Chanel: co-opting feminism at Paris fashion week – The Guardian
As a brand, Chanel has always conjured evocative images: monochrome, red lipstick, the tweedy box jackets of rich old ladies in the sixteenth arrondissement, and of course the classic 2.55 handbag. These signifiers have ensured that since its inception, the fashion house has come to represent the last word in luxurious yet insouciant French chic – but feminism?
Anyone who has read creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s comments on singer Adele being “a little too fat” is going to struggle to see common ground between the brand and the political movement for women’s emancipation. Yet Lagerfeld is suggesting just that with his latest show as part of Paris fashion week. At the Grand Palais this morning, he sent models including Gisele, Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner down the “Boulevard Chanel” as part of a simulated protest march for women’s rights.
The slogans (Ladies First, Feminist But Feminine, Boys Should Get Pregnant Too and Make Fashion Not War) are laughable. If you were to devise a talking feminist Barbie doll, this might be its inner script. Lagerfeld could have better channelled the cause by sending the models out in boiler suits and dungarees, and I certainly would have paid good money to have seen Delevingne dressed as a fish and riding a bicycle.
Maybe the creative director was hinting at Chanel’s not insignificant feminist past. Though controversial for her links to the Nazis, Coco Chanel was a trailblazer for women’s fashion. Her penchant for challenging gender expectations through dress – with an emphasis on masculine lines and comfort over corsets, for instance – was revolutionary in changing the way women thought about clothes. But in 2014, a time when most of us are comfortable wearing trousers, watching a parade of skinny, overwhelmingly white young women in extortionately priced outfits attempting to channel a watered-down interpretation of gender equality does not at first glance feel like feminism to me – and I say that as a former Vogue intern and lover of Chanel.
Since founding the satirical feminist blog the Vagenda in 2012, I have seen feminism become a bigger part of mainstream conversation than I ever could have imagined as a teenager. Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham and Tavi Gevinson paved the way, followed by Beyoncé, Emma Watson and Taylor Swift. Female celebrities are now routinely asked “are you a feminist?” in interviews. More importantly, campaigns against issues such as female genital mutilation, domestic violence and the gender pay gap are receiving the national attention they deserve. All in all, progress is being made. But is this new Chanel feminism progress?
It is the fate of any counter-cultural movement to become co-opted and repackaged. The market dictates, and the market has decided that feminism is cool. It is now more heavily commodified than ever before, so it’s no wonder the fashion industry is taking note. This time last year, the Vagenda was heavily criticised for teaming up with Elle in a “rebranding feminism” exercise. The term “rebranding” was a red flag to many feminists, and rightly so, but after much thought we saw it as an opportunity to communicate feminism in a different way, to a different audience – and that had huge political potential. I still believe there are some who would rather feminism remained the preserve of the academic, of the white, middle-class journalist, not the schoolgirl on the street and certainly not the supermodel.
The fashion industry is dominated by women. Its behaviour has enormous repercussions for women the world over, from the way it treats workers in its factories and warehouses to its impact on the way we feel about our bodies and ourselves. I would like to see fashion take that responsibility seriously.
iLagerfeld’s show may not have shaken my feminist foundations, but if it makes one young girl feel comfortable using the term, then surely that’s something – at least, it is if she understands its real meaning. She’d better start saving up her pocket money, though. I’m still paying off that 2.55 five years later.