As I remember it, attitudes towards feminism used to be predominantly hostile, best characterized by the well-trodden phrase, "I'm not a feminist, but."
More recently, people have seemed to embrace the label. Which is mostly a good thing, but sometimes it seems like they're squeezing it to death. Today's posture is one of faddish over-identification: In pop culture and on the Internet, "feminism" is sometimes used as a calling card by anyone making a superficial claim about women. A friend of mine calls it 'hashtag feminism.'
On that note, although SHOWstudio's live panels present some of the most interesting and informative responses to the Fashion Week shows available online (if you're unfamiliar, the London-based fashion outlet streams conversations with critics, designers, stylists concurrently with the runway livestreams), I've been stunned by how readily panelists jump to consider the feminist bonafides of a fashion collection. To be fair, the commentators are often taking a cue from the designers themselves: The duo behind Meadham Kirchhoff count the riot grrrl movement as one of their biggest influences; Miuccia Prada considered herself a radical feminist long before she considered herself a designer, and her Spring 2014 collection was explicitly concerned with female empowerment.
But fashion's relationship to feminism isn't an easy one. And so I feel like I've entered some bizarro universe when I read sentences like this one from Style.com's review of the Olympia Le-Tan Spring 2014 collection: "This sailor-themed collection couldn’t help but give you the feminist spins," wrote Maya Singer, as if most fashion collections wouldn't give you feminist spins. At its most fundamental level, the fashion show is in conflict with feminism: Hiring leggy teenagers to wear clothing intended for (wealthy) adults doesn't do anything to advance equal rights for women.
The Olympia Le-Tan review wasn't Style.com's only mindboggling reference to feminism this week. Earlier this week, the website ran a post asking, "Is Donatella Versace Fashion’s Sexiest Feminist?" The opening sentence reads, "Feminism is emerging as a strong Spring ’14 theme." The Style.com item was centered around some choice quotes from an interview with the Versace designer which ran in The Independent on Saturday.
Conducted by the British publication's fashion editor, Alex Fury, (who is, it's worth mentioning, a frequent guest on the SHOWstudio live panels), the interview was published under the headline, "Donatella Versace on sex and why she'd rather be a feminist than a muse." In the past, Donatella has openly discussed some of her feminist beliefs in the press (last year, her statement, "Feminism is dead in the world," was picked up by countless outlets) and she explicitly uses the term in conversation with Fury, telling him, "I think I'm a feminist."
Fury writes that Donatella's feminist convictions seem "odd given how diametrically opposed those clingfilm-tight Versace frocks seem to our notions of feminist fashion." And on Style.com, the blogger ends by wondering whether "a sheer V-neck gown cut down to here might tempt one’s company to focus on something other than her 'opinions.'” I wouldn't call Donatella Versace the world's best feminist role model or say that Versace designs would work well on feminist revolutionaries, but suggesting that clothes can make or break a feminist is missing the point. Designer and fashion brands can sometimes operate according to feminist principles (a recent New Yorker article made the case for Eileen Fisher as one such label), but feminism will never be a fashion statement.