THE LANGUAGE OF FASHION From suffragette jewellery to placards on the catwalk, the conversation between feminism and fashion is as complex as it is revealing. By Justine Picardie. Illustration by Donald Robertson.
When I was an idealistic undergraduate in my first term at Cambridge, I went along to a meeting of what was called the University Anti-Sexist Group. There was much heated debate about whether men could identify themselves as feminists and why stilettos were symptomatic of oppression. As it happens, I wasn’t wearing heels, but I had applied red lipstick and nail varnish, which clashed with my pink dress. This turned out to be a faux pas – not on account of the discordant colours, but because feminism and fashion were mutually exclusive.
I might have quoted Virginia Woolf by way of defence, for as she observed, clothes have “more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us”. As it was, I remained silent. But since then – thanks in part to Woolf, and her explorations of the links between what we wear and who we are (threads that ran through her writing, which she described as “frock consciousness”) – I have come to realise feminism’s relationship with fashion cannot be so easily dismissed.
The uneasiness of this relationship is, perhaps, part of the reason for its continuing power to provoke debate. Take, for example, the feminist protest staged by Karl Lagerfeld on the Chanel catwalk this season, when a parade of models marched with banners and megaphones on a recreated Parisian boulevard inside the Grand Palais. As I watched the finale, it was impossible not to share the sheer exhilaration of the models as they shouted and waved their placards (“History Is Her Story”; “He For She”; “Feminism Not Masochism”).
Afterwards, however, came the inevitable dissent; much of which ran along the lines that feminism would be undermined if it were hijacked as a fashion statement. It was a “silly show”, wrote a critic; not least because “the fashion industry, and in particular the fashion weeks, are about as feminist as a fruitcake”. Other commentators worried that
Sartorial feminism through the decades