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Why a fashion girl can also be a feminist
Before I sat down to write this piece, I went out for lunch. One of the starter choices was lamb’s testicles served on a bed of lamb’s lettuce, a gastronomical foreshadowing if ever there was one. I ordered it.
Some feminists might say that testicles are exactly what is wrong with the world and that the safest place sautéed and served with a delicious sauce marchand, perhaps ladies would not be paid less for the same work done by men, work-life balance wouldn’t be as crappy as it almost always is and percentage points could be gained on the piddling 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies that currently have female CEOs. And yet, round four of the feminist saga, which is where we’re at, suggests that man-blaming isn’t our best game.
Feminism has been many things since the suffragettes, but it has never been trendy. Or seductive. And now it is. All this is virgin territory for the cause. What do we make of Beyoncé’s all-caps declaration of feminism at the VMAs seconds after pole dancing? Are we to rejoice over Taylor Swift’s coming-of-feminist moment when she realized it meant you could still shave your armpit hair? What is our policy on twerking? What are we to make of Karl Lagerfeld’s staging of the Chanel collection as a women’s-lib march? Do we want to see tweedy togs accessorized with Herstory placards and quilted minaudières?
“I loved the Lagerfeld moment,” says New York-based author and feminist activist Amy Richards. “I didn’t take it to be a turning point in feminism but a fun expression of women’s freedoms. Freedom to choose fashion—and expensive fashion at that—is certainly low on a priority list, but powerful people expressing a need for feminism is a potential positive for us all.”
That feminism has found a place in the fashion world is discombobulating to many. The latter is an industry that obsesses on beauty, the traditional bugaboo of ’70s radical feminists whose signs shouted “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly…we’re ANGRY!” and the sound-bite-unfriendly “Women are enslaved by beauty standards.” And yet, over a hundred years after suffragettes smashed windows, vandalized paintings, threw themselves under race horses and starved themselves in prison to win the right to vote, and over half a century since the sit-ins, bra-burnings and demonstrations for sexual liberation, equal rights and the control and defence of our own bodies, fashionable is what feminism has become.
And why not? Maybe frivolity has been the missing ingredient in feminism. In the ’70s, the personal became political; now it has simply become pop cultural. Notable examples include Emma Watson’s #HeForShe speech at the UN, anything Lena Dunham does and the upcoming movie Suffragette. And we even have feminist godmother Gloria Steinem making a cameo appearance on The Good Wife. Feminism is clearly on a hot streak.
“Feminism is not one of those things that we can afford to have become un- trendy,” says Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn lawyer specializing in revenge-porn cases. “We need it—even more than we need those Givenchy magnetic shark-tooth earrings. The influence of cool people and role models in entertainment who publicly identify as feminists and give it some sparkle and glamour—like Beyoncé—means that no one has to forsake fame, riches, materialism or sexiness all in the name of feminism. This is modern.”
It’s a new twist on “having it all” feminism to be able to have your Dolce & Gabbana torero hot pants and wear them too. Beyoncé’s VMA performance proved that a Tom Ford bodysuit has everything over the dungarees, Earth shoes and megaphones of protests past and that the era of hair-shirt feminism is over.
Still, it is hard not to think that fashion will throw feminism over like a Burberry trench when the next trend comes along. “Fashion is fashion and feminism is feminism, and nary the two shall meet” is the way it has always been. Lagerfeld may be feminist this season, but will his sisterhood sympathies vanish as quickly as Louis Vuitton velvets from waiting lists? He is, after all, the man who said that Coco Chanel wasn’t ugly enough to be a feminist and that Adele was fat. Even Coco, hailed for her liberating tweeds, was nothing more than an equal-opportunity opportunist. “A woman,” she once said, “equals envy plus vanity plus chatter plus a confused mind.”
And yet…fashion lurches, if only fitfully, toward feminism. It is still a business of starved pubescent and Photoshopped women, but there are glimmers that feminist inspired fashion may outlast spring/summer 2015. Take, for example, the flat shoes that have now been on trend for three full seasons. Cast your mind far, far back into the dark ages of spring 2013, when Céline’s mink-lined calfskin shower sandals first appeared. Surely there is no more potent clue of female empowerment than the magic presence of comfortable shoes, so appropriate for picketing or throwing at a male chauvinist’s head. And the flat-shoe styles have continued, furtively, from Prada’s clunky feminist-friendly footwear of fall/winter 2013 to the flat-as-a-pancake boots at Chanel this spring.
Off the runway, there are clues as well that the industry harbours feminist leaders. Take Miuccia Prada. Her Miu Miu “Women’s Tales” project began commissioning short films from female directors in 2011; the series now has eight movies made by women, including Miranda July and Zoe Cassavetes. Gucci, too, supports women filmmakers with two different prize awards. But its efforts go beyond the rarefied world of female cinema. Frida Giannini, formerly of Gucci, joined with Salma Hayek and Beyoncé to found Chime for Change, a humanitarian organization that has funded over 390 programs for women’s rights and social well-being.
Fashionists and feminists are increasingly finding that they can play for the same team—one that is no longer made up exclusively of women. As Watson said from the podium: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation? Men: I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
From abolitionist Frederick Douglass and 19th-century liberal thinker John Stuart Mill to Benedict Cumberbatch in a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt, there have always been male feminists, though many think it’s an oxymoron, like progressive conservative. What distinguishes neo-feminists from many of their predecessors is that men are no longer being pelted with tomatoes; rather, they are being invited to sit at the table. The new tactic is not man-hating or man-eating but man-evangelizing. Cindy Gallop is an advertising executive and consultant who, among her many projects, is the founder of ifwerantheworld.com and makelovenotporn.com. A self-styled “rampant feminist,” Gallop angles her message almost more to men than women in her belief that feminism is not just good for the gander—it’s good for the goose. “Men, we live in a world in which the default setting is always ‘men,’” says Gallop. “You have no idea how happy you would be living in a world that is 50/50-influenced, designed, managed, led and driven by women. Men would be released from the constraints of masculinity that society forces on them. If only people realized that women enjoy sex as much as men and that men are just as romantic as women. Many men would love to stay at home with the kids and don’t want to work in the corporate power structure that men have designed.”
A few seasons back, a little handwritten note was left on every seat at the Givenchy show. It said that not only would the world be better if women ran it but that there would be no world at all if men continued to do so. “Men must find the humility to retreat. Women must step forward and start to forge a new way forward for our species and for all of nature. If there is to be a future on earth that includes us, it will be feminine.” Antony Hegarty, who is transgendered and the singer of Antony and the Johnsons, wrote that text in a piece entitled “Future Feminism.” But perhaps the future won’t be feminist at all or, for that matter, masculinist but humanist, untethered from the petty biological differences of testicles and uteruses.