Image created by Leonie Hutch

Is Dior repurposing feminism for profit?

Christian Dior’s s/s ’18 show in Paris opened with a model wearing a long sleeve Breton shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. The quote comes directly from Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay about the limitations and difficulties that women who are artists face within society. (I would just like to mention that the second source of inspiration for Dior’s show came from the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle – a woman – whose influence could be seen in the bright colours, stripes, broken mirrors and metallics that were used throughout the collection. Also, I very much appreciated the juxtaposition of this next to the opening outfit. Well done, Dior. But back to the t-shirt in question.)

The label’s womenswear artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, made her debut at Dior almost exactly a year ago. And during her time at Dior she has repeatedly used feminist mantras on her clothing. The white t-shirt across which was printed the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. This shirt was produced along with a slew of other ‘feminist’ t-shirts which could be bought at asos, Topshop, Primark. You name it, they probably had a t-shirt verifying the fourth-wave feminist credentials of the wearer (or the wearer’s boyfriend).

So… why? Well using clothing to parade your political view is nothing new. Slogan t-shirts have been a thing for a looong time. But appears to be happening with the feminist slogans is something else. Fashion houses and high street brands have co-opted feminist quotes, phrases and ideas created by activists and managed to sell them for hugely inflated prices to women who can then Instagram themselves wearing it to feel part of a movement.

This started in September 2014 when Chanel staged a feminist demonstration down the catwalk, complete with placards reading ‘Ladies First”, slogans like ‘Women’s Rights are Alright’ and Cara Delevingne with a loudspeaker. But even then there was a whiff of opportunism about the campaign. To be honest, I’ve never truly been convinced of Karl Lagerfeld’s feminist convictions and it all seemed a bit put on to me. Sitting and applauding a group of predominantly white, generally wealthy, thin women who are, using Chanel’s words, ‘Feminist but Feminine’ seemed a bit meh really.

Anyway, Delevingne and her girlfriend at the time, St Vinncent, were later spotted wearing navy sweatshirts printed with the slogan ‘THE FUTURE IS FEMALE’. It is worth mentioning here that the very first ‘The Future is Female’ t-shirts were actually designed for Labyris Books, a women’s bookstore in New York City, which was opened in 1972 by Jane Lurie and Marizel Rios. You can buy a version of that top, which was remade by Rachel Berks for Otherwild’s for $30 (the sweatshirt worn by Delevigne is $50). And they donate 25% of the profits to Planned Parenthood. Quality. (Also, to be fair, whilst Dior does charge $170 for its ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ tops it does donate a portion of the profits to the Clara Lionel Foundation, a charity set up by Rihanna which focusses on providing education and healthcare opportunities.

Fast forward to last season and Prabal Gurung also showcased t-shirts that read ‘The Future Is Female’ and similar slogans. They cost about £160 apiece.  Again, as far as I can tell, none of this goes to any sort of charity. Although we are all assured on the Selfridges website that they are part of her “campaign for equal rights”. So that’s nice(!)

Fashion houses and high street brands have co-opted feminist quotes, phrases and ideas created by activists and managed to sell them for hugely inflated prices

The other part of the phenomona this is feminist slogan t-shirts is the celebrity endorsement it gets and widespread recognition on social media. Dior’s (or is it Adichie’s? Hmm…) ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ top was the most Instagrammed look from Paris week in 2016. Last year Natalie Portman was at the Los Angeles Women’s March wearing said shirt and Rihanna has also been spotted in it. The Bella Freud sweater with ‘Solidarité Feminine’ across it (£270) has been making the rounds on Instagram over the last two years too. Rihanna has also Instagrammed images of herself in a ‘THIS P**SY GRABS BACK’ hoodie and tutu. Ariana Grande wore a sweatshirt with Malala Yousafzai’s image and the words ‘FIGHT LIKE A GIRL’ on it. In January at the Women’s March on Washington Madonna wore a t-shirt with a Marie Shears quote ‘Feminism is the Radical Notion That Women Are People’ written across it.

And whilst yes, it could be argued that this is all a long way from the reality of political protest marches and the second-wave feminist literature which inspired the clothes, I would argue that these tops have moved feminism into the public eye in a very real, and potentially powerful way. Undoubtedly, some people are just making money, and some a fashion statement, and but that does not negate the political one scrawled across their chest. And ultimately, if the clothes are making feminism both visible and in vogue does the motivation even really matter?

Short answer: yes, probably.