Photo by Brian Centrone.

Mary Kathryn Fellios (they/she) is a writer and curator based in Hudson, New York (unceded Munsee/Mohheaconneok territory).

Moschino x Barbie: A match made in heaven

“Hi Barbie!” rings out from the loudspeakers and a model emerges. She is a personification of every child’s favorite platinum blonde plaything. Bedecked in synthetic wig and bubblegum pink lipstick, each subsequent model in Jeremy Scott’s viral Moschino Spring 2015 “Barbie” collection showcased the many faces—and the many, many looks— of Mattel’s most famous plastic toy since her arrival in the toyboxes of the masses 63 years ago. See Charlotte Free, roller-skating to the very edge of the runway in matching bra, track shorts, and sweatband, and shimmying her way back.

Moschino’s signature sartorial gestures, seen throughout Scott’s 2015 collection, include a proclivity for wordplay, an exuberant campiness, and a love of straddling the line between taste and tastelessness. Scott’s infamous forerunner, Franco Moschino, foregrounded these fashion tactics with his eponymous label and singular vision for the future of fashion in the mid-1980s. His contribution to the history of fashion comes, partially, through his influential role in the tide of Italian luxury brands (i.e. Prada, Moschino, and arguably Versace) that came of age in the early 1990s rebelling against the older values of the French fashion houses. Among Franco Moschino’s most famous collections are those produced in the final five years of his life, from 1989­–1994, before his early death due to AIDS-related health complications. Quintessentially queer in its approach and aesthetics, Moschino finds a kind of soulmate in Mattel’s unabashedly over-the-top and unashamedly femme fantasy of contemporary womanhood.

Throughout the ‘Barbie’ collection, Scott’s typical high-low treatment—a cornerstone of the house, an ironic and self-referential marriage of high fashion execution and strong, kitschy imagery culled from low-brow mass culture—strategically pinpointed archetypal traits shared by the two brands. Both Barbie and Moschino have historically challenged the systems of value that produce ‘true’ or ‘refined’ womanhood through class-based notions of taste, restraint, and sophistication. Both instead invest in creating a certain kind of democratizing glamor that thumbs its nose at the elite by centering the performative action of play. In this way, the combination of the two harkens back to a sense of imagination rooted in childhood but translated and projected back onto idiosyncratic visions of lived womanhood.

Moschino. Look 7. Spring 2015 Ready-to-Wear.

Barbie x motherhood

“Since the beginning of time,” intones our unseen narrator, none other than Dame Helen Mirren, at the top of this year’s blockbuster hit Barbie. “Since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls” (the cinephiles in the audience immediately recognize this scene and its setting as an unlikely homage to Stanley Kubrick’s famous “dawn of man” opening from “2001: A Space Odyssey”). A gaggle of girls appears, wearing drab, antiquated dresses and playing house with their baby dolls in a desolate, otherworldly setting, expressionless and practically drooping with boredom. The problem with these baby dolls is that girls “could only ever play at being mothers, which can be fun” – Mirren pauses meaningfully – “for a while …”

The 2023 Barbie film’s first lines play its hand openly yet cleverly, invoking the messy, contradictory relations of mother and child—and of the wider socio-cultural enterprises of motherhood and childhood—that form an unlikely nexus around which the film’s wide-ranging, pseudo-feminist thematics spin.

“Just ask your mother.”

In its opening moments, Barbie captures the ennui and drudgery of motherhood that America Ferrera’s character Gloria comes to actively resist. Her experience of womanhood—defined by thankless and undesirable work to be performed with a smile—is still entangled with the archaic image of “the happy housewife heroine” that persists across all forms of labor and social relations. Women, in the Barbie era, are supposedly able to have it all, do it all, wear it all, be it all, but are still supposed to smile and say “thank you” to the men who provide that access.

Expressing the psychological dark-sidedness of her character’s experience of femininity allows her to gain the sympathy and understanding of her daughter. To her, her mother’s internal world is “weird and dark and crazy”–and therefore not only humanizing but painfully relatable.

The Press-Enterprise/DeeAnn Bradley.

“Both Barbie and Moschino have historically challenged the systems of value that produce ‘true’ or ‘refined’ womanhood through class-based notions of taste, restraint, and sophistication.”

Working women, women’s work

In 1974, the renowned Marxist feminist historian and activist Silvia Federici declared “Neuroses, suicides, desexualisation” as the “occupational diseases of the housewife,” in her galvanizing text for the movement Wages Against Housework. [1] Federici’s notable contributions to the feminist movement have always sought “a satisfactory explanation for the roots of the social and economic exploitation of women.” [2] Federici, like many feminists who preceded her and those who follow in her wake, locates women’s exclusion from capitalist development—their historic relegation to degraded forms of work and difficulty in accessing higher ranks of political power and social class of their own accord—in the assignment of women’s labor-power to acts of social reproduction, which, in turn, get classed as ‘non-work.’ In short, the housewife does not work, and yet she is working all the time.

According to this strain of Marxist critique, ‘women’s work,’ which is an antiquated yet unfortunately still operative category in today’s socio-political sphere, is the label given to the ‘non-work’ activities that in actuality sustain the entire workforce. As such, they produce and reproduce labor-power itself. That said, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, the sick, or the elderly, and other necessary acts that keep capitalist society running as well as create and train new workers, are not inherently gendered acts, but indeed are regarded as ‘non-labor’ activities (which is but one symptom of capitalism’s strategic belittlement of collective care and non-masculine forms of knowledge). Federici, in turn, has argued from the 1970s until today that the single mother with a full-time job works not one shift per day but two. She labors twice over—in the workplace and in the home—and should be compensated for such.

It’s no wonder that America Ferrara plays an all too familiar archetype of the haggard mother: she knows first-hand that her life operates, to an extent, like a nightmarish workday that never ends. But the Barbie movie’s mode of social critique, though it revolves around the shifting relation of childhood to womanhood, actually centers the ways in which this relation is politically transformative and ultimately fraught with ambivalence.

Note the perhaps problematic ethical imperative of the movie spoken by Ruth Handler to her ‘daughter’ Barbie: “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they have come … ” This statement assumes a certain kind of reticence on the part of any mother, enshrining the common assertion that the mother is a stagnant non-actor in the political sphere. No mother, and no parent, is ever merely ‘standing still’—but always, rather, a shifting figure that becomes more complicated and layered over time in relation to their children. Also, importantly, parents must be encouraged to advocate for causes from which they themselves will reap the benefits. And yes, the children will benefit also—but that is a happy symptom, rather than the instantiating event, of the structural change for which we all advocate.

Moschino. Look 29. Spring/Summer 1994 Ready-to-Wear.

From Margot Robbie on screen to a plastic doll hidden away in a toy chest, the entire scope of the Barbie franchise is inherently infused with issues of femininity and the family, but in ways that contemporary feminist scholar Sophie Jones would coin as ‘non-reproductive.’ Jones’s work describes the incipient potential for

a feminist politics of (non)-reproduction [that] recognizes all the ways in which child-rearing might entail a refusal to reproduce the dominant order. Let’s think, then, about reproduction as non-reproduction: the way having children exposes the absurdity and irrationality of our ways of working, bringing new people into the world who might want to change things. Let’s think, at the same time, about non-reproduction as production: about relations of care and affinity that flourish outside or in defiance of the nuclear family. [3]

Children are not merely reproduction, but represent change. Each parent chooses to parent differently and is always more than just a parent; they may defy notions of the nuclear family; they may embrace the uncanniness of bringing a person into the world who is not you and who chafes against the strictures and structures of the past in which you were raised; or, they may not parent at all but seek entirely different and unprescribed relations of “care and affinity” to those who were born after themselves. Barbie names a feminist relation to the future, shared between mother and child, that has the potential to redefine femininity as such. By giving birth to the future, the parent aims not to reproduce oneself, one’s past, or one’s desires through the figure of their child—but to create the opportunity for new familial and political structures to arise in the process of mothering.

Moschino. Look 53. Spring 2015 Ready-to-Wear.

Franco Moschino’s mommy & the ‘Moschino Woman’

Born in Abbiategrasso in 1950, a young Franco Moschino entered the Academy of Fine Arts of Milan, where he dreamed of becoming a painter. This proclivity for prints and an abundance of color would, unsurprisingly, become one of his distinctive sartorial signatures. His relationship with fashion occurred by coincidence: he took a job to pay for school by working as a freelance illustrator for major magazines until 1971, when he began his collaboration with Gianni Versace and, six years later, became the designer of the clothing brand Cadette, which he would abandon in 1982. A handful of years later, Moschino’s first eponymous women’s collection was presented.

Moschino’s peculiar designs occupy multiple statuses in fashion history. Franco Moschino’s limited body of work (due to his early death) bears the impact of Catholicism in its ornate Counter-Reformation aesthetics, revels in self-referential punchlines indebted to surrealism, commedia dell’arte, and postmodernist tendencies, and exemplifies a 1980s genre of womenswear designed by gay men looking at their mothers suspended between the postwar economic boom and a still traditionally gendered civil life.

Much like the general state of Italian fashion and contemporary discourse around motherhood, the ‘Moschino Woman’—an unofficial and yet fitting term for the kind of theatrical persona who is perpetually (re)figured throughout Franco’s work—is torn between nostalgia and progress. Franco’s collections take into account the unstable status of women and the social currency of femininity both in his time and in ours. His designs parody the Marxist trope, set in Federici’s terms, that the woman is considered a consumer and not a producer within the capitalist economic system. But the ‘Moschino Woman’ is decidedly not a woman whose sphere is confined to the home. Using fashion as a tool for self-reflection, Moschino’s clothes—exaggerated and extravagant, yet under-handed—mirror, in some ways, the typical taste of the 80s and early 90s, but his was never a hymn to hedonism. Instead, his ensembles discursively capture the manifold social pressures and aesthetic pleasures stemming from the expectation of femininity as frivolity, and, moreover, of extravagance (as opposed to class-based notions of ‘good taste’) as a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Continuing during Scott’s tenure, the ‘Moschino Woman’ has been crafted as  one caught between purely conspicuous consumption and the more difficult acquisition of social capital. One such staple of Moschino that evinces this tension is the gold lamé gowns featured in both Scott’s 2015 ‘Barbie’ collection and Franco’s late Spring-Summer 1994 collection.

Looking closely at 1994’s Look 29, the ensemble furthers a coupled logic of capitalist accumulation and surrealistic association. A model waltzes down the runway in a golden, ruffled lamé bustier gown with a patent leather belt around her waist. She wears lilac evening gloves and an opulent pearl necklace. Both conservative and cheap in its assembly, the ensemble is rendered comical by its accessories: she dons pig ears and a petite matching snout. The carnivalesque weaves together these animal and human features, reconstructed into a cohesive worldly order. Moschino, in its signature style, again stages an aspiration to style and luxury while rejecting the class-based dos and don’ts and providing a rarefied statement on the nature of opulence within the brand’s idiosyncratic oeuvre. A sort of visual pun, a representational offering of casting one’s pearls before swine, Look 29 conflates the innate, moralistic dirtiness of money—the classlessness of aspirational opulence—with the joyful, gaudy pleasures of naïve camp. Married together, the look muses on the consolidation and socialization of meaning, both positive and negative in valence, around femininity. Moschino acknowledges the status of women as self-reflexive consumers who understand they are also viewed as commodities. As such, the Moschino Woman is ambivalent: she carries both society’s praises and its judgments of her on her chest—as slogans, punchlines, and branding. She is a woman who is in on the joke; and, like a working mother, she is one who abides in contradiction.

Top: Moschino. Waist of Money Suit, 1991. Acetate, rayon. Courtesy of Claudia Berger. Installation view, life and limbs, Swiss Institute, New York, 2019. Bottom: Moschino. Look 3. Spring/Summer 1991 Ready-to-Wear.

Waist of money: A feminist contradicton

A remarkable suit from Moschino’s Spring/Summer 1991 collection throws the figure of the ‘Moschino Woman’ into high relief. Fashioned in red rayon, a notably gaudy and unsophisticated fabric from which to cut a traditional suit, the ensemble additionally features gold embroidery spelling out the words ‘Waist of Money’ about its own waistline. As such, the ensemble openly announces its consumerist intentions, offering multiple plays on a visual and linguistic pun. Ultimately, for the Moschino Woman, her body exists alongside this peculiar type of sardonic, sartorial performativity.

The enigmatic status of this particular suit has been isolated by conceptual artist Anna-Sophie Berger, whose practice and preoccupations are grounded in her training in fashion. Coincidentally, this suit—featured in Berger’s curatorial project,  life and limbs, an exhibition held at the Swiss Institute in New York City in 2019—connects the artist to a specific recollection, and, indeed, a specific vision of her mother stemming from childhood. On the day of Berger’s christening, her mother, Claudia, dawned this very suit, captured on candid camera as she fiddled with Berger’s celebratory garb outside the family car. As the artist recounts:

In the photograph, my mother is sitting on the driver’s seat of a silver Mercedes, with both her legs placed outside on the sidewalk. Her auburn hair is loose and she is wearing the red Moschino suit jacket and a matching skirt, sheer tights, a watch, and two golden bracelets. On her left cuff, we see a small golden dollar sign on a button. She is looking at me at six years old in a white festive satin gown. Reaching out with both hands, she touches my cheek lightly. My hand is placed on her thigh. It is the day of my first communion. I am wearing a wreath of small white flowers and green leaves and I am holding on to a lilac twig. [4]

The suit is a strange and openly rebellious choice for her mother to make for a christening, as it prods at the elements of Christian morality that warn against waste and conspicuous consumption as a fundamental vice. The suit is sin incarnate, whereby Berger’s mother’s body is “a vehicle for surplus capital. The woman wastes money and wears her own fashion victimhood.” [5] It is a suit unbefitting of a mother, or, rather, it is a suit that meaningfully complicates the category of motherhood as a socio-cultural archetype instilled and expected, not only of mothers, but of essentialist definitions of femininity writ large. If to be “feminine” is to be soft, caring, and gentle, or to walk around the workplace with a smile and beginning every email with a self-doubting apology, then it is being galvanized against women by calling for them to mother the world and everyone in it.

Berger’s mother was not a housewife. Instead, her wearing of this suit on the occasion of her daughter’s christening has a double meaning. While Moschino’s clever word play harkens back to Walter Benjamin’s famous assertion that fashion is a shroud of dead labor—as, for Benjamin, “fashion was never anything other than the parody of a motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter”—it subverts the statement’s narrow-minded intentions. [6] Waste is celebrated by the ‘working woman’ who wears Moschino’s cheeky power suits because she has the convenience of purchasing it of her own means. The ‘Moschino Woman’ is one who meaningfully invests her capital in herself.

Berger continues to reflect on the event of her christening as a nexus of meaning about which she sketches the complex figure of her mother. The artist muses that:

The more I think about it, the more I think that what might be closer to the truth is that she was attempting to transcend the symbolic dominance of her mother, who, as the perfect Angel of the House, embodied the image of woman and wife as the fixer of domestic problems, a possessor of a readily available maternal handiness that supplied solutions and attended to things in nonindustrial fashion. My mother worked full time and she suffered under the small-town suspicion that she was neglecting her children. Not braiding your child’s hair and buying a school lunch rather than making sandwiches from slices of bread are now almost comical ciphers in stories of Western motherhood after the war. It leads us full circle to the communion photograph with my child-self wearing a handmade box-tree wreath. My mother’s own memory of the event itself is one of defiant pride connected to this object. Despite her self-affirmed clumsiness in binding it, after skipping out on the weekly training sessions with the other mothers, she still has it in her possession: a token of her resilience. [7]

And her resilience transcends essentializing categories. Anna-Sophie Berger’s mother lays claim to multiple femininities considered to be mutually exclusive, as she defies commonplace ignorance regarding questions of womanhood as defined by acts of mere social reproduction, in Silvia Federici’s sense, as well as of pure consumption, in Moschino’s tongue-in-cheek form of critique. She is the creator of her own forms of value: as a worker, a mother, and a subversive fashion icon. As Berger describes, she is able to reclaim parenthood by examining the ways in which she is a parent and much more. For Claudia, motherhood presents a broad field of experience in which, as with Moschino, all is welcome and nothing does not fit.

Moschino, quite childishly, rejoices in absurdity. And, like Barbie, Moschino celebrates play by always dwelling on the boundary between pure imagination and shared socio-political realities. The revelry involved in order to think beyond limitations unites parent and child, as they play together both literally and figuratively. Such a spirit of radical freedom—where pre-existing reality is merely taken as a suggestion—unites Jeremy Scott’s Barbie collection to Margot Robbie’s cinematic embodiment of the infamous doll, and Franco Moschino’s designs to Claudia Berger’s rebellious spirit. Forever connected to the spirit of childhood, Barbie and Moschino project into the future idiosyncratic visions of tangible, if partial, liberation.

Notes: Moschino and Motherhood

[1] Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Falling Wall Press and the Power of Women Collective, 1975), 1.

[2] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York;  London: Autonomedia, 2004), 7.

[3] Sophie Jones, 2014, n.p.; cited by Lisa Baraitser, “Repeating” in Enduring Time (Bloomsbury: London, 2017), 77.

[4] Anna-Sophie Berger and Swiss Institute (New York, N.Y.), eds. life and limbs, Architecture and Design Series (Milan, Italy : New York: Lenz ; Swiss Institute, 2022), 99.

[5] Berger, life and limbs, 106.

[6] Walter Benjamin, trans. Rolf Tiedemann, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1999), 63.

[7] Berger, life and limbs, 129.

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016