On International Women's Day, we explore how fashion and feminism can be - and always have been - accomplices, not adversaries...
Missoni AW17

What did you get dressed into this morning? A sharp, herringbone blazer, perhaps? Vertiginous Manolos? A patent Saint Laurent mini? Or maybe you’re more of the skinny-jeans-and-Gucci-trainers persuasion, preferring to go about your business in an ensemble that’s as hardworking as you are. One thing’s for sure, though – whatever it is you’ve chosen to pull on to face the world has had a long and chequered feminist history; each piece telling the many stories of the women who came before us.

The T-shirt that (hopefully) launched a thousand feminists

Our wardrobes are a language, meaning a blazer is never simply a blazer. It’s a symbol, representing fight and freedom, evolution and revolution, what it means to be a woman today, and what we want it to mean from here on in. And from the moment we were strapped into the confines of a corset or weighed down by countless petticoats, we’ve been reinventing and refusing them, using them to challenge gender limitations, disrupting the status quo and causing uproar in the process. Yes, clothes have been the tools of oppression – but they’ve also been the tools of change, so no matter what detractors will tell you, fashion and feminism are accomplices, not adversaries. But like any good love story, they’ve certainly had their ups and downs.

It may not have all started with Christian Dior, but the French couturier was very much a pivotal figure in helping to usher the relationship along, starting with his debut in 1947. Cinched at the waist and dramatically cascading out from the hip, his ‘Bar suits’ were empowering in their structure, unapologetically exaggerating the female form. Dubbed the New Look, this deliberate abundance of fabric after years of wartime rationing scandalised polite society. There were stories of women in Dior being attacked on the street, and legend has it that King George VI even banned the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing the trend. It was subversive; heralding a fearless new dawn where women could send out a message of strength via something seemingly innocuous – a silhouette.

Rome, 1963

Apt, then, that it was the house of Dior that restarted this age-old conversation last season, with Maria Grazia Chiuri – in a brilliantly synergistic move as the maison’s first-ever female creative head – sending out a SS17 collection whose standout piece was a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, ‘We should all be feminists.’ In the midst of a line-up that was inspired by fencing – fashion as armour – it struck a chord with many who felt palpable concern over the increasingly misogynistic rhetoric in the political sphere. The Trump campaign trail had evoked a discontent and fear that few had ever experienced quite so keenly, highlighting a mounting threat to gender equality that urgently needed a riposte. In place of a white knight? A white T-shirt. The very definition of a hero piece. And while fashion and politics have long since been bedfellows, it’s critical times in history – like these – that designers feel most compelled to step away from their roles purely as cultural commentators and enter the ring with the rest of us, sometimes even throwing the first punch.

Christian Dior and his New Look and A-lines in 1950

Chiuri’s now-iconic T-shirt – printed with the title from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning essay – was indeed a punch. Along with the sea of knitted pink cat hats that populated the Women’s Marches in January (which Missoni then cleverly commandeered, putting its own iteration on the catwalk for AW17) the T-shirt became a symbol of the movement, explicitly stamped with the rallying cry of women – and men – everywhere. Natalie Portman even wore one to speak at the march in LA, while British newspaper The Telegraph congratulated Dior for “reaching women who might not normally be receptive to any kind of socially progressive message.

But let’s take a step back. Can selling a woman a Dhs2,600 designer T-shirt ever really be deemed an act of empowerment? Isn’t it just cheapening the message a bit; perpetuating this world of self-imposed rules, conformity and consumerism we’ve created for ourselves? Some would say it’s just a sordid attempt at fem-vertising; appropriating feminism as nothing but a marketing tool to sell women things they don’t need. Crucially; is this a case of accessorising with feminism rather than truly supporting it?

A 1966 protest by The British Society for the Protection of Mini Skirts

Like anything, of course, there are grey areas. You could argue that buying one is a socio-economic win; women displaying complete autonomy over our purchasing power. After all, if we want to buy something, if it’s made fairly, we should be able to. But really, focusing on why the T-shirt is the problem muddles the message, weakening it. It splinters the ranks when we should all be on the same team fighting for something bigger. And it asks a symbol to be a solution when it shouldn’t have to be. If something sparks questions, conversations and progress, then it never will have been in vain.

But this is nothing new. Society historically panics, not when hemlines undulate or slogans get a bit too real, but when women begin to use clothes to define for themselves what it means to be female. It has happened at every turn – from the 19th century Gibson Girls rocking the boat when they appeared without gloves, to Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first feminist newspaper, The Lily, who swapped her hoop skirt for bloomers and sparked hysteria, “leaving her poor young husband pouting and weeping at home.”

Chanel’s SS15 feminist runway

When women earned the vote in the ’20s, the ultra-short hair and visible stocking stays that became popular were met with serious resistance. Victoria Pass, a professor at Salisbury University, explains, “While cutting your hair doesn’t suddenly signify your liberation, it was an incredibly powerful symbol of allegiance to a modern way of being a woman – one that terrified people who wanted to restore order after the traumatic upheaval of WWI.” The women of the time were just as enlightened about their rationale, with flapper Ellen Welles Page telling Outlook Magazine in 1922, “Bobbed hair is a state of mind and not merely a new manner of dressing my head. It typifies growth, alertness, up-to-dateness… it’s not just a fad, I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small, is well worthwhile.” The 1920s equivalent of staying woke.

Prabal Gurung and his AW17 slogan tees

Even when Chanel invented her own take on the two-piece suit in the ’30s – inspired by “the strong, independent male she had dreamed of being,” according to Valerie Steele, a fashion historian at the FIT – or in the ’80s, when power-shouldered pant suits were worn to garner authority à la Working Girl, these, too, were deemed problematic – even anti-feminist. Why? Because they were seen to be emulating men. Happily, today these binary terms of what masculine or feminine dressing means are fading, but fashion still turns to the power suit, this season included, when the female agenda needs a push. The difference is, in the workplace, we no longer feel the need to hide our femininity to get ahead. Prabal Gurung, who sent many a feminist slogan T-shirt out on the runway this season, while legendary women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem looked on from the frow, points out, “There has always been a strange sense of antagonism between fashion and powerful women. A belief that they must sacrifice femininity to gain power, authority and respect. I’ve never understood this notion, and I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if I believed it.”

Anarchy in the wardrobe: a safety-pin-pierced punk in 1977

There’s still a long way to go, though. A wardrobe of new-season T-shirts does not a wave of feminism make – nor is it the congratulatory finish line of a centuries-long fight. Fashion isn’t the award we get for furthering our status in society as women; it’s the weapon that forces the message along. It’s a sign that we still have work to do. “Clothing trends aren’t reflective of change, but rather constitutive of it,” Deirdre Clemente, a 20th century fashion historian explains. “Women in the ’60s didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m liberated, I need to go get a mini skirt!’ Rather, in wearing one they lived out the identity that they were. Clothing is not reactive, but proactive.” It’s fighting the good fight – in whatever outfit you want to fight it in.

Photos: Getty Images, REX and Jason Lloyd-Evans