It’s no secret fashion loves a fad: some seasons designers are politically responsive, in others they employ evasive tactics; they represent a variety of gender identities and age groups one season, and they return to using the same thirty rail-thin models the next. Feminism and the role women play in the world have been potent subjects that have stuck around as models such as Adwoa Aboah launch organisations like Gurls Talk and Cameron Russell speaking out against sexual harassment in the fashion industry, in light of recent allegations against The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein and photographer Terry Richardson. It appears on our runways too with labels like Vaquera, Shayne Oliver at Helmut Lang, championing unconventional approaches to women’s fashion in imaginative, inventive ways—it’s not just about sex anymore: the Tom Ford for Gucci days are over, when sex existed for sex’s sake, now it’s a much more personal approach designers take sex appeal.
Take for example Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi’s Preen which imbues a fancy femininity into sex appeal. They are conscious of the fact their children are growing up in a post-truth world where one of the most powerful men in the world is a flaming misogynist and they chose to reflect that in their Spring 2018 show at London Fashion Week in September.
Their vision consisted of frothy tulle confections, with sheer fabrics draped beautifully on the body, as if the models were in a vulnerable state of undress. It questioned your notion of sexiness and it rested on the line between sexy as something strong and powerful and sexy as something vulnerable and exposed. Occasion dressing being the meat and potatoes of a Preen collection, these were dresses that could be easily diluted and presented to the consumer beautifully hanging on a rail.
They brought 19th century literature into things with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character Hester Prynne who has a child out of wedlock is forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her dress—the ‘A’ standing for adulteress. It was essentially a comment on suppressing female sexuality in a puritan society. They compounded this with the bonnet-wearing servants of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale which was recently adapted for television, starring the formidable Elisabeth Moss. Gender roles are the centrepiece to this contemporary fiction novel. (Vaquera designed a Hulu-sponsored capsule to promote the show last year; as far as fashion referencing the Atwood classic, this was a little too soon after that.)
Yet, a feminist statement can still be considered contentious. It’s integral to cultural development to see one on a catwalk but in the same breath you have to contend with the minimal ethnic representation (11 of 39 models were from minority backgrounds), the portrayal of only one body type, the artistic reflection of the times but no perceptible message or proposition for a way forward. Alas, beggars can’t be choosers. A feminist statement is better than no feminist statement.