The Politics of Empowerment Fashion

Feminism is trending right now. And while it seems weird to relegate a social justice principle to the same category as oversized blazers, and corduroy, we don’t really have a problem with that. After all, any route to educate people and expose them to new information is a good one. Everyone is welcome to the feminist party!
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But what happens when it becomes a fashion accessory? In the past four years we’ve witnessed the infiltration of feminism — both as an ideal, and as a cultural statement — into mainstream popular culture. Beyonce’s release of “Flawless” in 2013, which included an excerpt from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism, her performance at the 2014 MTV VMA’s in front of a giant FEMINIST sign, and the subsequent bootleg FEMINIST sweatshirts in the pink Beyonce font of the time were certainly a catalyst in making people comfortable with wearing their politics on their sleeve. A year later, Otherwild launched its “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” shirt, whose design originated in the first women’s bookstore in New York City in 1972, and it was soon the must-have item, spotted on everyone from St. Vincent, to Kelly Rowland. Later that year, the feminist slogan made its first appearance on a high fashion label, when Acne Studios began selling sweatshirts and scarves, among other items, with phrases like RADICAL FEMINIST, GENDER EQUALITY, and WOMAN POWER. The following year, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut as the first female designer for the French house of Christian Dior featured a white tee with WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS, the title of the Ngozi Adichie's TED talk featured in Beyonce’s song, which has since become a best selling book. Feminism had arrived.
This year alone, we’ve had Gabriela Hearst's sweaters embroidered with the design of a half ram/half uterus whose sale benefitted Planned Parenthood (her Fall 2017 collection was also inspired by Angela Davis, Tammy Duckworth, and Kamala Harris among others), and just a few days ago Gloria Steinem sat front row at Prabal Gurung's Spring 2018 show. The fashion industry has fully embraced the body politic. But just like with any trend, the longer things are around, the more the message gets muddled. And how do you differentiate a brand aligning their product with their ethics from a brand that’s simply looking for a way to capitalize on just another trend. Furthermore, does it matter? The question being asked across the board these days is, should you really be using a social cause as the driving force behind the sale of a product?
Brett Heyman is hoping you can. She's the designer behind the Edie Parker line of accessories best known for its rectangular perspex clutches emblazoned with various buzzwords. For her spring 2018 lookbook, she was inspired by iconic '60s '70s magazines like Twen, Nova, and Ms., which were tied to the new women's liberation issues of the time. In keeping with the tradition of '60s and '70s media, the lookbook's eleven images, all feature the same white model.
For the "May" issue, the model is styled in a powersuit, with the headline THE RISE OF THE SHE-E-O in large red text. On other side are additional cover lines: NASTY WOMEN THAT MADE HISTORY, and the unfortunate NEVERTHELESS SHE PURSE-ISTED and EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL SLAY. This one single image encapsulates so many of the political struggles of women in our country, and around the world. It treats Hillary Clinton’s constant barrage of abuse, Elizabeth Warren’s standing up against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions, and women’s ongoing fight for equal pay, like meaningless buzzwords. A list of popular phrases that attempt to convey an image of “wokeness” into an otherwise standard fashion image of a white woman in a skirt suit.
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Another image features the same model beating a man with a classic Parker clutch bearing the word NECKLACE across it. Underneath, the headline declares A GUIDE TO FIGHTING LIKE A GIRL. Because nothing says self defense like a $1,300-ish box stamped with the name of an accessory. What seems strangest is the missed opportunity for this image to actually make statement. The designer created a clutch for her resort collection featuring the phrase #TRUTH across it, with proceeds benefitting the Committee to Protect Journalists. If the image had been styled with this bag instead it certainly would’ve resulted in a more powerful image.
And of course, it wouldn't be an empowerment-themed shoot without a reference to "Pussy Grabs Back," the slogan started in response to Donald Trump's now infamous remarks on his behavior around women he finds attractive. Except now it's PURSY GRABS BACK, you know, because the brand sells purses. The image of a woman dripping in diamonds and pearls, wearing opera length gloves is the archetype of the uber rich, upper class woman — not unlike the First Lady — so the juxtaposition of this image, with a phrase that conveys the way the president views women of lesser means both in power and money, feels especially offensive.
The point of subverting the norm should be to uncover a hidden meaning — to show us something we didn't know about ourselves. RED, WHITE, & YOU: THE POLITICAL ISSUE, the headline reads. But it's anyone's guess what Edie Parker's actual politics are, and how it relates to you, other than "politics" and "feminism" exist as marketable concepts you can employ to sell a bag. These problems will inevitably arise as more and more designers jump on the social justice bandwagon. But the point of asking questions and taking them to task, isn’t to shame or become a part of the internet’s call-out culture. It’s about being thoughtful, about making sure actions match up with intent. If the future is to be female, it needs to be more than just a pretty face.
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