Six Times Fashion Paid Homage to the Vulva

Wearing your politics on your sleeve is a longstanding tradition in activism. People wore badges to protest nuclear weapons; second-wave feminists eschewed high heels and bras for flat shoes and dungarees; Democrat women wore white to Congress to promote the economic security of women. Over the last decade, fashion has found a new way of dressing for politics, by placing the female reproductive system front and center.

When female reproductive organs appear in fashion, it tends to be in the name of a feminist cause, be that donating profits to Planned Parenthood or encouraging conversations about the state of gender politics. The trend raises questions about whether fashion can truly be feminist and whether female reproductive organs are an appropriate symbol to represent the movement. Though their intentions and aesthetics vary, these six sartorial moments make up a brief history of the female reproductive organs in fashion. Viva la vulva!

Randy’s Reproductive System sweaters by Rachel Antonoff

RANDY’S REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM SWEATER

Named after Rachel’s favourite gynaecologist, her Randy’s Reproductive System sweater was designed to raise funds for Planned Parenthood: 10% of the profits from each item is donated. Also available in a t-shirt and sweatshirt, the reproductive system design proved popular with customers happy to wear their heart on their sleeve (or in this case, their uterus on their chest). The New York-based designer created the sweater as part of her Fall 2015 collection, which explored the intersection between biology and botany. Actresses Rowan Blanchard and Lena Dunham were among the celebrities snapping them up.

Pussy Bow

PUSSY BOW BY CHRISTEN CLIFFORD

Pussy Bow is a project by performance artist Christen Clifford. During a residency at the Ace Hotel in New York in 2015, Clifford projected images from inside her vagina onto the walls using a vibrator that doubled as a camera. The images showed warm pinks imbued with streaks of cool blue that captured Clifford’s imagination. Giving new meaning to the term ‘pussy bow’, originally popularised by Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, she turned the stills into silk scarves, following Antonoff’s lead in giving 10% of the profits to Planned Parenthood.

Emelie Janrell’s uterus dress

EMELIE JANRELL FALL 2017

In November 2016, Swedish pop star Tove Lo appeared on the Australian Music Industry Awards (Arias) red carpet in a mesh dress complete with a leather uterus. The dress was designed by a fellow Swede: fashion designer Emelie Janrell. When the dress received less-than-positive responses, Janrell told The Guardian newspaper: “I’m actually very surprised by the overall impact the dress has made. After all, it is just a graphic image of the female anatomy. The fact that that is such a shock may call for more uteruses.”

A year later, in the midst of women’s marches sweeping the globe, Janrell took the idea one step further, presenting two purple dresses, each sporting their own fallopian fashions. The first featured an oversized image of a uterus on a long-sleeved mesh dress. The second was liberally dotted with the textbook-style diagrams, a true ode to ovaries.

Namilia SS18

NAMILIA SS18

For SS18, Berlin-based design duo Namilia presented an unapologetically yonic collection. ‘The Indiscreet Jewels’ was inspired by Denis Diderot’s novel of the same name, published anonymously in 1748. In the allegory, Louis XV is portrayed as the sultan Mangogul of the Congo. He possesses a magical ring which prompts women’s genitals (or ‘jewels’) to talk, revealing their past encounters. Namilia’s take on this fuses their signature Berlin club kid style with the 18th-century courtiers who populate the novel. Lapels resemble labia and soft pink vulvas decorate ornate paniers, while bondage-inspired bikinis stretch across curves and centuries alike.

Even the shoes were on theme: towering heels fronted by pink and red vulvas with delicate pearls in place of a clitoris. Designed in collaboration with fellow Royal College of Art graduate Kira Goodey, the heels were a play on chopines, a towering Venetian overshoe worn from the 14th to 17th centuries. The original chopines protected wearers from filthy streets; Goodey’s interpretations raise women above the patriarchy’s dirty tactics. “Once again the shit is piling up, so it’s time for shoes to be elevated accordingly,” Goodey’s website proclaims.

Janelle Monáe’s ‘PYNK’ trousers

JANELLE MONÁE ‘PYNK’

Back in April 2018, Janelle Monáe released the queer anthem ‘PYNK’, five years after her second studio album. The pansexual singer appears in the video wearing what could be described as vaginal chaps. The blooming pink trousers were dreamt up by Dutch designer Duran Lantink and promptly stole the show in the video.

Even better, the singer clarified that her message, which celebrated femininity, was an inclusive one. Speaking to Billboard, she said: “Sometimes I think people interpret those as vagina pants, they call them vulva pants, they call them flowers, but it just represents some parts of some women.” Several dancers in the video wear the pants, while others simply wear leotards. “I don’t believe that all women need to possess a vagina to be a woman,” Monáe explained. “I have one [and] I’m proud of it, but there’s a lot of policing and controlling that people are trying to have over our vaginas.”

From September 2018 – January 2019, the vaginal chaps were even exhibited at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Dr. Valerie Steele, the director of The Museum at FIT, told Vanity Fair: “I really wanted to show all the different facets of pink. So often people just think it’s this kind of namby-pamby sweet feminine colour associated with little girls. There’s so much more to it.”

Gucci’s uterus dress

GUCCI SS20

When Gucci sent a dress embellished with a uterus down its Spring/Summer 2020 runway, people had mixed feelings about it. Some claimed it as a feminist triumph, others questioned the usefulness of a uterus on a dress. Northern Irish pro-choice activist Emma Campbell told the Huffington Post, “There is something incredibly significant about wearing your politics on your body when it’s your body being policed by the state.” Concerned about Gucci’s intentions, she added, “There is a world of difference between supporting a campaign by buying and wearing their merchandise to further their activities, and a designer jumping on a bandwagon for fast fashion or controversial value.”

In defense of the dress, Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele told WWD: “It’s unbelievable that around the world there are still people who believe that they can control a woman’s body, a woman’s choice. I will always stand behind the freedom of being, always.” The collection also featured a blazer that said, ‘My body, my choice’, and clothes inscribed with ‘May 22, 1978’, in honour of the date abortion was legalized in Italy. After the collection debuted, Gucci made a statement on Instagram clarifying their pro-choice stance and highlighting its longstanding commitment to gender equality. The brand’s Chime For Change campaign has advocated for sexual and reproductive rights since it was founded in 2013.

This article was published on the American magazine, Perfect Number. Check it out on their website for the full monty (it’s just sartorial sexual organs, no unsolicited pics here).

Radical Softness: A Strong Vision, Softly Spoken

Hyperfemininity is challenging the suit to its power-dressing crown. Could radical softness be the new frontier of femininity in fashion?

In 2015, queer artist Lora Mathis coined the phrase “radical softness as a weapon,” summarizing a feeling that many women will be familiar with. The niggling feeling that patriarchy isn’t working, and maybe there was a better way to live. Maybe empathy and inclusion, vulnerability and courage, could work a little better than power struggles, oppression, and warfare. Maybe if we softened the edges, life might be a slightly easier pill to swallow. Their message went viral: “In a society that presents stoicism as strength, sharing your emotions openly is a political move.” I rediscovered Mathis’ work recently, and it got me thinking about how radical softness could be interpreted in fashion. The way we dress says a lot about who we are, but it also speaks to how we want to be perceived, and right now, radical softness feels like a pretty good aspiration.

At its most basic, fashion — or maybe more fittingly, clothing — is there to shield us from the elements. It keeps us warm in winter, cool in summer and dry when it rains. But clothing isn’t just a physical armor, it also serves as an emotional guard. On the days when vulnerability veers on weakness and insecurities seem overwhelming, fashion can act as a decoy, tricking both ourselves and the people we meet that day into thinking that we are totally fine. So the idea of power dressing is nothing new. The problem is, in the fashion lexicon, power dressing means assimilating to patriarchal ideals of power; to the white, male default. How many times have you reached for a ‘power suit’ over a dress? Just look at Hillary Clinton. She has a whole rainbow of pantsuits carefully curated to mimic her male counterparts; the standard pop of color is her only nod to femininity.

Radical softness comes from professor/speaker Brene Brown’s school of thought, harnessing vulnerability as the key to courage. As Brene says in her new Netflix special, “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life.” In other words, in order to live a full life, you have to accept that vulnerability will be part of it. What that means for power dressing is this: we need to subvert what we see as powerful. For so long, power dressing has meant wearing a suit, dressing like a man and minimizing femininity, because it is associated with softness. But if vulnerability and strength go hand in hand, so do femininity and power. 

I asked Lora what they thought radical softness looked like in fashion. “As I was beginning to create visual work exploring radical softness, my style became hyper-feminine and focused on pastel colors,” they said. “Much of this was influenced by artists in Montreal who I also consider a large part of the concept of radical softness: Stella Starchild, Ambivalently Yours, Laurence Philomene, Flora Fauna. They had their own community and were wearing soft colors and played with lots of pinks.”

For Lora, exploring radical softness in fashion also meant exploring their gender identity, grappling with traditional notions of femininity and power. “I was questioning my gender and not feeling like a woman,” they continued. “The pastels felt like a dressing up of femininity, of being inside it but in a contrived, performative way. Emotions and pink are both often written off as purely belong to the feminine realm, and therefore being attached to weakness. Perhaps my tendency to dress head to toe in the color was to poke at this idea of it being weak.”

Perhaps radical softness looks like hyperfemininity, the style embraced by Molly Goddard, Giambattista Valli and Simone Rocha. Instead of small doses, their clothes allow you to swaddle yourself in softness: hot pink bubbles of tulle and billowing marshmallow parachutes. Maybe it is the unapologetically yonic trousers Janelle Monáe wore in her Pynk music video, designed by Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink. This hyperfemininity is hardcore softness, taking up space and refusing to shrink itself.

Swiss designer Pauline de Blonay has her own version of radical softness. The Central Saint Martins graduate recently won second place in the L’Oréal Pro Young Talent Womenswear award for her take on “fragile strength.” Crayola-colored suits with exaggerated shoulders and cropped flares are paired with molded silver armor, strapped to the chest with soft and supple leather. In another look, enlarged metal nipples mimic medieval chainmail. ‘Breastplates’ in the most literal form, these feminine forms represent an armor ill-equipped for combat, and a wearer who is entirely okay with that. “Doing the soft body parts in soft, heavy metal was an expression of that fragile strength,” Pauline explains. “It’s a vulnerability that everyone has in themselves, but we don’t see it because we don’t talk about it or people hide it.”

The collection dances on the line between strength and fragility, external assumptions and internal truth, masculinity and femininity. “We can look really strong but be quite fragile inside,” she continues. “You can put out a strong image of yourself, but there’s always more inside that we don’t see.” Several items in her collection are made from paper-thin fabric backed in aluminum tape, allowing the wearer to play sculptor and shape the clothes to their bodies. For Pauline, this translates to a malleable strength, one that adapts to difficult situations and endures changes: “In my work, I wanted to do these things that don’t just have one shape. It can look really strong and powerful and big, but you can remold it, break the shape. It’s strong and fragile at the same time.”

Pauline isn’t the first designer to use the female form in clothing. Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection in 1999 featured curvaceous body casts in cool silver metal. Skim the images of Irish designer Sinead O’Dwyer’s first collection and you may think it looks entirely unwearable, more like art than fashion. In fact, it’s a critique of the way fashion fits women’s bodies – or rather, doesn’t. Inspired by the experience of trying to squeeze her hips into skirts that sagged around the waist and contort her breasts into tops that gaped around her shoulders, Sinead decided to flip the idea of sizing on its head. Her designs are made from plaster cast molds of her models, perfectly hugging the parts of their bodies they love most. The result is a collection of fiberglass molds, marbled with silicone paints in pastel hues, that are simultaneously soft and strong. They are unapologetically feminine, shaped by the female gaze and made to celebrate the body parts the wearers loved most, not hide their insecurities. A perfect representation of radical softness.

This article was written for the American publication, Perfect Number. For pictures of Lora and Pauline’s work, you can view the article in its original format here.