Perhaps the first question is, how much should we be reading into a t-shirt?
An example. My current favourite t-shirt features a picture of a croissant with the text mon amour written across the top. It is perhaps the most pure distillation of my true self. A lover of carbs, and a not very serious person. You probably cannot wear a t-shirt with a croissant on it to work if you are the president of a world bank, say, or canvassing your local electorate to become mayor.
But beyond the novel and the blatantly branded (logos have made a resounding comeback on the catwalks – from Gucci to Fendi – disproving the long-held idea that quiet luxury was preferable, and labels were gauche), how much weight should we put into what our t-shirts say about ourselves, our belief systems, what we value?
It’s a question that creative director of Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the French luxury house’s first woman in the top role (and one that she takes very seriously), has once again posited with her second take on a feminist slogan t-shirt.
In her debut collection Chiuri included a t-shirt with the words We Should All Be Feminists, a quote from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book and TED talk of the same name. The t-shirt, which cost around $700 or so was embraced but also criticised for being a rather capitalist approach to feminism, and for making feminism into a chic new trend. Which, well, there are worse trends to emerge in fashion (hello the return of the bubble hem as evidenced this fashion month) but I get it.
In her show at Paris Fashion Week this week Chiuri has once again batted up a feminist slogan, this time taking on the work of American art historian Linda Nochlin with a t-shirt bearing the slogan (in block letters) Why are there no great female artists? It’s the title of Nochlin’s 1971 essay, which, as The Cut notes, the question is not about female artists not being any good (which is how some fashion bloggers at the show first read the slogan) but about challenging the assumptions, and reactions, around the idea that “women are incapable of greatness.”
As Nochlin writes in the essay, “Thus the question of women’s equality—in art as in any other realm—devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.”
In an email exchange The Cut had with Nochlin’s granddaughter, Julia Trotta, wrote of the idea of merging branding with feminism, of being ‘woke’ suddenly becoming chic, “It’s happening regardless of what we think. But I guess it’s better to try to take advantage of that interest and embrace all the questions and complications that come up in hopes to deepen and expand the feminist conversation. And then it’s up to us (feminists) to hold those brands accountable for the messages they project.”
So where’s the accountability? What makes a piece of clothing expressly ‘feminist.’ Is it solely in the way it is made (by women for women, sustainably, fairly?) or is it in the way it makes a woman feel (powerful, as though they’re dressing for themselves)? Is sticking a slogan on it hollow or meaningful?
It’s hard to distil a feminist critique of art and ideals and societal pressures onto a slogan tee, but so too is it to be a ‘perfect’ feminist – so impossible sometimes are the standards.
As Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote in a review of the Dior show,
“That’s a lot to fit on a T-shirt; Chiuri settled for just the title of the essay. But she attempted to include her work in the nuanced conversation about women’s personal stories the way they engage with the broader culture. But how does a dress capture the complicated emotions surrounding the recent announcement that women in Saudi Arabia would be allowed to drive? Or the Capitol Hill conversations about women’s health care that take place without the input of women? Or the misogynist culture that permeates so much of Silicon Valley?
“Perhaps a more ambitious or daring designer would have found a way. Fashion, after all, has been used to express a range of emotions from sorrow and anger to giddy delight. Instead, Chiuri uses feminism as an overlay or a gloss. That isn’t to say that she doesn’t believe deeply in the issues raised by Nochlin or in the empowering words of Adichie. But she has reduced them to slogans and backdrop. Their meaning is not carried through in the garments themselves.”
Fashion is, at its best, a way of challenging the way we think or expressing who we are right now and what we want. But also, when it’s offering clothes that we want to wear – whether we’re changing the world, or just getting by in it.
Maybe then, sometimes we just need to wear a t-shirt with a croissant on it and still feel OK about ourselves.