January 17, 2014 6:58 pm

Feminism is back in fashion

A troupe of ‘stomping, chestbeating muscular women’ modelling leather tunics for Rick Owens at Paris Fashion Week©Catwalking

A troupe of ‘stomping, chestbeating muscular women’ modelling leather tunics for Rick Owens at Paris Fashion Week

The overriding trend that’s shaping fashion for the coming season, the one thing that no one will be able to avoid, is not a colour, a shape, a decade or even a fabric. It is, rather, a movement. Fashion has finally got in touch with its (deeply buried) feminist side. This is not sartorial politics as usual.

More

IN Style

Fashion and feminism? Can we really take this seriously from the industry that gave us underweight models, Terry Richardson and Kate Moss posing for Playboy? As literary critic and feminist Elaine Showalter wrote in US Vogue in 1997, “from Mary Wollstonecraft to Naomi Wolf feminism has often taken a hard line on fashion, shopping and the whole beauty Monty . . . but for those of us sisters hiding Welcome to Your Facelift inside The Second Sex, a passion for fashion can sometimes seem a shameful secret life.”

However, if the idea might meet with a certain amount of scepticism, a renewed cultural conversation about women’s roles (lean in and take a bow, Sheryl Sandberg) means that designers and fashion insiders are explicitly embracing feminism.

The most extreme statement came from Rick Owens at Paris Fashion Week, who showed his draped, twisted and fitted leather tunics on a troupe of 40 predominantly black women from four sororities who took over the catwalk with a snarling, stomping, chest-beating step-dance set. These strong, muscular women offered a defiant riposte to the image of the skinny, usually white, model passively gliding down the catwalk, as being the only type of femininity worth aspiring to. Vogue.com called it “one of the most thoroughly exhilaration-inducing sights any of us have had the privilege of sitting through this season”.

Women’s faces painted by young artists in Prada’s spring/summer 2014 collection

Women’s faces painted by young artists in Prada’s spring/summer 2014 collection

Meanwhile, Miuccia Prada was on a similar mission. “I know it’s a political discourse,” she said backstage at her spring/summer 2014 show, “but I wanted to say what I could through clothes.” She described the women on her catwalk to Vogue.com as “strong, visible fighters,” adding that “there is this debate about women again and I want to interpret it. My instrument is fashion. I had this idea that if you wear clothes so exaggerated and out there, people will look, and then they will listen.”

Her argument consisted of a range of garments that tapped into feminine stereotypes, from the schoolgirl knee-socks to the ladylike bag and the showgirl embellished bra top, and then combined them with women’s faces painted by young muralists and street artists. The result was a colourful, eclectic, embellished spin on sportswear: bold, beautiful clothes that command attention while conveying the multifaceted nature of modern femininity.

As for jeweller Eddie Borgo, he said of his spring/summer collection that it “celebrates female strength in all forms: the Suffragettes and the women’s movement, feminist art, the riot grrrls of the 1990s, and the current rekind­ling of guerrilla protest in the form of Pussy Riot.” That translated into tough-girl punk pieces such as hand rings with zip-teeth and dog-tag necklaces.

Yet it isn’t just via product that fashion folk are speaking out. Self-made US billionaire designer Tory Burch recently wrote a call to arms for women in business in the Economist, saying that, “Women’s empowerment will be front and centre in 2014 as more companies, communities and countries invest in women’s entrepreneurship.”

Meanwhile fashion entre­preneur Tamara Mellon, who often tweets links to sites such as Everydayfeminism.com, says, “I absolutely consider myself a feminist. I think that as a result of the financial crisis, women woke up and realised that we need to reignite the conversation on gender equality.”

Tamara Mellon©Zelig Shaul/ACE/INF

Tamara Mellon

Then there are the women recently promoted to some of the top jobs in retail. Marigay McKee is now president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Stacey Cartwright is chief executive of Harvey Nichols and Alannah Weston has just been made deputy chairman of Selfridges.

Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine in the US, which has increased its careers coverage significantly, agrees that the industry is reflecting a change in the zeitgeist. “Fashion is definitely addressing independent women this season and it’s a clear reflection of the Lean In movement and the sudden visibility of senior women very high up the food chain,” she says. “In the US we have Janet Yellen, the first woman at the Fed; Mary Barra at General Motors, the first woman to head an auto company; Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg at the top of the bestseller list; and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.”

When it comes to female-friendly fashion, Coles says: “Probably the most feminist thing I have in my own closet this season are Tamara Mellon’s genius, sexy, hugely practical legging boots, which pull on in one easy movement . . . Women want fashion to keep up with the speed of their lives.”

At Elle UK, which is running a feminism project that includes an equal pay campaign, editor-in-chief Lorraine Candy detects a more general aesthetic. “This season is about empowerment – it’s a brave and bold season in terms of colour and pattern; it is about wearing what you want to wear, and real joy. Miu Miu and Chanel were so joyful.”

As proof, Candy points to the absence of the cripplingly high heels that dominated the catwalk for years. “There were lots of flats this season, and I think that may be a subliminally feminist thing,” she says. “Flats are very much women designing for women. Isn’t the pool shoe the ultimate feminist shoe?”

Agree or not, it has certainly helped to kick-start the debate.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts