Dress Up

Can Fashion Ever Be Truly Feminist?

With a ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt, fashion house Christian Dior has embraced a powerful social movement—but the marriage of fashion and feminism remains a thorny one.

10.04.16 3:45 AM ET

Christian Dior’s new creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, made a very smart, strategic move when she sent a model down the runway Friday in a white slogan T-shirt that read, in faded black letters, “We Should All Be Feminists.”

As the first woman to take on the creative director role in Dior’s 70-year history, Chiuri marked her debut in Paris with a very populist (and popular) message at the moment, at a time when we’re seeing more women heads of government than ever before and more women running Paris fashion houses than ever before.

Social media blew up with a #weshouldallbefeminists hashtag, and Dior strode into the cultural mainstream.

Indeed, Chiuri’s T-shirt perpetuates feminism’s fashionable reign, led by the likes of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer and, in the U.K., Caitlin Moran. Chiuri and Dior instantly scored points with women around the world, while also reviving a debate about whether fashion—an industry known for policing women’s bodies—can ever be truly feminist.

Chiuri (and, by extension, Dior) has embraced the word and the message, but to what end?

Chiuri made sure her front-and-center row was stacked with female power players: Jennifer Lawrence, Carla Bruni, Rihanna, Kate Moss, Bianca Jagger, Karlie Kloss, and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie were all there.

Fans of Adichie will recognize the Dior T-shirt slogan from the writer’s essay and related TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which went viral after Beyoncé sampled passages from it in “Flawless.” (Naturally, the song was part of the show’s soundtrack.)

Adichie’s presence at the show lent weight and credibility Chiuri’s feminist rallying cry. “I strive to be attentive and open to the world and to create fashion that resembles the women of today,” Chiuri wrote in her show notes.

Given the enormous popularity of clothing with feminist sloganeering at the moment, Chiuri’s Adichie-inspired tee certainly resembles today’s women—both what they’re wearing and what matters to them.

“The Future Is Female,” a slogan that originated from ’70s radical feminism, was recently revived by Otherwild, a retail space and graphic design studio in Los Angeles and New York.

Ever since October 2015, when Cara Delevingne and then-girlfriend St. Vincent were photographed wearing navy sweatshirts with the slogan printed in bold white letters, Otherwild’s “The Future Is Female” products have attracted a cult following. So too have brands like It’s Me and You, whose high-waisted, full coverage underwear with “feminist” scrawled across the butt have made the much-maligned granny panty cool again.

The Dior tee also evokes a longer lineage of political sloganeering in high fashion, most notably the slogan tees by designer Katherine Hamnett in the ’80s (“Stop Acid Rain,” “Protest and Survive,” and the anti-nuclear “58% Don’t Want Pershing” tee she wore to meet Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street in ’84, among others).

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Vivienne Westwood’s 1977 “Destroy” tee—emblazoned with a red swastika and an upside down image of Christ on the cross—was even more controversial (it never made an appearance in her runway shows).

More recently, Kenzo’s Spring 2014 collection featured environment-championing “No Fish, No Nothing” tees, while Jeremy Scott sent models down the runway in orange mesh tops printed with phrases like “Earth Sucks” that same season.

Karl Lagerfeld staged a feminist protest at the end of Chanel’s Spring 2015 show, though messages like “Ladies first!” and “History is her story!” were splashed on posters rather than the clothes themselves.

Dior is now the latest high-fashion brand to convey a political message, which clashes with some of the decidedly anti-feminist issues in the fashion industry.

That excessively thin models still dominate runways is certainly one of them. Dior may have championed intersectional feminism this season, highlighting Adichie’s history of “examining the question of racism and the place of women” in its press notes, but the fashion industry is frequently criticized for its lack of racial diversity.

If typical high-fashion prices are any indication, only a select few will be able to afford Dior’s feminist tee. (A Dior spokesperson told The Daily Beast that pricing was “not yet available.”) And if the T-shirt isn’t part of a larger campaign, does a feminist slogan on the runway accomplish anything more than hashtag activism (which is to say: not much)?

In this case, feminism was simply powerful inspiration for Dior’s new creative director. If feminism is indeed cool, one can imagine it becoming even more so when Delevingne and other celebrities are inevitably photographed wearing Dior’s tee.