Fashion is no longer the opposite of feminism, writes Mary Rose Roche and it is finally giving us the clothes that reflect our lives.
Karl Lagerfeld’s recent Chanel catwalk show for Spring Summer 2015 featuring a feminist march replete with tongue in cheek banners (“Be your own stylist”) was indicative of the fact that feminism is emerging from the sidelines as a re-invigorated and relevant movement.
High profile stars including Beyonce, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lawrence declare themselves femininsts without embarassment and a new debate has been opened up about women’s lives and why they still haven’t reached parity with male peers when it comes to wages, promotions, education and the division of childcare and housework.
One of the most anticipated film releases of 2015 is the Sufragette movie starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, a drama about the early feminists who were radicalised to use sometimes violent protest to obtain voting rights for women, while Charlize Theron has demanded (and received) parity in terms of pay and points with her male co-stars, in her latest film.
All the cool girls are now calling themselves feminists and being fabulous is about how high your IQ is and not how ample your cup size is.
The first wave of feminism which emerged at the start of the 20th century was driven by the issues of female suffrage and property rights and spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst , the second wave emerged in the ‘60s evolving into the popular Women’s Lib movement of the ‘70s when being a femininst was exciting and empowering, the third wave emerged in the early ‘90s and focused on abolishing traditional gender expectations and stereotypes while defending reproductive rights and choices re sexual identity and orientation.
At this stage feminism retreated into the realms of academic theory in the women’s studies departments of universities and seemed to lose its relevance to many lay women’s lives. Now after almost two decades when it was was side-lined as a minority interest, feminism is firmly back as part of mainstream debate and culture.
What has prompted this change? No doubt the financial repurcussions of the economic crisis have spurred on the resurgence in femininst activism in recent years. As Chanel wisely observed: “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” Here, groups such as the Irish Femininst Network have emerged since 2010 to make feminism accessible to a younger audience, particularly through the clever and articulate use of social media.
One of their co-ordinators, Clara Fischer has observed how people’s confidence in “authority” was shaken to such a degree by the downturn, that they began to re-examine how power was shaped and (mis)used in Irish society. With an Irish Constitution that still enshrines the place of women in the home (Article 41.2) the ongoing abortion debate and the fact that a mere 15% of the Dail is female, young Irish women woke up from the complaceny of the financially comfortable Celtic Tiger years to start querying the sexism that still lingered in many areas of our society and how they were going to challenge it.
This 4th wave of feminism is typified by complex, intelligent, talented, idiosyncratic women such as Maya Dunphy, Emma Thompson and Caitlin Moran as spokeswomen, the kind who aren’t afraid to say it like it is.
Not afraid to laugh at themselves, unashamed of their flaws yet proud of their achievements, they are reassuring us all that women can be less than perfect but also women of substance. Noughties feminism has seen women reclaiming their right to protest – against violence, discrimination and sexism. Conscience has replaced consumerism as many women’s motivation in post-boom society – individuals such as Malala Yousafazi of Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban for pursuing an education, Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project and Angelina Jolie who combines acting with activism to highlight charitable causes, are representative of this new breed. It seems a genuine cause is now a far chicer accessory than the latest “It” bag or designer dress.
Fashion too is reflecting this quest for greater liberty, equality and freedom as women demand more from their clothes – gone is the taste for overt sexuality and tortuous shoes to be replaced by more relaxed, easy and understated styling. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this trend is the huge popularity of flat shoes for women for the last 3 years. Once we were supposed to totter about in impossibly vertiginous Christian Louboutins, now it seems a pair of boyish brogues or ballet flats is a more liberating and stylish choice.
Women have lots to do and for many heels just hinder their busy schedule. Certainly there are now more female designers achieving success in the fashion industry than ever before – Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Tory Burch and Victoria Beckham all know what it’s like to be a working mother who needs a functional and flattering wardrobe that works as hard they do. Celine, the low key luxe label for thinking women with means, designed by the aforementioned Philo, features journalist, author and intellectual Joan Didion (80) as the face of its current campaign, a woman who has been called “ a symbol of our strength and fragility as a gender”.
In the fashion world an 80 year old writer as the face of a luxury brand is a rare innovation and the perfect illustration of fashion’s new mood.
Some criticised Lagerfeld’s Chanel show for being shallow and superficial but he always taps into the the topical zeitgeist for inspiration and his models certainly seemed to enjoy their pseudo-feminist fashion parade. Bearing in mind that Coco Chanel, the label’s founder did more to liberate women’s dress that any other 20th century designer, Lagerfeld’s presentation evoked how the indefatigable designer broke down many social and class barriers to allow women to dress with the ease and practicality enjoyed by men.
Trousers, jersey fabric, pockets and a lean relaxed silhouette are all Chanel innovations that she championed for women. She mightn’t have identified herself as a feminist but she certainly lived resolutely according to her own rules. Old school feminists may have seen fashion as anti-woman but the new wave of supporters see nothing contradictory in wearing red lipstick on a protest march. See how Angelina Jolie reconciles looking stunning on the red carpet with her humanitarina work for the UN – just because she has a consience and a brain doesn’t mean that she is obliged to adhere to a dull stereotype.
Fashion too has become more democratic - the old role of a designer as a style dictator, handing down absolut decrees regarding trends, hemline and silhouettes is over. The reality is that fashion is now more inclusive and diverse - nobody wants to look like an exact clone of the runway or even anyone else.
Self expression and individuality are central to modern dressing - narrow statements about clothes are obsolete and a pick and mix eclectism is the badge of a truly confident, independent and stylish woman. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this season, Spring Summer 2015 is so full of references to the ‘70s, the heyday of women’s lib, as there is something of the excitement of that era encapsulated in modern feminism now.
Other contemporary designers such as the Olsen twins at their label The Row and JW Anderson at Loewe are taking inspiration from alternative ‘80s labels such as Issey Miyake, Yohi Yamamoto and Commes Des Garcons, the kind of brands that were then favoured by feminist intellectuals.
There is also the fact that fashion is a worldwide industry that gives employment to many thousands of women. In the ‘90s I worked in a Dublin clothing manufacturer where the bulk of the workforce were women, many of whom were the sole earners in their families. They were strong women who spoke their minds and sewed equally forcefully. However, the fact that fashion is an industry while femininsm is an idealogical and political movement can also lead to conflict: sullying a noble cause with the taint of commercialism can be judged as exploitive. Some femininsts may still judge fashion to be superficial if not downright patronising. As designer Miucca Prada recalls: “I was a feminist in the sisties. Can you imagine? The worst thing I could have done was to be in fashion.”
The very nature of fashion means that it feeds off an innate collective intelligence and always reflects what women are experiencing in the wider world. My favourite Chanel observation that “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” defines this concept perfectly Perhaps the most rebellious message being disseminated now across all generations is that women should bloody well dress exactly as they please.
It might be startling for some, but for once feminism and fashion seem to be walking hand in hand together into a more liberated, and collaborative relationship. Time will tell if this flirtation is just crass opportunism, a mere publicity stunt, or if it will promote real debate about women’s rights and roles in modern life.
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