Last week, Chanel, helmed by notorious lover of all women, Karl Lagerfeld, turned its runway into a “feminist” “protest.” The act of for-profit brands using trendy feminist discourse as a way to sell products to women is not new. But it’s not always this ironic.
Ironically, Lagerfeld has previously been sued for “defamatory and discriminatory” comments towards women. But I guess that ‘HE FOR SHE’ sign proves he totally acknowledges male privilege. Ironically, during the German occupation of France, Coco Chanel had a relationship with a Nazi officer. But now we can mostly ignore that because Chanel wants to ‘MAKE FASHION NOT WAR.’ Ironically, the runway didn’t feature a single woman of color or differing body type. Whatever though, there was an entire sign that said ‘BE DIFFERENT’ so obviously it was just an oversight.
If the complicated discourses around feminism have taught us anything, it’s that challenging gender inequality is not simple, and the conversations surrounding change are as contradictory as Chanel herself.
Coco Chanel is undeniably a legend. She pioneered less restrictive fashion for women, borrowing elements of menswear and emphasizing comfort over corsets. In regards to her portrayal of Coco in a 2008 biopic, Shirley MacLaine commented that “what’s wonderful about her is she’s not a straightforward, easy woman to understand.” Her longevity and effect on the fashion world and the plight of women’s liberation are impossible to ignore.
So if we aren’t to see this event as a straightforward and easy to understand fashion foray into feminism, how should we see it? Is Lagerfeld’s involvement illuminating the cause or trivializing it? Does designer fashion’s presence in feminist discourse include a new subset of people previously absent, or does it mislead the public as to movement’s goals and intentions?
Unfortunately, I can’t help but see the “protest” as yet another example of a cultural movement co-opted for profit by rich, white, and (often) horrible people. Consumerist culture has a history saturated in white-washing and glamorizing issues of actual importance. Whether public figures are appropriating bindis, headdresses, faux baby hairs, or truly a million other things, they’re erasing the cultural context and co-opting identities that have and still do suffer oppression.
The comparison between the Chanel fashion and iconic style from the 70’s is not a coincidence. Models wore tweed suits, big tinted glasses, flared trousers, and hair parted in the middle emulating any given scene from Annie Hall. By directly alluding to one of the most prominent eras of feminist outcry in American history, an audience should rightfully expect a protest of similar vigor, substance, rage, and subtlety. But instead what we are presented with is a hoard of white models spurred on by their fat-shaming director, using important iconography to sell products. Not only does this trivialize the entire history of women in the 70s, but also ignores the entire history of feminists of color who pioneered the current movements we negotiate today. Chanel’s ad campaign seems to conveniently forget the milestones of the Annie Hall era: a time when the first battered women shelters were erected, when laws first defined marital rape, when women demanded personal control over their own reproductive rights, and when the general landscape of gender inequality was challenged worldwide.
So is it good that the fashion show got people talking if their conversations disregard the true warriors of social change? Are celebrity endorsements of feminism good if they fail to address real matters of marginalization? Is the inclusion of people and events generally absent from political discourse good if it’s packaged so white, so pretty, so expensive, and so missing the point?
“But OMG it was just a celebration of feminist progress LOL!” No. What this event has done, what events like this will continue doing, is turn an arduous battle against systemic oppression into yet another way to make money. By making Chanel into the public face of feminism, we risk losing sight of an entire history of civil rights wherein women of all races, creeds, and sizes have long suffered, fought, and given their lives. LOL.