Liberté, Egalité, Bouclé : Chanel Takes on Feminism

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Karl Lagerfeld’s fashion shows for the House of Chanel follow a nearly standard format. They begin with the pristine world of Chanel: immaculate, bulletproof, irrefutable. It is a sealed-off, white glove universe. Then something “messy” is thrown into the mix — be it boxing culture, the colorful neighborhood grocery store, abstract art, India, Texas. The theme becomes sterilized, but also elevated, through the Chanel prism. The house codes are employed so that boxing gloves are quilted in Chanel stitching, packaged grocery ham becomes “Rue Jambon”, and ethnic traditions are modified with chains and pearls. This juxtaposition is often hilarious and clever, resulting in spectacular shows and fun objects. But it relies upon this strict dichotomy: Chanel is perfect, and the interloping theme is messy. When creative director Lagerfeld chose the theme of “Feminist Protest” for his Spring/Summer 2015 show, things got messy indeed.

The show was a tribute to the era of “Second Wave Feminism”, from the clothes to the runway to the slogans written out on the handbags. As with all of Lagerfeld’s work, the “protest” was intended as tongue-in-cheek. Yet this doesn’t give the show a critical pass, considering the stated theme was overtly political. Across media outlets, from Style.com to The New York Times, the show was roundly applauded as giddy and thought-provoking. But thought-provoking is not the same as thoughtful. I fear the show represents everything faux-zeitgeisty about fashion.

The Second Wave of feminism was a 1970’s movement fronted by spokeswoman-activist Gloria Steinem, whose own tinted eyeglasses and spread collar blouses were replicated in the collection. Lagerfeld explained the choice, saying, “What is near to fashion is feminism — modern, updated feminism.” Yet there was no modern twist in sight. Rather, Lagerfeld used the Second Wave as a cultural touchstone much like the high-water pants and duster coats in the collection — as a pure symbol of the era, as inspiration without reinterpretation. The text in the collection read like a word salad of outdated feminist slogans. The models paraded down the “Boulevard Chanel”, acting faux-indignant and carrying placards and purses painted with inanities such as “Free Freedom” and “Ladies First”.

I wanted to believe that perhaps this was a critical choice — that the combination of Second Wave references and inane statements was a brilliant commentary on the ineffectiveness of the Second Wave. Ah yes, perhaps Lagerfeld is saying that Gloria Steinem et al should have taken a different approach, been more subtle, and gotten that old Equal Rights Amendment through! Maybe those Second Wavers shouldn’t have excluded the voices of black women, queer women, and allied men! Don’t romanticize a flawed movement, don’t act complacent towards the past, …reinvent feminism for today!

But I get the uneasy feeling that no one involved in this show was seriously contemplating the history of women’s rights. It pains me to say this because I believe in fashion as a platform for dissent, discussion, and political thinking. But seeing the empty words “Be Different!!” on a protest sign, it is hard to imagine this was anything more than an exercise in feminist nihilism.

Now, I don’t think fashion is incapable of making political statements — but charades like this discredit fashion as commentary. One designer who has managed to effectively engage in political dialogue is Vivienne Westwood, iconoclast icon and progenitor of punk style. She has engaged with issues like poverty, consumerism, imperialism, and war rape, while creating critically acclaimed collections. The punk philosophy she espoused was part conscientious protest and part dada-ism, but at least there was a theory to it. At least she forces people to think and she challenges herself in her own thinking. There is a difference between taking token inspiration from the zeitgeist and thoughtfully processing the state of the world as a designer.

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Interestingly, the clothes at Chanel had little to do with the message, aside from the 1970’s references. The looks themselves were, as always, beautiful, correct, and fun. From the burst of joyous watercolor prints to the slinky glamour of subway-tile sequin gowns to the louche loveliness of head-to-toe suede, the show had that Karl bravado, that pret-a-porter freedom, and that Chanel swagger. Karl Lagerfeld is a great designer. But venturing into a commentary on feminisms past and present was a bridge too far.

The show was backwards-looking and inasmuch, it mocked the urgent importance of contemporary feminism. While Lagerfeld focused on the Second Wave, it is the Fourth Wave of feminism that is currently brewing, amplified by the voices of celebrity feminists and an increasing presence in mainstream culture. There are serious issues to contend with in today’s global feminism: intersectionality, sexual violence, pay wars, maternal health, access to education. The current approach to these issues exists partly as a reaction to the missteps of the Second Wave. To reference historical fashions is one thing… but to reference problematic historical movements is another entirely.

Lagerfeld has always been a proponent of change, the future, and the next thing, but this show was a glance into the past with no proposition for the future. It opens up Lagerfeld to the accusation that he is living in an ivory tower, far from the streets of reality. When he next ventures into the boulevard, may he be open to other peoples’ stories, to women in their own words, to listening. Then when he speaks, it will be with clarity and conviction.

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POST SCRIPT

My humble suggestion for some more relevant slogans, pictured above, from the Second Wave to today:

“We define what’s feminine.” -Beyonce Knowles

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” -Guyatri Spivak

“Feminism is for Everybody.” – bell hooks

“Freedom of Dress!” – (my own, referring to restrictions on women’s clothing, both morally and politically)

“I will not bow down.” – bell hooks

“Raise our sons like our daughters.” -Gloria Steinem

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