Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Dior, turned the fashion house’s Paris runway show into a funland of popular feminism, decorating the set with neon signs that read, “Consent,” “Women raise the uprising,” “Patriarchy = Co2” and “Women’s love is unpaid labor.”
The light-up platitudes, or “illuminated manifestos,” as described by the brand on Instagram, were made by Claire Fontaine, an art collective based in Sicily. Guests inside the Jardins des Tuileries, including Sigourney Weaver, Demi Moore, Carla Bruni, and Karlie Kloss, watched as models in plaid pantsuits and radical chic fringe trotted down the massive stage.
In the summer of 2016—before #MeToo, before “grab ’em by the pussy”—Chiuri was named the first female creative director in Dior’s 70-year history. That fall, the Fendi and Valentino designer made her first mark on the luxury line’s Paris show with a simple white t-shirt reading “We should all be feminists.”
Close to three years later, and less than 24 hours after Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape at his precedent-setting Manhattan trial, Chiuri returned to her graphic t roots. This time around, she put a bandana-wearing model in one blazed with a slightly more obtuse phrase “I Say I.”
That statement comes from the late Italian art critic Carla Lonzi, who wrote 1972’s La donna clitoridea e la donna vaginale, or “The Clitoridian Woman and the Vaginal Woman,” a feminist manifesto extolling the political significance of women seeking sex for pleasure as opposed to reproduction. So that explains the well-intended, if trans-exclusionary, “We are all clitoridian women,” on Dior’s runway.
Fashion, especially the kind that can only be worn by extremely wealthy women, will always depict a fantasy. And for the past few years, our dreams have skewed less “make me a princess” and more “I’d actually prefer equal rights.” (Not to say there’s anything wrong with a good ball gown now and then.)
Our innermost desires, Chiuri might argue, are to be taken seriously and respected by the men in charge—hence that screaming “Consent” sign.
Still, for all its messaging, any Fashion Week is at its core an extension of marketing, as much of an advertisement as a billboard or influencer sponcon. In that sense, statements of resistance can feel grossly out-of-place, just another focus group-approved way to use feminism to sell clothes.
It felt that way in 2014, when the late Karl Lagerfeld turned the Chanel Paris show into a faux rally. Models in the legacy label’s tweed suits stomped downstage holding protest signs like “Be your own stylist” and “He for she.”
But the controversial creative director may have just been trying feminism on for size. Only four years later, Lagerfeld said he was “fed up” with the #MeToo movement. After models spoke to the Boston Globe of sexual misconduct at the hands power stylist Karl Templer, Lagerfeld opined, “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!”
Two months before the 2016 presidential election, the industry showed its support for Hillary Clinton at a fashion week that included an Anna Wintour-helmed fundraiser for the then-Democratic nominee. Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Marchesa's Georgina Chapman (then married to Harvey Weinstein) all designed t-shirts/campaign merch, which The New York Times reported as selling for $46-$60.
This glamorous display, of course, did not help Clinton win the election. But it would not deter future fashion week politicking. Unsurprisingly, such actions hit an apex after Trump got into office.
Mara Hoffman invited the founders of the Women’s March to open her show. Watered-down statements like “Feminist AF ” and “The Future is Female” were spotted on runways (specifically Jonathan Simkhai and Prabal Gurung, respectively).
That fall, Gurung invited Gloria Steinem to sit front row. At 83, it was her first ever fashion week invitation. The former Clinton aid and ex-wife of Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, came through as well.
These were lovely, symbolic gestures which generated positive press. But these moments can be seen as style over substance, or an inaccurate measurement of the community’s commitment to actually empowering women.
Overall, according to The Fashion Spot, diversity in races, sizes, age, and gender expression of fashion week models has gone down for the 2020 shows.
Late last year, The New York Times reported that Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, two photographers accused of misconduct by dozens of models, are back working for indie style magazines. Speaking to how quickly the fashion world moved on, an agent named Christian Alexander asked the Times, “Why is this even still relevant news? This happened, like, two years ago.”
There is no one person in the industry who can fix every problem, but as a whole, these feminist slogans do not resolve the issues facing women working in predatory environments.
It’s an oversimplification for Dior to slap some words on a stage and say they’ve done their part, though doing that is a first step to publicly acknowledging what sort of brand they’d like to be. That doesn’t automatically make the line a bastion of women’s liberation, but it’s a start, and one that doesn’t have to be panned outright.
True, the lights will not fix everything. Your average rapist will probably not care that Dior endorses consent. One of the lights, “Women’s love is unpaid labor,” reeks of hypocrisy considering the fashion world’s use of, you know, actual unpaid labor. Chiuri may want to ally herself with sisterhood, but she chose to do so at an event most people attend solely to boost their own image, or personal brand.
But the installation was pretty. It looks good on Instagram. Whether we like it or not, increasingly, that matters. The message, empty as it may seem, will spread across social media. Is it such a bad thing if more women feel they are supported, or at least seen, by such an establishment name?
Out of all those women, very few will actually wear Dior. (And one of them very well may be Melania Trump, a loyal client of the brand.) The clothes are expensive and the size range is paltry. But what if the clothes Chiuri designs inspire someone, privileged as she may be, to feel a little bit better about herself, stand up taller, and smile only because she wants to? Then Dior has done its job.
Make no mistake: Fashion houses are businesses. Especially Dior, which is owned by the gigantic, male-dominated conglomerate LVMH. It may be run by a creative, but Dior exists to make money—not serve as a bastion of social activism and cultural change.
Ultimately, it is incumbent upon Dior to come up with more than slogans, and for us to keep them accountable. Do we buy what Dior and others are saying—literally and politically? That is up to us, and where we spend our dollars.