Should a feminist be seductive? Prada’s stunning new collection explores sexism and sexuality

Seductive—to women’s wallets.
Seductive—to women’s wallets.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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“My question is about feminism and this idea that it’s stupid to be seductive,” Miuccia Prada said backstage after her show in Milan on Feb. 23. “Is it right or wrong for a woman to be seductive? Is seduction something that was invented by us or by society? Is it horrible?”

These questions were the animating force behind her beautiful new collection. Prada has been an outspoken feminist since the 1960s, and received a PhD in political science before later getting into the family business of selling luxury leather goods—and then of course launching her now-global fashion brand. Her show grappled with what an educated feminist is to make of feathers, lingerie, and the other long-standing signifiers of seduction in fashion. The subtext was the question of whether society or nature is to blame for the importance we place on a woman being sexually attractive.

Prada didn’t set out to offer clear answers, but rather channeled the inquiry into stunning designs loaded with those seductive tools and references to different views of femininity. The result was like a tour of decades-worth of women’s internal conflicts about being strong feminists and physically desirable at the same time.

Among the details were those aforementioned feathers and lingerie. Prints based on old 1970s-esque movie posters featuring sexy starlets also appeared on several items—and some of the posters themselves lined the show space.

Models wear creations as part of the Prada women's Fall-Winter 2017-18 collection, that was presented in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Feathers and faces.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Knitwear, which Prada called “a symbol of women in the home but also of feminism,” was abundant. In the years following World War I, knits freed women from the constrictive, formal garments of earlier eras, and later morphed into the uniform of the mid-century housewife. Knit bra-tops revealing a good deal of skin mixed these reference points with the sexuality Prada was pondering.

Prada has acknowledged she’s had an uneasy relationship with fashion for years because of her feminism. It’s an industry focused largely on appearance, and feeds into the idea that there’s a narrow lane in which a woman must stay if she wants to be seen as seductive. Prada herself has arguably contributed to the stereotyping, even as she’s designed clothes that rail against it. How many models has she cast over the years that don’t match conventional standards of beauty?

Her goal with the latest line of clothes, she said, wasn’t to make any political statements, just to take in what was happening in the world around her. As critic Suzy Menkes points out at Vogue, many items could be easily separated from the collection and its context to find a home in a customer’s closet. The brand is still a business, after all.

But it’s just about impossible to separate feminism from politics today. Prada even repeated an anecdote she heard about the Women’s March in Washington, DC the day after US president Donald Trump’s inauguration: at least one older feminist there had marveled that after all these years, they’re still fighting.

“Forty, 50 years on and men still have the power, there’s much to do,” Prada said.