Maria Grazia Chiuri isn’t the only major designer to see fashion through a feminist lens. Miuccia Prada constantly examines the role of women in society. Phoebe Philo did so over and over in her inventive designs, and before Philo, Donna Karan. (Hasn’t Donna proven prescient in so many ways?)
One would hardly label any of that trio discreet in her opinions about the cultural/political/societal connectedness between women and what we wear. Yet Chiuri may be the most unsubtle of all. She has made fashion as feminist expression the North Star of her Dior world, a world in which neither a thought nor a sketch nor a drape on a Stockman, and certainly not a fashion preview, ever starts with a pretty dress. A dress, or 50, provides a conduit to Chiuri’s larger truth, which is her desire to use her collections as an epicenter for expression of creative feminist views. In particular, feminist art fascinates her, and for spring she enlisted the trailblazing artist Judy Chicago to create a show-space-as-major-art-piece. The result, “The Female Divine,” based on an idea Chicago had back in the Seventies, is a vast, curvaceous abstracted figure of a naked woman in prone position. (Lest one think she/he missed something, the only complete view of the structure is an aerial one.) Installed in the garden of the Musée Rodin, the space will be open for public viewing throughout the week.
In the lead-up to the season, Chiuri became fascinated by Pietro Rigolo’s book “La Mamma,” and used it as a starting point for a study of feminism, femininity, creativity and motherhood. Childbirth, she said, is too often seen as the ultimate act of creation, a premise with which she, a mother, takes issue. “You grapple with the idea,” Chiuri said. “You look at yourself in the [context of] motherhood, and it is very difficult to explain” that it’s not always the ultimate goal. Art, and maybe even fashion, are acts of creation, each its own form of motherhood.
Guests entered through the ample woman’s ample vagina; the models walked a carpet of allover flowers that opened into ovals of emptiness, referencing the same. Anchoring the internal space at the far end of the runway: a huge rectangular embroidered banner that posed the question: “What If Women Ruled the World?” Leading up to that and flanking the runway on both sides: banners posing what-if follow-up questions in French and English. These ranged from the philosophical (“Would God Be Female?” “Would Both Men and Women Be Gentle?” “Would Both Men and Women Be Strong?”) to the practical/political (“Would There be Private Property?” “Would There Be Violence?”).
How did it all translate into a collection? Female Divine. Goddess. Goddess dresses. That’s it in a nutshell — one with subtext. Chiuri is drawn to the peplos, the signature garment of the classical Roman set (most people’s first association is Greek, but Chiuri hails from the Eternal City). She took the item as her template not only for its visual allure, but because its unconstructed, languid lines deliver a sartorial manifestation of freedom, and women must be free to live and to create as they choose. The collection was all about the peplos, every which way to do a goddess dress. It started with a golden palette that moved into glorious color — amethyst, forest green, sky blue, absinthe — and treatments that shone vibrant light on the skill of the Dior ateliers. Dresses came in liquid fringe, allover peacock regalia, undulating pleats and layered chiffon, detailed with embroideries, braiding and lattice work, each distinctive within Chiuri’s highly specific premise. Whatever the profundity of point of view and cultural mission that led to their creation, in that fashion vacuum of good dress/bad dress, these were mostly beauties that will serve many an actress well on the red carpet.
That was the flou. Roman-statue regalia adapts less gracefully to tailleur, and on and off through her tenure at Dior Chiuri has displayed less surety with day clothes than with evening. While in our Lululemon-ed world, nothing here was certifiably day, Chiuri did show plenty of tailoring in which she tried hard to incorporate the gentle drapes and folds that resonated so beautifully as gowns. It didn’t work. Instead, the stiff-looking golden lames and jacquard jackets and pants looked appeared the opposite — restricting and uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Chiuri took her bow in a relaxed black sweater and skirt.
What does it all mean? Big picture, the show highlights the role of context. Clothes are not inherently feminist or not feminist. Multiple factors play into what a piece of clothing projects — who wears it, how, why, and sometimes, who designed it, why and based on what. Here, to make a feminist point, Chiuri found inspiration in an ancient garment and the work of a trailblazing octogenarian feminist artist. Back to the small picture, will all of that be apparent should a star choose one of these dresses for the Oscars? Probably not. But she’ll look great.
As for giving voice to an artist, when Chicago first dreamed up a project that would celebrate the woman as goddess decades ago, it was too complicated (read: too big and expensive) to realize. Fast-forward 40-plus years and hello, Maria Grazia, and (perhaps more to the point) Hello, Mr. Arnault. “There we were in a small town in New Mexico,” Chicago said, “meeting with Olivier [Bialobos, director of international communication] and Maria Grazia,” (Mr. Arnault present in underwriting spirit only). “They offered this immense workforce and all the resources of Dior. And I was able to bring my desire to honor women to a global scale at a level I never could have dreamed of. It was the greatest creative opportunity of my life.”