Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) is a controversially fascinating emblem of women's emancipation. A militant activist who joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU; formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst) in 1906, Davison supported the women's suffrage cause in Britain in a strong and at times rather violent way (that included in some cases stone throwing and arson...).
Imprisoned on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times, she is better known for stepping in front of King George V's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913 and dying four days later from the injuries she sustained. Some historians believe she was trying to disrupt the Derby to draw attention to the suffragette cause and that her main purpose was attaching a WSPU flag to the bridle of the King's horse.
The fatally injured suffragette considered by some as a brave martyr and attacked by others as an irresponsible anarchist, naturally came to mind after seeing Luella Bartley and Katie Hillier's Autumn/Winter 2015 collection for Marc by Marc Jacobs.
Though the long dresses and cargo skirts matched with cropped navy jackets that opened the collection (while T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution" played in the background) vaguely called to mind the lean silhouettes of the suffragette's clothes, it was the slogans - "Suffragette", "Solidarity", "Unite", "Our Future", "Our Choice" - scattered on the blouses, skirts, coats and scarves that reminded of the WSPU cause focusing the attention on women empowerment.
In January during the menswear shows we saw references to the tailored uniforms of soldiers, but in this case the militant and military mood - evoked by the berets customised by Judy Blame, by details like ample utility pockets on skirts or pouches attached to belts and sturdy crepe soled boots and shoes covered in punk studs - was borrowed from the Guardian Angels, but remixed with protest banners and Jeremy Deller's political posters filtered through the graphic art of Fergus "Fergadelic" Purcell (who has already collaborated on Bartley/Hillier for Marc by Marc Jacobs' A/W 14 and S/S 15 collections) and through cult urban films à la The Warriors.
There was also an arty yet social element in the prints applied to the dresses and trousers, employed as patches on jeans or used on multiple badges pinned to the jackets: Bartley and Hillier collaborated indeed with the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in London, and borrowed from the Victorian poet, writer, translator and socialist lecturer some of his most famous patterns such as Morris' "Acanthus" and "Strawberry Thief" (though there seemed to be references also to his tile panels) in bright blues and faded greens .
Morris has enjoyed a great rediscovery in the last few years: he inspired Jeremy Deller's exhibition for the British Pavilion at the 55th International Venice Art Exhibition; he has been the focus of a few exhibitions in the UK and he has recently been juxtaposed to Andy Warhol in an event ("Love is Enough") at Modern Art Oxford (until 8th March 2015). This connection actually seems pertinent to this collection since the Morris prints on the garments were almost given a Pop Art twist with the political slogans.
The second part of the collection with the red plaid/tartan evoking motifs was maybe less original, while the final velvet pannier jackets and short bell-shaped dresses added a tough yet romantic or anarco-chic (funny but a recent exhibition dedicated to William Morris that closed in January 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in London was entitled "Anarchy & Beauty") touch reminding a bit of Alexander McQueen's historically rebellious moods (in a way you could also compare and juxtapose the slogans in this collection to the words "Honour", "Truth" and "Valour" printed on the garments in Alexander McQueen's A/W 15 menswear collection...looks like next Autumn will be a season of slogans and mottoes...).
Though history, politics and protest were present in this collection, the designs weren't about such issues. Bartley and Hillier cleverly employed the optimistic energy of youth and radical protests in a commercial (there was for example a good balance in this collection between maxi and mini skirts that is missing in many other fashion collections, a point that will guarantee a wider choice to consumers) and sellable key, bizarrely yet perfectly reproducing the Morris contradiction (Morris was against capitalism but he had a successful manufacturing business and a shop in Oxford Street, London).
At the same time this army of young women seemed less fake than Karl Lagerfeld's risible feminist protest at Chanel, or Kanye West's depressed army of kids. Contrary to trends unifying genders and blurring boundaries (at times with terrible results...), Bartley and Hillier seemed more interested in re-shifting the attention towards women and, in a world that cares a lot about celebrities but easily forgets about young girls and women being denied an education, being used as sex slaves or suffering from domestic violence, a bit of empowerment can only be positive.
The only sad thing about the collection is the fact that this is still fashion and therefore this is empowerment for all those ones who will be able to afford it (though most of us will just keep on defacing clothes and accessories with our own slogans...). Let's hope at least that the consumers who will opt for these designs will not wear these words as empty badges but will act accordingly, maybe transforming the original WSPU motto "Deeds not words" (also written on Emily Wilding Davison's gravestone) into a fashionably modern "deeds not just clothes".
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