“What If Women Ruled the World?” That was the question hanging over Christian Dior’s haute couture show in Paris – literally, in the form of a giant silk embroidered banner above the models’ heads. Twenty one banners punctuated the catwalk, suspended above head height like placards on a protest: “Would Old Women be Revered?”, “Would Buildings Resemble Wombs?” and “Would the Earth be Protected?”
Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Dior, collaborated with the 80-year-old American feminist artist Judy Chicago for the show. Described as “the godmother of vagina art” Chicago is back in vogue in the era of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle and Janelle Monáe’s labia trousers.
Fashion’s annexation of female empowerment in the past decade has many times seemed like a cynical landgrab, but Chiuri’s commitment to a factory reset of how women are celebrated never feels half-hearted.
The house of Christian Dior, for so long steeped in an iconography of wasp-waisted full skirts and floral fragrances, is this week hosting an installation by Chicago, whose most famous work, The Dinner Party, has been described by the artist as “vagina china”. It highlights the role of women in history with an elaborate 39-place table setting featuring hand-painted plates and embroidered runners depicting elaborately stylised vulvas.
Chiuri brings a very modern perspective to fashion week – not just as a feminist, but because she sees fashion in terms of the attention economy, as well as the retail one. Her plum spot on the haute couture schedule is not just a showcase for selling clothes, it is “a space in the culture, like a gallery” she said backstage before the show.
“So I can have a gallery which has art in it, and also has models walking through it.” Last year the designer invited the artist and her husband to a Dior show, a meeting which sparked the idea for this collaboration. The Female Divine, an inflatable structure in the shape of a female torso which houses the silk banners and a tablescape set with new works in china, will be open to the public for one week in the garden of the Musée Rodin in Paris.
There was very little challenging content in the clothes themselves, however. Chiuri’s previous catwalks have featured feminist slogan T-shirts and surrealist quote tattoos, but this collection channelled the gentle elegance of classical goddesses. Silken gowns had draped bodices, plaited rope belts and sunray-pleated skirts falling to the floor. The chic suits for which Dior is famed came double-breasted with invisible fastenings, to look like fabric wrapped around the body.
Chiuri, who since her Valentino days has had an astute eye for a lucrative accessory, finished every look with of-the-moment golden headbands and pearl-drop earrings. She pointed to a connection between the goddess aesthetic and Chicago’s feminist banners, and said that “bringing the reference points of female power in the past to a new generation” has been at the heart of Chicago’s work. But the conformity of almost every look on the catwalk to a traditional ideal body shape – tall and very slender, with an accentuated waist – seemed at odds with the espoused values of the event.
Fashion’s supposed embrace of feminism is meaningless when it merely repackages what the patriarchy values in women – youth, physical beauty, looking good in a bikini selfie – as being what women now “enjoy” about themselves. Chiuri’s contribution has been interesting precisely because, on many occasions, she has gone beyond this, celebrating women as artists, poets, choreographers and writers.
But backstage before the show, Chiuri admitted to having no answers to the questions on the banners. “I think that if women ruled the world, the meaning of power would be very different. The meaning of femininity – and this exists in men as well as women – is to take care of others, not just yourself. I think, but I don’t know. I am a fashion designer!”