The Hidden Feminist Message Behind Dior’s New Statement T-Shirt

Since she began her tenure at Dior and delivered the famous “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt, Maria Grazia Chiuri has often infused her work with a politically tinged message. In the past, these meditations on female power have added gravitas to Chiuri’s collections, but for Spring 2018, it served as a more concrete starting point. To open the show, Sasha Pivovarova went down the runway in a Breton-striped shirt that read Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, a direct reference to historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay on patriarchy’s lasting effect on art.

Nochlin critiques the art world and its inherent sexism, focusing on the challenges women face when creating and presenting their work in the field. She explains how the viewpoints and ideals of men are prioritized and artistic genius as a trait is primarily ascribed to men. By connecting art to second-wave feminism, Nochlin’s text reveals that even within the aesthetic realm, gender inequality helps determine who is considered an artist and what work is deemed culturally significant. The problem, she goes on, is not an actual lack of female artists of worth, but a failure to understand the imbalance of power that impacts art and society as a whole. “The question ‘Why have there been no great women artists’ is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception,” writes Nochlin. “Beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idées reçues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this.”

Though Nochlin delves into other issues—the myth of the great artist, the impacts of social class and familial legacy on shaping an artist’s reputation—the core of her argument is rooted in common sense. When women lack the same rights and opportunities as men in all aspects of life, they are bound to be undervalued and underrepresented in creative fields. While her essay (which was handed out to Dior’s showgoers) is geared toward modern and contemporary art, the problem exists in all disciplines. From the lack of respect (and money) afforded to female film directors to the treatment of women in Silicon Valley, the consistent and pervasive disregard for women in roles traditionally viewed as male continues to halt the progression of female talent.

Even in fashion, an industry fueled by the buying power of women, there are few female designers given the same opportunities as their male counterparts; even fewer are held up as game-changers with museum-worthy creations. As the first woman to helm Dior, Chiuri is one of a handful of women in charge of a legacy brand with the ability to reach a global audience. This season, she doubled down on her female-centric narrative by letting the psychedelic colors and outsize proportions of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures inform her look and by putting Nochlin’s words front and center in her show notes. Then by placing the title of her most famous work on the back of Pivovarova, a noted model-artist, Chiuri sent the message that the goal of creating equality—in and out of fashion—is far from accomplished.

Given that Nochlin’s essay and subsequent work encourages readers to question institutions and existing norms, Dior may have issued a challenge to itself. Today’s political climate demands action that goes beyond slogans—it will take more than a T-shirt to back up any call to action. With a designer at the helm who understands the importance of putting women first, it opens the door for the brand to take further steps—scholarships for promising female designers, mentorship programs, impactful campaigns—and empower women beyond what they choose to wear. Here’s hoping.