Feminism is fashionable. That's the statement we are never supposed to utter, within earshot of either feminists or fashion editors.
That's because feminists understandably rail against the co-opting of their cause as a "trend", while editors, the press and some fashion designers rankle at the implication that their brave stance for womankind is viewed on a par with the ensemble cast of Sex and the City 2 performing Helen Reddy's empowering 1971 anthem "I Am Woman".
But feminism is fashionable, insomuch as it is being name-checked by the fashion industry with a striking frequency. Miuccia Prada's spring/summer 2014 collection was based on "the multiplicity of guises that women assume in the course of a day, a lifetime", a notion interpreted by many as fundamentally feminist. For once, however, this feeling didn't start with Miuccia Prada: over the past few years, any female fashion designer or editor seems to be asked their views on the topic. Collections by every designer from Donatella Versace, to Phoebe Philo at Céline, to the London duo Meadham Kirchhoff, have been interpreted as feminist – whether the designers intended it or not. Last November, British Elle began a campaign to "rebrand" feminism, inviting feminist publications Vagenda and Feminist Times to work with advertising agencies to rework the terminology.
"What we did was ask, 'Does the word need rebranding?' The only thing that seemed an issue was the word," says Lorraine Candy, Elle's editor-in-chief. "We just asked a question." The response to Elle's question was staggering: a reach of 135 million on Twitter for the campaign, which Candy emphasises "is the biggest thing we've had engagement in, on Twitter, it's extraordinary… I was slightly taken aback by the force of opinion, the need from young women to talk about it… It struck me that this is a debate that everyone is having at the moment," Candy states. "If you look at women's magazines in the last year, you'll see the word being used more than I think it ever has been."
In itself, this was the motivation for Elle to tackle the terminology head-on. "I feel it excludes younger women," says Candy. "Younger women felt they wouldn't know enough to be a feminist, if you haven't read Germaine Greer or Marilyn French… I think there is still a lot of confusion around it, and I think the word remains quite contentious."
Elle sought to unpick the meaning behind the word, rather than just splashing it across its front-page. However, the issue with feminism in fashion for some is exactly that: the use of the term for simple, superficial sloganeering. "It absolutely has become a buzzword," says Reni Eddo-Lodge, a journalist and contributing editor to the website Feminist Times, "and a lot of the time there is a lot of confusion about what it means. There isn't a huge, joined-up movement like there was 30 or 40 years ago. There's no agreement." For Eddo-Lodge, this is an enormous issue. "The word is meaningless if there are no politics to back it up… Ultimately feminism is a political movement."
Politics are often rinsed from fashionable feminism. It's understandable: fashion is primarily visual, so aesthetic elements do the talking, unless you're literally sloganeering, in the manner of Katharine Hamnett in the 1980s. "This collection really became about female power," said the jewellery designer Eddie Borgo of his spring 2014 collection. "It gives [women] strength." The collection could easily have been interpreted as punk, with its zip-teeth and razor-sharp edges. But punk is very 2013. Generally, designers scrabble after the same grab-bag of "feminist" signifiers: clichés of the "tough woman" or "power dressing," big shoulders, high heels, zips and studs. "Some people consider feminism to be climbing into the boardroom, becoming Sheryl Sandberg," says Eddo-Lodge. "Feminism for me is about liberation from structural power." That's much more difficult to evoke in a skirt-suit.
Other designers' work can be more unexpectedly interpreted as feminist: the fact that JW Anderson cross-pollinates the wardrobes of men and women, for instance, to the extent that he cut his winter 2013 menswear trousers without a phallocentric masculine bulge. He may not approach fashion with a strictly feminist intent, but it is easy to interpret Anderson's clothes as such. The same is true of Phoebe Philo, arguably the spark that ignited the feminism and fashion debate. She left her previous role at Chloé to focus on her personal life, and moved the Céline studio to London when she took over the house's reins in 2008.
"One of the things we share is the reality that the clothes we design are actually worn," says fellow designer Stella McCartney about Philo's output. That reality of dressing working women with a sense of the practical, as well as the fashionable, is often seen as feminism. "The flat shoe has been a big trend," adds Candy. "Those cripplingly high shoes aren't coming through anymore. Maybe it's a subconscious thing – of just being nicer to women!" What could be more feminist than that?
My own issues with feminism and fashion are simple: fashion is an industry, and feminism, as Eddo-Lodge succinctly puts it, is a political movement with distinct aims for equality between the sexes. The trouble with tying such noble aims to fashion is that it can look like you're trying to tug on heartstrings to hawk something. "As a fashion magazine, a lot of criticism around us was 'How dare you engage with this?' - given that a lot of what we do is about make-up, and nail polish and handbags," says Candy of Elle's rebranding campaign. "How could we say that when we place so much emphasis on how women look? But how women look is incredibly important to their day-to-day lives."
Some argue that simply raising the profile of the word, and stimulating discussion of feminism in popular culture, is valuable enough. Eddo-Lodge has other feelings. "Wishy-washy awareness-raising is good, but it almost adds to the confusion. What does it mean? What are the politics behind it?" But for Candy, engagement with the "Rebranding Feminism" campaign has fundamentally altered the way she works. "Are we patronising women? Are we doing things that are accidentally sexist? Are we writing in the right language?" These are questions she throws out to herself, rather than at the world at large.
There is even an argument that the mere act of embracing the fashion industry is intrinsically feminist. "Feminine things like fashion and beauty are often considered less worthy pursuits," reasons Eddo-Lodge. "Some feminists talk about 'fem phobia', of heaping disgust on things that are seen as traditionally feminine, so in a way I think embracing fashion can be hugely liberating for women and men." That's a resolutely modern idea of feminism: "I was a feminist in the sixties," stated Miuccia Prada in 2012. "Can you imagine? The worst thing I could have done was to be in fashion." Not any more.