Fashion’s feminist foray

By Helena Grimmer

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At The Grand Palais in Paris, a formidable Front Row awaited with baited breath for Karl Lagerfeld’s latest Chanel collection. The world was watching as the designer sent his models down the runway in mock protest, wielding megaphones and brandishing placards featuring slogans such as ‘Ladies First,’ and ‘Women’s Rights Are More Than Alright.’ Are there finally grounds to suggest that the fashion industry fully supports Feminist ideals?

After all, the fashion realm is no stranger to being criticised by modern feminists. Naomi Wolf, for example, famously claimed that fashion oppresses women just as much as the ideals of motherhood, domesticity and chastity. Certainly, its demarcation of women as looking and dressing a particular way does seem to oppose feminism at its core. However, if one looks beyond the highly contentious issue of objectification, a tale of two halves becomes increasingly apparent.

Of the million people employed in the industry today, 71.6% are female, suggesting that fashion can, in fact, be praised for its role in financially and professionally empowering women. Moreover, of this percentage, many women actually hold positions at the highest levels of authority – a situation that is only improving by the introduction of initiatives such as LMVH’s EllesVMH programme. In this way, the industry can be seen as providing a variety of opportunities whereby women might achieve success, independence and, ultimately, respect.

Indeed, historically, fashion has always played an important role in mirroring the debate on the changing position of women in society. Take the 1920s, for instance, when dress shapes became looser and hemlines shorter in order to reflect how women wanted to feel more physically liberated as a result of their new-found, post-war independence. During the 1960’s too, fashion became a symbol of sorts for the growing Women’s Liberation movement when feminists burned their bras to protest their frustration over gender inequality. Finally, in the 1970s, fashion can be seen to have acted as a denotation of women’s growing power in the workplace as trouser suits became ever more popular with the female masses.

Much more than simply assuming a role as a cultural mirror however, fashion can, in fact, be seen to have aided the feminist cause in many respects. At the most basic level, the fashion industry provides women with the means to be empowered and confident by making them feel good about themselves. The notion of power dressing, for example, inaugurated by ‘the great unsung heroine of British feminism’, Margaret Thatcher, arguably instils an embolden attitude in women, allowing them to succeed in what they set out to achieve. Superficiality aside,  it is no secret that we feel at our best when we know that we are projecting an image of ourselves to the world that we are satisfied with, and clothing plays an intrinsic part in this.

Moreover, although it would be anachronistic to describe her as a feminist, Coco Chanel can be seen to have used fashion to express her ‘desire to liberate women’. By appropriating traditionally male styles and fabrics and adapting them to the female form, Chanel not only changed the way women looked superficially but how they looked at themselves. It is therefore fitting to have come full circle, with Karl picking up the feminist mantle ready for the next battle in the cause of gender equality.

Ultimately, the notion that fashion and feminism are incompatible is an assertion that is fundamentally incorrect. Granted, while objectification is clearly still a problem in the industry, it is diminishing as initiatives to tackle this issue gain momentum. Moreover, whilst the extent to which the fashion industry encourages women to invest in their appearance poses a moral dilemma, at the same time it seems both naïve and patronising to imagine that the majority of young women in the 21st century are passive, unthinking victims of media manipulation. It is unreasonable to assume that a woman cannot have an interest in fashion and feminism simultaneously. As Coco said, “Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening” – and it is constantly changing to reflect the bigger issues of the day so it can stand in support of, and not against, the feminist cause. In this light, need we say more than to make like Coco and use fashion to (ad)dress it!

Photograph: Vogue.co.uk

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