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Dior’s ‘Feminist’ Tee; Ivanka’s Ailing Shoe-Line; & Designers’ Refusal to Dress the FLOTUS

politics-and-fashion1

It is both clichéd and ironic to reduce fashion to the flimsy ‘ooooh get you in yer heels and handbag’ rhetoric. Like all forms of art, politics is writ large upon fashion. Case in point: Vivienne Westwood. Her politics often surpass the clothes. And what of the return of the corset, which on first sight is dismissed as anti-feminist and regressive and then, with Alexander Fury’s persuasive piece for The New York Times, reconfigures it as modern – allied, as it is, with that pervasively current, curvy Kardashian aesthetic. And now more than ever, the fashion/politics synapse is crackling – whether those politics are governmental, or sexual. As Leandra posited via text yesterday: “FASHION POLITICA RUN A GAMUT.”

With talk of appropriated feminism and political views masquerading as mis-directed bullying, a lot has been brewing in the time it took me for to get my shit together to write this post. A whole pack of influential US retailers dropped Ivanka Trump’s shoe-line from stores; Dior’s ‘We Should All be Feminists’ t-shirts unfurled across social media, to mixed response; and designers continue to speak out about their refusal to dress the FLOTUS.

Let’s start with the Dior tee, inscribed with the title of renowned feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (If you haven’t read Americanah, buy it here and do some now.) Back in September, there was barely a ripple of dismay about it. It felt right for that time: we were hoping Hillary would grab the mantle (I mean, an actual mantle – like, the one in the White House) and as Jess Cartner-Morley wrote in The Guardian, “the opportunity for a woman to redefine what femininity looks like could hardly come at a more culturally resonant time, as the first female US presidential candidate faces an opposing campaign mired in accusations of misogyny.” But then the shirt landed in stores, the exorbitant price was made public and across the digital scape, an interesting debate unfurled. Underneath a picture of the newly gifted t-shirt on Susie Bubble’s Instagram account, the fabulously named @rihannasforehead, spat fury over the “commodification of civil rights movements”. “Charging $700 for a t-shirt and none of the funds go towards women’s right Organisations, tell us more about who Chiuri isn’t shamelessly profiting from co-opting feminism through yer disgustingly uninclusive brand of pretty white feminism?”

Susie’s point – “I think MGC [Dior’s Artistic Director Maria Grazia Chiuri] ‘s decision to use that slogan isn’t an empty gesture” – chimes with my thinking, specifically reminding me of Marie Wilson’s famous phrase: “you can’t be, what you can’t see.” There’s a fine line between tokenism, commodification and leading by example, but do the positives of a talking point t-shirt – once that positively encourages feminism in the baldest, bravest form – outweigh the negatives? This debate is a tricky one because whilst the t-shirt is undoubtedly extremely expensive for a cotton tee, like Gucci (and their own, Insta-saturated cotton tee) they are a luxury design house. Their economic eco-system (for better or worse) cannot allow for a t-shirt to sell for £20, just like a Maserati can’t suddenly sell a new racing car for the price of the Skoda. The whole business would fall apart at the seams. But, BUT — where does that leave Dior? Should they refrain from making the well-intentioned political statement in the first place? Well, yes – as Rihanna’s [Actual] Forehead suggested – unless they can contribute some of the proceeds to women’s charities. To purloin from the most potent political message is fine, if you’re furthering said cause advantageously – but is voicing support for the cause, enough? Shouldn’t the fiscal, be part of the furthering?

A good example of ‘positive political product’ (PPP; I’m calling it) in the fashion industry at large is Cass Bird, one of my favourite fashion photographers, who recently made the epically good decision to sell twenty $600 prints, with all proceeds going to ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I was too broke to buy one myself, so talk about being woke: I liked the picture and the sentiment so much, I regrammed it.

Dior’s t-shirt has quickly filtered down to the online retailers and you can now buy your own ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ tee for the same price as a pizza. For E.G., this one on Etsy for £12. So why don’t we all go buy one? Who cares if it’s a knock-off; the sentiment rings the same – no? Except it doesn’t. Because it isn’t Dior. It feels like an emulation of something, rather than the original thought (even that thought is, actually, a TED talk) and even though the thought is still valid, still scrawled across the t-shirt in an almost exact replica, it’s suddenly not as cool. Sad, but true. Because much like when Vetements made Juicy Couture attractive to people who previously hated it, fashion has the sometimes disturbing ability to anoint something you would not usually wear – and would you wear this t-shirt, before? You would obviously think this, like the self-respecting feminist that you are, but would you wear such blatancy across your breasts?  – into something cool. And thus, it works both ways: the feminist t-shirt becomes more attractive by dint of being by Dior; Dior benefits from the en vogue sentiment. This is not a straight-forward case of exploitation, it is a relationship that is, in some ways, reciprocal.

From £300+ t-shirts and on to to Ivanka Trump’s bland fashion line, which Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Sears, Kmart, and T.J. Max [the US version of T.K. Maxx] just dumped. Partly, it was cut because sales were bad (if a brand doesn’t perform, a multi-brand retailer will understandably drop it) but inevitably the #BoycottIvanka momentum is gathering apace. Macys is now under pressure to drop the line. Ivanka’s shoe line doesn’t sell in the UK and prior to her assuming the position as daughter of controversial president, I knew of the shoes only thanks to numerous court cases with Florentine shoe brand, Aquazzura (it’s true that the shoes look remarkable similar.) Either way, thanks to the plagiarism suits there was an eau d’bad rep around Ivanka’s shoe-line and once The Donald got into the White House, sales plummeted. Ivanka is not removed from her father’s career (that’s more Tiffany’s role – speaking of,  this was a monkey-covering-eyes screw-up of familial allegiance) she is an unashamedly integral part of his political life. And Ivanka’s shoes didn’t just dip, at Nordstrom, they sunk. By 70% in the last 3 weeks of November. The Cut ran a really interesting piece about the women still buying her shoes and quoted a woman who said, “Ivanka is a successful businesswoman. We shouldn’t take that away from her.”

I find this statement really interesting – that we should not take from Ivanka – because it reminds me of something Megyn Kelly said about Melania, in the December issue of Porter magazine. “The New York Times called her a trophy wife and a mannequin which is f-ed up and really offensive. Just because she’s gorgeous doesn’t mean you get to dismiss her. She speaks I think five languages. She’s a mother. She’s a supportive wife. She’s an entrepreneur. I don’t know how successful her businesses are, but she’s out there trying. Screw them for saying that.” It is remarkable generous piece of insight from a woman who, if you recall, was the recipient of one of Trump’s most revoltingly sexist disses yet, when he dismissed the Fox News anchor with a supercool menstruation cuss: “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her ears, blood coming out of her…. wherever”.

Back in November, I recall a conversation with my then editor which stemmed from Megyn’s comment. “We are not the men we sleep with” I mused. “I think we are exactly the men we sleep with” she said, mesmerised I could think otherwise. “I think you should be judged in your choice of partner. You aligned yourself with that person and all that they stand for. You made that choice.”  Should designers refuse to dress Melania based on who she sleeps with? (Or rather, given that she has stayed in NYC, doesn’t sleep with.) To put it bluntly: are we the guys we fuck?

Never have so many designers refused to dress a First Lady (according to Professor Google.) Tom Ford, Phillip Lim, Derek Lam and Marc Jacobs all said nay, whilst Tommy Hilfiger and Diane Von Furstenburg – designers famed for their commercial, business instinct – said yes. Now that the elections are over, and Donald Trump is president, it feels somewhat redundant to be making these claims. Can they stick by them? What if she is in there for 8 years? What do we know of Melania’s hidden strengths and talents? I also wonder, is there an element of the throwing-toys-out-of-pram going on? Whilst I understand and value the political statements inherent in a refusal to be associated with one of the most visually potent individuals in the world – and therefore honourably rejecting all of the associated selling power – I can’t help but wonder if this is the best way to channel energies. Is it actually dressing Melania, that is the problem; or if its the fear of incurring the wrath of those who hate Trump? Designer Cynthia Rowley had perhaps the smartest thing to say on the subject and that is that we are forgetting that Melania is Fucking Rich. She does not need our permission to wear a white, fluted-sleeve Roksanda dress. Girl goes and buys it.

“In the midst of this heated debate, the question actually seems somewhat irrelevant. She can simply purchase whatever she wants, so how can we control it? Just because she’s shown wearing a designer does not mean that designer is endorsing her, her husband, or any of their beliefs. Checking someone’s ethical beliefs before they’re allowed to purchase sets up an exclusionary dynamic that feeds into the exact mentality that is preventing us from moving forward in a positive direction. Some people say fashion and politics should never mix, but when given the choice, I think you should address and dress your conscience.” We have little intel thus far on which designers are refusing to dress Ivanka.

At first glance, the Dior t-shirt and the Trump women have little in common. But if you look at them as various vignettes representative of where we are at with gender politics right now, the schism shrinks. At its nub, it is about manipulating the female image to your own design. Dior’s t-shirt immediately makes a liberal feminist (albeit at surface value) out of its wearer. Meanwhile, by refusing to allow these controversial women to inhabit their clothes, or stores to allow stock to populate their shelves, the designers and retailers lead by omission. Dior is about who a women is; the designers and retails various are about who a women is not. Both see the same (liberal, feminist) woman. But is the same woman reflected back?

Politics has become about controlled visability. T-shirts, badges, marches, boycotts. We collectively make almost crassly obvious choices of support, or lack thereof, because we do not know how else to change things. Gone are the quiet discussions and anonymous, under-the-radar charitable endeavours. We are noisy. We are woke. Whether we are retailer, designer, or wearer. Only time will tell how effective this approach will be.

Artwork by Natalia Bagniewska

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