Join Dr. Ilya Parkins In Conversation at Glenbow on Thursday, May 16 at 7pm. Tickets available HERE.

When Christian Dior presented his debut collection in 1947, his “New Look” took the world by storm. That part of the official narrative has long been established. However, a key characteristic of storms is turbulence. While the “New Look” was celebrated in the pages of the fashion press and society salons, it was met with resistance by women who objected to what they viewed as a revival of the literally restrictive corseted fashions of the past. Feminist groups took to the streets of Paris, Toronto and several U.S. cities to protest, with a group in Dallas perhaps best articulating the anti-Dior sentiment by stating, “Why should women go backward in styles? They aren’t going backward in anything else.”

Dr. Ilya Parkins, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia has written and lectured extensively on the sometimes contentious relationship between feminism and fashion, often with extensive focus on Christian Dior.

In advance of her May 16 In Conversation event here at Glenbow, we chatted with Dr. Parkins about her work and viewing the “New Look” through a feminist lens.

In an interview with the Vancouver Observer, you said, “I would say most of my career has been spent working to get people to take fashion seriously as a site of knowledge production, certainly in the early 20th century but more broadly as well.” What drew you to this area of study and why is it important to study and understand fashion through an academic/feminist lens?

Dr. Ilya Parkins

I was first drawn to this area of study through my own strong responses to clothing, to be honest. I began to realize that I had really emotional relationships with certain garments – and some of that was because of the way those allowed me to present myself in the world. So early on, I became attuned to the ways that clothing and fashion are tools for establishing and projecting identities, and that’s really important if we’re interested in understanding gender, and race, and sexuality. And as I became interested it, I became aware of how little studied fashion was – it wasn’t taken seriously as a subject of study, in most fields. And the thing is, we have associated fashionable clothing with women, especially, in this culture, since at least the early nineteenth century – so failing to take fashion seriously is, to a certain extent, failing to take women seriously. In that sense, putting it front and centre is partly, for me, about centering the experiences of women and feminine people.

In a presentation at the University of Saskatchewan, you stated that “The equation of women with fashion… rested upon a very long philosophical heritage, one which triangulated women, adornment and artifice, only to denigrate each one.” How so?

There’s a long history, stretching back to the Ancient Greeks, of images of beautiful women as deceitful and untrustworthy: going to great lengths to make the surface appealing so that people become mesmerized by their beauty, but that beauty conceals something destructive. And there’s also an implication, in the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the fact that they are clothed only after the Fall, that clothing itself is somehow impure, covering something negative. The siren, the coquette, the femme fatale – all of these are figures who suggest that beneath a carefully stylized surface lies the possibility of treachery. So on one sense there’s a trivialization of fashion, culturally – but the deeper suggestion is that, in fact, behind this thing that gets written off as unimportant, there is really something ominous – and it’s tied to femininity. 

Much has been written about how Dior’s “New Look” revitalized haute couture but he faced a fair share of criticism, even outright protests. Coco Chanel famously said “Dior doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them.” What do you think of that assessment?

While I have a certain fondness for Dior, I think that’s fundamentally right, to be honest. What I think is clear with Dior is that when he’s designing, at least, he’s working not with an image of a living woman, but an iconic femininity. He’s quite upfront about this – he says he designed clothes for “flower-like women.” Flowers aren’t human beings. And if you look at the kind of expressive language of his models and in the really famous photographs of the “New Look,” they’re incredibly static. They’re women as statuary, really. I think that when he was dressing women, he was thinking of them as symbols, much more than as living people. And I think that the protests against his “New Look” – mostly in the U.S. – were sensing that.

You’ve talked extensively about the inherent contradictions found in fashion at large and Dior in particular – tradition vs. modernity, artistic expression vs. commercial interests, timelessness vs. temporality, etc. – and that these contradictions manifest in the positioning of women within fashion. Could you explain further?

Fashion is awash in contradictions…it says it is both timeless and of the now, it constantly draws on the past but is mired in the present, it positions itself as art but is commodified in a way that fine art is not meant to be. And what I’ve found in looking at early twentieth-century fashion designers is that it was women who came to bear all those contradictions. They would be called upon to appear alternately bound to the past and ultra-modern, timeless and ephemeral, or changing constantly. What I argued in my book about early twentieth-century fashion designers is that these kinds of images of women actually were about positioning the designer in a particular way. Calling upon this contradictory pool of images actually helped to position the designer as, to use a contemporary term, a “stable genius” – and an artist, someone who wasn’t contaminated by the market for fashion, but committed to its higher aims.

Contemporary Dior has seemingly shifted from “feminine” to “feminist” in their marketing, launching The Story of Women ad campaign in 2018 which featured a message of empowerment. Do you see that as a meaningful gesture or mere branding?

Fashion is very good at reading cultural moods – that’s what it is best at. So while I wouldn’t say it is mere branding, I also wouldn’t call this a meaningful gesture. I think it reflects the moment. In the last five or six years – and especially the last year and a half – feminism has taken a very prominent place, culturally – to some extent, around the world. I think Dior, and other brands who have also run with the term feminist or similar imaging, are simply taking the cultural temperature and monetizing it. The reason I don’t think this is particularly meaningful is that it has a tendency to empty the term feminism of its meaning. Most feminists would argue that feminism entails a demand for structural changes…they may disagree on what kinds of structural changes and how to make them, but that notion of change is key to any significant feminist philosophy. And it’s not at all clear how bandying about the terms feminism and empowerment will actually contribute to changes in the way people live.