Are we permitted to comment on the fashion industry if we don’t really ‘do’ style? Sadie Hasler thinks so. Niggled by something Stella McCartney said, she considers the importance of words, even in an industry whose business is visual
Illustration by: Jemima Williams
“Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time. And this collection is celebrating the gentler side…celebrating the softness of a woman and the fragility that for me actually gives you a strength.”
Stella McCartney said that, a couple of weeks ago, while launching a new range. I only stumbled across it because I saw a nice male journo tweeting about it, saying he disagreed with Stella and found strength in a woman very attractive.
Now, I don’t do clothes. I mean, I do them, in that tokenistic way one must when the public indecency charges stack up and you finally admit that being consistently naked in public is not going well. But I don’t do clothes in the style sense. So I feel a little under-qualified to comment on the style ethos of a fashion designer’s new season of stuff. I remember the scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep gives ‘fat’ Ann Hathaway a dressing down by drily commentating her sweater’s particular shade of blue (cerulean, I think) back to its earliest fashion origins, which may mostly have been script-writing bombastics, but did actually make me think.
Putting aside the fact that fashion labels must seasonally find something new with which to re-launch themselves, putting aside the fact that the pressure for them must be immense, that they might occasionally be forgiven for expounding fluff-wank buzz-words to skeletally waft new produce down the runway, putting aside all this… you still sort of want to assume that somewhere, behind a fashion house headed by a woman, that there’s some sort of steering cerebral decision maker who’s essentially, beneath the intimidating gloss, on our side. Who is designing with the real woman in mind, because she is one. Who, despite the frippery that is commonly at play in Fashion, has an over-arching intellectual savvy, who knows what it means to be a woman, and who wants to express that rather than the oft-male-promoted dreams of unreal things.
I think Stella is this kind of woman. You only have to look at her tailoring to know she errs on the side of comfort and sense, not ridiculous contrived faff that turns a woman into an origami napkin. So, when you hear Stella McCartney say “Strength on its own in a woman is quite abrasive and not terribly attractive all the time”, it sort of jolts you. You wonder if she meant to say “Strength on its own in a woman is incorrectly perceived as being quite abrasive and not terribly attractive sometimes”, but that she got her words wrong, because she was knackered, or hungry, or drunk.
It would be easy to brush off with a too-easy “yes, we are a bit soppy sometimes; maybe that can be symbolised by soft pinks and florals”, or even “she’s got a bloody hard job thinking up new shit all the time, not sure I could do it – good luck to her.”
But then you hear the echo of her “strength on its own”. Strength on its own? Strength on its own is the thing that allows mothers to bring up babies on ten quid a week when her partner’s fucked off, not a wan-faced admittance of fragility, or ‘attractively’ hiding the strength under another more appealing quality, like a giggly love of baking or a baby pink layered chemise.
“You wish she either didn’t mean the words she said, or – if she did but explained it wrong – that she had said it better.”
And then you realise that she seems to be prioritising being attractive above appearing how we truly are – whether we’re strong or weak or what.
You might say “well, she’s a designer, of course she is focused on outward appearance – that’s her business”, and why, ultimately, is that surprising or galling? She is the head of a fashion house, not a spokeswoman for Amnesty or a rape counsellor or a primary school teacher.
You realise her choice of words comes across a bit apologetic. “Terribly sorry, Strength is a bit abrasive and not terribly attractive isn’t it. Argh. Sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll take back those steel grey power suits with the ‘reduce me and I’ll kill you’ bovver heel-boots of last season and be demure again. POSIES!”
You wish she either didn’t mean the words she said, or – if she did but explained it wrong – that she had said it better.
Perhaps that is why we can so often go wrong when we try to elucidate the unspoken into words; turn the essence of fashion, a visual thing, into a piece of media/gender pleasing prose. Stella McCartney’s not a writer. She’s a designer. I suspect, even more than that sometimes, she is a business woman. Her words are copy, not art. And no matter how good she is, her designs are more business than art. And her little season launch speeches are essentially like affixing a sales label to her babies, which she then sends downstream.
And that too is fine. You’d be pretty naive to expect a company to suddenly cease caring about sales.
Out of interest, I looked up Stella McCartney’s company statement. I admire the things she says about sustainability, trade, and the environment, and her frankness on issues such as animal testing. She carefully states she is as careful and thoughtful as she can be, but also covers her back, because in her luxury trade you can’t make everything out of ethically-sourced hemp. It’d look shit and lumpy and the fashionistas would flock elsewhere.
But if she is so mindful of such big things as the future of the planet, and is as canny as she seems about the articulation of her business, then I wish she would be careful about her words, which are things of great design too.
Through the verbal launching of her new season, advising women to be less strong if they want to be attractive, implying that attractiveness holds sway over all else, she is sending a powerful message.
It’s dangerous to encourage other women to not appear to be strong for the sake of a season of new designs (whether we can afford her clothes or not), and to fear the social and aesthetic response we’ll get if we do.
We are not all like Stella. We don’t have the money, connections, self-assuredness, and lifelong privilege that she has. And we still have to try, – try really bloody hard – to get even one hundredth of the way up the ladder as her. We need that strength, no matter what it looks like.
Whatever her opinions, her words should be picked more carefully on the subject of feminine strength. Because if there’s no sense that the power women are on our side, us smaller girls have an even harder job.
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.