GIRL, EMPOWERED

THE REVOLUTION ISSUE, A/W14

Olivia Singer talks to the instigators of a global movement that has redefined what it means to be a girl.


When Miuccia Prada gave her pre-show speech before the Miu Miu Autumn / Winter 14 show, she told a story of a young girl assembling an outfit from Portobello Road’s vintage stalls and her grandmother’s hand-knitted jumpers. Her narrative for the collection seems to summarise one of the overarching themes of the AW14 collections: a youthful sense of individuality and girlish charm. From Miu Miu’s avant-bland pastel quilted nylons to Meadham Kirchhoff’s painfully pretty homage to Chanel and kinderwhore, Autumn Winter’s greatest collections – whether punk or ‘normcore’ – have been an aesthetic celebration of youthful empowerment. 

This grand re-visitation of girlhood on the catwalks has evolved from what is going in the world; the 2010s have witnessed a revolution as to what it can mean to be a girl – a revolution that incorporates feminism and empowerment. Feminism itself has been reinvigorated to a liveable sense of female independence rather than relegated to textbooks of political theory, as writer Tavi Gevinson aptly stated, “Feminism isn’t a rulebook, it’s a discussion” – and it is a discussion that the internet has facilitated between girls all around the world.

The new, digital incarnation of feminism feels like an organic progression from the radical riot grrrl movement of the 90s. Taking punk icons like Sioxie Sioux, The Raincoats and Poly Styrene as their inspiration, riot grrrl was a movement of women who collaborated to force their way into a society and culture that relegated them to the spectator seats. What musicians Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna summarised in their 1991 ‘Riot Grrrl Manifesto’ as their reasons for ‘doing it themselves’ was: “Because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways […] Because we are angry at a society that tells us girl = dumb, girl = bad, girl = weak.” 

What the internet has enabled is an extension of these principles of DIY activism, equality and initiating conversation around what it means to be a girl in a world that still treats women as second-class citizens. While the second-wave feminism of icons like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem dealt with the issues raised by workplace inequality and the status of the housewife, what this newer application of equality has focused on is more inclusive of younger women – in fact, inclusive of anyone with an internet connection. You no longer need a publishing deal, or even the costs of printing a local zine, to communicate your frustrations or engage with your peers about whatever interests you: just need a Tumblr account and an email address.

In 2010, 14-year-old Tavi Gevinson started online magazine Rookie, inspired by nineties publishing sensation Jane Pratt’s teen magazine Sassy. Hazel Cills, one of its founding contributors, likened Kathleen Hanna’s initial principles to the formation of blogging communities. When she first saw the documentary The Punk Singer – which shows Hanna talking about creating the first Julie Ruin album in her own bedroom, she immediately thought about blogging. In a modern-day take on Virginia Woolf’s famous A Room of One’s Own,Hanna celebrated the power of a girl’s bedroom: “You can make whatever you want when you’re alone in your room… [and] we can connect these bedrooms through the Internet.” 

As a teenager in high-school, Hazel didn’t have peers who wanted to discuss feminism with her: “everyone thought it was a joke… any time that I’d speak up in class about it, people would roll their eyes.” So, she started an online blog through which she met girls who shared her passion – girls who later became Rookiestaff, but also her “greatest friends”. It is through these seemingly simple acts of connecting the beliefs and voices of young women that empowerment is achieved online – as Hazel says, “it’s all about access and that is inherently empowering. Historically, women haven’t been given the platforms to speak their mind, which is why Rookie is often so radical.”

London-based designer Edward Meadham of designer duo Meadham Kirchhoff told a similar story to Hazel’s. Growing up isolated in a small village, Edward didn’t come into contact with anyone else who shared his interests but “raised himself” on riot grrrl culture. “Nowadays,” he told us, “it is possible to access everything and to communicate with people with whom you would have never been able to back in the old days.” In the early 90s era of the original riot grrrl, there was no internet – and the records and zines which communicated and explored the anger of disenfranchised women were either prohibitively expensive or too difficult to find for fellow feminists. Riot grrrl’s avoidance of the mainstream press (who frequently misrepresented the movement) meant that few people were able to engage directly with their ideals. Today, things are different: “The internet has democratized free speech,” said Edward. “It has has given people a tool to express their ideas and cultures, which can be easily reached and shared in ways that were not possible before.”

Platforms like Rookie have enabled an autonomous platform for girls (and their allies) to talk about whatever it is that interests them; whether politics in its most direct incarnations or runway trends. A hierarchy of importance has dissolved in an era where Tumblr re-blogs democratise what readers deem interesting and relevant to their lives – and fashion has been determined as one of these key areas. Speaking to model Edie Campbell about this digital-era revolution, she told us that, “What Rookie have done is spoken about and analysed fashion in an interesting way. Generally, talking about what trends are in this season is fucking boring. But someone being insightful or making the way that you choose dress funny? Everyone wants to read that.”

A movement that was once crudely dismissed as exclusively the domain of women who couldn’t get husbands is now, literally, in Vogue. On the other side of the coin, the world of fashion and modelling has often been dismissed as irrelevant or demeaning by hard-line activism and yet the reality is that many girls want to talk about new collections in the same breath as political disenfranchisement: they are not mutually exclusive interests. Speaking to Hazel, she discusses Virginie Despentes’ militantly aggressive King Kong Theory alongside Marni and Chloé, Edie talks devoutly about underlining passages in Jeanette Winterson’s books in a season where she has been shot for campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta.  Award-winning British womenswear designer Simone Rocha tells us that her icons are feminist heroes Louise Bourgeois and Rei Kwakubo while hyper-kitch shoe designer Sophia Webster has named stilettoes after the artists Yayoi Kusama and Mika Ninagawa. It seems obtuse to ignore the impact that art, activism and literature have on fashion purely because of its traditionally dismissible connotations; as Edie summates: “People love to be nasty about modelling and people in fashion. Yeah, some of it is crap – but some of everything is crap. Either something it good or it isn’t, either it moves you or it doesn’t; it doesn’t matter whether it’s made for an ad campaign or a fashion magazine.”

It’s this aggressively empowered attitude that harkens back to the post-punk ideals of the riot grrrls. No longer is contemporary activism centred on twee cupcake parties or the endless campaigns to sex up feminism (“I think I’ve always been a little angrier than cupcakes,” laughs Edie). This empowerment is, and can be, simultaneously furious and live-streaming fashion shows. “Clothes are the most immediate tools for self expression, and probably the easiest way to reflect socio-economic changes in attitude, habits and culture” says Edward Meadham – and it feels as though some of the AW14 collections prove his point. Simone Rocha described her collection as “celebrating the strength of women and of femininity” while artist, model and founder of feminist website Cunt Today, Phoebe Collings-James, described the skirts and dresses as feeling as though “you could play football in them just as easily as wearing them on a night out.”

But it is not just within the conversations happening within and surrounding fashion that girlhood is finding a sense of resurgence. i-D magazine’s fashion features editor, Bertie Brandes, explains that, “The internet has brought together communities which have created their own artistic movements. There is a whole new digital feminist aesthetic which is both fascinating and inspiring.” This movement no longer exists on the fringes of society – as Bertie says, “young women are being celebrated and taken seriously for what they say and do rather than dismissed as simply ‘adorable’”– Tavi is regularly featured in The New York Times, Hazel in Elle, Bertie contributes to The Guardian among myriad other mainstream publications.

Photographer Petra Collins and artist Phoebe Collings-James are another two young women exploring the confines of gender and stereotype to serious and global acclaim. When 19-year-old Petra’s Instagram account was deleted after she posted a photo of her bikini (with her unshaven pubic hair visible), she garnered attention from media outlets from TMZ to The Huffington Post and opportunity to discuss female liberation in global publications that legitimized her outrage. Phoebe (who Vogue recently described as: “Part-time model, internationally exhibited artist, full-time feminist”) has exhibited around the world – from Miami’s Art Basel to solo shows at the Ritter Zamet Gallery and Cob Gallery in London – examining and subverting conventions of gender and sexuality. These are girls shooting for and existing within fashion bibles – GarageVoguei-D –whilst discussing narratives of oppression and setting up feminist forums (Petra is on-staff at Rookie, Phoebe set up online feminism platform Cunt Today with the intention of “sharing information and encouraging action”). Phoebe explained that, “Simone de Beauvoir famously described the body as a situation and I think it's a good lead into understanding just how political fashion can be, in all its nuances.” Fashion in itself can be a medium for self-expression and these women are no longer anomalies but proof that, in 2014, being a liberated girl in fashion is not an oxymoron – and that you don’t have to choose between Prada and your basic human rights. You can have both.

Phoebe continues that, “Fashion is inherently political and when it actively engages with politics it can be very powerful. A single black gloved fist, burnt bra, ripped punk clothes [...] and it’s all about context.” London has established itself as a place where fashion can be contrary and redefining cultural constructs, with “the re-claiming of the term slut and 'slutty' dressing, Ryan Lo's school girl looks and the more masculine Nasir Masar rude boy style.” These are collections that subvert cultural norms by parodying preconceptions – in the same way that Kathleen Hanna adopted a valley girl accent on stage and showed that it didn’t matter to punk politics how you sounded. In this new wave of feminism, you are just as welcome wearing Ryan Lo’s tulle petticoats as you are wearing a hemp shift dress and baring unshaven legs.

Feminism is a movement that, at its best, is about liberation from societal stereotyping – it’s counter-intuitive to discriminate based on age or interest. When Sheila Jeffreys condemns shoes as “torture instruments” and fashion as “a harmful cultural practice”, she confines freedom to exist within boundaries she has chosen on behalf of women around the world. When Hazel Cills celebrates that she can “take signifiers of teen girliness and subvert them,” that she “can be a girl wearing glitter and pink but still be aggressive and assertive and scary,” she summates the shift in feminism that empowers rather than excludes. Activists like Jeffreys work on assumptions that engaging with fashion and caring about how you present yourself is exclusively motivated by a desire to attract a man. The trouble with this is that feminism isn’t about men, it’s about women; it doesn’t fight men, it fights patriarchy and conflating the two is painfully reductive.

 What the revolution of empowered girls online, girls in fashion magazines and girls in activism is proving is that conceptualising feminism as a monolithic treatise that forbids independence of thought or experience is dated. It doesn’t work, it doesn’t engage and it doesn’t empower anyone who doesn’t qualify on someone else’s arbitrarily defined terms. The existence of a contemporary feminist movement is imperative in a world that doesn’t have universal suffrage, that doesn’t pay equal wages and that doesn’t manifest gender or sexual equality – and this movement can now exist on the pages of Tumblr and fashion magazines as well as within newspapers and textbooks.  

There is nothing wrong with wearing sling-backs on a feminist march and there’s nothing inherently patriarchal about the colour pink or a lace negligée. Fashion does not have to be about ensnaring a man – it doesn’t even have to be about fighting rape culture or wage inequality to be interesting or empowering. The joy of its new incarnation is that people are free to understand and enjoy the arts, in all of their manifestations, on their own terms and without the judgment of those writing the theoretical textbooks. Feminism is diverse and can be for everyone – for all genders, ages and races, for those directly affected by the oppression of hegemony and all of their allies – and perhaps that’s the ultimate revolution.