Is the runway the place for politics?
by Emily Hodgkin
The feminism debate is back. Creeping slowly towards the fore of mainstream consciousness came Girls star and writer Lena Dunham, and now Beyoncé. Somehow, somewhere, a feminist catalyst exploded and the movement claimed Beyoncé for its own. The singer created an album sampling a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the world took notice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fashion has taken up the feminist line with gusto. Anna Wintour campaigned to immortalize Dunham on the cover of American Vogue. Rick Owens sent a shrieking troupe of well built, black women stomping and dancing down the catwalk in his most recent, refreshing show.
Miuccia Prada used garments to articulate “political discourse” at her Spring/Summer 2014 show, commenting: “there is this debate about women again and I want to interpret it. My instrument is fashion.” Similarly, see Tamara Mellon’s assertion: “I absolutely consider myself a feminist. I think that as a result of the financial crisis, women woke up and realized that we need to reignite the conversation on gender equality.”
There is an ever-present catch-22 in feminism and fashion; how can an industry that profits from women’s low self-esteem ever be truly feminist? But fashion itself is a huge concept which spans from Andy Warhol’s factory to Crocs, from Isabella Blow to Kim Kardashian. Away from the pages of magazines like Grazia and Vogue, the issues of established gender roles and feminism have been consistently addressed.
Designers who play outside the restrictive remits of high-end fashion are those such as Yohji Yamamoto, Hussein Chalayan, Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, and Gareth Pugh. They are conceptual, anti-establishment; thinking outside of the realms of normal society and its preconceived notions of gender.
Designs such as Cyprus-born Chalayan’s transforming Aeroplane dress, made of a composite material created from fiberglass and resin cast, with panels that open to reveal pink tulle, encourage us to see our bodies differently.
Engaging with philosophy and politics in his designs, notions of gender have often inspired the designer’s works – for example his attack on extremism and in Iraq as well as an allusion to the shift of erogenous zones around the female body in the evolving societal ideal of feminine beauty.
In the collection Between for Spring/Summer 1998 he sent models onto the catwalk wearing black chadors, and nothing else. With each model, the traditional black Muslim garments became progressively smaller, until the last stood entirely naked except for the cloth that hid her face. According to Chalayan this piece was about defining cultural territory. He claimed “the body simultaneously became a physical and political projection of that time”. This was undoubtedly one of the greatest feminist moments for fashion in the last decade.
Gareth Pugh’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection was leather and latex, with sculpted, over-proportioned shoulders, constructed and geometric designs in black, metallic white and blue. The models faces were enhanced with prosthetics creating the look of an empress from deepest space. It was a collection that gave us otherworldly women and questioned the notions of gender, power, sexuality and femininity within the wider sphere of collective thinking.
To combat sexism there must not be, as some seem to suggest, a desexualization of women and clothes, and the relationship between the two. To embrace the meaning of feminism, there must be an exploration of the differentials in the concept of ‘woman’. The real disservice the fashion industry does to women is to represent them as interchangeable – too often we see in advertising and fashions shows women who are all white, all thin, all fair, all passive.
It is not clear whether the current mainstream trend of feminism will cause the glossy magazine culture of fad-driven fashion to take on a more feminist visage, perhaps not. However it is the case that fashion is a crucial reflector of shifting norms in people’s thinking, and a fantastic way of opening up political discussion to a larger audience.
Any amount of dialogue about political issues, like inequality between the sexes, is a positive thing – whether or not you believe the discussion comes from a sincere place. And those who fear the progressive dialogue and discourse will disappear as soon as the next trend rears its head needn’t worry. Feminism in fickle fashion may come and go but there will always be designers pushing boundaries and questioning our perceptions of the world we live in.