A Woman’s Work: Female Design Legacy in Womenswear
The mere mention of the word ‘fashion’ typically brings about an image of a woman. Whether it is a model on the runway or an actress on the red carpet, the word, concept, and industry known as ‘fashion’ is often associated with women. Curiously enough, aside from Coco Chanel, some of the most recognizable labels and figures in fashion have been men. The legacies of fashion houses like Dior, Givenchy, Vuitton, Armani, Lagerfeld and Versace have been behind the wardrobes of many of the most recognizable women in history - despite a staunch lack of female design direction.
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It's only been a few weeks since Céline announced that Hedi Slimane would be replacing Phoebe Philo as creative director, a role she held for over a decade. With this change, Céline will not only shift its design direction but launch a menswear line for the first time in its history. While we can only wait and see what Slimane will bring to the brand, there is much to discuss in terms of the Céline Philo has created and the feminine ideal she has crafted. Her 2015 campaign lead with images of writer Joan Didion, who was 80 years old at at the time. The imagery depicted Didion wearing a simple black turtleneck, and gold pendant. On her face sat large, wide set black sunglasses surrounded by a thin, grayish bob. The campaign was poignant and sharp but exquisitely subtle in its approach. Aging was and is nothing to fear. Maturity isn’t the end of the road but an experience with many new beginnings.
Up until now, there has been so much woman in the Céline woman—she is thoughtful and rich with the sort of growth and maturity that comes with experience. While her simplistic aesthetic is often called boyish, it seems as though her work consistently asks: What is femininity? What makes a garment feminine? History suggests that the word offers up a girlish visual—perhaps pink in hue, crafted from tulle, taffeta and eyelet cotton—but Philo’s entire career has broken this concept.
Before her role at Céline, Philo took a two-year maternity leave—a choice that raised eyebrows in the fashion industry. Since her time previously spent at Chloe was especially successful, Philo’s critics found the concept of a woman choosing family over continued growth to be foolish. In retrospect, Philo’s transition from Chloe to Céline was a prelude to the work she would later produce—work that mirrored what she was experiencing in her daily life. Balancing business and motherhood, Philo’s Céline was a complete representation of the multifaceted, complex, whirlwinded nature of womanity and the many transitions it brings.
At Céline, Philo sent models down the runway in barely-there makeup, adorned in clothing and accessories that were minimal and functional yet completely beautiful—highlighting a side of femininity that is rarely cherished. She understood the importance of dressing with ease, and provided women with a sort of ‘grace on tap’ to make that achievable. ‘Elevated basics’ is by far an understatement, but Philo’s designs could be treated as such. Women and men around the world recognized the sensibility and utility of her work and its ability to provide the sort of confidence that comes with time and self-awareness. Truthfully, Philo provided something many women long for—a fearlessness to age and mature without losing our desire.
An alternative vision of fearlessness and desire was fellow British designer, Vivienne Westwood, one of the first to cater directly to the Punk era. Westwood’s work was the definition of chaos in the face of British culture. Rather than structure, etiquette and tradition, Westwood’s punk aesthetic cherished everything society overlooked: toilet chains, safety pins and studs became iconic elements of Westwood’s work. She uses clothing as a living diary, documenting her obsessions, her fascinations, her truths, her disgusts. Westwood’s sense of self lives within every collection and she brings to the forefront the subjects that fashion often ignores. Oscillating between references to historical culture, functionality, and political commentary, Vivienne Westwood questions authority and tradition. With more and more women using their voices and experiences to challenge the status quo and liberate themselves, this sort of fearlessness is a mascot for today’s political and social climate.
While Westwood was burning things down in London, over in Milano was a woman hard at work at blazing her own trails. Since 1970, Miuccia Prada grew the leather goods business of her grandfather (who ironically didn’t believe women of his family should work in the family company) to what is now: a privately owned and family operated billion-dollar luxury empire. Growing the business from simply a travel goods brand, Prada parlayed her brand into a standard of luxury and a household name. Prada maintained its understated elegance throughout the 80s and 90s, shunning the overuse of their label unlike the popular luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Gucci) of the time, that reinforced the loud, glitzy glam 80s greed aesthetic that was also popular.
From the feminist movement of the 1970s came the 1980s working woman, and she was instantly under heavy suspicion of not being capable or savvy enough. Many of these women felt compelled to subdue their femininity in order to “prove” themselves. They swapped the glitz and shine for what was, at the time, labeled as aesthetically more masculine. Prada began her womenswear line in 1989 and through the early 90s she focused on suits and simply-constructed, thoughtful separates (the sort that Philo would love) made with luxurious textiles for the bulk of her collections. She offered women a quiet luxury that usually involved the power silhouette of a strong shoulder and tapered waist. Women wanted nothing more than to be one of the boys—or at most, access the respect that men had. Their wardrobes functioned as an everyday armor.
In 2018, there is still much conversation to be had when it comes to the strength and leadership of a woman: Will her emotions get in the way? Can a woman even handle the sort of stamina it takes to lead successfully? How much strength is too much before her femininity is compromised? These questions, demeaning by nature, seem to be persistent no matter the industry or the achievements of women thus far. Philo, Westwood, and Prada have created unforgettable legacies within the world of fashion, but their progress is still not enough to legitimize the whole of womankind when faced with roles of leadership. How many more successful female leaders will it take to break down these barriers and level the playing fields? As women and the world evolve so does the expansive idea of femininity. Female representation in leadership positions is important to establish a steady flow of diverse talent that within the fashion industry.