosophy. It is just bloody clothes after all. Fashion is in many ways a private relationship with the self. I admired Miuccia Prada this month when she stated baldly: “I never look at what people wear. I am totally uninterested.” Personally I envy individuals who cultivate allure – whether it’s a great coat or a great attitude. There are so many ways of owning space without being a clothes horse – just look how it was the late-60- and 70-year-olds (Yoko, Debbie, Dolly) who stormed it this year.
KF: Stella’s heart’s in the right place; it’s just all-but impossible to engage with fashion as an industry without losing sight of what really matters. Ms McC wouldn’t use leather but she’ll still sell us skin and bones…
Anyway, whether cutting its cloth to fit the femininnies or the fierce feministas, fashion’s big problem is that, ultimately, it’s only ever about the bottom/s line. In other words (as, ahem, Jessie J put it) Seems like everybody’s got a price/I wonder how they sleep at night/When the sale comes first and the truth comes second/Just stop for a minute and…
LH: Yes I think that’s the right distinction. It’s the business of fashion that can be venal, exacting a terrible price on models, consumers and the designers themselves who have to send out a ridiculous number of collections a year. Real fashion (whether vintage, love-worn, high street, homemade, etc) allows us to speak volumes about ourselves. Dressing is a social act (whether we care one whit about the new midiskirt or not). And I’d be really sorry if feminists felt they had to retire from that arena.
KF: I hear you; one size of feminism does not fit all. If any woman (or indeed a #HeForShe kinda guy) identifies as a feminist somewhere on the spectrum between Dworkin and Lagerfeld, then that’s cool. Even cooler in those Stella-for-Adidas trainers, too…
LH: I agree. Fashion is a way of talking about history, desire and the body. Virginia Woolf argues that our first sensory experiences as a child live on as textile memory in our brains, influencing the colours, textures and scents of the clothes that we buy. And, luxury brands take note, those childhood memories are not for sale.