“SARTORIAL SUFFRAGE: HOW FASHION FELL FOR FEMINISM”

IF life really does imitate art, revolution is in the air. The rumblings of Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier’s final A/W 15 collection for Marc By Marc Jacobs sparked an uprising within the industry when they recruited a battalion of leather-clad models, topped with Che Guevara-esque berets. As models marched, monochromatic emblems of SUFFRAGETTE and SOLIDARITY were wielded to the lyrics of Public Enemy’s notorious track Fight the Power. In a parade of William Morris print, primary shades and tartan textiles, their feminist manifesto was evoked through shouts of “Gotta give us what we need. Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be”. Such words come as Suffragette, the much-anticipated film starring Carey Mulligan and the inimitable Meryl Streep, is set to open the annual London Film Festival on 7 October.

“We were thinking about positive protest,” professed Hillier in reference to this collection of Jacobs’ now discontinued diffusion label. “William Morris, suffragettes, socialism. We were trying to keep the youth interested in doing good things, keep alive the idea that you can change the world.” All lovely, however as fashion is increasingly becoming a platform for exercising political dissent, critics of the industry have alerted us towards the inevitable dangers of commodifying feminism, and associating sociopolitical movements with a commercial industry predicated on seasonality and trends. In mass-producing scarves and dresses emblazoned with iconic feminist motifs, doesn’t this place the fight for female equality hand in hand with capitalist motives? In trivialising such vocabulary and marketing it as a brand don’t we risk delaying further progressive landmarks? 

These are questions that Karl Lagerfeld knows only too well, after Chanel’s creative director was recently plagued by criticisms towards his own brand of so-called faux feminism. Last season’s catwalk show saw the Parisian Grand Palais transformed into a French boulevard complete with weathered stone buildings, wrought iron balconies and ornate window carvings; this was then framed as a picket line for his troop of 70s styled silhouettes to chant (“Women’s rights are more than alright”), flaunt placards (“Ladies First”), and tote clutches declaring “feministe mais feminin”. When compounded by the beats of Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman, such sentiments were deemed about as fake and inauthentic as the Belasco like precision of his show’s elaborate backdrop. In typical Lagerfeld style he has hit back at his outraged opponents through asserting, “I like the idea of feminism being something light-hearted… My mother was very much a feminist and I thought it was something right for the moment”. Feminist communities have despaired over this very notion of feminism being presented as a mood, a transient fad and as “something right for the moment”. In an article for The Independent journalist Mark Izatt condemned the charade, but also reminded us that “fashion really does have the power to make such changes: Coco Chanel herself emancipated women from the restrictive corsetry and heavy ornamentation of previous centuries, giving them freedom to move and work.”

Can history repeat itself? I believe so, if we look at designers such as Vivienne Westwood whose recent London Fashion Week show epitomised the industry’s potential for activism. Her S/S 16 Red Label collection appropriately entitled “Mirror The World” manifested a distinct air of Corbynism as she echoed the present political climate through her signs declaring “Austerity is a Crime”, “Politicians are Criminals” and “Climate Revolution”. It seems socks with sandals are not the only trend the new Labour leader has brought to next seasons’ collections. It was just several weeks ago that Westwood, accompanied by her “fash mob”, rode an armored vehicle up to Number 10 in protest of David Cameron’s fracking policy. It is this genuine consciousness of the ethical, social and political environment today through which we can truly foster sartorialism as a force for good. As Emmeline Pankhurst famously declared, “It is the only way”.

Published in Oxford University Cherwell Newspaper October 2015

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