Faux Feminism in Trademark Tweeds
by Meredith Graves
Karl Lagerfeld’s decision to close this season’s Chanel show in Paris with a faux feminist protest march is, in runway terms, possibly the worst political and aesthetic decision since Rodarte presented their Fall/Winter 2010 Juarez-themed collection.
Worse yet, major international news outlets are lauding it as a revolutionary move, with some writers going so far as to compare the aesthetics of the show to the May 1968 student riots. As people discuss whether or not feminism is a trend, it seems as if people are missing a lot of what’s really, truly awful about this show.
A huge problem with media representations of feminism is the focus on a feminism that serves white, western, middle-and-upper-class women — women who happen to be the target consumer demographic for Chanel products.
First, we have to consider the politics of feminism with the conscious knowledge of how capitalism intersects with race. When one of the largest luxury brands in the world chooses to co-opt feminist sloganeering without so much as alluding to the historical and contemporary contributions of women of color, they’re contributing to the erasure of those voices. Karl Lagerfeld made a conscious decision to appropriate feminist imagery devoid of the context — to continue perpetuating the image of the people feminism benefits in order to skim the surface of a politic that starts at the bone.
Second, it’s imperative that fashion and media representations of fashion focuses on intersectional feminism — as coined by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, a feminism that recognizes the difference in women’s experiences of oppression based on race, class, ability, sexuality and other contributing social factors in addition to gender. Right now, the writers doing the best, most important, and revolutionary work on the subject of feminism are women of color, such as Ayesha A. Siddiqi, Black Girl Dangerous, and Sydette Harry, amongst others. Yet the cast of the Chanel show was mostly white: twelve models of color out of eighty-five models in total.
My complaints don’t end there: in addition to being a racially inadequate depiction of feminism, he also managed to erase the history he was clearly referencing. The first ten-plus looks sent down the runway could have appeared in Annie Hall, a film that defined Diane Keaton’s wardrobe as part of her feminist identity. With the midterm elections coming up, and with reproductive autonomy being a critical, life-or-death issue in countless American states, a feminist collection with aesthetic roots in the 1970s should recall the 1973 Roe v. Wade victory. In the first six months of 2014 alone, there have been 468 bills introduced that attempt to regulate women’s bodily autonomy. The political crises that came to a head in the 1970s, the second wave of feminism that Lagerfeld’s collection was attempting to parody, are still making women’s lives a living hell.
But no matter: according to fashion critics, feminism is just a current fashion trend. Using popular, memetic imagery — in this case, selling a palatable version of feminism back to the women who propagate it — to sell to a specific consumer base is nothing new. By utilizing the aesthetics of a universal concept, Karl Lagerfeld is securing the perpetuation of the image on his terms. The image of a fashion model holding a sign that says something fundamentally empowering (and empty) like “History is Her Story,” conveniently dressed in Chanel’s trademark tweeds, expresses a safe version of feminism that amounts to free advertising.
Lagerfeld has been busted countless times for bullying the hell out of various female celebrities about their weight and overall appearance. He is attempting to consciously manipulate a generation of critical, smart young women into supporting something they otherwise wouldn’t.
At the end of the day, I’m complaining about the political misgivings of a man who, at this time last year, sent models down the runway in a fucked-up parody of what he thought First Nations headdresses looked like. This is a fashion designer who stands at the helm of a fashion house started by a homophobic Nazi sympathizer. The history of the house of Chanel is a history of fashion’s allegiances with racism and whiteness, a winner’s history of the class war. None of this is a secret; nor is it a secret that Coco Chanel stands as one of fashion’s liberators of women, and a crucial part of fashion history.
However, it is 2014, and this has to end eventually: for all the elevated discussion around artistic trends and cultural relevance, the fashion world must listen to the undercurrent of people screaming at the top of their lungs for this behavior to end. The excuses and post-show backpedaling don’t work any more. There is no more room for racist caricatures, no more forgiveness for historical erasure, no more co-opting of politics that actually mean life or death for so many people around the world. Contrary to popular belief, it would actually be very easy for Karl Lagerfeld to just not do this shit.