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Essay: Commodifying Feminism

by Bertie Brandes on 29 October 2014

Following a number of S/S 15 shows that fetishised feminism, Mushpit founder Bertie Brandes explores the commodification of 'Girly'.

Following a number of S/S 15 shows that fetishised feminism, Mushpit founder Bertie Brandes explores the commodification of 'Girly'.

Chanel S/S 15

It’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed when it comes to unpicking the relationship between fashion and feminism. On one hand we have an industry with massive economic weight run largely by and for women, and on the other, an exploitative cash cow reliant on 21st century slave labour, particularly of young women in developing countries. It’s not an easy line to draw. The question of whether fashion and feminism can ever be happy bedfellows is one that critics (if you can still call them that) are often more than happy to overlook in favour of an #OOTD post. But, despite this industry’s timid commentators, for the last two seasons that struggle has become increasingly manifest on the runways. For the first time in a long time mainstream fashion seems keen to open a dialogue on feminism, though quite possibly because it appears to be having a social media moment. Still, away from the placards and faux-irony another conversation is being had, one which concerns itself with ideas of youth, gender, power and vulnerability. Out of London march Meadham Kirchhoff, Simone Rocha and Ryan Lo all twisting ideas of girlishness into something unexpected, each adding another voice to the conversation. Out of Paris stampedes Chanel, and out of Milan? Well, Jeremy Scott for Moschino, of course.

Whichever way you look at it and whichever of those brands you may happen to despise, girlishness is having a moment; taking cues from internet artists, feminist collectives like Rookie and The Ardorous and that sometimes feminist icon - this could have books written about it alone, don’t make me go there - Barbie. Basically it works when the references are there, it doesn’t when they aren’t. And a lot of the time they aren’t. But there are bigger issues at play. The problem with girly being a trend is that a trend is an inherently gross idea. Critic and lecturer Angela McRobbie writes in The Aftermath of Feminism that ‘the fashion-beauty complex’ present in our neo-liberal society is ‘charged with the role of imposing new time frames on women’s lives.’ How better to make a successful, older woman feel insecure than by lauding youth itself as a trend? This is where things get tricky because as horrible as that might sound, fashion is and always has been dependent on a constant renewal of ideas. At its very core is a hunger for youth and newness. At some point even I should probably throw up my hands and accept that if I’m going to engage with fashion at all there are a few things I have to just accept and move on from. With that in mind, when girlishness is done intelligently, and with genuine complexity it is a wonderful, insightful thing. Meadham Kirchhoff reject everything – aptly the title of a zine-cum-manifesto given out at their S/S 15 show. They call out huge fashion corporations and make statements far more compelling than felt-tip on a placard. There is humour to what they do - that feminist cliché of displaying used tampons popped up in their set - but there’s respect too, see their street casting, actual street casting that hasn’t just come from an agency for ‘street casting’.

At Moschino there is no self-awareness. We are presented with the crassly monogrammed flotsam of an industry desperately struggling to stay relevant. Watch it be heaped with praise by people desperately struggling to stay relevant. Take your head out of your hands and watch it.

In the more mainstream hijacking of girlishness we saw this season, respect seems to be seriously lacking, replaced instead by an undercurrent of aggressive mockery. Jeremy Scott’s Moschino Barbie collection is so oddly passive and lacking in conviction the only facial expression people wearing it seem able to make is a sort of ‘am I embarrassed or am I just proud I got it before you?’ smirk. The same goes for thrusting a megaphone into a bewildered supermodel’s hand and asking her to close the show with a right important political message. It’s offensively trite, particularly to those customers who really did fight for women’s rights at the end of the 20th century and probably aren’t thrilled about seeing feminism sugar-coated in the name of capitalism. The fetishisation of Barbie at Moschino, which feels at once totally dated and incredibly 'now’ because wow it’s an advertorial, is not a statement. (Side thought: What even is now? What do people mean when they implore everyone to stop being so nostalgic?) Here girlishness is being commandeered as a trend and nothing more. In his mainline Jeremy Scott often brilliantly taps into alien LA subcultures, playing highly commercial fashion off against itself by making things that look like you could dig them out of a bucket at Jetrag on Melrose. Here, there is none of that self-awareness or humour. Instead, we are presented with the crassly monogrammed flotsam of an industry desperately struggling to stay relevant. Watch it be heaped with praise by people desperately struggling to stay relevant. Take your head out of your hands and watch it.

Ok enough. Let’s celebrate girlishness not simply as a trend but as a sense of freedom, honesty and self-discovery. Grown women don’t need to dress like teenagers to channel that sense of defiance but there’s no one stopping them if they want to. In the same vein, teenagers don’t need to spend thousands of pounds to prove they’re being young properly, but being inspired by designers engaging with ideas that are relevant to them is an entirely positive thing. Rather than allowing certain aspects of the industry to exploit the tropes of youth and femininity let’s hold it to account, and in the process of criticising further appreciate those who are genuinely engaged in the conversation. After all, we’re not at school anymore, and sitting pretty was never my thing anyway.

Author:
Bertie Brandes

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