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Do high fashion and feminism mix?

Catwalk provocateurs

Luke Leitch is a feminist to the tips of his fingers. But he wonders whether high fashion is the best medium for the message

Luke Leitch is a feminist to the tips of his fingers. But he wonders whether high fashion is the best medium for the message

Luke Leitch | August/September 2017

When asked what I like the most about working in fashion, I lie. My usual reply is “the cool clothes, the travel, the parties”. While those answers aren’t exactly false (though the parties tend to be a bit rubbish), none of them is the absolute best thing. So why lie? Because, without elaboration, the real answer sounds creepy coming from a man. The very best thing about working in fashion is...the women.

Let me qualify this. All of my bosses (bar one) are women. Most of my colleagues are women. Most of the most powerful editors in fashion are women. While this business is not perfect when it comes to gender equality – an unseemly number of womenswear designers are male, for example – it does better than practically any other industry. Wage inequality? Just ask a male model what he thinks about that: they’re paid vastly less than their female counterparts. Working alongside so many women is great, even if I have to watch my step. Mansplaining is out and manspreading verboten.

It’s not surprising that the fashion world has so enthusiastically embraced the recent resurgence in feminism, which has emerged in reaction to Donald Trump’s knuckle-dragging misogyny. The Autumn 2017 shows started shortly after the Women’s March – reputedly the largest single-day demonstration in American history – and designers queued up to declare their solidarity. At Missoni, every guest was given a pink Pussyhat. In London, the great designer Ashish put “Nasty Woman” on a sequinned top. In New York, Prabal Gurung included a T-shirt emblazoned with “the future is female”. The mood in fashion was one of overt defiance and disgust.

There is nothing new to this marriage of feminism and fashion: Helen Storey, Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood all expressed rage at gender inequality in their collections in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, designers including Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo (of Céline), Sarah Burton (of Alexander McQueen) and Donatella Versace have all stitched their principles into their clothes.

As any catwalk loiterer will tell you, this recent spate of feminist pride first erupted at Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection. The show took place in a set that meticulously replicated a Parisian street. At the end, the models re-emerged en masse waving placards and chanting “History is her story! Ladies first!” It looked like an intensely stylised re-creation of May 1968: afterwards the model Gigi Hadid reported that the rehearsal lasted for four hours because she and her fellow marchers were struggling to chant enthusiastically enough. Over at Christian Dior, the Italian designer Maria Grazia Chiuri became, last year, the first woman to take creative control of the house since its founding in 1947. For her first show in October 2016 she teamed an embellished floor-length skirt in midnight-blue tulle with a £500 T-shirt reading “we should all be feminists”.

Fashion’s espousal of feminism is undoubtedly sincere, but there is a problem with it. The implication that particular garments by particular labels are “empowering” because the designer says so seems rather the reverse.

Fashion is feminist. It is largely run by women, and the constantly changing array of beautiful clothes it produces empowers women to shape their own identities. One look at societies in which women have to wear a uniform – Saudi Arabia or the Amish community, for instance – makes the freedom that fashion offers instantly desirable. This token male agrees that the future is female. Yet as platforms for ideology go, fashion is about as stable as a four-inch stiletto: put too much weight on it and you risk collapsing.

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