“We should all be feminists.” Thanks to Dior, that phrase, popularized by author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie in her TEDx talk and book by the same name, decorated the chests of some of fashion’s best-dressed stars last year. Pink pussy hats and graphic-tees marked a year defined by “grabbing back,” at an administration targeting women’s health services, led by a man whose sexist comments are only dwarfed by the 20+ sexual assault accusations against him.
Feminist apparel dominated 2017, and the protest-fashion fervor marched in along with the new year. At the January 7th Golden Globes, nearly every guest donned black designer-wear in a display of solidarity with sexual assault survivors across all industries, marking the official launch of the #TimesUp initiative. Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director at Dior, continued her feminist messaging with another graphic t-shirt for the Spring 2018 campaign: “Why have there been no great female artists?” inspired by Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay discussing patriarchy and the art world. And most recently, Grammy-attendees hit the red carpet wearing and carrying white roses, sending another message of solidarity to all sexual assault survivors.
Given that the awards-season climax, the Academy Awards, sits visibly on the horizon, those examples of protest-fashion have me wondering about the depth of their impact. For nearly all of 2017, my eyes rolled with the scroll when I spotted style-bloggers flashing the “We should all be feminists” t-shirt in my newsfeed. To me, wearing a designer t-shirt felt too easy, like bandwagon activism that would fade into next year’s popular uproar. It was frustrating to see women wearing a $710 Dior t-shirt in support of a moment where inclusive, intersectional feminism felt more important and possible than ever before. I felt as though Dior was capitalizing on the popularity of feminism in place of actually practicing feminist values. Who was that t-shirt meant for?
Dior doesn’t take every cent from that $710. A portion of the profits go to the Clara Lionel Foundation, founded by Rihanna, which supports educational programming and health and emergency response programs around the world. But no matter where I searched, I couldn’t find the exact portion of each purchase that goes to the Clara Lionel Foundation. Of course, there were other graphic t-shirt campaigns that supported women’s causes, like the “Ours not yours” campaign launched by Natalia Mantini and Tallulah Willis in support of Planned Parenthood. An interesting illustrator, Willis created the design, and Mantini put her photography skills to work photographing various female artists wearing the creations. Even better, 100% of the profits from the $35 t-shirts went to Planned Parenthood.
While it’s commendable that Dior created a more mainstream vein for the travel of an ongoing conversation among feminists, it’s surprising that one of the world’s leading fashion labels didn’t make that shirt, and its message, accessible to all with a reasonable price and 100% of the profits going toward CLF. The shirt made more waves on social media than it did in rousing feminist upheaval, so, does protest-fashion create significant impact, or does it ring only as a hollow, empty gesture?
For whatever reason, Natalia Mantini and Tallulah Willis were able to do something Dior was not. They gave 100% of the profits from the “Ours not yours” campaign to a women’s health organization that inspired the initial idea. I ordered two of the shirts, because the it felt genuine to me. Two friends, creatively orchestrating a grassroots t-shirt campaign, for-women-by-women, financially accessible to a broad range of women, felt like something I could get behind. I don’t know how much of the profits from the Dior t-shirt went to CLF, but as much as I admire Dior, I can’t fathom selling a t-shirt in the name of feminism – defined by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie as “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” –for $710. And in a review for the Spring 2018 collection for the Washington Post, Robin Givhan described the feminist thread sewn through Dior’s latest collections as, “an overlay or gloss,” and generally reductive.
Last year’s pink pussyhats were also characterized as reductive, and were notably less present at women’s marches across the country this year. In “Pink Flag: What Message Do ‘Pussy Hats’ Really Send?” bitchmedia contributor Holly Derr said, “The infantilizing kitten imagery combined with a stereotypically feminine color feels too safe and too reductive to be an answer to the complex issues facing women today.”
And that’s what’s frustrating. I rarely feel as inspired as I do when I’m putting together a great outfit, and I believe fashion provides one of the most intimate forms of self-expression. But when you buy an item of clothing, and slap it on to send a message, what makes it meaningful? Does it mean something simply because you’re wearing it? Does it mean something because people are talking about it? I think dressing to display political ideologies only sends powerful messages that drive meaningful discourse and change when matched by powerful actions and attitudes.
While the sea of black attire at this year’s Golden Globes received deserved praise, there were moments where the actual substance of the protest felt empty, and at times, hypocritical. Tracee Ellis Ross, actress and Time’s Up co-founder, was deemed best-dressed in a head-to-toe Marc Jacobs showstopper. The Time’s Up initiative aims to provide aid and change for survivors of sexual assault. But we can’t protect women across all industries with sexual harassment policy changes and financial aid. All women need agency. Today’s reckoning with sexual violence isn’t about sex and gender. It’s about power. So, if we’re really defending women across industries, Marc Jacobs was a bad choice. There aren’t sexual assault accusations against Jacobs. But in November, the famed designer was sued by three independent designers for copyright infringement. Katie Thierjung, Marisa Ravel (Laser Kitten, LLC), and Wildflower + Co., Inc, accused Jacobs of stealing their designs for his Resort 2017 collection – and the alleged copies look exactly like the alleged originals. If the leaders in the Time’s Up movement are expecting others to stand for women across industries, they can start by taking a stand against all injustices against women. That includes holding Marc Jacobs accountable for stealing the ideas of female artists with less resources and power than he.
Those types of examples often leave the impression that, while fashion does well to start a conversation, the overall impression of fashion-as-protest rings disingenuous and hollow. Sure, we can hail Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett, pioneers of protest-wear, for using art-fashion to spark reaction and conversation. But the impression remains, as stated by Wendy Syfret for i-D:
...that adorning yourself in this way made no real statement, and served no real commitment to work for a better world. What it did was publicly mark you as 'woke' with no follow up consideration, highlighting the biggest issue with political fashion — not focusing on doing good, but looking like you are good.
The Time’s Up initiative aims to improve laws, policy, employment agreements, and to provide legal aid to women attempting to hold wrongdoers accountable. That’s an admirable mission, and one that deserved the attention it received after the Golden Globes. But there’s a need for that kind of attention on today’s social and political issues that extends beyond red carpets during awards season. The conversations, the awareness, and the discussions are important. But it’s hard to watch style-bloggers strut in $710 t-shirts, and superstars wearing priceless attire to send a message, when there are people struggling to find $700 to pay the rent. Dressing to protest starts a conversation, but when taking style to the streets, don’t forget to take your own voice – and better yet, the ability to amplify the voices of others – with you.