Is fashion ready to walk its feminist talk?

  • Jessica Propper
Following the rise of feminism in fashion and pop culture we're left hoping it isn't just another trend.

by Wendy Syfret

9 January, 2015

This week Celine released their Spring Summer '15 campaign with a subdued and powerful Juergen Teller shot of author, activist, feminist icon, and current internet hero Joan Didion. Didion has had something of a cultural renaissance on the crest of the neo-feminist wave that crashed dramatically over 2014. As think pieces reflecting on the Year of the Feminist continue to punctuate pages and screens, it's little wonder that a brand as forward thinking and intelligent as Celine played their hand so perfectly this campaign season.

After all, the brand has a stellar record of beautiful, thought provoking campaign images. And since Phoebe Philo took over in 2008 the house has evolved into the quintessential thinking woman's sartorial treasure. In short, who else would the great Didion even consider to partner with?

But it would be naive to think that the appearance of a feminist icon in a multi million dollar campaign was purely intellectual, the reality is that in the past 12-months feminism has been big business. Its cross into the mainstream was clear in the endless accolades and retweets bestowed upon the likes of Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, Tavi Gevinson, and Petra Collins. For the first time since the Spice Girls Girl Power was a marketing sweet spot.

If we choose to put our cynicism aside, we can view the reflection of this in fashion as more than economic. After all, fashion always has been a mirror held up to our daily lives. What we experience, think, and talk about influences how we dress and the work of all great designers.

So the fashion world was never going to be left behind and made sure we knew they were thinking about feminism just as much as we were blogging about it. This raises an important question though, has the industry earned the right to call itself feminist?

Issues of body image, racial diversity, and gender conformity will always be able to be used as arguments for why the industry isn't breaking ground on social change. But recently we have seen interesting demonstrations of major brands trying to push boundaries and exceed expectation.

Rick Owens and Marc Jacobs used Fashion Weeks to dislocate body and beauty standards with real women and bare faces. And Miuccia Prada showed why she's Phoebe Philo's equal when we think about dynamic and powerful women in the industry with Prada's celebration of Diego Rivera's female portraits for Spring/Summer 2014. But it was Chanel's Spring 15 show, always strikingly literally, that forced fashion's relationship with feminism into the spotlight. Karl Lagerfeld's protest was undeniably a hit, but it was also the breaking point where we were forced to ask, wait is this a movement or a trend?

Responses were mixed, with some arguing that any discussion around the issue was positive, and the publicity was immeasurable. But it was also the point where the discussion deviated so far away from the topic it slipped into pastiche. On her blog Susie Lau asked, "Whatever Lagerfeld's true stance on feminism is, it is difficult to believe the conviction of a uniform cast of women, held up to an unrealistic standard of beauty, waving such banners, whilst wearing clothes that are prohibitively expensive. Why go there, Karl? To court controversy? To get more Instagram likes? I suspect it's a combination of both."

Lau vocalised the biggest worry that feminists have over the appropriation of their cause. When something shouts so loud people stop listening, details get lost, and corners are rubbed off. At Chanel fashionable feminism hit critical mass and the message was suddenly lost, despite it being carried on so many colourful signs.

It was the moment the movement was reflected back to us as its most heady interpretation, as a trend. And as fashion knows more than anyone, trends are never here forever.

Now on in the morning light of 2015 we're waiting with baited breath to see if the movement will hold fast, if its message—delivered and digested to a new generation—will be made their own, or will it be cast aside like yesterday's clothes. Didion's appearance is galvanising, it's an early hint that the sentiment has penetrated the industry and allowed lifelong feminists the audience to continue to push a more positive, rounded message. But it's still just one example, so lets not congratulate ourselves too loudly.

After all, the other fashion story of the week was Victoria's Secret's latest video. And while the brand's staple of beautiful women writhing half naked in the sand is more popular with teenage girls than salivating men, don't let the dichotomy get lost on you.

Obviously it's not like 2014 was a ray of light in a century of oppression—the world has been producing Coco Chanels, Vivienne Westwoods, Grace Jones, and Madonnas for as long as it's been creating women. And it will continue to do so, but the hope is that whole houses, publications, and media outlets will continue to follow suit and not allow feminism to become another look to pass out of style.

For now, still in the moment, speculation is futile. After all you always think you'll love what's fresh forever, no one ever commits to a trend imagining to cast it aside. So if it's a trend or a revolution, do as you always do when you fall in love, hold feminism close and hope that some style is perennial.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Daniel Jackson
[The Future Of The Fashion Issue, No.329, Pre-Spring 2014]