Fashion Week

The important history behind Dior’s new feminist T-shirt

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Nicola Rachel Colyer
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When Maria Grazia Chiuri took the helm at Dior last year, it was a major step forward for women at the top of the fashion field. As the first female designer to take the reins at the fashion house in its 70-year history, Chiuri wasted no time in putting the modern woman at the centre of the brand.

And with her second feminist statement T-shirt making headlines this week, Dior’s Creative Director stoked the flames of feminism once more.

As she stepped into her new role, Chiuri explained to The Guardian that despite the overtly feminine associations of Dior since its inception, she felt that it didn’t represent what it meant to be a woman today.

“‘Dior is feminine,’ she relays. “That’s what I kept hearing when I told people I was coming here. But as a woman, ‘feminine’ means something different to me than it means to a man, perhaps. Feminine is about being a woman, no? I thought to myself: if Dior is about femininity, then it is about women. And not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but to be a woman today.”

In the run-up to her debut collection last year, Chiuri hinted at what was to come: a series of mini films showed women working in the modern Dior ateliers discussing their female role models; in pre-show interviews Chiuri focused not on the clothes but instead on how she was influenced by Clarissa Estés’ feminist tome, Women Who Run With The Wolves, which discusses the 'wild woman' and the ageless presence in the female psyche that gives women their creativity, energy and power. 

Female icons of the present day, including Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, sat front row at the show, while Chiuri gave a nod to Adichie’s work in a pre-show statement championing her examination of racism and the place of women in society.

And when she sent models down the catwalk in her now iconic T-shirt bearing the slogan “We should all be feminists”, it was clear that the designer was on a mission.

With everyone from Rihanna to Natalie Portman clamouring to get their hands on the £490 tee, it’s little wonder that Chiuri opted to bring back the statement number with her latest collection shown at Paris Fashion Week on Tuesday (26 September). But the subversive message emblazoned across the Breton tee in which model Sasha Pivovarova marched down the runway could be seen as much more controversial than the first. 

Posing the question “Why have there been no great women artists?”, Chiuri’s latest offering refers to the 1971 essay of the same name by art historian Linda Nochlin. In this critical work, Nochlin discusses the effect of the deeply embedded patriarchy within the artistic world and the resulting challenges that women face in getting their work recognised.

Explaining the catalyst behind the essay, Nochlin explained to that she was inspired by a conversation that she had with art gallery owner Richard Feigen who told her: “I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?”

“He actually asked me that question,” Nochlin exclaims.

“It haunted me. It made me think, because, first of all, it implied that there were no great women artists. Second, because it assumed this was a natural condition. It just lit up my mind.”

In her essay, Nochlin explains that the preference of the male viewpoint and the trait of artistic genius primarily being prescribed to men is the reason behind the “lack” of great women artists, rather than a shortcoming of actual female talent.

“The question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idées reçues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this,” she writes.

Essentially, Nochlin postulates that the inequality of woman throughout all areas of life directly impacts on her inequality within the arts.

“But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male,” she writes.

In a world where men continue to dominate the female fashion scene, Chiuri is certainly challenging the patriarchal norm. What’s more, it is clear that she is serious about giving women the platform that they deserve. 

Chiuri cited the work of sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle – notably the Tarot Garden, a large sculpture garden in Tuscany – as the inspiration behind the collection and, in a more subtle effort, selected model-artist Sasha Pivovarova to don the T-shirt in question.

“It is necessary to give these different and specific artists their due,” Chiuri wrote in the show notes according to The Cut, “for it’s they who break the mold of the traditionally male discourse in art history, and in fashion.”

Despite the fact that referencing a text discussing the inequalities that women faced 45 years ago while striving to make Dior a brand for the modern women shows exactly how far we still have to go in leveling the playing field, we’re excited to finally see the sparks of revolution taking hold at one of fashion’s biggest names. 

It is yet to be confirmed whether Dior will be donating any of the proceeds from the new design to charity. Sales of the original “We should all be feminists” T-shirt saw a percentage of sales (for a limited period) go to Rihanna’s The Clara Lionel Foundation, which provides support and funding towards​ education, health ​and emergency response programs in impoverished areas around the world.

As we all know, actions speak louder than words, so we can only wait and see what happens next.

Images: Rex Features


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Nicola Rachel Colyer

Nicola Colyer is a freelance writer and ex-corporate girl. A francophile and relapsing sugar-free graduate, she'll often be found seeking out the best places for brunch or struggling to choose between a green juice and a G&T.