Juliet Dunlop: ‘Womanists’ now in stock at M&S

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Annie Leibovitz has photographed everyone. Or more accurately, she has photographed everyone who is anyone. She is famous for making beautiful people look interesting and interesting people look beautiful – women in particular.

A naked and heavily pregnant Demi Moore sat for her. So did the Queen – although there was no disrobing on that occasion. But the big thing about Leibovitz and her lens is her ability to transform her female subjects. It’s this knack, of making women look powerful and modern, which must have led to a light bulb moment at Marks & Spencer HQ. Someone, somewhere, must have thought: “Imagine what she can do for pants!”

So, everyone’s favourite out-of-fashion retailer, still flailing in a sea of cardigans, elasticated waistbands and two-for-one salads, has brought in Leibovitz to work her magic. Only, this is not just any ad campaign, it’s an M&S ad campaign. Labelled “Britain’s Leading Ladies”, M&S has signed up a dozen successful and talented females – all women at the top of their game who just happen to love shopping in M&S – to front its bold, new look.

The impressive line-up, shot in the style of a Vanity Fair cover, is led by Dame Helen Mirren, the next best thing to the Queen. Then there is the artist Tracey Emin, who claims to shop a “vast amount” at M&S. Mirren and Emin are joined by high-flyers including Vogue’s creative director, Grace Coddington; Jasmine Whitbread, the CEO of Save the Children; the Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams; campaigner Katie Piper; author Monica Ali; and former nurse of the year Helen Allen.

They are all “can-do” achievers, who also tick boxes in terms of age and ethnicity. The pictures aren’t bad either. In one shot, the women sail down an atmospheric Thames, looking moody and serious – apart from Mirren, who can’t seem to help smiling. Clearly, it’s more about the women, and less about the clothes. M&S needs – and wants – to make a statement, and given the women they’ve selected and the Leibovitz treatment, it seems like a pretty slick, modern, feminist statement. Although don’t let M&S hear you use the “F” word. According to the company’s marketing chief, Steven Sharp, that’s definitely not the message. “It’s a womanist campaign … designed to celebrate women. To whom clothes are presumably important.”

Now, let’s pause for a moment while we scratch our heads. What’s wrong with using the word “feminist” to describe a campaign which is so obviously peddling the message that women are great because of what they do, not how they look? And why is M&S frightened to use it? One can only imagine that they’re worried it might have negative connotations; that feminism is a byword for women who hate men, wear ugly shoes and sport moustaches. The chaps in marketing obviously think “womanism” is a gentler, cuddlier, far safer option. But it’s feminism-lite, the dreaded “girl-power”. And it’s a shame, because this is an interesting campaign using interesting women. It’s also the kind of old-fashioned, cheap and timid thinking that got M&S into trouble in the first place. If it is trying to make a statement, it’s certainly turned it into one without much meaning.

But what makes the use of the word “womanist” so cringe-making is that it’s not even the correct term for whatever it is M&S think it wants to say. It was coined by the author Alice Walker, to describe the experience of black women in the US who felt excluded from mainstream feminist politics. It’s doubtful that the head of womenswear had that in mind.

But as annoying and silly as the ditching of feminism for womanism is, are we to believe that all these women would really choose to wear M&S clothes? Mirren said her involvement in the campaign was “like going to the ultimate dinner party”.

That may well have been the case – it was shot at Cliveden, a rather lovely mansion – but it somehow doesn’t ring true. Not all of these M&S alpha females look entirely comfortable; some look borderline miserable. Maybe someone behind the scenes told them it wasn’t really what it seemed. That it was just another ad campaign designed to flog more clothes to ordinary women. A photographer – even a good one – can only do so much.