Femininity, fashion and feminism

Chloe Dootson-Graube examines the role gender plays in the couture houses.

Fashion is typically perceived as an industry dominated by women, but in reality this is not the case. Only one third of the top roles in the business are occupied by women. For an industry where ostensibly the overarching aim for many designers and retailers is to clothe women, why is it so sparsely populated by women themselves?

Throughout history male designers have posed problems for women when creating fashion and defining ideas of femininity. The age-old myth of suffragettes burning their bras and girdles does not exist without good reason and a similar occurrence took place at the Miss America protest of September 1968 where underwear, high heels, and other garments perceived to be ‘instruments of female torture’ were ceremoniously flung into garbage cans. Coco Chanel remarked that Dior’s New Look in the 1950s was clearly of male authorship as it was so ‘uncomfortable’.

However, even today, women’s fashion still seems to be mainly directed by men. At this Autumn’s Louis Vuitton show Nicolas Ghesquière’s approach was committed to concepts of modernity; he emphasised pragmatism and practicality with chunky fur gilets, loose woollen jumpers, and thick soled boots. In terms of evening wear, he did not seem particularly committed to the concept of femininity at all—the oversized dresses presented seemed like parody pieces of classic styles. Disregarding femininity is not in itself inherently problematic, as it is clear in this day and age that femininity extends far beyond the typical ‘girly’ florals and frills that the industry tends to presents as ‘feminine’. However, presenting any one definitive concept of femininity certainly is, especially when that image is constructed seemingly uncritically by men such as Ghesquiere who are ostensibly in a more privileged position than their female consumers. The concept of men somewhat ‘preaching’ to women about what they should or shouldn’t be wearing, especially considering the aforementioned history, feels somewhat uncomfortable.

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Similar criticisms can be made of Karl Lagerfeld’s efforts at Chanel; his past few fashion shows have been celebrated more for their theatrical presentation (the Chanel Supermarket and the rocket ship of his AW17 turnout) than for any diversity in the actual clothing. Surely, it is somewhat ironic for a brand that was initially created as a means of abetting the increased independence and mobility of women to be characterised by such stagnation? By releasing near identical skirt suits and tweeds every season is he simply catering to the so called conservative Chanel-customer, or perpetuating a projection of idealised femininity? How close is this customer to real women, anyway? These are questions that can be posed to the majority of couture houses at the moment, because, and here we hit on the fundamental issue, it is men who occupy two-thirds of the top level jobs.

On a positive note, many fashion houses are beginning to pass the milestone of installing their first female head of houses. Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s first female creative director, has used the brand as a medium for presenting femininity in a far more realistic way. Her debut collection for the house draws a strong contrast with that of Raf Simmons’ which occurred four years earlier. Both harken back to Dior’s own revolutionary ‘New Look’ of the 1950s, yet where Simmons took this to mean wasp waists and harsh neat lines, Chiuri takes a softer approach, filling her collection with floaty chiffons and t-shirts bearing the slogans ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Furthermore, it is notable that Alexander McQueen has become significantly more wearable since Sarah Burton’s tenure at the company, and the overarching theme to come out of interviews with Burton and Chiuri is an aim to provide women with a wardrobe that ‘empowers’ and is ‘easier to wear,’ respectively.

But we still haven’t come far enough. What is the solution then? Hiring more women in the top levels of the industry would be a good place to start. Chiuri and Burton have proved the success of women designing for women, producing diverse yet equally inspired collections. This is not to say that there is no place for men in the industry—the statistics certainly establish that. Male designers play an integral role in the creation of a diverse industry, but perhaps it is time for them to take a slight step back to make space for the equally, if not more able, women.