Dior and the Commodification of Social Justice
At the House of Dior Spring 2018 show, a striped t-shirt reading “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” debuted on the runway. Lauren Alexis Fisher of Harper's Bazaar writes that “initially, viewers on Twitter (and even some of those attending the actual show) were a little confused by this bold question.” Journalists, freelancers, and bloggers rushed to the defense of Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, by clarifying that this message is actually the title of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. This clarification was the extent to which articles on this subject were willing to delve into the meaning of this provocative message. However, I think there is something profoundly sinister in Dior packaging itself as an ‘ally to the feminist movement’. There are two important issues that are not addressed here: one being the commodification of women in capitalist societies, and the other being the reduction of social justice to a trend and object of consumption.
To understand the seemingly misinformed question that was presented on Dior’s shirt, one must first understand the answer provided in Linda Nochlin’s feminist art history essay. In “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Nochlin states:
But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy”, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness”.
The feminist response to this question, according to Nochlin, is typically along the lines of: there have been great women artists, for example female artists x, y, and z have made significant contributions to the world of art. However, for Nochlin, there has been a lack of women represented in art history as one of the greats, like artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. She asserts that this is not the fault of individuals, but rather in the institutions that have moulded the course of art over time. She contends that the blame lies in our education, which is “ understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world or meaningful symbols, signs and signals”. The institutional obstacles that have befallen female artists, especially that of art education, have hindered their path to greatness.
But how does this play out when Nochlin’s perennial question is asked on a t-shirt? The typical consumer will purchase Dior’s shirt (or its cheaper copies) and wear a garment that asks its viewer: why have there been no great women artists? The responses will be the same; some will try to justify it with essentialist claims about gender, and others will seek to disprove the message by pointing to the existence of important women in the field of art. But what about Nochlin’s original message? It is here where we find the deepest contradiction of all: the fashion industry is itself an institution. It is hierarchical, with a group of fashion houses (like Dior) that reign over it and dictate the goals of those below them; it has canonized what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ fashion; established a set of norms and rules that are adhered to; and it is the product of a field still dominated by elite men. There have been no great women artists because the institutions that dictate and mould our behaviour are an obstacle to greatness. When we look at a shirt with simply the title of an essay, we miss the complexity of the arguments put forth by the writer, and when the title is as provocative as “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, we misinterpret and misconstrue its message altogether.
A similar instance occurred last year, when Chiuri came out with a plain white t-shirt for Dior that read “We Should All Be Feminists”; the title of a Ted Talk presented by acclaimed Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The shirt garnered significant attention and praise from the public, as the world of fashion had yet to break ground on these concepts in such an overt way. However, while it can be said that progress has been achieved in the fashion world, there is one glaring issue that remains: the shirt was being sold for at the price of $710. This is contradictory in nature, as the basis for much of feminist theory condemns the capitalism for its commodification and hyper-sexualisation of the female body, as well as its marginalization of women (especially women of colour and trans women) into low paying jobs or out of the workforce entirely. A company that purports to advocate for the feminist movement by placing a catchy tagline on a plain t-shirt and selling it at sky-high prices is inherently contradicting the tenets of feminist philosophy.
In her essay, “On Psychological Oppression”, Sandra Lee Bartky examines the psychological oppression of women as the occurrence of oppressed groups having no access to the cultural apparatus of society and “to the extent that we are able to catch sight of ourselves in the dominant culture at all, the images we see are distorted or demeaning.” As female consumers are alienated from the cultural apparatus that sells products to them, it is common that images of women are objectifying. However, Dior has taken this a step further. In taking feminism, the one philosophy that belongs to women, distorting it, and selling it back to them, the dominant culture is removing women from access to their own movement. In “Commodified Agents and Empowered Girls: Consuming and Producing Feminism”, Ellen Riordan uses the example of the Spice Girls and their brand of commodified feminism where she states, “Patriarchal institutions did not perceive them as a real threat… because the Spice Girls did not ask for substantial social change, and the media industry loved them because they generated considerable attention and profit”. They were part of an industry in which women themselves did not have access to gaining power, as it was still a male-dominated industry. As long as the brand purports to promote girl power, men at the top can continue making money and women remain objects of consumption.
Through the production of its ‘feminist’ shirts, Dior reduces feminism to a trend; something to be consumed by the elite at monstrous prices, and later trickled down into department stores where its cheaper and qualitatively inferior version can be consumed by the masses. It is no longer a movement, but rather a distorted abstraction of its original form. This harkens back to the controversy surrounding Pepsi’s ad that depicted Kendall Jenner arbitrarily abandoning her job to join a vaguely defined protest. The public’s distaste towards the ad was rooted in the notion that Pepsi marketed social justice as an vaguely defined trend that should be joined for the sake of joining. Pepsi used this platform as an insidious means of selling its product. By presenting the protest as a (literally) meaningless event where anyone and everyone joins together in harmony in the face of adversity (in this case it was a very nice police officer), it undermined and negated the very real struggles of groups such as Black Lives Matter and the protests around the U.S to combat racially-targeted police brutality that are often misconstrued and demonized by the media. Like Pepsi, Dior has done the same by decontextualizing a very real issue. Chiuri’s shirt, where the feminist message that Nochlin asserts in her essay is lost behind selling a trendy shirt, and the pursuit of Dior to align itself with a movement for the sake of profit. Much like Kendall Jenner joining of a protest in the Pepsi Ad, consumers of Chuiri’s shirt are quite literally buying into a movement that has not been correctly defined by the company that promotes it.
Feminism and social justice are not trends. They are spurred by deep-seeded oppression and institutionalized discrimination of certain groups in society, and the way our capitalist system disproportionately favours and benefits white, able-bodied, middle-class, straight, cis men. They do not exist to be consumed by the masses to encourage mindless bandwagoning, but rather to educate and empower the oppressed as a means of providing the tools necessary to criticize and fight back against systems of oppression. Issues as small as Dior’s abstraction and commodification of an influential feminist essay are detrimental to social justice movements, as they water down the issues to fit a package suitable for mass consumption and, in doing so, contradict the exact issues that movements, such as feminism, are fighting against.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.