By Alice Cattley
When red carpet reporters asked Natalie Portman who she was wearing at the Oscars earlier this year, the answer was a long one. Her floor-length black cape was by Dior – but embroidered along the edge of its left lapel, Portman had chosen to list the names of the female directors who hadn’t been nominated for the ‘Best Director’ award: Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), and Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers).
This quiet protest against the all-male shortlist quickly became one of the most widely reported aspects of the Oscars, almost outshining the awards themselves. A symbol of defiance in the face of Hollywood sexism, it also serves as a reminder that women on red carpets are eager to discuss issues with wider implications than the designer of their dress.
For hundreds of years, fashion has been at the centre of a conflict between social commentary and superficiality. People deemed to have an ‘excessive’ interest in fashion have historically been written off as self-obsessed, vacuous, and even a bit stupid. But from the first suffragettes making headlines with their ‘suffragette suit’, to Katherine Hamnett’s provocative slogan T-shirts, to the feminist statements we now see on runways, designers have frequently used their platform to challenge the status quo. In today’s balmy political climate, fashion is continuing to shake off its frivolous reputation.
The six-week-long trial of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which started on 6thJanuary, has so far coincided with Copenhagen, London, New York, and Paris Fashion Weeks. It cast a long shadow. Whether it was journalists noting the presence of Gigi Hadid in Paris, one day after she was dismissed as a potential juror for Weinstein’s trial in Manhattan, or the set design of Dior’s collection ‘A Visual Diary’, it seemed we couldn’t help but search for signs that the fashion world was denouncing the man they’d once seen as one of their own. (Weinstein was the producer of fashion reality show Project Runway and was married to Georgina Chapman, co-founder of the label Marchesa, before she left him in 2017).
In ‘A Visual Diary’, these signs weren’t difficult to spot. In fact, they were neon and flashing. Conceptual artist collective, Claire Fontaine, was responsible for the show’s set design, which consisted of an installation of neon signs that hung above the audience. ‘Women’s Love Is Unpaid Labour’, said one; another, ‘Patriarchy = Climate Emergency.’ But the focal piece was undoubtedly a series of three identical signs installed one in front of the other, flashing as the models walked beneath them: ‘Consent Consent Consent’.
The idea of a fashion house making statements against unpaid emotional labour and the severity of the climate emergency has, rightly, proved controversial. After all, the fashion industry is no stranger to accusations of exploitation, from the scandalous wages earned by people in the cotton industry – many of whom are children – to the news that unpaid interns at Alexander McQueen were working 18 hour days, seven days a week. Similarly, fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil and gas. Although Irvetta is dedicated to sustainably-sourced swimwear, the industry as a whole has a long way to go before it can justify shifting the blame onto the patriarchy alone.
But Dior’s ‘Consent’ signs were altogether less eye-roll inducing. ‘A Visual Diary’ was unveiled the day after Weinstein was convicted of one count of rape and one of sexual assault, and the grim connection was surely at the front of everyone’s minds. Most of us will associate neon with advertising, à la Times Square, or else – more unsettlingly – the seedy beacons that guide customers to casinos or strip clubs. By using it to carry a message of empowerment, Claire Fontaine and Dior’s
Creative Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, turned these associations on their head. As Chiuri told British Vogue’s fashion critic, Anders Christian Madsen: “Consent means that you listen to what people say. We’re in a time when it’s difficult to have that attitude: to listen and to understand. So, I think consent is a strong word for today.”
The bright red and green signs contrasted with the largely monochromatic collection, inspired by a box of photos of Chiuri from the 1970s. It’s difficult to ignore the coincidence that allegations against Weinstein date from the same decade. It’s as though the sign is speaking to a past era as well as the audiences of today, reminding us that consent isn’t simply an invention of the #MeToo campaign – it has always been a human right.
This wasn’t the first time that Chiuri has used her shows to make statements in solidarity with feminist issues. When Dior models wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase ‘We should all be feminists’ in October 2016 – the title of a 2014 essay by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – it sparked an onslaught of outspoken tops from fashion houses and high-street brands alike.
It’s also unlikely to be the last. With whole shows dedicated to fighting institutionalised sexism, feminist statements aren’t confined to the fronts of T-shirts anymore. As the political issues facing us become increasingly inescapable, we can expect to see fashion designers respond in ways which will open up dialogue and campaign for real change.