Beating Male Leans, How Fashion And Feminism Can Go Hand In Hand

Fashion’s greatest names were a cabal of men, and the irony wasn’t lost on anyone that they primarily designed women’s clothing. But Maria Grazia Chiuri is here to change the woman’s place in the fashion game

Namrata Zakaria
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When Fashion And Feminism Go Hand In Hand
The world is celebrating a giant India moment this week. One of the biggest fashion houses in the world, Dior, is presenting a fashion show at Mumbai’s Gateway of India tonight.

A couple of designers have shown up in India in the last 20-30 years, most notably Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, but none on the scale of storied French couture house like Dior. It is especially momentous because Dior is here not seeking India’s aspirational new elite or the digital-savvy middle class. Instead, Dior is here to say thank you to its dependence on India’s immense crafts heritage, its embroideries, and to acknowledge India as a partner in Dior’s collections.

Of course, it had to be a woman who thought this up.


Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s creative director since 2016, announced her arrival on the world stage with a t-shirt with a slogan emblazoned across it, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Just a couple of years prior, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had written her controversial essay the title of which Chiuri had borrowed.

Fashion and feminism have always made strange bedfellows. Traditional feminists have looked at fashion as its adversary. It burnt bras, and threw away stilettos. Fashion catered to the male gaze, they argued, and it was a mere social construct to keep women bound to a submissive feminine ideal.

Governments have barely helped with their policing of women’s attire. In Iran, women are raging a revolution to rid themselves of the hijab. In India, young Muslim girls are in the Supreme Court begging their schools to let them wear a hijab to school. Women’s dress codes are constantly the topic of political debate, as if a government may fall if she wore something of her own volition.


Then there is the ‘lipstick feminist’, a sort of a new-age boss babe whose fashion is intrinsic to her feminism. She uses her femininity and sex appeal as a slogan. Author Polly Vernon writes in her book, ‘Hot Feminist’, “Her legs are probably shaved, her lips are probably by Mac, her wardrobe is on point, her wit is never diminished. She views her own intrinsic sexiness not as an impediment to her feminist politics – but rather its rocket fuel.”

When Fashion And Feminism Go Hand In Hand

Chiuri acknowledges all of the above in her couture and her politics. To start with, she understood she was the first woman to head a major luxury label. Perhaps the only other female fashion heavyweight was Coco Chanel before her, who founded her own label. There were other trailblazers too. Like Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada in Europe, Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenburg in the USA, but Dior today is a behemoth that none of these labels ever were.

Fashion’s greatest names were a cabal of men, and the irony wasn’t lost on anyone that they primarily designed women’s clothing. With the exception of Chanel at the time, fashion designers were like the Renaissance artists, a boys’ club, where women just didn’t have enough talent to be as famous as they were.

Chiuri had a successful career already. When she worked with Fendi, she developed the Italian label’s most famous little handbag, the Baguette. When Valentino passed, she took over his label along with Pierpaolo Piccioli. But in one of her first interviews as Dior’s chief, she told W magazine, that it was “important for me to speak with my own voice, and to reflect about what’s missing in women’s fashion”.

One of the first things she did was set up an office of gender studies at Dior. She roped in her daughter who was studying gender to head the office as a cultural advisor. Mother and daughter were committed to changing the fashion system, including more women in it, and empowering women in fashion who did not come from privilege.


When Chiuri came to India and met its embroidery partners here, especially Chanakya International embroidery house in a giant swanky office in Mumbai’s Byculla, she was moved by the country. She was amazed to learn that embroidery in India was patrilineal, that a father taught it to his son, even though many of the younger generations were now moving away to other professions.

Chiuri asked the Chanakya team to open a school for women, which she would support passionately. And she has kept her promise.

The Chanakya School of Craft pays underprivileged women a stipend to come and train with them. The courses keep advancing as the women get better and train with master craftsmen. They get absorbed into the office if they choose to continue, or are free to seek work where they like with their new and refined skills.

Dior’s collections under Chiuri are a sensible working woman’s wardrobe (like Chanel’s tweed pantsuits), something that doesn’t necessarily find favour with fashion’s newfound Insta-gaze.

But it hardly matters. What matters is this impassioned designer is here to change the woman’s place in the fashion game.

Views expressed by the author are their own. Feature Image is from Instagram/@mariagraziachiuri

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Dior In Mumbai fashion and feminism