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Haute Couture Week in Paris is an extravagant affair, showcasing custom-made garments from legendary fashion houses including Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, and Schiaparelli. The runway is a place to indulge in sartorial fantasy and this is no more apparent than during this week of clothing decadence.
The power of imagination was on display at the Christian Dior Spring 2020 show, which asked some big questions under literal banners that flanked the catwalk, all under a larger philosophical query: "What if women ruled the world?"
Greek goddess-infused femininity featuring delicate frocks, capes that could be wings, repeated moon, wheat, and snake motifs, metallics, and draped silks were all part of this matriarchal society vision. Fashion and fantasy often go hand-in-hand and this particular celebration looked like it was also drawing inspiration from an iconic comic book figure: part-Themyscira mythology, part-Diana Prince working within the Louvre's walls in the recent Wonder Woman adaptation. Drawing heavily on Greco-Roman and pagan-leaning designs, the connection between mother nature and empowerment through clothing was highlighted.
Since her appointment in 2016, feminism has been a repeated theme for Dior artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri — including several slogan tees — and this latest collection goes even further. Collaborating with American feminist artist Judy Chicago, the presentation space in the picturesque Musée Rodin garden is a structure Chicago first conceived in the 1970s but hadn't been physically realized until now. The Feminist Divine represents the womb and birthing canal: Inner Space, but make it fashion.
One of Judy Chicago's most famous installations (which is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum) is The Dinner Party, which features 39 notable women from history. A ceremonial triangular-shaped banquet is set up to honor women throughout the creation of Western civilization, including representations of Amazons, Hypatia (recently portrayed by Lisa Kudrow on The Good Place), Hrotsvitha (considered to be the first female historian), and Susan B. Anthony. Another 999 names are inscribed on the floor beneath the table.
In an interview with CR Fashion Book, Chiuri explained why she was drawn to this artist while conceiving this particular haute couture runway show: "Femininity and creativity have a paradoxical relationship: I wished to place this question at the center of my collection. As a key player of the feminist art movement, Judy Chicago was the artist I wanted to have this conversation with." Together, the fashion designer and artist created an experience that was both visually stunning and thought-provoking as they looked to subvert the obstacles women have faced throughout history in a patriarchal system. Banners (in both French and English) asked questions including "Would God be female?" and "Would both women and men be strong?"
Models walked down the purple floral carpet draped in chiffon, silk, and peacock embroidery, looking like they had stepped out into a sartorial utopia. The Greek mythology references were littered throughout the presentation, which featured delicate draping, gold headbands, braided straps, rope belts, and sandals — not a stiletto heel to be found. This added to the dreamy atmosphere to match the questions posed.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and war, provided classical goddess inspiration for the Dior designer while she conceived this collection. This particular Greek legend has an impressive resumé, which proves women have always been master multitaskers and capable of being more than one thing.
Athena has appeared in the Wonder Woman comics, making her debut in 1987, where she acted as an ally to Diana. And while Diana isn't derived from one specific Greek goddess or myth, she possesses plenty of Athena's courage and propensity for justice.
Multiple gowns that feature on this Spring 2020 runway would not look out of place in Diana's closet in the recent Patty Jenkins interpretation. In the 2017 movie, Lindy Hemming's costume design included stunning ultra-feminine frocks (perfect for semi-concealing weapons), as well as her battle-ready armor. The duality of styles was also represented in this collection, from a gorgeous metallic dress (complete with patriarchy defying pockets!) to golden tailored suiting. Get yourself a goddess who can do both.
Capes are a big favorite within these parts, so there is no doubt that a FANGRRLtopia closet would include many versions of this garment for all occasions. Want a superhero look that is also business-ready? Dior had this covered, including the unusual but striking gunmetal suit with matching cape. Not all superheroes adopt this signature piece, but the ones that do can be assured they don't have to ditch style while saving the world.
Framing shots with the "What if women ruled the world?" banner upped the visual drama — particularly when the capes were in view. The question is one filled with hope, even if the matriarchal society is far from a reality. Using clothes to empower women can sometimes come in the literal form of a cape.
It wasn't all Greek mythology as some of the ensembles leaned toward a witchy pagan aesthetic, much to our delight. The relationship between fashion and pagan influences has a long and winding history, whether it is flower crowns or leaning into Wiccan symbolism, mother nature, and romanticism. The runway is always open to the exploration of the old coupled with the new.
Two standout pieces were the beautifully embroidered robes worn over delicate sheer frocks. Crescent moon earrings and gold headbands evoked a past that only exists in myth and great works of art. Both these women looked ready to conjure something; let us join your coven.
Accessories also embraced ancient imagery, which is steeped in nature, including a variety of bracelets and cuffs. The snake that tempted Eve in the Bible was tamed, lily pads were wrapped around both the wrist and fingers, and golden metallic feathers matched the cape daring us to dream of flight. If women ruled the world, would it end the same way it did for Icarus?
The color palette did expand beyond blushes, metallics, and neutrals; the pop of crimson is reminiscent of Tilda Swinton's garment in Luca Guadagnino's witchy horror remake Suspiria.
Red is often a warning, given that the wearer possesses a power (see Melisandre in Game of Thrones) or is thirsty for battle like the Roman god of war, Mars. Mary, Queen of Scots famously wore a red shirt when she was executed and scarlet is also the color of adultery. It is attention-grabbing, and this caped chiffon frock paired with a snake bracelet was likely no coincidence. Maybe in a world with women in power, snakes and red attire paired together are not to be feared.
A society predicated on clothing empowerment does sound utopian, but there are limitations to work that doesn't embrace an image of more than one kind of woman in terms of age and size. If this was truly the work of a matriarchal society, there would be more representation.
Haute couture rarely steps out of the margins of a prescribed body type (even if designers will bend the rules for actors and musicians on the red carpet) and until this changes, sartorial fantasy is just that. Everyone can be a goddess in their imagination, but this is only the case in real life if you are sample size. Maria Grazia Chiuri asked us to consider the rules and power relationships via this collection, but part of this rule book included a very specific age and model silhouette. Fashion utopia cannot exist with such a narrow guest list.
Caped excellence took center stage in the final two looks, which drew on the mythological elements while serving up gowns that could feature on the red carpet or in a beautiful fantasy movie adventure. Genre and high fashion are a perfect partnership because they both stretch the imagination by asking "What if?" And in this case, the image of a world ruled by women is as aspirational as the high-end garments. Nevertheless, to match the ideology of the sentiment, work needs to be done here on Earth.