On Tuesday afternoon in Paris, the Dior spring 2018 show opened with a graphic T-shirt that read, in all caps: “WHY HAVE THERE BEEN NO GREAT WOMEN ARTISTS?”
It was a question first asked in 1971 by the American art historian Linda Nochlin, whose original essay of the same title was printed in pamphlets for the Paris Fashion Week crowd to take home in their shoulder bags. According to Nochlin’s granddaughter, Julia Trotta, the French fashion house reached out a few months ago to collaborate.
If you read Nochlin’s text, you’ll gather that she poses this question not necessarily because she believes it to be true, but rather to challenge the assumptions behind it and the reactions to it — both by feminists who counter by naming female artists and misogynists who believe “women are incapable of greatness.”
Nochlin’s essay interrogates every angle of the question, opening it up beyond gender to issues of race and class as well. She writes:
Thus the question of women’s equality—in art as in any other realm—devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.
Naturally, when you boil a historic, lengthy feminist essay down to a hundred-something-dollar designer slogan T-shirt, there are going to be reactions. That seems to be exactly what Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, wants for the brand. When she took over in July of 2016, she became the first woman to lead the creative side in the label’s 69-year history. “DIO(R)EVOLUTION,” she called it.
Chirui’s debut collection included a slogan shirt similar to the one introduced on Tuesday that read: “We should all be feminists.” It was a quote from the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose book and TED Talk was of the same title. The piece went for $700. (And quickly sold out.)
While countless street-style stars, magazines, models, and even Rihanna embraced the shirt, many criticized Dior’s obviously capitalist approach to gender politics, saying that feminism was being treated merely as a “cool new trend.” Following Tuesday’s show, the Times also argued: “In her essay Ms. Nochlin posited that part of the problem were rules made by the patriarchy, but Ms. Chiuri is not rejecting clothes dictated by the patriarchy.”
According to Nochlin’s granddaughter, the historian was unaware of Dior’s “We should all be feminists” shirt when she was first approached by the brand. But when Trotta explained that Chiuri had an “interest in feminism,” Nochlin said something along the lines of “Well, GOOD.”
Nochlin, who is now 86, was unable to provide comment to the Cut, as she is currently “focusing on her health.” But Trotta shared her personal thoughts on combining branding with feminism in an email on her grandmother’s behalf: “It’s happening regardless of what we think,” she wrote. “But I guess it’s better to try to take advantage of that interest and embrace all the questions and complications that come up in hopes to deepen and expand the feminist conversation. And then it’s up to us (feminists) to hold those brands accountable for the messages they project.”
Of her grandmother’s original essay, Trotta wrote, “I think it’s lasted this long because it’s quite elastic and is a model of activist writing that can apply to any number [of] subject positions and disciplines. It’s basically questioning every convention and institution, which we need to continue to do.”
Trotta was emailing from Paris, where she saw the Dior show with her own eyes. Though Nochlin herself was not in the audience, she was apparently “thrilled” afterward. She had allowed Dior to include her essay (without personal monetary compensation) under a few conditions: One of which was that Dior had to support a group art show at the Monnaie de Paris titled “Women House,” which opens October 20. Curated by Camille Morineau, it includes 40 female artists from around the world, and will come to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2018.