by Lærke Anbert & Omi
Feminism and Fashion have always had a complicated symbiotic relationship. Both are driven by expressions of social norms (either in rejection of it, or in acceptance of it). So it is no surprise the foremost events that involves fashion and its progression routinely steps into the world of feminist philosophy and structure. During Paris fashion week one of the major talking points was the reintroduction of unabashed feminism within the likes of Dior, Givenchy and Balmain. “We all should be Feminists” seem to be the height of such proclamation and Dior being the Queen of the Hill flew that flag with enough repetition that the message was not lost in the avalanche of trends and trinkets.
The embrace of Womanhood in Paris fashion week is a curious one as it embraced a very specific kind of womanhood...a very specific kind of feminism. A specific feminist variation on feminism that is culturally neutral with a hint of western sense of feminism or what is commonly known as the ‘white feminism’. Before we address the intricacy of that relationship we first must acknowledge that the feminism that we adhere to is predominantly western and white. And that has always been an issue from the 1st wave to the 3rd wave of feminism and only now it is being addressed as a multiethnic experience that needs to be understood both within the context of history and culture, along with race. White feminism had a lot of strong voices but unfortunately a lot of those voices were racist and irredeemable in many ways. Elizabeth Stanton was a notorious racist; Frances Willard routinely refused to denounce lynching of black men. And those were not isolated incidents, they were the norm. Sojourner Truth gave a speech in 1851 in which she laid bare how feminism was contextually racist and propagated different rights based on race and gender. Crenshaw wrote about intersectionality in the 90s. Chandra Talpade Mohanty addressed this head on as well. The debate has been there for a long time, but mainstream feminism/the ‘taylor swift’ feminism, or even those who call it post-feminism (feminist theorists disagree on this point vehemently) might have not acknowledged it until now, and many still don’t. So it is no surprise that fashion and feminism has created a notion of otherness for women of color, because the most vocal and prominent form of feminism whitewashes a lot of non-white experiences (from racial and cultural hierarchy to the political structure of a nation-state).
Feminism just like modern society have moved towards a harmonious relationship between the races in the last few decades but those distinctions still remain strongly rooted and some of those distinctions are still prevalent within feminist theory. And that aspect of feminism that does not encompass the experiences of majority non-white feminists is troubling yet dictates how feminism is viewed, sold and incorporated into the collective narrative of fashion. So when you read about how wonderfully feminist Paris fashion week was or how wonderfully the industry is embracing the role of feminism within fashion, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Because the feminism that was on display masquerading, as the primary voice of feminists was not universal, not race neutral, not class neutral. The feminism on display was what white feminism looks like. While that may be a step in the right direction it is nearly not a movement worthy of much attention beyond commerce. The feminism on display went far enough to be noticed but not far enough to be accepted as a proper foray into the actual problem of equality, equity and fraternity. From Dior to Stella McCartney every designer with a social clue tried to pay homage to tradition of feminism, unfortunately that homage was directed at a group of privileged feminists not at women of all color and/or class. Only Balenciaga was conscious enough to understand that the feminism on display as a tiny derivative of what feminism actually is and provided a warped and exceptionally smart take on the role of gender, race and class plays within society. What was strikingly absent from the whole process was what France is doing in the name of secularism by banning headscarves and specific swimwear. No prominent designer addressed that burning bra feminist issue either out of respect for its commercial partners and/or agreeing with the government structure that such hostile reaction to personal liberty is a non-issue that is not worth addressing. This absence of narrative concerning the most prominent civil rights/feminist issue suggests that that feminism these large fashion houses are most comfortable with are the ones that propagate their comfort within casual liberalism, but anything beyond that is not worth addressing because it does not affect the white feminists. So to label Paris fashion week as feminist is correct to the point of calling a housecat a tiger. Sure it has the same characteristic of a tiger but it is not a tiger. Paris fashion week has some characteristics of feminism but it is not actually feminist.
Lærke Anbert is a London School of Economics/ University of California, Berkeley educated social anthropologist and gender theorist.
Omi is an artist and an editor at Deux. In his other life he is a Harvard educated war theorist.