Power play: the current climate of empowerment in fashion

18 January 2022
By Danielle Clausen

Danielle Clausen explores the current climate of empowerment in fashion, examining the intricacies of body image and portrayals of gender equality within the industry.

Chanel SS15.

Thanks to the ever-growing power of hashtag activism to spread and amplify injustices, consumers are engaged with what’s happening in the world around them like never before, demanding this same awareness from the brands they spend with too. Designers are jumping on the bandwagon at varying rates, with varying results—ranging from tokenism to real world change. So in 2021, does the term ‘empowerment’ still hold cultural relevance, or has the commercialisation of feminism weakened our trust into buzzword territory?

This year, former lingerie powerhouse Victoria’s Secret announced an end to its famed ‘Angels’, a slew of top models central to the brand’s marketing strategy, up until now. A set of wings that comes with standards contorted through a distinctly male gaze can, thankfully, no longer be glossed over as female empowerment. 

The demise of Victoria’s Secret is a shining example of a flip in consumer behaviour in recent years—shoppers are clued up, no longer wanting to spend with companies attempting to tap into their insecurities and capitalise on them. 

In an effort to remedy the brand’s cultural disconnect, Victoria’s Secret has launched VS Collective: a group of seven accomplished women, such as body advocate Paloma Elsesser and LGBTQIA+ activist Valentina Sampaio, to help usher in a new era. Time will tell if this actually converts to results at the cash register. Can trust really be rebuilt after such a drastic U-turn? 

“When the world was changing, we were too slow to respond,” commented Martin Waters, Victoria’s Secret’s chief executive of the brand, in a piece published by The New York Times this June detailing the company’s new direction. “We needed to stop being about what men want and to be about what women want,” said Waters.

Although it’s a move that may just be too little, too late. Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie line was a whole lot quicker to read the room in 2018, responding to growing customer hunger for inclusivity and the sense of empowerment that follows, offering bras in a size range from 32A through to 44DD, and knickers and loungewear from XS to 3XL. 

“Women should be wearing lingerie for their damn selves,” the singer-turned-entrepreneur told Vogue ahead of her debut runway show. A breakthrough moment for runway diversity, the casting a thoughtful and, most importantly, genuine celebration of an array of shapes, sizes and colours.

Thanks to this tuned-in approach, Forbes reported that the brand hit a $1billion valuation this February, and saw revenue growth of more than 200 per cent in 2020. 

Scenes in September 2017 from the Women’s March Protest in Austin, Texas.

Meanwhile, on home soil local favourites Ruby and Liam are championing an active approach to increased size ranges. General manager Emily Miller-Sharma took to Instagram to announce that as of September, Liam will be offering pieces off the rack in sizes 4–24 and Ruby will follow suit, offering sizes 4–20; both brands also continue to offer custom sizing to anyone outside that range.

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“A huge part of Operation Expand Our Size Range was to work with a bunch of different people, mostly sized 14–24, to ensure the fits of our product are magnifique,” said Miller-Sharma in her refreshingly open statement that spanned six Instagram slides. 

“An unexpected learning for me has been that none of my collaborators knew their measurements, with some letting me know that the thought of being measured is upsetting, triggering and uncomfortable.”

Miller-Sharma goes on to discuss the power in knowing your measurements and the ease this knowledge (although a potentially confronting concept to begin with) can bring to shopping, both in-store and online. Using herself as an example, she details the best way to take measurements and how they translate into a well-informed approach to finding your best fit. 

Whether it’s something as simple as brands offering more education around sizing, or seeing realistic body representations on the runway, the options for taking an empowered approach to fashion on a personal level are steadily growing. But what can be said for the state of fashion in relation to feminism from a societal standpoint? 

In 2016, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first ever female appointed creative director in the 74 year history of Christian Dior, sent a model down the runway for her debut show wearing a slogan T-shirt that read ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. An empowering fashion statement, complete with a $710 price tag. 

Mixed reviews of this well-intentioned white T-shirt quickly followed—receiving criticism for trivialising feminism into a trend, and one with a capitalist motive at that. Simultaneously, it was embraced by celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna as well as becoming a hot ticket street style item, photographed on influencers such as Chiara Ferragni. 

Many felt it an example of cashing in during a climate where fourth wave feminism was increasingly becoming a part of the public discourse—largely thanks to the power of continuous information streams via social media and hashtag activism. 

It’s not the first time a luxury house has been called out for feminism that could be construed as performative. In 2014, Karl Lagerfeld closed his Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 runway show with a mock protest scene—complete with fantasy placards—that drew similar criticisms for reducing feminism to runway folly. 

Reporting on the show for The Independent, top fashion journalist Alexander Fury commented: “A few of the models had the good grace to look embarrassed; most seemed to think it was a bit of a laugh. Which also summarised the audience’s reaction. Maybe Lagerfeld was cynically poking fun at the whole idea of fashion commenting on culture at large, intentionally reducing its protests to facile fashion commandments rather than an attempt at genuine change. But the co-opting of protest polemic as a tool instigating you to buy, as opposed to question why, struck a bum note.” Fury went on to pose the questions, “Was tweed all we should read into this collection? Should a fashion show just make you want to go out and charge something, rather than change something?” 

Predominantly played out on the runways and in plush private shopping suites, how much change can political fashion fantasy truly bring about if it’s only accessible to a privileged few?

By the time the much-talked-about T-shirt was due to hit the boutique racks—six months post runway debut—Dior had announced it was teaming up with Rihanna and her Clara Lionel Foundation, offering a portion of proceeds to support effective education, health and emergency response programs internationally. 

Natalie Portman spoke at the 2017 Women’s March protest in LA, donning her ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt, a gathering in response to the recently inaugurated president Donald Trump’s conservative political views and derogatory remarks towards women.

While none have made quite the same amount of waves, Chiuri has also continued to include fresh iterations of slogan tees in her collections to date. Perhaps it’s only fitting that the final say on the matter comes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the writer whose 2013 essay the Dior T-shirt’s slogan actually originates from. Three years after the tee first appeared on the runway, Adichie spoke with Elle UK in a video interview in 2019. “Feminism is still very contested and very controversial,” explains Achichie in the video. “And still very much loaded with negative stereotypes. A T-shirt is not going to change the world, right?” she continues, “but, I think change happens when we spread ideas. We have a young generation who are also thinking about sexism. We have young women who have experienced things, but they don’t have the language. If you have a T-shirt that says ‘feminist’, it’s giving them an entry to having a language to talk about things they have already experienced.”

So once the conversation has started, and it’s safe to say that it well and truly has, where to next? The union of fashion and feminism could be viewed as most harmonious when taken beyond the fantasy of the runway, and actioned via charities and initiatives that benefit the local communities they are operating in. 

Dress For Success is an international not-for-profit organisation that offers support, development and styling sessions for professional attire to help women obtain employment and financial independence. New Zealand currently has nine Dress For Success locations that are among a total of almost 150 outlets globally. 

On a smaller, but by no means less significant scale, Wellington-based intimates label Nisa has a thriving workshop that provides employment for women from refugee backgrounds. Founded by Elisha Watson in 2017, her volunteer work with the Red Cross’ refugee resettlement campaign led her to quit her day job as a lawyer, instead harnessing the love of sewing she shared with many women in the region’s former refugee community. 

Global movements such as Fashion Revolution and the United Nations’ International Women’s Day, held on March 8 each year, can be looked to as a trusted source of inspiration, offering clear and actionable initiatives.

It’s naive to view fashion as an island, where the political and societal challenges surrounding ‘empowerment’ can be completely tackled. Much like the slogan T-shirt that made its way from the runway in Paris to a Women’s March protest on the streets of LA, clothing should perhaps be looked to as a vessel for empowerment— challenging, amplifying and spreading messages about the wider cultural conversation at play. The days of exploiting customer insecurities are over­—it’s clear true inclusivity holds the most spending power of all.

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