Flashing in red, yellow, and green, three neon signs shouting CONSENT hung from the ceiling at the Bassin De L'Octogone in Paris’ Jardin des Tuileries. The floor was covered in newspaper print. Around the huge, octagonal space were even more brightly lit signs reading: “PATRIARCHY = C02” and “PATRIARCHY = REPRESSION,” as well as “WHEN WOMEN STRIKE THE WORLD STOPS,” “FEMININE BEAUTY IS A READY-MADE,” and, most puzzlingly, “WE ARE ALL CLITORIDIAN WOMEN.”
The space quickly filled with celebrities and fashion people for Dior’s AW20 show. A young man in black helped me find my seat. As we walked across the floor, he asked in a charming French accent, “Do you know what it means? ‘Patriarchy equals C02’?” I laughed nervously. He said, “I don’t think I agree with this messaging. Do you?”
The pavilion felt more like an arena than a runway, more conducive to a showdown between gladiators rather than models showing off next season’s fashions. But even if there weren’t any people about to engage in battle, those signs displayed fighting words: Flashing insistently overhead, the messages were impossible to ignore, an advertisement in the language of resistance. But, against what? It was unclear. Show notes revealed that “Clitoridian” was a tongue-and-cheek reference to Freud’s writing on clitoral orgasms, while “Patriarchy = C02” attributes climate change to male oppression. It was all a little Women’s Studies 101 by way of Pinterest signage. And yet, in a fashion month that was alarmingly light on real feminist messages, it felt like a relief to have the opportunity to think and ultimately talk about the problems of our times rather than just ignoring them.
And what are the biggest problems we’re facing? Consent, yes; climate change, definitely. But also, as I watched the models — all of them young and thin — marching beneath words related to power and pleasure, I found myself thinking about a different problem altogether: the hypocrisy of consumerist feminism. Because, this runway show sent a slightly different message than its designer and creative director Maria Grazia Churi intended: Empowerment, sure, but for whom?
Pop feminism — derisively called T-shirt feminism by critics — has become core to Dior’s brand under the creative direction of Churi, whose controversial $710 (£546) “We Are All Feminists” tees became a symbol of this consumer trend. And these signs, created by artist Claire Fontaine (and clearly inspired by artist Jenny Holzer’s text-based installations) were emblematic of this post-2016 identity. Meanwhile, the clothes themselves were a continuation of menswear references and school-boy cues like shrunken ties and tweed jackets, with repeating motifs like checks and, of course, fringe (find me an Autumn 2020 runway without fringe — I’ll wait). It was all very wearable, and certainly commercially viable, but I didn’t see anything that was as radical or insistent as the flashing words above it.
What did feel meaningful were the shoes, which were nondescript and utilitarian, and mainly came in flat combat boots and simple leather slides. The lack of heels was a feminist statement in and of itself, perhaps hinting at a new purpose for luxury, one that prioritizes practicality. Most notably, there were no show-stopping looks, no major closing gown moment — a metaphor for equality.
It remains to be seen whether the connection between Dior’s styling and feminist messaging will become more than just slogans. Can a luxury brand ever be truly feminist? I’m not sure. By definition, luxury is inaccessible, a fact that makes it inherently at odds with feminism’s core value of equality for all people, full stop. And then there’s the fact that despite the clear climate change reference, there was no information about the brand’s plan to become more sustainable. If the show’s point was to call out patriarchy, its choice to exclusively cast young, thin, normatively beautiful models was a tacit endorsement of the patriarchy’s oppressive ideas of what ideal women should be. Promoting consent is better than not doing so, but what would be even better is if the women modelling the clothes — who, we have to assume, are supposed to embody the messages that hung above them — were of different ages and body types. Surely plus-sized women and older women deserve consent and clitoral orgasms, too.
In 2019, Dior’s revenue was up 15% from the previous year. At a time when luxury brands are struggling to reach younger customers, Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” approach does seem to be attracting the kind of consumer who wants her clothes to reflect a political message. It’s also possible that corporate ideas of empowerment, and Dior’s feminism in particular, has become so commercially and aesthetically palatable that its political messaging has grown nearly meaningless, even for women who wouldn’t have described themselves as feminists a decade ago. For some, empowerment might mean nothing more than “I like being a young, thin, normatively beautiful woman.” And whether or not selling feminist-inspired fashion to feminist-curious women actually promotes the goals of feminism is another story.