Hubert Burda Media

Can Fashion Be Feminist?

With designers like Prabal Gurung and Maria Grazia Chiuri making a stand for the fairer sex, fashion is enjoying a feminist moment now.

Fashion weeks are never short of showstopping moments, but during the Autumn/Winter 17 presentations in New York City earlier this year, it was a comparatively prosaic look that made everybody sit up and take notice — slogan t-shirts.

Prabal Gurung and models in his female empowerment tees

For his show’s finale, Prabal Gurung sent models down the runway in plain black and white t-shirts. In a move that was high on substance (and Instagrammable moments too), each tee bore a slogan affirming feminism or empowerment, such as “The future is female” and “Nevertheless she persisted”, with the Nepal-born designer himself proudly wearing one that read, “This is what a feminist looks like”.

If there ever was a moment in time for the feminist movement to claim sartorial cred, this would be it.

Just a season earlier, for her debut Spring/Summer 17 show for Dior, artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri had kick-started this newfound activism in the fashion industry when she sent out a model in a t-shirt with the slogan, “We should all be feminists”, which was paired with a tulle skirt.

Dior artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s message was loud and clear

The movement has now gone global and includes a diverse group of designers from Gurung in New York to Missoni in Milan, where Angela Missoni closed her show with models sporting pink knitted pussyhats — the symbol of women’s marches held around the world in January. Many other indie designers, including Mara Hoffman, Jonathan Simkhai and Rebecca Minkoff, made notable feminist statements during their shows too.

In Paris, designers took a more cerebral approach with thoughtful collections from Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons and Jun Takahashi for Undercover, among others that critics interpreted as treatises on the female identity. No matter which you prefer, there is no denying that fashion has embraced feminism as its cause du jour.

The Bulbous shapes that pervaded Comme Des Garcons FW17 Collection sought to challenge ideas about women’s bodies.

Power to the Woman

Together with popular feminist movements like #Girlboss and Lean In as well as the adoption of viral catchphrases like “empowerment” and “girl power”, it has never been easier for the involved, passionate woman to make a stand for her gender.

Industry watchers hail this feminist moment as a way to reach out to an audience that is turned off by the stereotype of feminists as bra-burning and anti-man extremists. It led The Daily Telegraph in UK to observe that these palatable, bite-sized pro-women declarations are “reaching women who might not normally be receptive to any kind of socially progressive message”.

Sure, fashion may seem frivolous to casual observers but it cannot be denied that the luxury fashion industry wields surprising influence in sparking trends and inspiring people across a wide swathe of social strata. For example, Coco Chanel revolutionised the way women dressed by liberating them of constricting corsets, cumbersome whalebone skirts and unnecessary layers of fabric through her designs. In more recent times, the fashion industry has tackled contemporary conundrums like environmental conservation, sweatshop labour and racial diversity with measures like manufacturing eco-conscious garments, embracing fair trade practices and greater inclusiveness on the runways respectively. Arguably, none of these may be perfect solutions but at least, they help to draw eyeballs to these issues and pave the way for further dialogue.

So, in a world where the gender gap remains a reality whether in terms of wages or attitudes towards women, the fact that female consumers drive between 70 and 80 percent of all consumer purchases also makes the fashion industry well placed to draw attention to the cause of gender equality.

The Modern Feminist

Explaining why she has taken up the gauntlet for the modern feminist, Chiuri says: “Feminism for me is about equal opportunities. If I am going to stand for something, I would like to stand for this idea: That if you are a woman you can have these opportunities in life.”

At her latest FW17 collection, attendees were gifted with a bandana printed with the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” The collection itself featured a predominantly blue palette, which Chiuri indicates in her show notes is a colour that she regards as genderless — in other words, equal.

Other designers in Paris joined in. Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times fashion critic, says: “What I was really struck by was how designers were wrestling with female identity and empowerment. Unlike in New York, European designers didn’t make overly political statements…but instead made clothes that spoke to different ideas of what strong women might look like. Maybe they had very broad shoulders, like (those) at Céline. Or maybe they wore overalls, like (those) at Stella McCartney — not for the factory floor, but the office.”

Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons pushed the envelope even further with a peculiar collection of bulbous outfits that were sculpted to bulge and protrude, in an endeavour to parody the female form. A casual onlooker may dismiss the collection as unwearable, but as Friedman states: “The point of what Ms Kawakubo does is not wearability but challenging received ideas about beauty and women’s bodies.”

Making a Real Change

But for every socially aware fashionista who proudly displays her feminist leanings with a bold statement across her chest, there is a detractor who says these fashion statements merely pay lip service to the cause without tackling actual problems.

One of the biggest critiques is that fashion is complicit in the discrimination of women, particularly within the industry. For example, ultra-thin models are still the norm at fashion weeks and plus-sized women continue to find it a struggle to even purchase flattering and well-fitting clothing. It’s also been pointed out how workers in much of the garment manufacturing industry are paid sweatshop wages. A recent report by Human Rights Watch revealed that workers in Bangladesh held a strike late last year to ask for an increase in wages from 5,300 takas (US$67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200).

Indeed, these are issues that rightfully deserve attention and need to be corrected sooner rather than later. As more consumers find out why these issues matter, there is hope that momentum will swing in the direction of change.

In the meantime, pop feminism not only helps to spread awareness, but is contributing dollars and cents to worthy causes. Proceeds from the sales of Dior’s feminist t-shirt will go to a charity fronted by superstar Rihanna to support international education, health and emergency programmes while that from Gurung’s collection will be donated to a variety of organisations, including his own Shikshya Foundation Nepal that supports underprivileged kids.

After all, surely every little bit counts. Says Gurung: “People on the outside and even some people in the fashion industry think that fashion people are maybe not the smartest. It’s a constant battle. But we have the platform, we have the audience… So I feel passionately about it.”