It surprises me that women artists, designers and creators continue to struggle for recognition. When we reduce fashion to the ‘what’s new this season?’ mantra, we forget the vision, discipline and dedication of the designers and makers that contribute to the cultural aesthetic of fashion. We also diminish the value of having ‘an eye’. This raises the question of what we believe and what we value about gender.
When it comes to who gets inclusion in the ‘culture club’, women still have to fight for their membership. In the 1990’s the American critic Harold Bloom, whose book The Western Canon (1995), included a list of great and supposedly indispensable works of world literature. There were areas of consensus - few would dispute the inclusion of Shakespeare or Picasso - but equally there were major disagreements. When it comes to the paintings of Suzanne Valadon or the films of Jane Campion it is not all clear that there would be universal agreement as to whether they formed part of the ‘culture club’. The truth is that this ‘club’ has tended to privilege male artists, designers, architects, writers and the list goes on. Partly, this has reflected the fact that most histories of culture, have been written by men and the qualities valued in the cannons of culture have tended to be seen as ‘masculine’.
The idea of who and who does not get written up in the western cannon brought to mind the TED talk by acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She recounted the story of when she walked into the lobby of one of Nigeria’s best hotels and was confronted by a man who put a number of annoying questions to her. The assumption behind the questions, according to Chimamanda, was that she must be a sex worker. She continues to remind her audience that in Lagos she cannot go alone into many reputable bars and clubs without being accompanied by a man. When she walks into a Nigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores Chimamanda.
She makes the point that: “It is one thing to know something intellectually and another to feel it” …”each time a waiter ignores me I feel invisible, I feel upset. I want to tell them that I am just as human as the man, that I am just as worthy of acknowledgement. These are little things but sometimes it is the little things that sting the most…gender as it functions today is a grave injustice…”
Listening to her speak I am reminded of the need to support charities that address gender issues. Feminism is not just good for women, it is good for men too. Gender matters all over the world. We need to dream about and plan for a world that is happier and where men and women can be more who they are and where our children are free to make choices and, above all else, feel safe.
Perhaps this is where the fashion industry can make a contribution. Take for example the Dior t-shirt with the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk: "We should all be feminists.
On the face of things, the Dior t-shirt is an example of the fashion/politics neurons truly synapsing – whether those politics are governmental, or sexual. Dior’s t-shirt immediately makes a liberal feminist (albeit at surface value) out of its wearer. The other side of the coin is that the t-shirt landed in stores and the exorbitant price tag was made public, which ignited an interesting conversation across the media landscape. Some saw the tee as an opportunistic play, taking advantage of civil rights while others saw it as an opportunity to get the word out. Like all things tricky and contentious but worth talking about, there is a fine line between tokenism, commoditisation and leading by example, but do the positives of a talking point t-shirt – one that positively encourages feminism boldly – outweigh the negatives?
Once in a blue moon fashion has the uncanny ability to anoint something you would not usually wear – and would you wear this t-shirt, before? You would like to think as a card-carrying feminist that you would, but would you actually, and with such pride? And so, potentially it works both ways: the feminist t-shirt, conceived by Dior becomes more attractive and Dior benefits from the on-song sentiment. So, is this a case of exploitation, or is it a relationship that is, in some ways, reciprocal?
I believe it is the latter but nevertheless the debate is a tricky one. It is true that the Dior t-shirt is undoubtedly extremely expensive, (like Gucci and their signature t-shirt). But one has to remember that Dior occupies the lofty landscape of a luxury design house. Their economic eco-system cannot allow for a t-shirt to sell for $60, just like an Aston Martin cannot go for the same price as a Mini. Their business model would fall to pieces. The argument that such a business model needs revision is another conversation and one I should like to have another day.
For me, the real issue around the Dior t-shirt was that while some of the proceeds of sales went to Rihanna’s African charity, none of the funds made their way to women’s rights organisations. This begs the question of whether Dior should stop making the well-intentioned political statement? Well, yes unless they can contribute some of the proceeds to women’s charities.
To give the conundrum an Australian context, there are currently around 1,200 women in prison. That leaves a few thousand children without a mother. The impact of that is that these children are significantly more likely to end up in prison than children whose mother has not been taken away from them in this way. You are probably asking yourselves at this point what caused these women to get in this situation in the first place? In more cases than not it is because of issues around violence. This is a complex area that affects relationships between men, women and children. We see the gender issue rearing its ugly head here too.
We need to think of how we can raise our children differently. We raise our sons to equate their worth with a kind of hard-edged masculinity. They are expected to pay when they go out on a date even if they do not have the means. And we ask ourselves why boys are more likely to steal from their parents than girls. But a far worse implication for raising boys with an expectation that they have to ‘tough it out’ is that they have a self-worth that is dangerously vulnerable. Similarly, we raise our girls to cater to this vulnerability. Our daughters can be successful but if they are the breadwinners, they should not talk about it in public so as not to intimidate their partners. Personally, I would want nothing to do with a man who felt intimidated by me because of my strengths.
Another case in point is the institution of marriage or a long-term relationship. At a certain age women are made to feel that they have failed if they are not in a meaningful relationship whereas our society views men in the same position as just not having made their pick. It is all very well to say that women can simply rise above all of this and make their own choice. The reality is we are all social beings. We internalise our ideas from our own socialisation. The language we use when we talk about marriage and long-term relationships reflects this. The language of marriage is a language of ownership rather than a language of partnership. We use the word respect as an attribute a woman shows a man but often not something a man shows a woman. We praise our daughters for chastity and we praise boys for their conquests. I have always wondered how exactly this is supposed to work!
The problem with gender as it stands today is it proscribes how we ‘should’ be rather than how we really are. Imagine how much happier and truly freer we would be if we could be our actual selves if we did not have the weight of gender expectations.
Politics has become about controlled visibility. T-shirts, badges, marches, boycotts. We collectively make almost crassly obvious choices of support, or lack thereof, because we do not know how else to change things. Gone are the quiet discussions and anonymous, under-the-radar charitable endeavors. Whether we are designers, makers or someone with an eye, we must ride this visibility zeitgeist to ensure that we maintain a beautiful world free of the shackles of gender stereotypes.