Feminism and high fashion can go hand in hand – Susan Dalgety
Clothes make the woman. Whether we like it or not, the way we dress tells the world who we are, or who we would like to be. No one knows that better than former First Minster Nicola Sturgeon, who painstakingly transformed herself from a rather dowdy political activist to a glossy, high-heeled wannabe world stateswoman.
Project Nicola, as it was once described, was a calculated move by an ambitious young politician to transform her image. She ditched the flat shoes and bushy eyebrows for stilettos and carefully applied make-up. She even relished fashion shoots, appearing not once, but twice in British Vogue, each time looking as expensively glamorous as the magazine’s stylists could make her.
Contrast that with her appearance this week, when she made her first post-resignation speech in Parliament. She had dressed down for her comeback in a navy jacket, and her light-touch make-up could not disguise the dark circles under her eyes. She looked like what she now is – a backbench MSP with no particular flair or style. And no power.
As she got to her feet to lecture us that Scotland’s political discourse required more “civility and respect” – a tad ironic coming from a woman who dismissed those who disagreed with her on gender reform as “deeply misogynist, often homophobic, possibly… racist” – I was standing in front of a glorious bottle green velvet dress, designed just after the end of the Second World War by a modest French man who revolutionised the fashion industry with his new look.
Christian Dior died in 1957, aged only 52, after a heart attack, but in the ten years before his sudden death his fashion house produced haute couture dresses that caused a revolution. Looking at his opulent, hour-glass creations on display in an exhibition in his childhood home in Granville, northern France, it is hard to imagine how dresses that could use up to 20 metres of fabric and cost more than most women could hope to earn in a year could be revolutionary, but they were.
As Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman to head the company since it was formed 75 years ago, said in a recent interview, Christian Dior created clothes that mimicked the fantasy body of a woman, but for a very political reason. She told the Guardian newspaper that he “made that silhouette when women in France were very skinny, because of the war. He wanted to give women a body that gave them optimism for the future. His sister Catherine had come back from a concentration camp, so to give her this big dress, where she can look in the mirror and see this new body, was to give her hope.”
Chiuri’s hope for women today is that she can use fashion to challenge the patriarchy. “Women need to speak more about sisterhood and community. Real feminism is about women supporting each other,” she said in the same interview, stressing that she prefers to define fashion by what is going on inside a woman’s head, not the shape of her body.
A quick glance at Dior’s latest collection, where a shapeless, utilitarian t-shirt in dirty pink retails at £690, suggests that Chiuri must think that hedge funds are what most women ruminate about but, ridiculous over-the-top pricing apart, she has a point. There is a link between feminism and fashion. Clothes do make a liberated woman.
The Bloomer dress – also called the reform dress – first hit stores in 1850s America, and was popularised by women’s rights campaigner, Amelia Bloomer, as an alternative to the restrictive dresses most women wore. “Let men be compelled to wear our dress for a while and we should soon hear them advocating a change,” said Bloomer at the time.
Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, said that “suffragettes should not be dowdy”. She also developed the suffragette colours to allow women to easily recognise each other. Only a few months ago, a women’s rights campaigner was ejected from the Scottish Parliament for daring to wear a scarf in the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green.
Coco Chanel, one of the first female fashion designers – and still the most famous – was a true revolutionary. She made trousers for women acceptable, and her business-like skirt suit, with its streamlined, no-nonsense silhouette didn’t just change how women looked – it changed how they felt about themselves and their role in society. It’s no coincidence that when Sturgeon wanted to change her persona from activist to leader-in-waiting, she opted for colour-block skirt suits worthy of Chanel, but with a John Lewis price-tag.
And it’s no accident that when author and women’s campaigner, JK Rowling, wanted to send a message to Nicola Sturgeon about her gender reforms, she posted an image of herself on social media wearing a black t-shirt bearing the legend: “Nicola Sturgeon: Destroyer of Women’s Rights”. It cost considerably less than Dior’s dirty pink one, but was priceless in its impact.
In recent years, after the second wave of feminism receded and young women felt free to put their bras back on, fashion has tried to tempt us back into impossibly high heels, corset-like underwear and bucketloads of Barbie pink. Some feminists baulk against ‘girly’ clothes, but I say why not? Wear whatever makes you feel powerful and comfortable. The point, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argued in a 2015 Ted talk, is for women to be able to celebrate their sex, whether that is wearing a shapeless t-shirt or a figure-hugging green velvet dress.
“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be,” she said. Feminism is the freedom to wear what you like. Now, if only I could afford a vintage Christian Dior dress.
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