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Can Couture Ever Be Feminist?

Rory Swann explores the intersection between the two slices: couture, and feminism

Couture has long been seen as the height of excess and extravagance - a celebration of femininity, yes, but a femininity defined by men for a tiny portion of the super-rich, and unattainable to most women. In recent years, these barriers have begun to be broken down. With the likes of Maria Grazia at the helm of Dior, a proud feminist who has never shied from incorporating her ideology into her work, it seems couture has never been more feminist. Take her Spring 2020 couture show where a banner above the audience’s heads read: “What if women ruled the world?”. The clothes, too, were an attempt to represent the new feminist look: loose cut, flowing, breathable, comfortable, with an emphasis on the reality of women’s lives – all aspects which couture has historically neglected in favour of sculptural works of art attached to the female body.

Chirui must be given credit for attempting to reform decades of male-dominated couture. Christian Dior himself was instrumental in defining the restricting aesthetic of the 1940s and 50s. His ‘New Look’, while undeniably aesthetically appealing, created silhouettes by cinching the waist and accentuating the hips in a similar way to corsetry. His influence on 20th Century couture is clear. After the free-flowing clothes of the 60s and 70s to mirror the decades of female liberation, couturiers such as Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia and Jean Paul Gautier returned to tight, form-fitting, architectural gowns, unwearable by all but the skinniest body types.

So is Maria Grazia Chiuri ‘re-liberating’ women in a similar vein to, say, Gabrielle Chanel at the start of the previous century? Maybe. But it would help if the clothes she designed were mesmerising - or at the very least, interesting. Say what you will about Mugler, Alaia and Gautier but there is no denying the visual splendour of their couture. And in some respects, were they not celebrating femininity as more luxurious and beautiful?

Chiuri, on the other hand, may be designing with the comfort of women in mind, but not with their style, it seems. For what could have been such a powerful statement, Dior’s Spring 2020 collection unfortunately lacked ambition, excitement and splendour. There is no denying Chiuri’s sincerity or the craftsmanship of the Dior ateliers. But how feminist really is Chiuri’s couture if she makes women look so bland while liberating them?

And no matter how many “we should all be feminist" t-shirts Chiuri puts out, they can’t distract from the uncomfortable fact that every one of the models wearing them is a size 0. When asked if she thought “plus-sized” models could ever walk couture, her answer, shockingly, was no: the lack of production and time between shows rendered it “impossible” and “unrealistic” to have a range of sample sizes, she explained.

It was an emotional surprise, then, when last month her ex-partner-in-crime Pier Paolo Piccioli did just that. His Spring 2022 couture collection for Valentino featured models ranging from sizes 0-10, using form-hugging silhouettes and lots of mermaid tales to compliment the more curvaceous figures. Chiuri blames her size 0 models on a lack of time, but in reality, it is ingenuity she lacks. Designers have been fitting twig models for decades now. Is it not time to put their creativity to the feminist agenda and develop ways to flatter larger figures?

Couture by nature will never be accessible due to the simple fact of its pricetag. But as Sarah Mower explains in her review of the Valentino collection, haute couture becomes the most relevant part of the fashion system when used to get creative with techniques that are then applied to the every day. Changing the body that wears couture is a monumental challenge to rise to, but a necessary one if couture can ever be labelled feminist. It is no longer enough to design a flowy dress and call it liberation.

Yves Saint Laurent famously claimed: “Chanel liberated women and I empowered them.” It would be incredible for Dior’s first female creative director to be remembered as the new champion of female empowerment, but it will be Pier Paolo Piccioli who History will crown with this title.


Words by Rory Swann

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