Coven Editor’s Letter September 2015: Fashion is a Feminist Issue

Welcome everyone! September’s theme is FASHION, STYLE AND CLOTHING. As a jobbing fashion journalist, I have been looking forward to this, let me tell you. We’ve got some great essays coming your way this month. If you would like to contribute to The Coven, email me, Facebook me, tweet me. Join us.


(Parts of this week’s editor’s letter first appeared in the Irish Times.)


Clothing is the language of women. Fashion is our sacred space; what we wear our method of confrontation. But this space teeters precariously on a morass of contradictions. When it comes to fashion and feminism, there is no easy compromise.

Coco Chanel may have freed women from corsets, but she was no sister in solidarity. A complicated modern women who was stylish, selfish and had, arguably, no real care for anyone but herself, Chanel fired the vast majority of her (mostly female) staff at the outbreak of World War II, when other designers kept on as many workers as they could. As a designer, she literally loosened women’s bonds by abandoning corsetry; as an employer, she took full advantage of gender imbalances by exploiting her mostly female workforce. The woman walked a clear demarcation line between imprisonment and bondage that is still emblematic of the fashion industry. For every woman who harnesses freedom of self expression through clothing, there are many others who make that freedom possible with endless, thankless toil in factories and sweatshops.

Feminism – or whatever version was starting to germinate in 1926, when Chanel’s little black dress permeated the public consciousness – was, for the designer herself, a hot button topic on which she could capitalise. Chanel wanted women to be free, but only if it expanded her profit margins. After the freewheeling ‘20s, many of her ‘30s gowns needed corsetry for a smooth line. It was a regression. Her ability to blithely harness social movements and discard them just as easily is carried through by Karl Lagerfeld today. Chanel was a fairweather feminist. She was a woman making a profit on her own terms – inasmuch as she could. How pitiable that her sympathies did not extend to the women who worked for her.

Lisa Fonssagrives wearing Balenciaga in Vogue, 1950.
Lisa Fonssagrives wearing Balenciaga in Vogue, 1950.

Cristobal Balenciaga was a more sympathetically feminist fashion designer, because his designs made women mobile, in contrast to Dior and his post-war padding and girdles. The Balenciaga women had places to go and things to do, and was not willing to compromise in the name of fashion. Balenciaga’s postwar designs were sacks – elegant sacks – worn without the need for waspies. Women wearing Balenciaga could be feminine without having to physically prove their child-making attributes; no high, pointed breasts, no improbable hip-to-waist ratio. He expanded the silhouette repertoire, creating new shapes for women without compressing their organs or removing their ability to move freely (the modernised hobble skirt aside – but even those had a well-placed vent at the back).

He made women a beautiful abstraction. But, ultimately, abstracting women was really a whole new way to objectify them. Was Balenciaga a feminist? In modern terms, probably not. But in the 1950s, he was a revolutionary.

Even the staunchest feminists – women who claimed to have no interest in fashion – could succumb to the lure of a good trend. The bloomer, a mid 19th century garment involving a slightly shortened skirt that revealed a set of frilled pantalets underneath was not, as legend tells, designed by Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer, an American postmistress, newspaper editor and temperance advocate, was just the first to popularise them. Her love for the trend was not borne of a need for free movement, or to impart a subversive lesson in wardrobe equality. Bloomer’s early letters on the subject are replete with pure aesthetic pleasure. She loved the way they looked. Bloomers were, at first, not utilitarian. They were racy, showing a peek of frilled ankle. What was once a slightly provocative garment morphed into a political statement – and all because a feminist succumbed to fashion.

Trousers for women were once the vanguard of feminist declarations – but they weren’t really popular until Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn started wearing them. As with today, feminist advances usually grab the public’s eye when there is an element of style to latch on to. Even the second wave of feminists – those who almost overwhelmingly lobbied for women to slough off the artifice of cosmetics and restrictive, objectifying trends – had Gloria Steinem, an undisputably stylish, beautiful women to champion the cause. Angela Davis made a marriage between natural good looks and style with her resplendent Afro. This isn’t to trivialise the remarkable achievements of these women – but humanity is, to some small degree, shamefully shallow. We are magpies. A sparkle captures the eye, but substance draws us in.

Indulging in fashion trends encourages individuality. Experimentation with clothing is a public signal. It tells others, “I am a person with thoughts and opinions. There is no-one quite like me. My appearance is an expression of my free will.” If women stuck to a simple uniform, as 19th century feminists suggested we should, we would be stripped of our public identities, and some of our humanity would inevitably go with it.

Uniformity restricts self-expression, and has a whiff of dangerous groupthink and bad school dinners. Sexism is an attack on a woman’s ability to exercise self-expression. So, why would fashion – the total antithesis of uniformity – be in cahoots with sexism if both have a different end game?


On a sunny September afternoon in Paris, a feminist demonstration was held; not in the streets, but on the catwalk.

The Chanel ready to wear show is always a spectacle of leviathan proportions, and the Spring/Summer ‘15 show was no different. Held on the Boulevard Chanel, a fake Parisian street mocked up from corbel to cornice inside the Grand Palais, the collection was a luxurious reimagining of the student demonstrations of 1968. Rebellion and expensive perfume hung in the air. Models wore tweed trouser suits and vibrant watercolour silks. It was a typical mix of beautifully wrought textiles and slightly blurred silhouettes.

It was the quiet before the storm – Hurricane Coco. At the finale, models stormed the catwalk with ferocity, holding placards bearing vaguely empowering slogans and shouting into megaphones. The crowd’s consensus was split down the middle; seduced or stunned. For the first time in recent memory, a Chanel finale fell flat.

Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel catwalk show.

Those who loved the show were entranced by the grandiose spectacle. Those who did not were disgusted by the finale, interpreting it as feminist snake oil, a co-opting of an important ideological movement in the name of commercial gain. The placards held up were equal parts serious and derisory. ‘Be your own stylist’ marched beside a Simone de Beauvoir quote. The slogan, ‘Men can get pregnant too!’ was handled with the same care as ‘Votes for all!’ Cara Delevingne shouted, “What do we want?” into empty space. She was answered with silence – and a few raised eyebrows. It turns out that whatever a feminist wants, Chanel may not be in a position to give it.

It caused a firestorm, but perhaps not the one Karl Lagerfeld expected. The redoubtable Kaiser Karl, head designer and creative director at Chanel, is well used to generating controversy and suffering the many slings and arrows hurled in his direction. Even so, he may not have been prepared for such a negative reaction. Fiery debate sprang up – was he celebrating the feminist movement or co-opting it to sell clothes, or both? Lagerfeld’s work is often maddeningly opaque. It’s impossible to draw a watertight conclusion, and he is in no rush to confirm or deny any theories. One could almost picture him laughing behind the fan he used to carry, surveying the chaos he has created.

The day before the Chanel show, Stella McCartney held a one-woman demonstration of her own when she was quoted backstage after her Paris fashion show. She said of her unrelentingly soft collection of breezy, beachy silks in a palette of muted pastels and plaids; “Strength on its own in a woman is quite aggressive and not terribly attractive all the time. This collection is really celebrating the gentle side.”

McCartney was immediately derided. Despite being seen as a ‘women’s’ designer who deals in unrestrictive clothing and the occasional comfortable shoe, she was letting the side down.

Chanel and McCartney have propelled into the zeitgeist a worldwide fashion debate that will not be concluded amicably. Feminism and fashion are both divisive topics. And yet, it is not as simple as stating that Karl Lagerfeld pokes fun at feminists – even though he so obviously does – or that Stella McCartney hates strong women (which she certainly does not). There is always more to the story.

McCartney’s quote was pulled out of context in several publications. Lauren Cochrane, writer for The Guardian, recorded the backstage conversation. What McCartney actually said was this: “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time. This collection is embracing the gentler side. All of those looser pieces, all of that soft movement, all of those pale colour palettes and these gentle checks. It was much more about celebrating the softness in a woman and her fragility. For me, that gives you a strength.”

It’s a complex idea, but it makes sense. McCartney collection was a celebration of women’s ability to be vulnerable and the paradoxical bravery in showing that vulnerability to others.


If “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” – and “clothes maketh the man,” then surely it logically follows that a woman’s character is tightly tied, like the Gordian knot, with her appearance.

The first phrase was said by Simone de Beauvoir, the second by Polonius. One a philosopher, one a well-known literary character with enough pomposity to aerate a flotilla of hot air balloons. For some wags, the jury is still out on who is who.

Those with concerns about fashion and feminism should bear in mind that the two are not mutually exclusive. Simone de Beauvoir was the first to notice that fashion has always been part of a collective female identity, and that feminism is a relatively recent, but no less important, addition.

People – women especially – are brought up to learn the secret hieroglyphics of clothing. Clothing is a way for a women to be heard without screaming. Others will see us, but they don’t decide what they get to see.

Fashion is in films, art and music. Fashion is love. Fashion is hard work. Feminism is a prism through which we filter those things. Fashion exists for the most part on a surface level; but that doesn’t necessarily make it insignificant. If fashion is the sun, feminism is the pair of sunglasses (Prada, hopefully) that prevents us from getting spots in our eyes.

As journalists, we have a natural urge to answers questions decisively and succinctly. We like to categorize. We like nifty conclusions. But there is no effortless conciliation between fashion and feminism. Maybe we’re not making the right inquiries. By now, smart women everywhere know that the question, “Is the fashion industry feminist or misogynist?” has no answer at all, let alone an easy one. Sometimes, it’s a matter of perception.

Look at the photographic work of Helmut Newton. His moody shots, often derided as a sexist fetishisation of women, are actually feminist masterstrokes. Yes, the women are powerful and unflinching. Their strength and power is self-evident. But more importantly, the Helmut Newton woman has a complex sexuality, one with edges that cannot be easily rounded off. Sometimes sinister, sometimes innocent, but always dancing on the razor’s edge.

The Helmut Newton women is essentially unknowable, despite her (often) naked physical presence. She is is the personified representation of woman’s sexual desire; unknowable sometimes to the women herself and never fully understood by men. Perhaps, that’s why Newton’s work found itself more at home in the pages of Vogue and not in Penthouse (though Newton was no stranger to the erotic power of the pinup). His woman is not always a sex object; she’s a sex subject. Even then she exists primarily for her own pleasure as well as the pleasure of men and women. Her sexuality is our sexuality.


One of Newton’s shoots for Vogue in 1984, with Daryl Hannah as a disaffected, bikini-ed housewife juggling a distant husband and chiselled, Ken Doll suitor, struck a chord with the then-struggling photographer Mario Testino. “I love that the lover in the photographs is a bit tacky,” said Testino. “There’s a certain element of vulgarity there.” And, indeed, it is vulgar. Hannah is a pouting, petulant blonde, her clothes just that little bit too tight, her lover that little bit too sculpted. But it’s a deep type of tackiness. There’s a narrative to the story. Hannah’s character is trapped. She ignores her screaming child and flaunts her flame. While she embodies Newton’s Teutonic physical ideal, she is more than a sexy and strong cipher. She is also bored, and sad. In one photo, she gingerly holds her screaming baby on her lap, clad only in a cerise swimsuit and a pair of clear Perspex pumps – a Cinderella only now discovering that her glass slippers are made with inferior material.

When Testino started to work with Carine Roitfeld, he took Newton’s woman as a jumping-off point. “We were both inspired by that assured, assertive Newton style. I like a woman who is as powerful as a man, who doesn’t need a man to escort her and open the door, because she can do all that herself. I don’t think women are weak at all. They’re just different.”

And that is the genius of Newton’s work. To portray women as consistently weak, limp things is sexist. To do the opposite and lionise us as a constant source of strength and sexuality is a misguided, if well-meaning effort to elevate us. But to produce a body of work that makes women both vulnerable and strong… That is a true feminist statement. Like the design efforts of Stella McCartney after him, Newton seeked to promote women as three dimensional entities on a two dimensional plane. They are self-motivated. They have their own thoughts. Strong and vulnerable. Both subject and object.

To assume that Newton’s women would be appealing primarily to men is a desperately unfeminist assumption. And to assume that all fashion is either entirely feminist or totally sexist is a desperately simplistic conclusion. Fashion is mostly surface, but what little lies beneath that is worthy of thorough exploration.

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