Can Your T-Shirt Make You A Feminist?
She is spirited, mocking, giving; she has an appetite; she speaks in a voice that’s exact and clear, sharp and shrewd. Her dialogue is crisp and suggestive. Her thoughts reveal themselves on T-shirts as slogans, putting up an argument for inclusiveness: ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, and ‘If You Sexist Me, I’ll Feminist You’.
The modern woman and her liberation is cool again, now that the F-word has stood at the centre of New York, Paris, and Milan fashion weeks.
But it all started at last September’s Dior show in Paris, when Maria Grazia Chiuri, the newly appointed artistic director of the Parisian brand, presented a T-shirt that read, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, borrowing from the title of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s seminal essay.
According to the collection note, feminism is a recurring emotion for Chiuri, the first woman to occupy the title in Dior’s 70-year-old gilded history.
T-shirt activism is great, but it doesn’t change anything, really. Consuming a product doesn’t often lead to social justice. But the power of the slogan T-shirt lies in its ability to provoke, by simply existing in a certain time and place.
British design icon Vivienne Westwood made politically confrontational T-shirts in the 1970s, followed by Katharine Hamnett in the ’80s. “Slogans work on many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They are tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself,” Hamnett said to The Guardian.
Dior’s stylistic statement found eager supporters in Natalie Portman and Rihanna. Since then, the T-shirt has been spotted on Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence for the German edition of Harper’s Bazaar, and this month’s Vogue, where cover-girl Anushka Sharma makes a strong case for devil-may-care oomph.
Gaurav Gupta, in his own way, helped us catch up with slogan activism. For the Vogue Atelier show on International Women’s Day this year, he designed 3 versions of T-shirts emblazoned with: ‘I’m A Feminist, What’s Your Superpower’; ‘If You Sexist Me, I’ll Feminist You’, and ‘Nevertheless, She Persisted’. The designer joined the feminist parade by wearing a T-shirt brandishing, ‘Women Hold Up Half The Sky’, as he took the final bow.
“There is already some awareness about women’s rights in the fashion circuit and urban buyers. With social media reaching out to people in distant pockets of the country, an Instagram post of a model wearing a tee that says, ‘I’m A Feminist, What’s Your Superpower’ could empower a girl sitting in a remote part of the country. That’s how moods and trends are created, right?” says an optimistic Gupta.
FASHION VERSUS ACTIVISM
The misogynist rhetoric of the Trump administration unearthed America’s rampant sexism, along with the idea of marketplace feminism – the buying and selling of a political movement.
Brands like Dior were criticised for capitalising feminism; the T-shirt sold for a whopping $700. It was later announced that all proceeds from its sales would be donated to Rihanna’s non-profit organisation, the Clara Lionel Foundation.
Celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani identifies herself as a feminist because she believes in equal rights — the very cornerstone of second-wave feminism, a socio-political movement introduced by activists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in 1960s-70s.
Participating in a campaign that depends on the credit card and visual cues like T-shirt slogans is misleading, rues Bhavnani. “Often, fashion is complicit in the very discrimination it seeks to challenge…the industry is known to abuse female and male forms sexually to promote brands, so it’s a classic oxymoron when they talk of upholding the cause of feminism.”
To outsiders, fashion may seem frivolous in a time of more pressing women’s issues, but beyond being a sweet sartorial escape, it holds a mirror up to the society around us. “Right now, women and their bodies are under scrutiny, and the fight for equal rights seems never-ending. I think it’s important for designers like me to represent how art can play a small role in showing solidarity,” adds Gupta.Gaurav Gupta at the Vogue Atelier Show
Fashion shares a comfortable alliance with the elitist. Gupta’s response is characteristically uncomplicated. “I can’t comment on whether slogan T-shirts are no more than an elitist statement, not when I create high fashion. But in my capacity, I am celebrating women’s rights; I make clothes that make women feel confident, powerful. That, I think, is an act of feminism.”
Which brings us to the discussion that feminism is now a tag procured by the urban elite female. “The real feminists may not read fashion magazines. They might not even converse in fluent English. Forget high fashion, they could well be fighting for women’s rights in a salwar kameez or saree,” says Bhavnani wryly.