Most garments are cut and sewn by female factory workers in the developing world, where working conditions are poor and labour rates are low. Can you be a fashion lover and a feminist at the same time?
The loud, proud, unabashed celebration of feminism in the public space is a glorious affair.
T-shirts emblazoned with feminist slogans are chic. Retailers like Nike and Asos have launched entire collections championing women’s rights and gender quality. Christian Dior was lauded for their feminist commentary during the Autumn/Winter 2019 show. Celebrities lent their voices and their influence by donning feminist t-shirts. Trend alerts were promptly issued. Brands invited us to partake in this ‘bang on trend’ and ‘show ’em who rules the world’.
And so, a reinvigorated feminist fashion wave is rolling in. Fashion is an accessible and intuitive way to externalise our feelings and our political alignments. Throughout history, clothes have been a device for women to manifest their rebellion and demand equal treatment. From trousers to mini-skirts to bikinis, women’s fashion evolved in parallel to changing attitudes about women’s rights over their bodies and their place in society.
Yeah, girl power! But before we buy that pink pantsuit, there’s a sobering reality that we must acknowledge.
The Commodification Of Feminism
Fashion is a business.
If we give it too much importance, we legitimise an industry that often exploits garment workers, glorifies unattainable body types, perpetuates a narrow idea of beauty and encourages unbridled consumption. Fashion brands are leveraging important social revolutions to appear enlightened. They align themselves with larger political trends, even though many of their practices are inherently at odds with feminist values and basic human principles.
In 2017, there were questions brewing about the provenance of much of the feminist merchandise available on the market. In 2016, Asos was hit with accusations of using child labour. Discontentment with Nike has been increasing after claims of mistreatment in their Vietnamese factories. Dior has been accused of a lack of transparency with regards to their supply chain. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the fashion industry’s many transgressions.
If we continue down this path, fashion will cease to be an ally to feminism but instead become a toxic leech, exploiting feminist values to sell t-shirts and trends. Already, feminist values are being commodified to sell empowerment and in a most depressing ironic twist, this empowerment comes at the cost of our fellow women.
Cynicism: The Friend Of Feminism
As feminists, we have a duty to understand the world we live in and to exercise control of what, why and how we consume fashion. The reality is difficult to confront and it won’t be easy to navigate the highways of economic, political and social data. But we owe it to ourselves and to women everywhere to at least try. Might we suggest some simple actions:
1. We keep learning, learning, learning. We learn about why sweatshops exist. We understand the hardship that garment workers face (yes, even if this is the most viable option they have). We weigh out the pros and cons of consumerism and understand the mechanics of our economic system. We make an informed decision before we purchase.
2. We don’t gate-keep or judge other women’s choices. Instead, we engage in meaningful debate and accept different viewpoints.
3. We look past the slick exterior that retailers conjure up. Sure, that cool girl wearing that cool feminist t-shirt looks cool. But it’s an ad and it’s trying to sell me something – a t-shirt, not my feminist identity.
4. Most importantly, our personal feminist concoction should include a decent dose of cynicism. Let’s be a bit cynical about fashion and everything it entails. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Just because feminist fashion trends are suddenly all the rage, does not mean we need to automatically subscribe.
5. “We should all be feminists”. “This is what a feminist looks like”. “The future is female”. “Proud feminist”… Remember, we don’t need to wear these words to be feminists. We just need to live them.
Written by: Sumitra Gopal, Read more from Sumitra here.